Late last May, the first annual St. Louis Underground Music Festival (S.L.U.M. Fest) took place at Atomic Cowboy. The twelve-hour affair featured more than 75 performances by area emcees, DJs, B-boys and graffiti artists. S.L.U.M. Fest 2010 might have been a mess, what with so many artists doing so many different things at one venue, but the event went off without a hitch.
The success of last year's fest had much to do with the hard work put in by the event's various organizers and board members. We spoke with a few of the minds responsible for the fest, including John Harrington and So 'n' So (of the Midwest Avengers), Lyfestile and Nato Caliph (of Plan B), and Robert "Rob Boo" Ford, about their future plans for S.L.U.M. Fest and what to expect at this year's installment.
Calvin Cox: How did the idea for S.L.U.M. Fest come about?
Rob Boo: The idea actually came from a conversation me and a couple of the guys were having on Facebook one day. Myself, Lyfestile and Fresh Voice were talking about putting together a showcase. After we kicked the idea around for a couple of weeks, we decided to call a meeting. That's when we reached out to other people we knew, like John and [So 'n' So]. At the meeting, while we were shooting out names of who we'd like to see on the bill, the list started to get so long that we realized we could never fit all those people in one show. John had the idea that we could do it more like a festival — that was the start of S.L.U.M. Fest.
John Harrington: I've got a history with festivals like the Vans Warped Tour and OzzFest. We used to travel to Scribble Jam in Cincinnati all the time, but everybody knows that Scribble Jam's shut down now. I figured: "Why can't St. Louis be the new home for underground hip-hop?" We need to get a solid following in St. Louis first, and then start inviting in others in the future.
What makes S.L.U.M. Fest so unique?
JH: For me, it's all about unity. We're bringing in people in from all walks of life. We've got all the different styles, all the different genres of hip-hop.
So 'n' So: Hip-hop isn't just street, it's not just backpack, it's not just conscience — it's all of that. It's even weird. It's strange at times. We bring all those things together.
Lyfestile: And it's all the elements. There's a lot of rap, but we try to showcase the DJing and graffiti, the B-boys and B-girls, so it's not just a rap show. We're encouraging the culture as a whole.
S.L.U.M. Fest 2011 is billed as an all-ages event. What accommodations are being made for those who will be bringing their kids?
LS: The lineup on the Made Monarchs stage from 2 p.m. up until about 6 is all people who are giving positive messages. Dynasty Hip Hop and Teen Swag are organizations that deal directly with the youth in St. Louis. We've got Mirage, Ciej, Dharma Jean, JJ Trooth — so if you're bringing kids, there will be stuff there specifically for them. As a parent, I don't know that every artist on the bill is going to be appropriate for my children, but we have to respect the artists enough to allow them to do what they do.
What are some of the specific challenges in putting something like this together?
RB: The first one would be trying to narrow down the list of performers. We had about 500 people send in submissions this year, so we're talking about going from over 500 [down] to our goal of 60.
JH: Another part of it is trying to roll with the punches and adapt, because every day something changes. The logistics change, the lineup changes — we all just have to stay in constant contact so everybody knows what's going on.
Have your expectations changed at all from last year's event to this year's?
LS: Personally, I look at it more like a continuation of last year. We're just trying to learn from what happened last year so we can keep making it better.
Nato Caliph: With anything, you want it to be a little bit bigger and better than the year before. The biggest growth for us has been internally — [in terms of] organization, lining up ducks in a row, that kind of thing. As far as presentation and entertainment, we won't have anybody skydiving into the event or anything like that, but there have been improvements.
What would you like to see in terms of attendance this year?
JH: Realistically, I know we can do 1,000, because that's about what we did last year. But with the quality of the event, the promotion we're putting behind it, the vibe on the street — I'd like to see double or triple that amount this time.
As far as marketing, what steps are you taking to make sure the word gets out?
JH: What we're doing this year on the website is you can go to SLUMFest.com and build your own schedule. Put in where you want to go, who you want to see at what time, and it'll send you phone alerts. We're also doing fliers, Facebook, Twitter...
NC: And honestly, word of mouth has been our strongest suit. With everybody we know, and everybody they know...
JH: Plus all our sponsors. We've got blogs like Made Monarchs and Ghettoblastic, Lo Cash, which is an online magazine, the Damn Truth, Rawcore Radio — all these people are helping to get the word out.
RB: To add to that, Rawcore Radio is going to be streaming the whole event live on the Internet. Even if you can't make it out, you can check out the performances online for free.
With such a large number of performers and attendees, how big of a concern is security?
JH: Last year we had security, all big and ready for something to happen — and nothing happened. Hip-hop has that stigmatism of being violent, but even with all the people who came out, there was nothing but love. For this year, between the fifteen of us [on the board], the twenty volunteers, the staff at Atomic Cowboy and the sheriffs walking around, I don't think it'll be a problem. Better safe than sorry.
Having 66 artists perform at one venue comes with the tradeoff of a short set length. Have the artists been respectful of the time constraints?
JH: Yeah, we haven't had any altercations over it. [The artists] realize that they've got fifteen minutes to show you what they got. They've got to give their bangin'-est bangers, their hardest, best, dopest songs right away, or they're going to lose the crowd. You know how St. Louis cats are — they'll fold their arms up, boo you, and the girls will walk off.
RB: Lyfestile and Fresh Voice explain our expectations to all the artists up front. Since S.L.U.M. Fest is starting to be seen as the ticket to be on in the city, we haven't had anybody who didn't want to agree to the terms.
What are your short-term and long-term goals for S.L.U.M. Fest?
JH: Short-term, I'd like to make enough to pay the bills and start paying the artists. In the long-term, I'd like to grow it out to a three- or four-day event, with panel discussions and guest speakers, something people come from all over to see. Something like a Scribble Jam or SXSW, but here in St. Louis.
Is St. Louis big enough — or supportive enough — to expand the event on that large of a scale?
LS: It's on us to do the work that will make [St. Louis] that way. Yeah, we've always had issues, but I think it can be done. When we do this event, everybody stops thinking about the politics of it, and we just have fun together. It takes us back to why we all got in it in the first place; it's an amazing culture. When we can all enjoy that, I think it's the perfect foundation for everything else.