After 16 years, Smokin Grooves Fest makes its long-awaited return & blazes a new trail in Long Beach

Smokin Grooves Fest 2018 - NxWorries


Anderson .Paak of NxWorries

Photos by Joseph Gray & Natalie Somekh // Written by Joseph Gray //

Smokin Grooves Fest //
The Queen Mary – Long Beach, CA
June 16th, 2018 //

We are in the heart of festival season. This is a time of the year for music lovers that’s often synonymous with multiple days of unforgiving heat, dusty campgrounds and some young adults who are readily anxious for a mosh pit. The long food-truck lines and heart-shaped sunglasses, polka dots, ripped denim and tie-dyed garments that have become staples at a large majority of music festivals — particularly during the summer months — were present, but Smokin Grooves Fest offered a welcome alternative. And based on its history, Southern California concert promoter Goldenvoice wouldn’t have had it any other way.

For one day only, a sold-out crew enjoyed moderate temperatures at the overcast waterfront adjacent to the historic Queen Mary in Long Beach for Smokin Grooves’ long-awaited return. The event, which last took place 16 years ago, pushed hip-hop, R&B and soul to the forefront of popular music at the time by booking The Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, Cypress Hill and a whole lot more when Lollapalooza and other rock-focused festivals weren’t showing them the same kind of love.

The crowd, relaxed with a peaceful aura but also energized, mirrored much of the lineup, which showcased veterans such as Erykah Badu, The Roots and Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def) among buzzing newcomers like H.E.R., Smino, THEY. and Arin Ray across the 38-act bill.

I fall somewhere in the middle between those two age groups, so it was fitting that the uber-talented rapper/singer/drummer Anderson .Paak had just walked onto the “Free Your Mind” main stage when I showed up. .Paak, 32, wore a smile as expressive as his music, packaged with a bright nautical-themed ensemble. He effortlessly impressed with standouts “Suede”, “Another Time” and “What More Can I Say” off Yes Lawd!, his 2016 LP with Los Angeles hip-hop producer Knxwledge as part of their collaborative project NxWorries (pronounced “No Worries”). The duo’s set would eventually culminate in a playful dance-off between women, which fans showed their appreciation for before .Paak and Knxwledge said their goodbyes.

Many attendees went back and forth from the main stage to the two other aptly named stages — “Smokin'” and “Groovin'” — via an elevated overpass, where we overheard several praising the Brooklyn troop Phony Ppl for their soulfully funky grooves.

Smokin Grooves Fest 2018 - Miguel


Miguel

However, anticipation for The Roots kept me at the main stage. It proved to be a wise decision, as their nearly hour-long performance reminded me why the Grammy-winning band is still so revered after more than three decades. Black Thought got the crowd riled up with a 10-minute barrage of lyrical proficiency that so many have come to know as his “Hot 97 Freestyle” after it hit the internet in December and quickly went viral, while his bandmates exuberantly jumped with sousaphones and guitars during “You Got Me” and a number of other hits. But providing a jolt like he only can, the one and only Busta Rhymes showed up for a quick-but-memorable performance of “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” and “Pass the Courvoisier, Part II”.

The concert, nevertheless, was not without its faults, as some complained about the sound quality during various times, but neglecting hometown artists certainly wasn’t one of them.

Not long after the buzz around Thundercat’s bass-guitar skills subsided, fellow LA-area acts Jhené Aiko and Miguel were greeted with admiration. Aiko, for one, entertained fans behind flowers, acoustics and enchanting vocals with occasional curse words. Miguel, who proudly reminded us that he was from nearby San Pedro and Inglewood, kept the momentum, along with his fringed microphone stand, moving by performing several crowd-pleasers like “How Many Drinks?”, “Sure Thing” and “Come Through and Chill”, among others.

The event’s headliner was Erykah Badu, who performed during the tour’s second edition in 1997 and looked like she hasn’t missed a beat since. Playing a drum machine between songs while weaving some classic hip-hop instrumentals — one of which was Mobb Deep’s “Shook (Part II)” — into her set, the neo-soul queen dazzled with her seductive, incredible voice and responsive wit for an hour-long class on “How to Deliver a Full-on Show.”

Several journalists and photographers, myself included, mentioned at various times the need to leave early to avoid the traffic on the way. But Badu and others made liars out of us, and we couldn’t have been happier in the end.

