The history of Smokin’ Grooves as the premier tour rooted in hip-hop dates back to 1996 when it launched with the Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest and Cypress Hill. By the third iteration in 1998, Smokin’ Grooves established its presence as a showcase for hip-hop that wasn’t branded in sexism or violence. Acts included during this three-year run were Erykah Badu, Wyclef Jean, Foxy Brown and Public Enemy.
After 1998, Smokin’ Grooves ended, but it returned briefly in 2002 for a 15-city tour led by a revitalized line-up with Lauryn Hill, Outkast, the Roots, Jurassic 5, Cee-Lo and DJ Shadow. Now, after 16 years, Smokin’ Grooves made another comeback as a day-long festival, which was held on the Queen Mary waterfront in Long Beach, Calif. on Saturday (June 16). For the 2018 edition, Smokin’ Grooves stacked a ton of acts across the spectrum of R&B and hip-hop, spotlighting new talent alongside veterans. Names like Erykah Badu, the Roots, Yasiin Bey and Busta Rhymes were mixed with Smino, Thundercat, H.E.R. and many more.
Billboard jotted down notes throughout the day to give you the festival’s biggest moments from some of our favorite artists.
Erykah Badu is down with “mumble rap.” Erykah Badu is a majestic performer, whose ability to weave in humor and teachings during her set is one of many reasons why you need to see her live. After opening with “Hello” and running through all of her classics, she paused to break down the crowd in categories: fans seeing her for the first time, ‘90s babies, ‘80s babies and so forth. Surprised at the amount people were new fans, she informed everyone that Baduizm turned 21 this year, an album she says was made for the unborn ‘90s babies who weren’t old enough to comprehend her messages yet. She then changed topics to the popularity of mumble rap, the term used to describe artists who can make hit songs but not be necessarily lyrical.
Badu agrees that they don’t need to use words anymore to make music. “We don’t need words anymore, it’s all about them freaks,” she says. “We don’t need words anymore! You ain’t really using words really that much. It’s just to rhyme and shit, to make melodies and things, but we feel the frequency. We feeling the vibration in the shit. We trancing out this motherfucker and people don’t even understand what that means.”
OVO Sound remains strong. Despite Drake’s public fallout with Pusha T in their rap beef, OVO Sound continues to move the needle with their R&B acts, spearheaded by Majid Jordan and dvsn who have amassed cult followings after their respective debut, Majid Jordan and Sept. 5th. The groups performed one after the other on side-by-side Smokin’ and Groovin’ stages during Badu’s set. Billboard gave the slight edge to Majid Jordan for immediate sing-alongs to “OG Heartthrob” and “Her.”
Check your DMs. Inspired by a story she read in her DMs by two lovers, Snoh Aalegra dedicated “Fool for You” to a couple in the audience. The slow ballad deals with how you’re head over heels for someone. Aalegra’s angelic performance was warm and comforting.
Have you ever… After some technical difficulties with her microphone, Ari Lennox quickly found her footing to smoothly sing songs from her debut EP, PHO. “Girl or boy, have y’all been fucked in the backseat of a car before?” she asked the Long Beach crowd, embracing her sexual experience with an ex before performing “Backseat.” Survey says yes, they have.
Where’s Daniel Caesar? H.E.R., whose identity was once a mystery, is becoming a force in R&B and a must-see artist in 2018. Backed by her talented band, the Vallejo, Calif., native’s silky voice sounded incredible live, running through favorites like “Say It Again,” “Losing” and “2” all while playing guitar or jumping on the keyboard. For “Best Part,” she told the crowd that her and Daniel Caesar wanted “to create something really special together” in the studio. Everyone was hoping Caesar would come out for it, but her solo version was just as moving.
No Knxwledge, no worries. Producer Knxwledge was absent reportedly due to illness from Anderson .Paak’s set, leaving the singer/rapper to rock NxWorries songs by himself with the help of his DJ. Paak, who was all smiles, told the crowd to scream “we love you Knxwledge!” every so often. At one of the high points of his set, he instructed women in the audience to come on stage for a dance-off, bringing fun energy to his song “Link Up.”
For the ‘90s babies. Smino, who was wearing a throwback ’99 St. Louis Rams jersey, a subtle reminder of the current L.A. Rams’ lineage, wanted to keep the nostalgic vibe going before he ended his set. He performed “Chopped N Skrewed” from T-Pain’s 2008 album, Three Ringz, and later on, did an interpolation of N.O.R.E.’s “Nothin’” before adding some original vocals.
An icon legend. During the Roots’ set, Black Thought brought out the one and only Busta Rhymes. He performed his classic hit “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See,” which received the expected rambunctious response. “Y’all ready to lose motherfuckin’ control in this bitch?” Black Thought asked, setting up Busta for “Pass the Courvoisier, Part II.” The fans definitely lost it.
L.A. to LBC. Los Angeles’ own Jhené Aiko made sure to mention that she was born not too far away from Long Beach. A homecoming concert of sorts, Jhené performed near-perfect renditions of songs from her catalogue, including “The Worst,” “Bed Peace” and “Sativa.” For “Post to Be,” she dictated the pace by slowing down the tempo to really enunciate her lyrics. She swapped the “eat the booty” lyric to instruct a man to give her head instead, prompting a loud response by women who supported this substitute.
Alina Baraz shines. Following the surprise release of April’s The Color of You, Baraz made her debut at Smokin’ Grooves a memorable one. On stage, she was accompanied by two pole dancers and a live band that elevated her rich and hearty songs. While fans got expected performances of “Floating” and “Fallin,” it was her Urban Flora EP material that got the most excitement. You can’t go wrong with “Maybe” and “Fantasy.”
Miguel talks “high frequency.” Miguel, another California local who grew up in San Pedro, delivered a tight set of his biggest hits from the last few years. Fans were treated to “Do You…,” “Sure Thing,” “Adorn,” “Come Through and Chill,” “Waves,” a special guest appearance by Nonchalant Savant and even an encore for “Sky Walker.” Perhaps moved by the intimacy of the crowd and the outdoor scenery of Queensway Bay, he wanted to speak on applying yourself to fulfill your dreams, reminding the crowd that he would not be on this stage if it wasn’t for his fans. “Life to me is all about frequency. And the energy that you put out will be reciprocated 100 times,” he said. “If we can just wrap our minds around getting pass the bullshit, seeing pass the chaos, trusting our intuition, there is no limit.”
A Smokin’ Grooves tour? A new, but important entry in the festival circuit for hip-hop and R&B this summer, Saturday’s event was sold-out and likely deemed a success by its organizers, Cara Lewis and Goldenvoice. If all goes according to plan, there are talks of taking Smokin’ Grooves on the road for a 15-city tour in 2019.