The 5th annual Arizona Hip-Hop Festival may be bigger than ever but there’s more growth on the way

Concert organizer Justus Samuel of Respect the Underground is feeling pretty good about his prospects for success as he heads into the final stretch before this weekend’s  fifth annual Arizona Hip Hop Festival. 

His prediction?

“We’re going to exceed our own expectations.”

This is, after all, the biggest Arizona Hip-Hop Festival to date, a two-day blowout with more than 350 regional performers, including headliners Mega Ran & Bag of Tricks Cat, and Teek Hall, who was recently named the best rapper in town by Phoenix New Times.

Moving to a new site

The festival has moved from its old home, Comerica Theatre, to a fenced-off area along Washington Street between First and Second streets with stages outside and inside the Monarch Theatre, Bar Smith, Luxx, Cartel Coffee and Majerle’s Sports Grill.

The local hip-hop scene was ready for a festival this big five years ago, Samuel says. It just took him and his crew some time to figure out what they were doing.

“We just didn’t have the ability to execute,” he says.  “We had to grow incrementally, slowly, in order to be able to pull this off without complete disaster.”

In their first year, they had more than 100 artists on three stages in 10 hours. 

As Samuel recalls with a laugh, “A hundreds artists five years ago terrified me. Now I can do a three-stage event with my eyes closed.”

First year? A nightmare

The first year, Samuel says, was a nightmare.

“It was a logistical nightmare because we had to learn how to do it,” he says. “And the only way to learn is to do it. So it was really a challenge.”

He tried asking people in the business for advice.

“And they just kind of laugh at you,” he says, “Like, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, kid. No one’s ever done this before. I have nothin’ for you.’ I’d be stumped and go, like, ‘OK, thanks, I guess.’ The people who would take my calls just took my calls because they were intrigued. They didn’t take my calls to give me advice. They were just curious. Everyone told me I was crazy.”

Phoenix New Times said it was waiting to see if Samuel’s festival would “collapse under the weight of its own ambition” or “match the hyperbole being used to promote the show.”

Samuel says he might get a tattoo of that ambition line “just because it’s such a condescending slap in the face.”

But it worked out

And yet, they somehow pulled it off. 

“We did over 2,000 people,” Samuel says. “We sold out, had a line down the street. We had to turn people away. It just took time. The community could have supported more artists, but we chose to work with the artists that were really out here whipping ass and taking names.

“And we learned how to execute a multi-stage event. We learned that we need walkie-talkies. We learned that we need more staffing than a usual event. We learned a lot of little things that you can’t even consider.”

It could’ve gone better, he says. “But we learned enough to be able to pull off a second one, in which we brought out Master P and No Limit. Then, in year four, we figured it out!”

Mayor declares Hip Hop Day

Of course, by the third year, 2016, they had figured it out well enough for then-Mayor Greg Stanton to declare it Hip Hop Day in Phoenix.

The mayor even tweeted out a photo of himself with Samuel to discuss the festival, ending his tweet with the genuinely funny “(I will not be performing).”

In an interview with the Republic, Stanton said, “I’m really excited about the festival… It’s going to be bigger than ever this year. And I’m a hip-hop fan myself, so I’m excited to not only issue a proclamation supporting Justus Samuel and what he’s trying to do, but to personally attend.”

That support meant the world to Samuel, who’s still a huge Stanton supporter.

“We’re riding with Stanton until the wheels fall off,” he says. “It would be nice to see him get that seat in Congress and then come back and be governor. He showed me so much love and support and changed the landscape of Arizona hip-hop forever by acknowledging it and giving us a holiday that is recognized by the city.

Since last year’s festival, which drew almost 6,000 people, Samuel’s team has been hosting events three Fridays a month at the Monarch Theatre, making it possible to grow the project even more.

“The consistency of these events and developing these artists show by show, project by project, song by song, video by video, has really grown the community exponentially, he says, “and given us the ability to execute an event on this scale.”

Why the new location?

As to why he changed locations, Samuel says, “Comerica was just too big a venue. We don’t need that much house. We need streets. And the location change allows us to partner with Downtown Phoenix Inc. fully. They have given me the support I needed to shut down the streets, get the fencing, get the barricades, confirm security, meet with the PD and fire department.”

This new setup allows him to grow into something more like South by Southwest, a music conference and festival in Austin that’s now in its 31st year.

“Their format is what I’m trying to emulate with incorporating all the local businesses and putting things in the streets, which will allow us to grow incrementally over the course of the next five years,” Samuel says.

Next year, he says, they plan to shut down Adams Street and have a car show with trophies and plaques and more stages.

“This year, we decided not to do that,” he says, “Just because it was our first rodeo with the new footprint and we wanted to dial in the logistics first before we started the process of growth. But growth is definitely in the five-year plan to take this to a potentially three-to-four-day event, possibly even a week-long event.”

More acts than ever

In the meantime, they have more performers and stages than ever, including a stage in the mural-covered alley behind the Monarch. They’re also introducing the Kid Corner, with bounce houses, games and face painting. And this is the first year they’ve expanded to a two-day festival.

“We’re very blessed,” Samuel says. “We’ve grown tremendously, and this year is really focused on the new faces in the community. We’ve given a lot of the new artists an opportunity to show what they’re really made of.”

The most impressive acts may go home with a record deal.

“I want to put money behind artists I believe can represent Arizona on a global scale,” Samuel says. ” And the only way I can justify doing that is to bring them into the festival and say, ‘Show up and play ball and put your best foot forward and I want to rock with you next year. I want to find four or five of the right artists to get behind and really show them how to grow their brands.”

Community comes together

Another source of pride for Samuel is the thought of nearly 6,000 hip-hop fans getting together for a festival without a single incident.

“The vibe was peace and love all day,” he says of last year’s festival. “You’ve gotta think about this, man. We had eight stages, 200 acts and we don’t even have a yelling match, a skirmish or a scuffle. And you’re talking about one of the most stereotyped communities in music.

“Try getting an insurance policy on a hip-hop festival. That’s not an easy task, my man. And we can do that because we have five years with no incidents. And I’m knocking on wood as I say this. But the community just comes together.”

Arizona Hip Hop Festival

When:11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Nov. 10-11.

Where: 122 E. Washington St., Phoenix.

Admission: $50 for a two-day pass. 

Details: azhiphopfestival.com.

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