Outcast to Outkast: the rise of hip hop at UK festivals

"I'm not having hip hop at Glastonbury. It's wrong," said Noel Gallagher in 2008. And it's a view that sounds as worn and outdated as anything Oasis managed in their last eight years. Here Jamie Barker marks the history of hip hop at festivals...

Since the ‘godfather of Hip Hop’ Gil Scott-Heron began his recording career in 1970, the genre has developed through a number of styles, creating a whole host of world famous stars along the way. While Scott-Heron may have famously noted that hip hop in the 1990s was “a lot of slang and colloquialisms…you don’t really see inside the person… you just get a lot of posturing,” the growing fan base of that new breed of ‘posturing’ rap superstar paid little attention to the forefather’s concerns.
Reading Festival 1992 may have gone down in history mainly due to Kurt Cobain’s wheelchair-centric final appearance on a UK stage, but a footnote of that event remains Public Enemy’s Main Stage headline slot, marking the beginning of the festival circuit’s turbulent relationship with the hip hop world. On that same stage two years later, Cypress Hill’s innovative brand of rock-rap saw the UK further embrace the largely Americanised genre, with another day of that event featuring rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube warming up the crowd before Primal Scream’s riotous headline show.
While Britain embraced these acts from their tents and muddied fields, America was also allowing hip hop to sit alongside other genres at even the most typecast of touring festivals. Warped Tour, pre-dominantly drawing its acts from the world of pop-punk and alternative rock, saw its 1999 festival dominated by two big names: Blink-182, basking in the immediate afterglow of their massive mainstream success ‘Enema Of The State’, who were joined by Eminem for the entire stretch of the tour. Black Eyed Peas also featured at the event, displaying their more hip hop heavy style before later years saw them shift further into the world of pop melodies.
In 2004, the rocky relationship between British festivals and hip hop took a very swift nosedive when 50 Cent was booked for the penultimate main stage slot below Green Day at the Reading and Leeds Festivals. While his Leeds appearance wasn’t exactly problem free, the Reading leg was positively disastrous for the American rapper: within seconds of his set commencing, a torrent of plastic bottles were raining down on the stage, striking 50 Cent and his supporting entourage. His set, scheduled to last over an hour, was finished within twenty minutes. The festival has largely kept away from Main Stage hip hop ever since.
Up until 2008, even the most eclectic of British festivals were wary of dipping back into the pool of hip hop talent for their line-ups, and it took a well known British organiser to brave the storm of a high profile booking. Until fairly recently, when the popularity and amount of UK festivals grew at an astonishing rate, many people felt that Glastonbury defined the concept of a British music festival: a weekend in June when it was sure to rain (regardless of forecasts), a vast array of stages and a suitably eclectic selection of acts to fill them. In 2008, the influence that Glastonbury holds over Joe Public’s festival opinion turned a further corner, straight into a head-on collision with American hip hop and the bias that had begun to form against its involvement in the typical ‘British festival’.
As Jay-Z strode onstage to ‘Wonderwall’, it appeared that festival-goers, TV viewers and booking agents alike all suddenly remembered that it was okay to rap on a festival Main Stage. Now Jay-Z is notching up as many UK festival dates in 2010 as he’s had hits, clocking up numerous appearances without anyone batting an eyelid, and the Eavis’ are once again left smirking a well deserved “told you so.” His brother may have been put in his place by a chubby Bolton comedian at the Brit Awards, but Noel Gallagher’s vocal disdain for the New York rapper’s initial Glastonbury booking continues to look equally foolish with every subsequent festival announcement.
The following year, the organisers of Bamboozle Left gave a nod to the previously mentioned Warped Tour line-ups by inviting 50 Cent back into the festival headlining fray. His performance, alongside the likes of modern rock favourites Fall Out Boy, Cobra Starship and The Used, laid to rest any ghosts that may have continued to bother the star after Reading’s highly physical rejection half-a-decade before.
Unfortunately, grime rapper Lethal Bizzle hasn't had quite the same luck in recent years. Following a number of packed tents and bouncing bodies at his Reading and Leeds shows, the Bizzle’s name looked slightly askew on the bill of notorious rock and metal festival, Download. And so it proved, as a number of fans single-handedly reversed any advances they’d made since the Neanderthals era by bottling the star for his entire set and throwing bananas at him with racial abuse emblazoned across them.
Now Eminem, last seen on a British festival stage in 2001, is celebrating the turn of the decade and the opportunity to mimic some of Jay-Z’s success by headlining the Saturday night at 2010’s T In The Park. Undoubtedly there will be critics who are vocal about his white twist on hip hop seeming out of place before a Scottish sea of mud-caked tents, but the ball is in his court to follow on from his peers by ensuring the performance opens minds to the possibilities of music, whatever the genre.

With Dizzee Rascal one of the first names out of Emily Eavis’ mouth regarding this year’s Glastonbury Festival, it’s clear they are confident the Jay-Z gamble paid off and realigned hip hop with a right to festival stage time. Going full circle, even Gil Scott-Heron is due at a few festivals this year and with rapper Big Boi set for Oya Festival in Norway, hip hop at festivals really has gone from outcast to Outkast.

With a continually expanding British festival circuit, it looks like narrow-mindedness has stepped aside to make way for a desire for eclecticism. For hip hop, that can only be a good thing.