Wes Jackson Talks Ten Years Fresh and the Future of BHF
In NYC, you’re likely to have your pick of live music every day of the week year round. But something about summertime in the five boroughs draws the best of the best to our fine city.
With this year’s SummerStage lineup and other festivals taking place over the next few months, music fans are spoiled for choice. But if you’re looking for a recommendation, definitely hit up the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival 11th Anniversary taking place at venues around Williamsburg from Wednesday, July 8 through Saturday, July 11. In its eleventh year, the festival’s creators have added some additional activities for hip-hop aficionados, including the Dummy Clap Film Festival and the Juice Hip-Hop Exhibition.
We here at Brooklyn Radio hope that you’ve planned ahead and already copped your tickets for this week’s festivities. (If you’ve been slacking, hopefully you’ll get lucky and find one here.) And if you’re still not convinced, check out Lara Gamble‘s interview with Brooklyn Bodega/BHF founder and self-proclaimed hip-hop nerd Wes Jackson below.
What’s your earliest memory of hip-hop?
My earliest memory of hip-hop is my older brother Rob coming home with the “Rapper’s Delight” twelve-inch and putting it on a plastic, little portable turntable and looking at that Sugar Hill logo and just being amazed. I was pretty much stuck since then, which is very cliché, but it really was the very first rap record I knew.
How did you first get involved in the music business?
When I was at undergrad at the University of Virginia, I was on a student committee, and there was one committee called PK German whose job was to book and produce concerts. I was doing a radio show, I did a hip-hop radio show at UVA, and my mentor told me to join this other committee because they had booked A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, but they didn’t know what they were doing with it. He thought it would be a good way for me to learn. I must have been a sophomore and I was in charge of hospitality for PK German.
So, my first job was picking up Q-Tip from the hotel and taking him to sound check. So, just being like a little hip-hop nerd, it was just the craziest thing. It was just getting groupies out of his bus and driving the van and all that. So, that was my first taste of it. I was running around backstage at that Tribe/De La show, and my brother, the same brother that really introduced me to hip-hop, stopped me, and he looked me in the face and said, “You love this, don’t you?” And I said, “I can’t get enough of it,” and I ran off. And I feel like there was just something that spoke to my soul about it, you know, at that concert.
What inspired you to start the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, which is celebrating its eleventh year in 2015?
The inspiration to start the festival was to just, in a way, give back to the culture that has given me so much, you know, spiritual motivation. I’m living, and I can provide for my family. It was a way to create a more positive impression of hip-hop…but it was to create something like the New Orleans Jazz Fest. What New Orleans did for the culture of jazz, I wanted to do for Brooklyn for the culture of hip-hop. So, just really trying to copy what they’re doing and create jobs, create industry and recreate, really, the merchant class in our community and in hip-hop. In New York, we’re always trying to get a job at some big corporation….
How did this lead to the creation of Brooklyn Bodega the following year?
Well, Brooklyn Bodega actually, yeah. You did your research.
That’s my job.
Most people don’t really do that math. Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival was really just kind of like a brain fart, and we just rolled with the inspiration. And that second year, I was like, “We need something to, for all of these fans who we’ve awoken, we need a place to continue to interact with them and communicate with them when the festival’s not going on.” And I didn’t want it to just be about the festival.
I wanted it to be about this consumer, this energy that we had created. And that’s why we created Brooklyn Bodega to house the festival and all of our creative energies. And we wanted it to be a bodega where it was local, it was in your neighborhood, it was part of the community, but it was diverse. And it would sort of reflect what the community was doing and be forever changing and dynamic.
Why is it important to you to celebrate hip-hop in Brooklyn? What is it about Brooklyn that you think draws so much talent?
Yeah, you know, it’s funny. I’ve been getting this question a lot this year. I think, the huge idea of it is that Brooklyn, obviously it’s not the birthplace of hip-hop. It’s not even the center of hip-hop right now. I think, because of the mixture of middle-class black people, so, you know, African Americans, I guess, they call people like me from the South…to West Indian immigrants mixing with Jewish immigrants and Russians and everything.
We have this mixture of people who really struggled, people who were really at the bottom of the pile and have that hunger in their belly mixed with these people who have a little bit of a middle class and now even upper class resources, and this is the only place where they can still interact.
So, that mixture is really what hip-hop was and is. I think there’s a lot of a demographic, like, purely scientific reason on why it’s here and maybe not L.A. or Miami, and you see Chicago popping up, which is the perfect mixture of…Jewish and gentile and Muslim and Hindu and all that smashed together, which is what it was in the Bronx forty some odd years ago. And the energy is just here. We also have the businesses and public officials committed to giving us the resources to do what we do.
Can you share some of your personal favorite moments from the festival’s first ten years?
