Review: Nas and A Tribe Called Quest kick it at London Olympic Park’s Wireless Festival

Nas at Wireless Festival UK 2013

I hadn’t been to the Olympic Park, proper. In my day job I got a tour of it, when it was still unfinished, although the basic structure was there – we were there for some sort of context as to what we were up against. Seeing it in all its finery is quite splendid, although the cynic in me was shaking my head at the £9bn price tag, whilst most of the surrounding area is still poverty-stricken and neglected.

Apart from the endless walk to the Olympic Park from the station (it really is in the middle of nowhere- golf carts or theme park type buses might be helpful in the future, especially in the searing heat), the atmosphere in the Park on July 14th was quite manic. Well-organised, in terms of cheerful staff and free drinking water, but packed to the rafters – a far cry from my last trip to Wireless in 2006, when The Strokes were headlining and there was plenty of room to sit and relax – clearly Yahoo! Wireless Festival has become a victim of its own success.

Anyway, zigzagging through the disorganised melee of older teenagers, groups and twenty-somethings, with very few older people in attendance, I managed to get a decent spot to watch the last of ASAP Rocky’s deep bass thrombosis of a set before a short break of ’90s rap tune favourites from the likes of DMX and The Lox.

With not too long to wait and Nas was announced.

Nas at Wireless Festival UK 2013, by Derek Bremner

He came on stage looking happier and more positive than most times I’ve seem him live (with his trademark scowl). Dressed in a printed black and white T-shirt, black jeans and limited-edition Air Force Ones, he opened his set with “NY State of Mind” to a crowd that were probably still in primary school when Illmatic came out in 1994. “Represent” soon followed, with its “Thief of Baghdad” magic carpet of a sample wistfully playing its fluty refrain before the beat came in- perfect for a barmy summer night, mixed in with the smell of greasy hot dogs and overpriced beer.

Like an audience of cloned Stepford Wives, or in this case, loyal homeboys and B-girls, typically tracks like “If I Ruled the World,” “Nastradamus” and “I Can” got these younger cats pumping their fists and shaking their short shorts and skinny jeans. Universally, the violent, aggressive, rob-a-deil anthem of “Made You Look” with the rolling “Apache” sample floored most of the packed crowd, who got caught up in the pure hip-hop fever of this moment.

The elbow-to the stomach cow-bell fused DJ Premier production anthem of “Nas Is Like” got an equally appreciative response. The more introspective and mellower tracks like “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” “Life’s A Bitch” and “The Message” played perfectly as the sun set on a humid London. Even the silly posing and posturing of the bastardised “Camina Burana” sample on “Hate Me Now” gave the crowd the anthem they needed to sing along with, ending in a unison of middle fingers, pointed to a scorching sunshine.

Throughout, Nas seemed at ease with himself, happier, allowing himself a smile [assuming that his issues with his baby mother, Kelis, have been sorted?] He interacted with the crowd but there was that feeling of catharsis with his remarking on more than one occasion, as the camera panned towards the sea of bouncing heads, that “this was a real hip-hop show.” He even managed to give a passing reference to slain black teenager Trayvon Martin, after his killer was acquitted of murder that day. Nas’ DJ, the legendary Green Lantern had strong support from a brilliant and manic guitarist and a very talented drummer, who gave Nas’ set that bit more oomph and urgency.

With the Wireless people being slick and professional, it wasn’t long until the 20th anniversary of the legendary A Tribe Called Quest would take place. The video monitors distracted with an amiable and attractive short-haired woman vox popping all and sundry around the Olympic Park on a pre-recorded feed, asking them pithy questions about dress codes and whether or not nudity was acceptable at a festival like Wireless. A Ludacris track played [“Move, Bitch!”] and “California Love” amongst others bridged the gap, in anticipation of a group most of us thought wouldn’t reunite, especially after last year’s film Beats, Rhymes and Life, which had about as much drama, acrimony and intrigue as a series of The Wire.

What was impressive about Wireless, save for the huge crowd and people being pretty territorial and quite annoying at times, was the professionalism and the timings of acts on stage. It took a few adjustments and the removal of Nas’ stage drape to be replaced by A Tribe Called Quest’s and it was on.

