Festival review and photos: Brother Ali, Blueprint and many more bring hip hop to Lake of the Ozarks at the Do the Dam Thing Hip Hop Fest, Saturday, August 11
There was a blissful peace in the late morning air as the Midwest’s most devout hip-hop heads trickled into the Bagnell Dam Bait Shop and Campground in Lake Ozark, Mo.
Everything was set for the start of Do the Dam Thing: First Annual Hip Hop Fest, as the dedicated members of Big Paper Productions and Indyground Entertainment waited for noon to bring the start of 12 hours of music, dance and art, featuring like-minded performers from across Missouri and the Midwest, headlined by Brother Ali and Blueprint, both from the legendary Minneapolis Rhymesayers label. Weeks of diligent preparation had secured this moment of tranquility, as the only sound that broke the air was the joyous reunion of friends over a handshake and a bro-hug.
The campground is set just off the Osage River, with the Lake of the Ozarks’ Bagnell Dam looming majestically in the background of the stage. The site is no stranger to the music festival scene, playing host to countless past events including the much-loved Schwagstock series. The well-elevated stage was backed by a custom graffiti style backdrop, featuring the event name and the image of a giant tagger painting “CULTURE” across the dam. To the right of the stage sat a variety of tents, including a number of food vendors, a shaded sitting area with a DJ and break dancing floor, a sectioned-off bar area and a merchandise tent filled with many of the days’ performers and live-art. Further beyond the large tent, blank, white particle-board walls were set-up for a graffiti area, and the rear of the festival included a sport area with a small half-pipe and a BMX area highlighted by a dirt ramp for stunts.
Despite the preparation, noon came around and there was no music. The days’ opening act, Lake of the Ozarks’ local J-Freezy, missed its stage call in pursuit of a solid burger to start the day. With little hesitation, Kansas City emcee Allen Wayne, performing as Tha Pradagy, was eager to have the honor of starting the show. He dangled a trademark belt from his neck and performed his set with sheer joy and appreciation for the few but faithful fans of the early day. He featured another emcee which he referred to as Johnny Boy and together their sound mixed personal lyrics with the popular, modern style of production. Despite the earlier faux pas, Tha Pradagy was followed by a short set from J-Freezy, who’s style offered similar production with a more mainstream lyrical content.
The mid-afternoon lineup proved to be a real delight, exhibiting a high caliber list of performers that are well respected in their local communities, but haven’t toured as extensively yet in their careers. The first treat was Kansas City’s Houston Zizza, who was a late addition to the line-up. Perhaps still finding his sound, his production demonstrated a wide range of styles from the world of hip-hop, opening with a high energy dub step styled track and included classic styled samples, a laid back piano loop and an a cappella performance. The highlights of the set came from a couple of very respectful and respectable remixes, including Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” and the classic standard “Kansas City.”
Jason Bommarito, better known as J-Bomb, was the first performer from the hosting Indyground Entertainment label. A St. Louis native, J-Bomb currently lives and works in Chicago, but remains active in the St. Louis scene. Highlighting tracks from his 2011 “Civilized People” EP, he combines a melodic flow with acoustic guitar and constant seamless improvisations. He was joined by Dan Mahfood, best known as DJ Mahf, who backed up all of the Indyground performers on the ones and twos. J-Bomb finished the set with a few tracks that did not require his guitar and let his energy and humorous demeanor sparkle on stage. He would later return to the stage as part of Brett Gretzky.
In a perfect world, an event planner would know to follow J-Bomb with Blake Gardner, supported by an acoustic band, and in the reality of Do the Dam Thing, that’s just what happened. Based out of Columbia, Mo., Gardner was joined by a drummer and Sam Reed on the electric guitar. Together, they delivered a set of laid-back, melody-driven rhymes over a background of blues and folk inspired rhythms. Gardner proved to be a capable vocalist as well, and his demeanor on stage exemplified the relaxed joy of the summer music festival scene.
The lineup returned to a more traditional hip-hop style with Trak Masta Tom, a Springfield, Mo. emcee who has been making music since adolescence. Still very much in his youth, Thomas Shikany has already developed a veteran’s discography and command of the microphone, while still remaining engagingly goofy on stage. While it’s generally expected that performing emcees will choose a line-up almost entirely of lively tracks, Trak Masta Tom wasn’t afraid to dial things back and demonstrate his poetic flow over a few mellow selections and many of the truest heads were up front to appreciate it. He was backed up by Jason Nunn on the tables, who would return to perform as J-None later, and they ended the set with a more upbeat, funk-driven style.
