Sweat dripped from my forehead, stinging my eyes. After only a few minutes in the Abbey pub, my t-shirt was plastered to my back. I wondered how a club could turn into a sauna sanctuary so quickly—a room that simultaneously grooved with the party aura of live hip-hop while also harboring the borderline inhumane conditions one might encounter in a sweat shop. While the venue’s no-re-entry rule left us without the ability to take a quick breather, fans stayed it out, undefeated, determined to absorb gobs of under-the-radar hip-hop even if it was through their sweaty pores. They embraced the heat and bounced their limbs freely—all in the name of indie hip-hop.
Most of the acts on the Paid Dues bill have been working the independent grind for several years, developing their name via word of mouth, constant touring, artistic collaborations, or some combination of the three. The brainchild of Nick Carter (aka MURS 3:16), the tour started in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2006 and has since taken to the road. It’s currently weaving around the Midwest before eventually merging with the Rock the Bells tour (featuring Mos Def, the Roots, Wu-Tang Clan, and Rage Against the Machine, and others) at the end of August. The multi-talented Carter—who is everything from an MC and Current TV host to producer and A&R man—wanted to introduce an underrated talented crop of hip-hop acts to a bigger audience. Inspired by the successful Vans Warped Tour, he gathered some of the best independent, genre-redefining artists around, many of whom are pushing hip-hop forward both lyrically and stylistically.
This year, each tour stop features a different bill anchored around Sage Francis, Felt, and Living Legends. The power and originality of a Paid Dues artist is in both socially-intricate lyrical content and a fresh take on old-school beats. It’s a sound colored with witty pop-culture punch lines and mixed with a down-to-earth consciousness free of all the bling and gangster pimping of commercialized rap. Although there’s an emphasis on crisp lyrical flow, the choruses typically contain either a catchiness you can rally around or an underlying element of mirror-my-reality poeticism—often both. Tonight, Francis, Brother Ali, and Felt brought the latter to the table on almost every song while the beats—provided by Ant, the DJ half of Minnesota collective Atmosphere—were firmly anchored in classic boom-bap and viciously deft, recontextualized rock samples.
The mercury burst the thermometer, as hip hop/beat poet mastermind Sage Francis took the stage, helping fans forget about the heat with a searing stream of white-hot tracks from his latest gem, Human the Death Dance. Guru of spontaneity that he is, Francis offered a quick and honest solution to the looming heat exhaustion: “Just promise the Abbey that you won’t go out and buy food, but you’ll come back and buy their pizza—that way you can cool off, and the Abbey can make their money.”
In true Francis fashion, he closed with his infamous live version of “Dance Monkey”, starting an onstage dance battle with a fan that he schooled (of course), then picked up, cradled, and gently tossed into the mass of flailing appendages at the front of the stage.
In a move of either premeditated empathy or pure insanity, MURS bounced on stage dressed in a NASCAR driver jumpsuit, saying to the sea of glistening faces that, “I wanna be hot, just like you!” Felt—part MURS and part Slug of Atmosphere—then unleashed the whimsical “Dirty Girl”, and Slug later dipped into his own material, declaring boldly that, yes, “God Loves Ugly”.
With “Sunshine”, Slug went right for the heart, explaining the song’s origin as a moment of joy after a night of drunkenness that was brightened by sublime revelation. It was a classic moment of spontaneous indie-hip hop, a kind rarely present in mainstream rap, that captured the Paid Dues’ creed—ie that one should feel the show is taking place in the basement for a few close friends.
When eight-member, California-based posse the Living Legends scurried on stage, it quickly became clear that they have developed their underground following through a DIY grind and resilient word-of-mouth hustle. The eight-chamber pistol of multiple and distinct cadences—from speed rap to heavy-hitting punch lines spread out over trippy soul and funk-based beats—Scarub, Eligh, Luckyiam/PSC, The Grouch, Sunspot Jonz, Bizarro/Bicasso, Murs, and Aesop all sped down individual tracks, but merged into one cohesive poetic locomotive, making astute and vivid stops at joy, pain, and anger. The train glided soulfully, uplifting the steamy masses on the strength of proven classics like “Fill My Drink Up” and the simmering “Purple Kush”, from 2006’s Legendary Music Volume One.
Even though the Living Legends set went a bit longer than needed, it took absolutely nothing away from Paid Dues, a festival that will continue to gather steam before it collides with the larger Rock the Bells tour in San Bernardino at the end of the month. This was an evening to remember, but that day—a meeting of nearly every player in American indie-hip hop—looks to be one for the ages.