North By Northeast, or NXNE for short, is a week-long music and arts festival that brings hundreds of artists to Toronto every June, while also showcasing local talent. There are several club shows put on throughout the week, as well as some free shows in Dundas Square, but the 2016 edition of the festival has seen a change to the format. In the past, the big-market names would perform the free shows in Dundas Square, but this year NXNE is shaking things up by moving them to a new venue and having a “festival within a festival” at the Port Lands, while the Dundas Square events will primarily showcase video game installations.
The move to the Port Lands comes after a controversial 2015 festival, where NXNE had booked Action Bronson to headline their hip-hop event at Dundas Square, and subsequently had to scramble to replace him after a petition signed by over forty thousand Torontonians called to have him removed. While violent lyrics and character portrayals in music are nothing new, the issue was allowing them to be performed in a free public space in the middle of downtown, and so NXNE has launched the new lakeside venue for their new ticketed festival to avoid further issues. The Port Lands festival is two days long, and similar to previous years, NXNE has Day 1 dedicated to hip-hop and Day 2 dedicated to rock.
Being purely a hip-hop head, I came just for Day 1 to see Schoolboy Q, Ghostface Killah, and some lesser-known underground and local artists. This would be my first time seeing Schoolboy Q perform, and my ninth time seeing Ghostface Killah, who had headlined this festival with Raekwon back in 2012. To me it felt kind of backwards that Schoolboy Q was headlining ahead of Ghostface, as one is preparing to release just his fourth album (second on a major label) in July, while the other is a cemented all-time legend with 25 years worth of music and cultural impact. That’s just the nature of hip-hop though; it’s a young man’s game, and the college crowd is more likely to spend money on this kind of outdoor, all-standing festival.
I got to the festival around mid-afternoon and the crowd was still relatively small. Las Vegas native Shamir was singing over some groovy dance tracks on the main stage as I explored the festival grounds. There was a decent selection of food trucks, a very limited selection of beer, and some cool art displays in the centre of it all. Budweiser had the most chill section though, with a balcony above their bar, bean bag chairs, and a life-sized Jenga game. It was clear, sunny skies with no clouds in sight; perfect for just sitting back and drinking a cold one. Reggae artist Tiken Jah Fakoly rocked the small stage at the other end of the park before it was time for the Wu-Tang Clan’s own Ghostface Killah to take the main stage.
Part of what’s made Ghostface Killah worth seeing nine times is that he’s unpredictable and full of surprises. Every time I’ve seen him has been some unique grouping with other artists, whether it’s with his own Wu-Tang Clan members or other collaborators, and even his solo shows have had surprise guests. This one looked like it might be my first time actually seeing him truly solo, as he came out and rocked “Criminology,” “Nutmeg,” and “Ice Cream,” but then to everyone’s surprise he brought out his Wu-Block collaborator, Sheek Louch! Toronto hadn’t seen these two perform together since their 2013 Wu-Block tour, but rather than perform their collaborative songs as Wu-Block, they took turns doing some of their standout verses. They went from Ghostface’s “One,” to Sheek’s verse on “It’s All About The Benjamins,” to Ghostface’s “Apollo Kids,” to DMX’s “Niggaz Done Started Something.” Ghostface rocked his verse from Raekwon’s “Ice Water” over that DMX beat, and things continued in this pattern.
The crowd got turned up for Jay-Z’s “Reservoir Dogs,” Ghostface’s “Black Jesus” and a cover of Styles P’s “Good Times,” but it was the beat from GZA’s “4th Chamber” that got everyone jumping. They did some songs for Ghostface and Wu-Tang’s day-one fans, performing and covering several songs off of the album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), including the usual “Mystery of Chessboxin’,” “Can It Be All So Simple,” “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Tearz.” They also did the fun routine where they brought a fan on stage to rap Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s verse on “Protect Ya Neck.” Sheek and Ghost encouraged the crowd to boo him off stage if he screwed up the lyrics, but he actually nailed it and brought a lot of energy; the crowd got hyped! This was followed by a tribute to the late ODB as well as The Notorious B.I.G., as we sang along to “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” “Got Your Money” and “Hypnotize.”