A Tribe Called Quest at Wireless Festival UK 2013, by Andrew Whitton

The crowd gathered, but not in quite the numbers for Nas [this was a grown folks’ set, let’s be honest] and as soon as the Trad-jazz double bass of “Buggin’ Out” filled the space aided and abetted by a twangy bassoon before the East Coast stomp/two-stepper drums came in and Q-Tip ambled across the stage with Phife Dawg following his lead and it was on. Q-Tip’s African-inspired colourful garb, black trousers and knee-high boots contrasted Phife’s more practical ensemble of printed t-shirt, dark jeans and trainers.

“Jazz (We Got)” with the meandering Freddie Hubbard and Lucky Thompson samples infused with some Sly and the Family Stone, but built off some wonderfully understated drum patterns that blended into a jazz-soul-hip-hop collage quite beautifully- with no one sound competing with space with another-executing about as perfect a hip-hop song as can be thought possible. “Steve Biko (Stir it Up)” morphed seamlessly into a back-to-back psychedelic jazz/boom-bap fest.

We went back in time soon after for “Footprints” from Quest’s landmark first album – syncopated dancing with Q-Tip and Phife finishing each other’s rhymes, meant that the live recreations of these classic songs by rappers (now in their 40s) were difficult to render- breath control being one issue; heat, another. Q-Tip’s eulogy for Trayvon Martin was altogether a bit more serious, as he opened up that tragic incident into a mini-diatribe about America’s lack of open-mindedness; that European’s were more progressive; and that we should pray for America’s soul at this difficult time.

Heartfelt and sweating, Q-Tip had the crowd in the palm of his hand, as Quest segwayed into “Sucka N—a” with Ali Shaheed Muhammad (on DJ duty) providing some much needed hype, to bring the tempo up a notch.

Phife Dawg clearly couldn’t keep up with Q-Tip, and obviously, the diabetes that has plagued him for much of his life, showed its effect. Up until his sunglasses were removed it did come across comically, not disrespectfully, as homage to Weekend at Bernie’s with Phife occasionally looking catatonic. When Phife took off his glasses, his eyes looked drawn, the skin wrinkled and ageing; it was a bit sad to see such a hip-hop icon in this way.

The tingly, jingly and whistling Rivera boardwalk inspired (and with a nod to “Midnight Cowboy”) “Show Business” got the crowd swaying before Q-Tip raspily shrieked: “BONITA APPLEBUM!!!!” with a twirl and grip of his microphone. As the beat kicked in, Q-Tip and Phife got the crowd to dance in unison with them, recounting the narrative of an unattainable woman placed on an imaginary pedestal.

A Tribe Called Quest at Wireless Festival UK 2013

Quest had the audience in the palm of their hand and they did the old trick of telling us all that the powers that be had pulled the plug on their set. The three hurried off, followed by a chorus of boos and pleading for Quest to come back on- after all, some of their greatest hits hadn’t been played thus far.

And, like all great and engaging performers, Quest came back strong with “Scenario” and a volcanic eruption swept from the front to the back and side to side. As if things couldn’t get more amped or nostalgic, the quotable lyrics of “Oh My God” and “Lyrics To Go” with the Whatnuts and Minnie Riperton samples, were pure perfection played out in this blistering of summer nights. Even a freestyle set to b-boyJazz-break favourite Bob James (“Nautilus”) with Q-Tip and Phife trading off of each other, was a beautiful thing to behold.

Of course, A Tribe Called Quest set couldn’t be complete without a few choice tracks. As with ‘Bonita Applebum’, Q-Tip commanded most of the stage, doing an impromptu meet and greet as he shouted “AWWWWWARRRRD TOUUUUURRRR”- a feeling of well-being shone over the crowd. The distinct intro, masked by sirens, readied the nodding heads into full-on dance mode. Q-Tip, with beads of sweat and passion throughout, tore through the record.

The urgency, aggressive and punchy drums so vividly recreated with a fantastic sound system, made Quest’s timeless production that bit more of a privilege to hear life after a 20-year absence. They clearly pioneered the art of jazz sampling and hip-hop, but it’s too lazy and lacking nuance to label their flavour, ‘Jazz Rap’. Even Quest’s lyrics had more emphasis all these years later- the timelessness of their concepts, the delivery and the complete original thought, that make them so uniquely respected and loved in the hip-hop community.

Of course, “Check the Rhime” and “Can I Kick It” were most sought-after in the affections of hip-hop fans that have grown up with Quest, and it was a perfect way to end their set. Quest lived up to the hype of an almost generational absence, which save for “Find a Way” off their 1998 album The Love Movement, was such a joyous and positive experience. Heat and high prices be damned – this was worth every penny.