To say I have mixed feelings about writing this would be something of an understatement. While I haven’t been with Boom Bap since right from the beginning, I’ve been going long enough to feel like part of the family. In fact, the 2 year relationship Cultured Vultures has had with the Boom Bap team has been instrumental in strengthening our reputation for festival coverage, and increasing the reach of our music writing. With that in mind, covering what may well be the last Boom Bap festival ever is something of a melancholic notion. There’s still plenty on the horizon, the team will be present and correct for their boat party at Outlook Festival in Croatia in a few weeks, but the sense of finality which wafted around the festival site during the weekend was almost palpable.
Enough of that, though, the most important thing to focus on is that Boom Bap 2016 was every bit the flagship celebration of UK hip-hop that it’s always been. This year the set-up had been altered somewhat dramatically, the main stage had been repositioned so it was nearer to the VIP campsite, the Square One and Sika stages were now next door neighbours and the Deadbeat Disco sat on the opposite side. In the middle of the site there was an island of streetwear and vinyl stalls, more than any year previous. Paper Chasers Ink Magazine had a tattoo stall on site and a few streetwear labels were making their debut appearance, such as ‘Sleevy’, the brand which had been so resonantly promoted by Nathan ‘And Co’ Shaw last year.
The same walls of ever-evolving graff were present and correct and as Friday kicked into gear the site slowly rippled to life, energised by early performances from Jeopardy and, somewhat unexpectedly, a Hennessy-infused Verb T on the Sika Stage. Once the main stage lit up, an overwhelming aura of anticipation took over. While the notion of seeing big US named like Pharaohe Monch and RA the Rugged Man later in the weekend was enticing, for many people the Friday headliner was the most important, but we’ll get to that. You can always guarantee that the Split Prophets set will be one of the festival’s highlights and it was no different this time around, and it didn’t hurt to have them followed by gravel-voiced High Focus mainstay Jman. After that we got our first American offering of the festival in Da$h, and the ASAP mob affiliate coaxed the crowd from lukewarm to fire pit just in time for Dirty Dike to storm the stage and do what he does best.
While all this was going on, Square One and the Deadbeat Disco both provided little junglist/dubby havens to hide away from the bars. At one point I headed over there only to find that there was a violin behind the decks (courtesy of Jester and Cella). After Dirty Dike had finished turning vulgarity into high art, it happened, Task Force turned up on stage. This was a rare, vital appearance by the legendary duo, and they made the absolute most of it, transporting the audience back to a time when UK hip-hop evolution was just starting to intensify. Farma and Chester P were both on their best possible form, it was a near-perfect way to close out the main stage for night 1. Later into the evening we got our first taste of the smattering of grime on offer with Elf Kid, and Benny Page took to Deadbeat to throw out a final 170bmp lullaby.
The next day the grim, grey cloud cover was gone and the entire site was bathed in sunlight. As always the site took a while to warm up, initially largely populated by narrow-eyed early risers who had been forced from their tents by the heat, and people who hadn’t even been back to their tents yet. For those still capable of taking in some musical nutrition (the watermelon rinds at Ed Scissor’s smoothie stand helped), the beat battles were on offer, and they were as wonderful as ever. As things ramped up, Sika once again became the place to stick to, with a promising triple bill of Leeds practitioners The Northaze, Real Life poster-boy Jack Jetson and an RLD showcase front by Illinformed. The latter was particularly enticing, as it gave Illinformed’s brother, Leaf Dog, an ample opportunity to step up and throw up a few bars, not that he ever needed an excuse.
As the sky took on a more orange hue, Blah Records mega-group Cult of the Damned stormed onto the main stage, shortly followed by Bad Taste ambassadors Trellion and Sniff, and then another Blah showcase courtesy of Canadian rapper Danny Lover. It was a hell of a run, and it certainly helped to set the stage for one of the biggest acts on the bill – RA the Rugged Man and A-F-R-O. Now, anyone who was in attendance will know why I’m a bit hesitant about this part. While A-F-R-O did everything he could to demonstrate why he’s one of the most important rappers on the NY circuit, he was held back by his elder. RA’s flow was as strong as ever but his set was plagued with technical issues and he behaved like a petulant child, at one point he snatched a camera from one of the photographers and even threw his mic at a sound engineer. Said engineer later said that, if nothing else, he had a story to tell his kids one day.
