This year’s must-see lineup includes spots from artists like Meshell Ndegeocello, Rich Medina, The Soul Rebels, Biz Markie and Masta Ace, Basement Jaxx, and everyone’s favorite funky bunch, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic.
If you’re looking for someone to thank for that magic, look no further than SummerStage’s Artistic Director, Erika Elliott. Ms. Elliott joined as Talent Buyer in 2004 and has since fashioned all of the festival’s programming for SummerStage in Central Park, the citywide music series, CityParks Concerts and the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival. She moved into her current role in 2010, putting her into position to take charge of curating the festival’s artistic vision, as well as incorporating more diverse thematic programs and commissions.
Brooklyn Radio’s Lara Gamble found time in Ms. Elliott’s busy schedule to learn more about how she got involved with the music industry, as well as what special programming SummerStage 2015 attendees can expect from its 30th Anniversary season.
So, I figured I’d start with a question I ask most artists I interview. What’s your earliest memory of hip-hop?
That is very interesting. I don’t know memory, but the first thing that actually got me engaged in hip-hop and made me a fan was N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton album, which I bought on cassette when I was growing up in Los Angeles.
You grew up in Los Angeles. How did you end up on the East Coast?
I had roots here. My dad’s from New York, so I had grandparents and would visit at least once a year. When I graduated from college, I was trying to get my foot into the music business and decided to come out here for a summer internship and have been here ever since.
What was your first job in the industry?
I interned at Loud Records if we’re talking New York. I had a radio show at my college station, KZSC when I was in college. The first thing in New York was the internship at Loud.
So, the internship brought you out here. Where did that lead you?
That’s kind of why I stayed. I came out thinking it would be a summer internship working for the label in the marketing department and ended up getting a full-time position there as an assistant. I just loved New York, loved where I was, it was a really special place to be, really special time to be there. It was a great entry point into New York and to music and to hip-hop culture, which I’m really passionate about, I guess.
What attracted you to the hip-hop industry and wanting to work with those artists in particular?
It wasn’t that I was trying to work with hip-hop music. It was just the music that I loved listening to, so when I was trying to figure out how I could craft a career for myself around something that I cared about, I just started to put the pieces together by working in college radio and realizing, “Oh you can work in music.”
I didn’t have a reference point. My parents are social service, you know, union people. I didn’t have anyone in the business. So, when I was working at the radio station, and then later learned about record labels and things like that, I thought, “Oh, wow. People have jobs working with music. How amazing is that?” To be totally honest, when I came and worked at Loud, it wasn’t because it was this really seminal important hip-hop label. It was because I happened to have a friend who was running the marketing department.
So, I was like, “I’m trying to get in to the music business. Does anyone have a relationship?” A friend in college did. His lifelong friend was running the marketing department at Loud, so I just took it because it was a chance to work in music. Of course, when I got there, I realized it was around a youth culture – and I was much younger at the time – and also around this music that I actually would listen to and cared about. And then, again, I was lucky enough to sort of start there.
And I’ve done other things since, including SummerStage, where I choose music from around the world, not just hip-hop, of course. It wasn’t a conscious decision like, “I want to work in hip-hop.” It just worked out that I happened to get a job at a label that was an important hip-hop label, and so, it kind of was luck and just worked out that way to be the beginning point of my career.
How did you end up at SummerStage?
I was the talent buyer at a club in New York: SOBs. After working at record labels and at a talent agency, and when the job, not exactly what I currently have but a job doing booking for SummerStage became available. Someone that I knew made me aware of it, and I applied and ended up getting it.
Do you have a set of criteria or an agenda when booking specific artists?
No, I wouldn’t say it’s specific. I think it changes year to year. You know, I think, in general, what I can say about the way that I book, is trying to book the best that I can that is appropriate in size for the venues that we present. So, I mean, there is a limited capacity in Central Park, specifically, of five thousand. I shouldn’t be booking stuff that is way, way bigger than that because it’s just not fair. There will be more people outside the venue than in. So, there’s considerations about size or profile. I try not to overbook the venue.
But from the musical standpoint, I’m trying to get the best, diverse, interesting stuff that I can every year and to try and really do as broad of a range of musical offerings as possible because I really feel strongly that the festival needs to represent the city. So, it should have as much as possible that will appeal to as wide a New Yorker as possible.
How was hip-hop represented when you joined as talent buyer in 2004?
As a New York festival, they definitely had presented hip-hop historically over the entire history. I think the shift in me coming here was partly a shift of my personal taste and also a shift in the work that we were doing, where not only is it something that I care about, and I think it’s important and not just domestic hip-hop. I mean, if you look at what I’ve done over the years, I’ve done a lot to bring international hip-hop artists to New York at SummerStage.
But I think the other shift was that in my tenure here, which is eleven years, we also really began to focus not just on the main stage Central Park venue but really put energy and efforts, finances and support behind all of the SummerStages that we’re doing across New York City. And when I looked at that platform, and I looked at the concerts we would be doing in very specific neighborhoods, it just was obvious to me that hip-hop was a big part of those communities, had a long legacy in those communities and should be part of what we were programming.