The mid-afternoon sun started to raise the temperature of a generally mild August day as Columbia, Mo. trio Tripl3 Crown brought the heat on stage with an old-school, party rap style. Tim Hanson, aka Heez On Fire, backed them up from the DJ table and they mixed classic break beats and sample driven production with humorous lyrics about the party lifestyle, similar in style to the well recognized L.A. duo, the People Under the Stairs. The emcees include Fetti, Dirty Deedz and B-Smooth; the trio has been refining their chemistry on-stage since the late ’90s. Their set finished with the addition of an electric guitar and maintained the party atmosphere throughout.
One of the most emphatic fans through the entire festival was Rick Noggle, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, despite the building heat and the long hours. Throughout the day, he could be found along the front rail, cheering on his friends and discovering new music. The next set, however, belonged to him as the crowd began to emerge from the shade of the tents. Performing as Imperfekt and joined by longtime friend and Cedar Rapids native, Colorless, Noggle opened the set with a new segment to his act, which he calls “making beats from a suitcase,” using a vintage, hard-case suitcase filled with a variety of toys. After an instrumental track and one backing up Colorless, he joined his friend on the mic and delivered a laid-back, semi-melodic flow. The two complimented each other well and like Trak Masta Tom, they were not afraid to dial it down in the name of good music.
After a brief car audio competition, Indyground artist Belligerent took the stage. Growing up in Edwardsville, Ill. and now part of the Columbia, Mo. scene, Miles Huddle illustrates the prototypical hip-hop emcee. He combines a true showmanship with pragmatic lyrics about the realities of life and the music industry. Belligerent took advantage of the large stage, constantly strafing from end to end and dancing between verses, while vigorously delivering a rhythm heavy flow. Like many of the other performers, he was also noticeably humble off-stage and happy to be included in the day.
J-None returned to the stage for his own set as the late-comers filled out the crowd. Out of Springfield, Mo., Jason Nunn was among the many acts to include live instrumentation with the inclusion of two very proficient musicians, Blake Mixon on the drums and the animated electric guitar of Tyler Stokes. Taking advantage of the set-up, J-None’s set included a number of styles, highlighted by an aggressive rock track to open; he carried himself in rock star manner throughout the set. The group wasn’t afraid to mellow out a few times during the set, including a reggae styled track, a sample from the Doors and a track called “Vixen” off his 2011 album, “Reverie,” which featured female vocalist Liz Carney (recorded) on the hook.
The afternoon line-up was finished out by the relatively new Indyground duo Brett Gretzky, who have been making big waves in the local scene. J-Bomb returned to the stage with Farout, another spirited and lively emcee, to dish out an expertly upbeat set. Eric Farlow, performing and recording as Farout, is another St. Louis native and a constant figure in the local scene. He adds a fast flowing, observational lyric style to the duo who performed many tracks off their popular mixtape from earlier this year built from DJ Mahf’s personal beat collection. Armed with squirt guns and donning Batman masks and an outlandish haircut, they manage to entertain with the lighter side while subversively conveying deeper messages in their lyrics and proved to be a well-deserved crowd favorite.
Transitioning between the 30-minute sets in the daytime to the hour-long sets of the primetime hours was the festival’s lone reggae band, Jah Roots. This show was a special treat from the Springfield, Mo. band that went on “indefinite hiatus” in 2009, after years of success in the reggae community. The current incarnation of the band included two vocalists that balanced hip-hop style verse with fast flowing reggae styles, two guitarists, bass, drumset, percussion and a DJ (I was unable to confirm identities). They played to a relatively smaller crowd, as many were distracted by the break dancing competition in the tent, but nevertheless performed well and demonstrated that their past success is well deserved and perhaps the future will bring a new life to the act.
The primetime lineup began at 7 p.m. with the first of the night’s two headliners, Blueprint. A proud figure from Columbus, Ohio, Albert Shepard has been contributing to the music world for over a decade. Starting as a member of the Greenhouse Effect crew, he emerged to record as a solo artist and as part of a collaboration called Soul Bounce with famed producer/DJ RJD2, who was also raised in Columbus. He remains a part of the Rhymesayers label while also owning and running his own Weightless Recordings.
Blueprint has been touring extensively since his release of “Adventures in Counter-Culture” last summer, including a stop at the Pageant opening up for Rhymesayers’ top act, Atmosphere.
