How Festivals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Hip-Hop

9 Sep

Something strange happened once Eminem completed his recent headline set at the Reading and Leeds festival a couple of weeks ago. As the final rousing chorus of Lose Yourself faded away, hip hop officially become part of the British musical landscape.

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Let me back up a little bit. Eminem had previous headlined Reading & Leeds (henceforth called R&L to save my fingers) in 2001. However, it is one thing for an artist to be booked when they’re a cultural phenomenon, and quite another when they’re a veteran of the genre. Many British festivals and magazines opened their arms to Eminem while he was at his height. Booking him 12 years on shows the confidence festivals organisers have in his huge back catalogue of work.

Unlike the USA, where rap is so mainstream Jay-Z can host his own festival, hip hop’s traditionally faced a lot of resistance in Britain. Back when Jay-Z headlined Glastonbury in 2008, many people were sceptical. Noel Gallagher claimed: “I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.” Jay-Z ended up receiving rave reviews for his performance, managing to please both the hardcore fans and those who only knew the chorus to 99 Problems. However, Glastonbury was always far more diverse than traditional rock festivals like Reading & Leeds.

If you need more evidence, look further down the billing at R&L this year. A$AP Rocky and Azealia Banks both performed the penultimate slots on the NME Stage on different days. Neither are household names but both have cult followings. On smaller stages, you could find a whos-who of up-and-coming talent, such as Chance the Rapper, Angel Haze, Earlwolf and Action Bronson. You could quite easily have spent the whole weekend there without hearing a single guitar.

This breakdown of genre barriers isn’t limited to rap. Melvin Benn, the organiser of R&L, recently tipped Chase & Status as future headliners. Electric music is another genre experiencing a huge boom but this will still come as a surprise to the festivals’ hardcore rock fans; the emphasis seems to be less on promoting what people expect and simply putting good bands on.

Eminem may be the greatest crossover rapper ever, partly owing to his rebellious hits aimed at suburban teens and partly no doubt due to his skin colour. However, the fact remains he has opened plenty of doors in the UK and it surely won’t be long before hip hop superstars like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar step through them. 

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