So, it was as much about my personal taste, as it was an obvious booking choice for neighborhoods like South Bronx and Bed Stuy and Red Hook and Brownsville and Queensbridge. You know, to not include hip-hop, which has been such an important aspect of those communities and come out of those communities and have been where stars of the genre are from all of those places, to not present hip-hop there just seemed like it would be a misstep. So, it’s enabled me to do more of it, but mainly because I just think it’s the right thing to do in those neighborhoods.
Do you have any favorite moments from your years with SummerStage?
Oh, I have a lot of favorite moments, or I probably still wouldn’t be here. There’s been so many amazing shows, but if we’re talking about hip-hop, specifically, I mean, super proud my first year to have had Nas in the venue. I think that was a really big moment, and it was a big moment for me because it was my first year in the venue. Really proud to have brought Rock Steady Crew back into New York City who I see as a cultural institution, and preserving that culture and to be able to present the festival in New York after it was in New Jersey for a few years, I’m proud of that.
I love that I have a screening of Time Is Illmatic in Queensbridge. The film has been shown a lot of places and had a lot of buzz, and it’s really important. But, for me, what’s really special about SummerStage is it probably hasn’t screened outdoors for free in Queensbridge. So, to be able to bring a film like that about someone from that neighborhood who has made it and is an international superstar, to be able to show his story to that community in the place that he’s from, those are the things that are really special to me.
There’s a lot of stories like that. Having KRS-One in the South Bronx. That’s my neighborhood. I grew up in Los Angeles listening to that record and not knowing that neighborhood, and now I actually live there. And to be able to bring someone like KRS, who really immortalized that there was this place called the South Bronx to me, as a person, and then to be able to bring him to that neighborhood and have him talk about like, “Hey, I used to hang out on that block and just over there in those projects, I lived there. And I was in a shelter over here.” I mean, that was his neighborhood. So, those things are what is really special about what I’m able to do and what the organization does, is connecting artists like that to places where they have history. I think that’s really amazing.
Yeah it is. What can fans expect from the 30th Anniversary season?
More, better, bigger. No, I mean, as a curator you’re always trying to do your best. Every year, I’m trying to do the best, biggest, brightest, most exciting things. But the 30th Anniversary, the big thing that we’re really proud of is just more in more locations for longer periods of time. Even again, not to go on about the Queensbridge thing, but we’re expanding our programs in all of the locations. In Queens, we historically had had definitely concerts, sometimes some family, sometimes some dance. But, you know, we have a full run of things there this year that includes film and dance and family.
So, each of the locations has a lot more this year. That’s a big part of what the anniversary is about, is kind of celebrating not just our legacy in Central Park but our legacy as a presenter in bringing arts and culture into communities. And so you’ll see that particularly if you look at everything we’re doing around the city, that there’s just a lot more offerings.
From a hip-hop perspective, I’m hugely excited about the Stretch and Bobbito show. It feels like a homecoming and a full-circle moment. Again, interning at Loud, I was very aware of Bob and Stretch and the high esteem that all the artists there and the community had towards them. To be able to screen their documentary about their story in the venue is going to be a very big moment, and I’m excited to host that.
Do you have anything else coming up that you’d like to plug?
The only one that may not just be super obvious as a hip-hop booking that I would love to highlight because I think your audience would care, and I’m really excited about it, is the 30th Anniversary DJ Celebration, which has Afrika Bambaataa, Quantic and Gilles Peterson. What it’s going to be is those DJs each have been assigned one decade of our history. So, they’ll be doing DJ sets from a nine or ten year period of history through the thirty years.
So, each one will do a set that’s curated by them to kind of represent that decade of our history and also New York history and music history and culture. And then we’re doing multimedia, so there will be a visual component that has images of the city and images of the festival and people that have played here. So, it’s a commission. It’s something we’re wholly creating for this show, and to see those three DJs on a bill together is really special. So, I think your audience, and hopefully New Yorkers at large, will really appreciate that show.
I am definitely looking forward to that one. Did you go to the Cut Chemist and Shadow show?
I did! I thought, “My God, this is amazing!” And I’m a longtime fan of both of those…I actually grew up in Los Angeles with Cut Chemist, so I have roots with that side of the country as well. But yeah, went to that, was so impressed. I thought it was amazing. I think what they’re doing is so smart and interesting, and it definitely was the seed of the ideas for this because, for me, as a curator, how do you celebrate thirty years of history? I mean, you’re not just going to book the bands you had over the thirty years. And even if you could, is that really how you celebrate?
And when I saw what they were doing to celebrate Bambaataa’s legacy and the archives and just their personal stuff, I was like, “This is how you celebrate. You celebrate with the music, and you celebrate with visuals.” And how better to do that than just taking DJs that you respect their ears and you respect their taste, and say, “Hey! ’86-’95, that time. Think about that time.”
We sent them everybody that played in those years, and said, “This is who we had in those years. What were you doing? What were you listening to? What was happening?” And then, also, “Think about all these people that we had, and play back to us what that time could have been like.”