His set featured many tracks off the most recent album, as well as a few selections from the depth of his growing discography. While most performers tried to stay high energy, he opened up with a soft electronic instrumental with a slow, pulsing ambient background, which set the mood for the production of most of the set. The focus was on the passion and message of his clearly articulated lyrics that burrowed into the minds of the fans, rather than the energy of the music. Like most shows, he added synthesizer and small keytar for instrumental bridges and solos. The crowd began to simmer as his passion spread. They erupted as he finally released the tension with his danceable electronic styled “So Alive.” Very conscious of the time and respective of the acts still to appear, he finished his set with two more comical tracks, “No Half Smokin’” and “Big Girls Need Love Too,” which he jokingly remarked made him unbelievable popular in Thailand.
Indyground was in control of the next two sets, starting with the label’s owner Steddy P with DJ Mahf. Forever dedicated to the success of Indyground and its members, Steddy P travels constantly between his home and base of operations in Kansas City to Columbia and St. Louis, uniting the three cities into one larger hip-hop community. In addition his role as a leader, he also records and performs, including his most recent release “Better Make Room,” which was produced entirely sample-free by St. Louis media Renaissance man, Matthew Sawicki, who joined DJ Mahf and Steddy on stage for their set.
The sun had almost completely set as the stage lights took over, joined by an amply-used fog machine as three took advantage of an opportunity to put on a serious, full-hour production. They performed the majority of the new album and welcomed J-Bomb and Farout back to the stage for songs that had featured them on the album.
DJ Mahf stayed on stage to join Dallas for the final set before the night’s big headliner. Dallas, the hometown star of the Lake of the Ozarks area, was imperative in setting up and operating Do the Dam Thing. His supporters showed him the extra respect he deserved that night. While most of his work for that day was behind the scenes, he certainly proved worthy of such a premier time slot for a one-hour set. He was joined by a guitarist and drummer in an arrangement called “Your Mother’s Tits,” and played songs from each of his two full-length albums and shorter concept EP. While many people in the crowd came to support him, he captivated the rest with a multiplicity of stances and dances, matched by an oratory styled flowed. In addition to his own work, he brought emcee EMFB onto the stage for a couple tracks and Farout and Steddy P reappeared as they all performed “The Eye,” a track from Steddy P’s album that featured Dallas and Farout. He closed with an a cappella performance that kept a brisk pace with well-chosen breaks for emphasis.
After a short hiatus in the action and extra soundcheck to prepare, Brother Ali was ready to take the stage. There were no longer any fans in the tents and no more artists finishing up the last touch of their graffiti segment. All the fans had convened at the stage to catch what was sure to be a memorable performance. Brother Ali, born Jason Newman in Madison, Wisc., spent much of his earliest years moving from town to town until finally settling in Minneapolis as a teen. As an albino and a constant new kid, he was often ostracized in his youth and found he related well to the African-American culture. In his adulthood, in addition to four full-length albums with a fifth on the way, he has become increasingly active in social movements, serving as a role model and representative for the Muslim community and in the recent Occupy Movement, truly dedicated to ideas of truth, justice and equality.
Brother Ali’s set demonstrated maturation in both his music and performance, while he thoroughly represented much of his personal armory of albums. He was joined by acclaimed twin cities’ DJ Plain Old Bill, who approached many of the tracks with slightly different production and included extra samples from other current artists like Aloe Blacc. Together, they performed each track into the next smoothly in a medley of non-stop enchantment. On multiple occasions, he drew back his lyrics to a whisper and the crowd became respectfully silent. This was only one of many ways he managed to control the stage without need to physically demand attention. He finished his set with good humor and a song about being content in what you have. The crowd demanded an encore and he was happy to oblige with the title track off his upcoming album “Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color,” and a special performance only treat, “Letter to My Countrymen,” which he ended with a unified chant of “peace.”
With 10 minutes left in the event, Plain Old Bill stayed on stage as a DJ and they ended the event in style. J-Freezy, Tha Pradagy, Belligerent, Imperfekt, Colorless, J-Bomb and Farout all returned to the stage for a final freestyle cipher. The DJ would throw on a variety of beats, many from familiar tracks, and each emcee did a 16-bar verse before passing it on to the next, with each emcee taking multiple turns.
Everybody on stage and in the audience joined together for this one last experience to end an amazing night — there was no better way to do it.
Check out all of Wil Wander’s photos from the festival.