One of my favorite moments, and I write about this in my book, which is like a little memoir. This is the one when KRS-One pulled me into the bushes, I guess it was the third year or the fourth year of the festival. So, I get word over walkie-talkie that KRS-One wants to talk to me, and I immediately think I’m in trouble for some money or some contract. That’s usually the only reason people want to talk to me around this time of year.
I walk over to this area outdoors, and a bunch of guys are standing in front of these bushes, and I knew one of them. And I said, “Yo, I heard that Kris wants to talk.” And they were like, “Yeah, he’s just there.” And they point kind of through the bushes. I’m like, what are these guys gonna jump me?
But I looked through and KRS is kind of hiding out of sight but had the clear line of vision to the show, and he’s just watching the show. I think he just didn’t want people to know he was there. And I walk up to him. And, you know, me being from the Bronx, I firmly believe that KRS-One is the greatest of all time, but I think, in many ways, his philosophy on how to approach hip-hop, he was the first one to kind of look at it holistically. So, I’m very much a disciple of his teaching.
So, he basically is like, “All these cameras in the front. What are you doing with that?” And I’m thinking he’s upset because we didn’t get permission to shoot him. So, I’m like, “Oh, you know what, don’t worry about that. If you want me to clear them out. I’ll clear them out. Whatever you need.” And he’s like, “Nah. This is so dope. I want to make sure that all of that footage goes as far and as wide as possible tomorrow.” And I was like, “Really?” And he was like, “Yeah. People need to see this.”
And that one little statement was all the validation I ever needed, you know, for my career, to be honest. You know, somebody I look to like that basically looking at me and saying, “This is so great. I want everyone in the world to see it.” And the back story is, a lot of my motivation for creating the festival was seeing KRS-One at SummerStage back when I was in high school. So, I told him that story. He was like, “Yo, this is way better than what we did back then.”
So, every time I get a little down on myself, I always think about that. I have a bunch of others, but that’s the one that not many people know about.
I actually got to see him at Southpaw before Southpaw closed. That was dope.
Oh, yeah. I was there. I know which show you’re talking about. That was about four years ago. That was great.
Yes it was. What can fans and festival attendees expect this year that might be different from past years?
What we’re doing differently this year is we’re a little bit more diverse creatively. The lineup with Common on one end and Mobb Deep on the other end. So, you have two sort of brands that people may think are different, but Mobb Deep is one of the top Queensbridge, and Common is a little more conscious, you know, Chicago. But you’re going to see how basically they’re similar, too. They have just a little shade of difference to them. Mobb Deep is way more about the community than you realize, and Common is not all NBA commercials, you know, as commercial as some people think and that he can ride with the festival. I love that we’re going to shift people’s perception of it.
And then we have a lot more women on the bill this year than we ever have. We haven’t done so well putting the sisters up there on the stage, but with Lion Babe, I think people are going to be shocked with Lion Babe, which is a little more like funk, you know, soul. It’s a diverse sound, and it’s a strong black woman on there, and then we’ve got Pitchblak Brass Band, which is going to give us just crazy New Orleans sound mixed with a little hip-hop mixed with a little Southern hip-hop, New York hip-hop and is also fronted by a young woman.
So, I think, you’re going to get some diverse sounds. Like, we’ve been for the last three years, kind of more dope, like this real like super intense hip-hop fan thing, which is what I love, which is what I am. But we wanted to mix it up this year and say, “Listen, our tent is wide and all are welcome.”
Right, it’s all about progression and growth.
Exactly. The inclusion and progression are all golden as the movement goes forward.
What does the rest of 2015 and beyond hold for you?
I think one thing that people should remember is that our festival goes from Wednesday, July 8 until Saturday, July 11. The 11th is the concert that everybody kind of remembers, but we have some really cool things during the week. We’re doing sort of a conference or symposium on hip-hop issues that is a program under a new company that we’re starting called the Hip-Hop Institute. So, we’re going to be expanding our educational programming to go along with the concert and everything.
So, I look forward to the launch of the hip-hop institute. We’re going to have like a summer camp for kids to teach them about the culture. So, we’re just doubling down on our commitment, and this is in no short way inspired by, you know, the #BlackLivesMatter protests. It kind of puts what you’re doing in perspective. So, we’re just going to be doubling down on what we’re doing in the community for the youth. So, that’s what 2015 is going to be about.
Is there anything else that you want to add or promote?
Yeah, just to make sure the people know we have the conference on July 8, we have the film festival on July 9, and then on Friday, we have a new program called “Beats & Eats,” which celebrates the best restaurants and bars around Brooklyn. And the small business owners who live there. It’s more than just the music. We’re really looking at the big picture. We want to make sure that no matter who you are, whether you’re a writer, like you, or an academic or an accountant or a lawyer or a chef or whatever, you can come rock with us. You don’t just have to be a good-looking rapper like Common on stage. You can be a short, fat kid from the Bronx like me. So, you’ll do well.