Next was a segment for the ladies, as they played the instrumental from Ghostface’s “Killa Lipstick” and brought several young women on stage – at least twenty. They got to dancing to Carl Thomas’ “I Wish” (peep the Bad Boy Records connection with Sheek) before Ghost got into his hit “Cherchez La Ghost,” dancing with as many ladies as he could. Seeing so many women on stage may have been the highlight of the set, as they then wrapped it up with a performance of Sheek’s “Kiss Your Ass Goodbye,” Ghostface’s “Mighty Healthy” and got the crowd to rap along to some of the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Triumph.” In the past I’ve seen crowds rap the entire song with Ghostface, but this crowd let it die off midway through Inspectah Deck’s verse. Between Sheek and Ghost, they both had deep catalogues that could go on for days, and they rocked a good set mainly sticking to their hits.
Toronto’s own Daniel Caesar got his crooning on at the small stage as much of the crowd took the time to get food, drinks, and use the washroom. Being so close to the lake, seagulls were swarming the food truck area looking for leftovers. By the time I refuelled, the sun was setting and a large crowd had gathered at the main stage, as it was almost time for the main headliner – Schoolboy Q. Q had a very successful major label debut in 2014 with Oxymoron, and is gearing up to release his next album – Blank Face – on July 8th. Manifesto Festival’s host (who was working in collaboration with NXNE on this show) came out to get the crowd hyped for the headliner before Schoolboy’s DJ came out to get set up. A loud chant for Schoolboy started as the DJ set up his gear, and he started playing some trap songs to get the crowd warmed up.
Eventually we heard the “hello” from the start of Schoolboy’s Oxymoron album, and he got things started with the first song, “Gangsta.” The crowd was the most hype they had been all night, with everyone jumping and throwing their hands in the air. Schoolboy Q kept the energy levels high with some of his older hits off of Habits & Contradictions like “Hands On The Wheel” and “Druggys Wit Hoes Again,” and the crowd never turned down. This night happened to be the 29th birthday of Q’s labelmate Kendrick Lamar, and so he did some covers of Kendrick’s hits including “m.A.A.d. City” and “Alright.” This transitioned nicely into their collaborative “Collard Greens” before Q did some new material. While he didn’t really preview much of the new album, he did do the lead single, “THat Part” before falling back to some Oxymoron cuts with “Yay Yay” and “What They Want.” After getting everyone jumping to “Hell of a Night” he calmed the crowd down with the mellow “Studio,” and the certified head-nodder “Break The Bank.”
There was a funny moment when Schoolboy Q performed “Blessed” and got a laugh out of the majority-white crowd being afraid to chant the N-word with him in the chorus. He encouraged everyone to participate and even did the hook again acapella for everyone to shout it, although stressing they shouldn’t use it outside of the concert. With the strict curfew associated with the venue, Q quickly wrapped up with a couple more hits, “There He Go” and “Man of the Year,” getting everyone to jump with him one last time. While the crowd wanted more Schoolboy Q, he did say that he would be going on tour after the new album is released, and he could very well be back in a couple months. Q’s overall set was fun and full of energy, as he went through all the hits he has so far, and even did some more obscure fan requests.
Overall, NXNE has made a fun festival within its festival. The performers were good; Ghostface surprised as usual and Schoolboy Q brought all the energy out of the crowd. The crowd was significantly smaller than what it could have been, with an overabundance of people selling second-hand tickets well below early-bird retail prices due to the poor scheduling (most people who work on a Friday have to show up late or not at all). It is a step in the right direction for the festival though, as there aren’t many all-day, outdoor festivals dedicated to hip-hop in Toronto, and the new outdoor venue is a good look. Some of the execution can be improved, but NXNE has established a fun new venue here, and it will be exciting to see what they can do with it in future years.