KS-107.5 Summer Jam Fiddler's Green June 12
By their very nature, hip-hop radio station festivals like KS-107.5's Summer Jam (the station's twelfth consecutive sell-out) tend to promise more than they can deliver. The lineups are generally stellar -- proof that despite changes in the music industry, terrestrial radio remains so powerful that big stars are willing to move their schedules around and fly across the country just to kiss the head programmer's ass. But the post-vaudeville road-show format gives artists only a relatively brief time in the spotlight, dictating an old-school, DJ-and-microphone approach that's not too far removed from karaoke and doesn't allow most performers to truly stretch out. For the acts on the first part of the bill, especially, the drill is: "Sing or rap along with your hits, thank the station and get the hell off the stage."
No wonder, then, that the most memorable part of a program that featured Kid Cudi, Keri Hilson, Baby Bash, Sean Kingston, Bow Wow, Soulja Boy, Flo Rida, Ludacris and T-Pain was meteorological, not musical.
The traffic on the way to Fiddler's Green was epic and the pat-down process was extremely time-consuming, as is common at hip-hop shows. (You don't think venue security guards profile based on the type of show, if not race or gender? Think again.) As a result, my daughter Ellie and I arrived at the amphitheater fifteen minutes after the scheduled 5:30 p.m. start time -- and it was indicative of how quickly acts came and went that Kid Cudi had already completed his bit. An instant later, Keri Hilson stepped forth, accompanied by dancers -- two females and two males stepped out at various times -- and a DJ whose microphone was louder than hers. The choreography was fine, and Hilson's got some good tunes -- especially "Turnin' Me On," which worked despite being partly drowned out by her turntablist's repeated exhortations to the crowd: "Keri Hilson! Keri Hilson! Yeah!" And then, she was gone. Length of set: thirteen minutes.
Next up was Baby Bash, clad in a stylish hat and accompanied by three cohorts whose job was mainly to goof alongside him as he eased through his familiar radio smashes: "What Is It," "That's How I Go," "Suga Suga" (which is actually credited to Frankie J. -- but in current hip-hop/R&B, authorship credit is flexible, as the rest of the show proved) and the inevitable "Cyclone," with its effectively nagging Lil Jon synth hook. Rather than trying to squeeze as much content as he could into his slot, the Basher wisely went with the flow, and his snippet benefited from his acquiescence. His main innovation? Using a live drummer, an experiment that may not seem like that big of a deal -- but none of the other performers attempted it. Time between sets: five minutes. Length of set: sixteen minutes.
Of course, there's a difference between easing through a performance and phoning one in -- and Sean Kingston wound up on the wrong side of that dividing line. Clad in a retro red-and-white track suit (as were two sidekicks who didn't do much aside from pacing the stage and moving their arms up and down), Kingston let the backing tracks did most of the work, singing/toasting only when absolutely necessary -- as during an a capella intro to his signature ditty, "Beautiful Girls." Also on the roster: "Me Love," "Fire Burning," "Take You There" and "I'm at War," which more people probably associate with Lil Wayne (his mid-song rap ends with "Ka-bloom!") than with Kingston. Time between sets: seven minutes. Length of set: nineteen minutes.
Shortly thereafter, things got interesting. Bow Wow stepped to the fore, having shed the "Lil" part of his stage name, even though it remains accurate -- dude is little. He wasted little time peeling off his shirt to display his suitably defined six-pack as he ran through portions of hits such as "I Think They Like Me" in addition to tributes to Tupac and Biggie. But it was hard to pay attention given what was happening overhead; intermittent light rain suddenly blossomed into a full-scale torrent, complete with pea-sized hail. I'd brought along a couple of oversized black trash bags in case of rain, which Ellie informed me she'd never wear, no matter how bad things got -- but it was amazing how quickly she changed her mind when the skies opened up and the amphitheater's design sent water gushing downhill like mini-rapids. Bow Wow kept going for a few minutes, but when a deafening crack of thunder and a near-instantaneous bolt of lightning made it clear how close the storm was, KS-107.5 personnel pulled the plug. The show wasn't canceled, they insisted -- just postponed for fifteen minutes. Nonetheless, they told people to evacuate the facility and head to their cars or the parking garages across the street from the Fiddler's property.