The culmination of all this carnage was an attempt to bring as many people on stage as humanely possible so that ‘Holla-Luh-Yah’ could be performed in characteristically chaotic fashion, but instead the sound dropped out. The runaway highlight of the set was a performance from an MC who had been plucked from the crowd, in similar fashion to BVA’s sparring session with Ghostface Killah from 2 years prior, but nowhere near as important. Happily, after RA left the stage, grime mainstay D Double E came on and absolutely fucking smashed it. Square One was the safe haven for the rest of the night, with a storming jungle/ragga set provided by Brumtown superhero Aries and a blinding split performance by Dead Players and Problem Child.
The final day provided an interesting vibe. By this point, word had circulated around the site about the finality of proceedings, and you could almost read it on certain people’s faces. Happily there was plenty on offer to remind everyone that while Boom Bap might have been wrapping up, the scene is as strong as ever. The main stage opened a few hours earlier to host the open mic finals, and it bears mentioning at this point that Inja had proven himself a staggeringly competent stage host, working the crowd, filling out the time between performances and generally being a complete class act. The early main stage bill was perhaps the most impressive daytime run of the festival, Brighton label Yogocop brought their supergroup Team Dreebs, rapper/singer Eva Lazarus had Bristol well represented and Children of Zeus reminded us all why the Manchester scene is one of the strongest there is, with singer Tyler Daley flooding the festival site with thick, intoxicating ear honey. Ed Scissortongue also made a welcome surprise appearance.
Later on, Nolay and 808INK rounded out the grimist/alternative portion of the festival adeptly, and gave way to what was easily one of the most important performances all weekend. Some might not realise that UK hip-hop has been a thing since the late 80s, and a lot of the early traction owes to the influence of 3 people – Mr. Thing, Mark B and Blade. Sadly, Mark B passed on earlier this year, but the other two were on hand to throw out an emotional, historical, once in a lifetime set by way of tribute to their departed brother. Shay D and Micall Parknsun also appeared on stage to contribute to the already beautiful vibe, as did Blade’s son, who engaged in a clumsy but endearing journey across the hands of the crowd.
After that, focus heightened again with huge, blistering appearances from Jam Baxter and man of the hour Ocean Wisdom. Last year, Wizzy was mid-explosion, and was regarded by many to have been the highlight of the festival. This time around around, he was on a post-album release mega-hype, and Dike was on stage to support him. In a way, the timing could not have been more perfect, UK hip-hop’s favourite son did his thing, and minutes later the biggest act of the weekend was on stage – Pharoahe Monch, backed by DJ Boogie Blind and the Ezra Collective band. It was astonishing. Monch has been going from strength to strength, and his set was a roller-coaster of old and new material, with the live band element doing much to enliven his bruising, brass-knuckled approach to conscious hip-hop.
As Monch left the stage, the audience were left in a state of mystified excitement. All we knew was that the last act was the ‘Boom Bap Finale’, but what that entailed was anyone’s guess. As it turned out, it was a lovingly curated, star-studded showcase of the scene at large, featuring The Four Owls, Skinnyman, Jman, Split Prophets, Ed Scissortongue, Chester P, Dirty Dike and, crucially, the man of the hour – Boom Bap mastermind Ivan Andrade. To say it was an emotional experience would be a stark understatement. After that there was little else to do beyond letting Pete Cannon and Kenny Ken take over and skank the rest of the night way.
As sad as it is to see Boom Bap go, I sincerely doubt that this is the last we’ll see of it, and there’s every chance that within the next year or two it will return, having taken on some new, stronger form. UK hip-hop is a curious, fascinating scene, flanked by grime and jungle, confined to various urban and rural pockets across the country and evolving at a rate that’s hard to keep up with. It might not have the same pull as soundsystem culture, or the same sponsorship as the grime scene but it has a dedicated, familial bearing to it that you can’t help but be captivated by. Any show or night will inevitably involve a surprise appearance, a few guest bars, or the promise of a future collaboration. UK hip-hop is, by turns, a party that never ends and a project that’s never finished, a coral reef. Regimented organisation has never been a working component for it, which makes it difficult to scale up, it still feels like a bedroom genre, in many ways, but that’s far from a bad thing. No producer, DJ or emcee has ever felt the need to alter their approach to fit a bigger audience in UK hip-hop, and they never will, and to me that’s the most beautiful thing about it. I’m infinitely grateful to Ivan and the rest of the team for making Boom Bap happen, and I’m excited to see what’s next.
Photos provided by Mitch Brewster and Boom Bap