After two decades in the rap game, Talib Kweli is still fighting for what he believes in

Talib KweliBy Joseph Gray & Josh Herwitt //

Talib Kweli with Styles P, K’Valentine //
Belasco Theater – Los Angeles
January 19th, 2017 //

Talib Kweli has a lot to say.

Though he has often made headlines by feuding with critics, internet trolls and celebrities (even Kiss’ Gene Simmons of all people) on Twitter, the 41-year-old Brooklyn emcee is fine with governing the inconvenient space. Hell, his social-media presence, ripe with over one million Twitter followers, surely helped him garner an invitation — alongside a host of your favorite rappers — to visit The White House last year and discuss the best ways of reforming the criminal justice system with former President Barack Obama.

Kweli may never ride his social-media notoriety to Billboard‘s Hot 100 mountaintop like the meme-assisted Migos did with “Bad and Boujee” or video craze-pushed Rae Sremmurd with “Black Beatles”, but the veteran technician boasts an impressive rap résumé that has been built on razor-sharp lyricism and politically insightful artsy, both of which have dazzled so many hip-hop purists long before the genre overwhelmingly permeated the mainstream.

The reward for Kweli, despite never producing that big record to lift him to super stardom, is a loyal group of fans. Last Thursday in LA, many of them piled into the Belasco Theater’s lower bowl as part of “The Seven Tour” as Kweli made a point of acknowledging their longstanding love for him and hip-hop, even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do.

Talib Kweli & Anderson .Paak


Talib Kweli with Anderson .Paak

Hitting the stage with plenty of positivity, thought provocation and several surprises, Kweli punctuated a rewind of his classic Black Star work with Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) with “Definition” before raising fists and excitement with “Move Somethin'” and “The Blast”, two organic standouts from Reflection Eternal, the longstanding side project that he formed with Cincinnati rapper/producer Hi-Tek two decades ago. With the diverse crowd at The Belasco digging his collaborative work, Kweli reminded us there was more goodness to come in the form of his forthcoming project with Styles P called The Seven (the only strange part was the fact that the duo didn’t perform any songs together at the show).

Styles P, the well-respected member of The Lox and Kweli’s latest partner in crime, came on just prior to his tourmate’s hour-long set, donning a backpack full of his signature hard and vivid rhymes but missing just one thing: a shot of Rémy Martin. After a number of requests, that too made its way to the stage, much to the delight of the crowd.

Now whole and indebted, Styles P got the party started by climbing over the front barricade into a mob of concertgoers as the self-proclaimed gangster and gentleman also became the people’s champion. He assured us, despite the changing and chaotic political climate, we would prevail (“We Gonna Make It”), get high (“Good Times”), spend money (“B.M.F.”) and remember the same guy who went against hip-hop titans like Diddy and Jay Z and came out without a major chink in his armor (“What Else You Need to Know”).

While Styles P and special guest K’Valentine — the curvy Chicago rapstress who used her gifted flow to speak out against Chi-Raq and her city’s highly publicized problem with gun violence — were well-enjoyed, Kweli turned to some more of his friends for a stronger jolt. Playing to the crowd with a black Lakers cap, he called Naughty By Nature’s Treach up for some feel-good throwback hits before Southern California’s do-it-all wunderkind Anderson .Paak punched the building full of unbridled energy with “Come Down” from his Grammy-nominated album Malibu.

Talib Kweli

While the vibes were free-flowing, Kweli made sure his show would continue to lean left on the eve of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. Diverging from his material with some social dialogue, he took his good friend and “Get ‘Em High” collaborator Kanye West, actor and comedian Steve Harvey and others to task for being “crazy” enough to set foot next to President Trump.

“Trump can’t understand the black scholar. We can run the ball but can’t run the office,” he said in response to Trump’s recent meetings with prominent black entertainers like West and athletes such as former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and NFL legend Jim Brown.

With the laid-back atmosphere abruptly being replaced by the reality of continued racial and social issues in the U.S., Kweli walked off the stage. But like much of his career, he isn’t one to shy away from a fight.

Instead, he reappeared after encore chants to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” as the backdrop of the famous song led into the determined “Get By”, still Kweli’s biggest hit that felt even larger amid the clapping crowd. On this night, whether it was convenient or not, the man with a lot to say made sure to give us a whole lot to think about.