We managed to follow these instructions, but it wasn't easy. Most of the people who'd taken shelter in the tunnels that served as exits absolutely wouldn't abandon their spots. So squeezing out between them took most of that fifteen minutes -- which, predictably, was more of a guess than an accurate prediction. The actual pause was about 45 minutes, maybe more.
Ellie and I waited in our car for about half an hour before jocks interrupted KS-107.5's broadcast to announce that authorities had given attendees the all-clear to return. (By then, the rain had lightened up considerably and the thunderclouds had moved to the east and south.) But despite the delay, we were still absolutely soaked. My black jeans had acted like the clothing equivalent of absorbent paper towels, drawing water all the way up to the middle of my thighs. In addition, my Chatfield High School hoodie was utterly sodden, and my UCLA baseball cap was so wet that I was actually able to wring it out. Moreover, the night had cooled off in a major way, causing us to feel as if we were being slowly but steadily refrigerated.
The conditions put an extra burden on the performers to hit hard and fast, and Soulja Boy came through. His material's not exactly timeless -- there's a reason his songs make more of an impression when they're used as ringtones as opposed to spinning in their entirety. Still, he and his crew ripped through energetic, precise renderings of "Crank That (Soulja Boy)," "Turn My Swag On" and more before bringing out Bow Wow to duet, in a manner of speaking, on "Marco Polo," which may not be the dumbest song in hip-hop history, but is at least in the running. Sean Kingston popped up, too, doing what he did during his own segment -- not much. Length of set: nineteen minutes.
Soulja Boy was followed by Flo Rida, who had carefully plotted out what he was going to do and didn't switch it up despite the conditions. To whit: During his opener, "In the Ayer," several members of his posse ran to the lip of the stage and began dousing already drenched people in the front rows with Supersoakers. Surprisingly, the crowd didn't rise up as one and beat the shit out of everyone with a squirt gun -- a tribute to Flo, who has had some of the most monstrous radio monopolizers of recent years and churned them out one after the other. After "Ayer," "Low." After "Low," "Sugar." After "Sugar," "Right Round." He also found time to ditch his shirt -- his abdomen is one big muscle, not a series of smaller ones -- and pretend to give away giant pieces of bling. Not that he actually did it. The man's not stupid. Time between sets: eleven minutes. Length of set: twenty minutes.
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After that came Ludacris, who probably should have been headlining, given that he's consistently put out some of the most infectious party anthems of the past decade on the way to becoming an actor who'll be gainfully employed for many years to come. But he spent most of the hour he was given succumbing to many of live hip-hop's most irritating cliches. The set was essentially a collection of chopped up bits, with Luda barking out only portions of his own songs ("Southern Fried" and "Act a Fool" among them), as well as his contributions to those by others (included: Usher's "Yeah!" and the YoungBloodZ "Damn"). Worse, he turned over significant stretches to proteges such as Willy Northpole, whose own album comes out on June 23 (as we were repeatedly told), and Shawna, with whom Ludacris is making a recording called Battle of the Sexes. Also on tap: a long DJ Jaycee scratching exhibition -- the hip-hop equivalent of an interminable drum solo during an arena rock gig. Such filler helped make the moment when Ludacris finally unleashed "Move Bitch" seem anticlimactic. He was the one I wanted to move -- offstage.
Just five minutes later, T-Pain emerged wearing a big ass chain, literally -- oversized reproductions of the words "BIG ASS CHAIN" dangled from his neck. But despite his abundant good humor, he's more of a collaborator than a marquee item. Even if his name is the one above the title, as on "Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin') and "Bartender," collaborators like Yung Joc (on the first) and Akon (on the second) tend to be as prominent as he is. Hence, hearing him render his portion of Kanye West's "The Good Life" sounded as if he was merely sampling other artists' hits even if the contributions were his own. The result was yet another extended medley in search of a concert.
Which ain't bad, I suppose. Clearly, KS-107.5 fans got to see an array of their favorites for a budget price. In the end, though, the latest edition of Summer Jam felt a lot less powerful than the storm that temporarily brought it to a halt.