By Gavin Miller
June 23, 2018
Smokin’ Grooves, a hip-hop and R&B concert tour that started in 1996 with acts like A Tribe Called Quest, Fugees, Ziggy Marley, and Cypress Hill, was reincarnated as a one-day music festival in Long Beach, California last week. It was a blend of distinct and delectable ingredients all on display with a stellar lineup of legendary acts like Erykah Badu, The Roots, Yasiin Bey, and Busta Rhymes along with a solid group of fast-rising up-and-coming indie acts like Smino, Arin Ray, Ravyn Lenae, Lion Babe, Masego, Bruno Major, and many more. The California love was plentiful and vibes more like a cookout rather than a festival.
Here are some of our favorite performances from Smokin Grooves 2018:
At first, NxWorries’ performance only featured Anderson .Paak Knxwledge was “nxwhere” to be found. Knxwledge joined Paak with about ten minutes to go and he only gave one clue as to why he was late in a “shout out to the dogs that were searching my car.” I guess we can assume what that means. But, back to the music. This set was all about invoking the feel good moments of R&B past. Paak invited several women on stage and instructed them to form a soul train line while the DJ (the sound engineer) played the Stylistics “I Love You.” As fresh and innovative as their music feels, NxWorries was here to remind us that they’re into the “old folks” stuff and that they’d rather do a two-step over shootin’ or flossin’. It all felt as authentic as the lyrics to “Suede,” especially because Paak was dressed like your old uncle at the BBQ who’s probably going to end up having too much to drink.
Ravyn Lenae, a Chicago native, brought a brightness to the stage that rivaled the SoCal sun. Her light and airy, yet powerful, voice reflected the purpose of her songs. Every lyric is intended to uplift and encourage her female audience to think of themselves as the authentic, beautiful souls they are. Whether she’s breaking down the ups and downs of her own relationships or retelling the feeling of a girls night out, Ravyn Lenae gives you her truth with a little funk on the side. She’s also not afraid to reach back to her Chicago roots and bust out the house beats.
If Cab Calloway, John Coltrane, Pharrell, and The Weekend had a baby, it would be Masego. His energy flew off the stage from the moment he appeared. He has a clear knack for connecting with his audience. He drew large applause from his cover of Long Beach Native, Snoop Dogg’s “Sexual Seduction.” Masego also covered MJ’s “Dirty Diana,” while donning a red and black Thriller-esque jacket. Before sliding into his hit “Tadow” Masego created a beat on the spot with his drum machine and keyboard. It was well done, but not as impressive as his saxophone solos. This is a young eccentric man that honors the origins of R&B in his own unique way. The energy wasn’t the only thing flying off the stage– he also tossed fake hundred dollar bills with his face on it into the crowd. You never know, given the rhythms in his songs, he could be the Prince of Zamunda.
The OG, Yasiin Bey, (fka Mos Def) has the energy of a young lion. Bey’s career is as long as Masego’s entire life, but you couldn’t tell the difference in energy levels. With his red vintage microphone in one hand, Bey bounced from one side of the stage to the other while doing the heel-and-toe during beat breaks. Somewhere between “Auditorium” and “Sex, Love & Money,” Bey felt the urge to spin on stage. The crowd all watched in amusement as he completed ten to 15 revolutions. The interesting part of his set was that most of the young crowd was unfamiliar with many songs, but their bodies were grooving and their eyes were locked.
If you tried to convince me that the ethereal Jhene Aiko didn’t float to the front of the stage, carried by baby angels while her harpist played, I will call you a liar. Most artists or bands use the time in between sets to hook up their musical equipment. That took Aiko’s team five minutes… The remaining time was used to decorate the stage with an abundance of elaborate, mostly living plant and flower arrangements. Poking out of the jungle of colors were her keyboardist, her harpist, and Ms. Jhene Aiko herself. Her set was a heavenly garden where her voice and rose petals floated delicately over the audience. Then, without any warning she told us: “You gotta eat the booty like some groceries.” Aiko masterfully transitioned from a daydream to a full-blown house party. The crowd roared when she poured her water bottle on her body in a most sexual manner while singing a rendition of her verse on Omarion’s “Post to be.”
It doesn’t matter if we don’t get to see her entire face, because all we need is her entire voice. The future is H.E.R. and the R&B heads can rest assured that the future is in good hands. We have this modern woman who brings a musical talent that is only reminiscent of performers of the past. I couldn’t help but think about Prince every time she strapped on the electric guitar or a young Alicia Keys when stepped behind the keyboard and maybe a little Chaka Khan when she was drumming on the beat machine. “Best Part,” aptly named, might have been the highlight of her set, even with her male backup singer filling in for Daniel Caesar. The worst part, however, was the audio. Even with some technical difficulties, nothing took away from the pleasure of hearing and seeing H.E.R. perform.
Miguel set the stage on fire! It’s difficult to find a contemporary R&B artist with a stage presence like Miguel. While he may not be jumping over mosh pits anymore, he is sure to reach every corner of the stage by the end of the night. The San Pedro native felt right at home on stage with his brother, Nonchalant. It didn’t hurt that they could probably see their hometown from across the bay. Miguel tapped into his Mexican heritage and performed his bilingual track, “Caramelo Duro.” He talked about the importance of staying on the right frequency in life. While we all can strive to find that frequency in our own lives, it is worth attending a Miguel performance and tuning in.
There are amateurs, semi-pros, and pros. Then there’s The Roots. This band is a cut above the rest. Flawless sound and impeccable ability only begins to describe the experience of a live Roots show. Black Thought started the set by rapping non-stop for about seven minutes. No hook, no chorus, no water breaks, no hiccups, no nothing. Just rap. It was one of the most impressive moments of the night. All the musicians on stage had an opportunity to shine, including their nimble tuba player, but none quite like guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas. Kirk was an acrobat with the axe. He jumped down to the stage left speakers, then leapt back up to the stage. He slid to his knees at center stage, then stood up and extended his Gibson with both arms like a sacrifice to the guitar gawds, all while playing a “face-twisting” solo. The Root’s set was just a gift that kept on giving. One of their last gifts of the night was a special guest appearance from founder of Conglomerate and Flipmode Squad elder, Busta Rhymes. Busta blessed us with a few bars from “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” before asking the crowd “Don’t this hit make my people wanna…?”
Erykah Badu is the future and the past of R&B all at the same damn time. She is the sun and the moon. From the beginning of her career, Badu’s image reflects that of an old soul. But her visuals and lyrics often lead you toward the future and beyond. She mastered the ability to invoke the feelings of soul and R&B music, while always adding something new and fresh for music lovers. That mastery earned her the title, “Queen of Neo-Soul.” The moment she walked on stage and you saw the silhouette of her hat, you knew she was in charge. Her presence commands your attention; you are ready to follow her to where ever she feels like taking you. As she celebrates the 21st anniversary of Baduism, she blessed the crowd with classics like “On & On” and “Next Lifetime.” She even took a moment to tell the audience that she made Baduism for the ‘90s babies. As you can imagine, the majority of the crowd were ‘90s babies (she took a poll). Whether it’s true or not, that is exactly why Badu is timeless. She made an album in 1997 for 21-year-olds in 2018.
Here are some of our favorite images from Smokin’ Grooves 2018 in Long Beach, California.