Common at Aahh! Fest
  • Alex Wroblewski courtesy Chicago Sun-Times
  • Common at Aahh! Fest

During Common’s headlining performance at yesterday’s Aahh! Fest the Chicago hip-hop icon called the daylong bash “a breath of fresh air.” Yes, the rapper’s biased—he helped organize the affair, and the phrase “by Common” appeared on festival banners—but he had a point. After three months jammed with multiday events featuring more acts than one person could reasonably expect to see Aahh! Fest provided a pleasantly low-key and intimate end to the busy summer festival season.

The gathering debuted in Union Park, and it occupied a smaller portion of it than the preceding Pitchfork Music Festival and North Coast Music Festival. Aahh! Fest had only one stage, and after trudging through the mud to try and see dozens of bands spread out among eight stages during Riot Fest last weekend, this made for a much more relaxed experience. The corporate branding that litters many music festivals was mostly missing from Aahh! Fest, but there were tables for local nonprofits that were helping throw the bash and benefiting from it too—the Lupe Fiasco Foundation, Donda’s House, and Common Ground. Even the festival minieconomy that pops up just outside the gate was slightly different, with members of the Nation of Islam out selling copies of Final Call and slinging bean pie (I picked up a Final Call on my way in and grabbed a slice of pie on my way out). And the crowd was more diverse than any other festival I’ve been to this summer.

That’s because of Aahh! Fest’s lineup, which catered to hip-hop fans better than the other big fests, but it also featured R&B (courtesy of Jennifer Hudson and SZA) and house tracks (Chosen Few founder Wayne Williams put on my favorite DJ set of the day). Hip-hop vets MC Lyte and De La Soul helped draw an older crowd, and somewhat reclusive brainy rapper Jay Electronica brought in the conscious heads. The enjoyably eclectic lineup had few connecting threads tying everyone together except for Common’s rolodex and the location, but for a Chicago-centric hip-hop event the day didn’t always feel tethered to the present. The DJs had more of an affection for spinning Run-DMC than, say, Chief Keef, but that changed in the evening when a couple Chicago rappers played his breakout hit, “I Don’t Like”; Lupe Fiasco unexpectedly freestyled over the instrumental while Kanye West rolled out his GOOD Music remix.

West wasn’t on the festival bill, at least not officially, but there was a time slot scheduled for a “special guest.” West’s nonprofit, Donda’s House, named after his mother, played a role in Aahh! Fest, which made his eventual performance a foregone conclusion long before Sunday. But that didn’t make West’s sudden appearance any less exciting—he showed up just as Long Beach rapper Vince Staples and Jay Electronica helped Common perform a remix version of “Kingdom” off the recent Nobody’s Smiling, and West quickly launched into “Jesus Walks.” Unencumbered by the theatrics of his Yeezus tour setup, West tore through his back catalog, and, like the Chicagoans who preceded him, he focused on nothing but hits (sans, unfortunately, any 808s and Heartbreaks material). West looked loose as he roamed the stage and he seemed as caught up in the festivities as everyone else—at one point he apologized for running over his scheduled 20-minute set and said he had to keep going, eventually closing the festival by performing “Get Em High” with Common.

  • Alex Wroblewski courtesy Chicago Sun-Times
  • Common and Kanye

Throughout the day nearly every performer touted Aahh! Fest as something special, but that wasn’t realized until the very end, after a stream of important figures in Chicago hip-hop wound up on stage. It wasn’t all perfect; Lupe had to weather some unfortunate sound issues and his mike got cut off before he was ready to leave the stage; Twista only played three songs. But seeing Common and Rhymefest stand behind West as he performed “Clique” felt momentous for Chicago hip-hop, or at least part of it.

The young class of Chicago rappers was largely out of the picture for the night’s affairs, aside from the aforementioned rehashings of Keef’s hit. Although Aahh! Fest also included a Community Showcase for up-and-coming locals it ended several hours before the main part of the festival began; anyone who had a pass to the main show had to buy an additional ticket for the Community Showcase if they wanted to see it. I don’t doubt that Aahh! Fest’s organizers wanted to expose the Community Showcase performers to a bigger audience, but the counterintuitive execution could’ve been reworked.

That said one youngster made it on the bill for the main festival; Lil Herb, who also appears on Nobody’s Smiling. He kicked off Aahh! Fest in the early afternoon and quickly rapped his way through three menacing tracks as grey clouds began to rush in overhead. Herb’s set was short, but so were the bulk of the performances; De La Soul could’ve used a little more time, MC Lyte spent her time well, SZA played her two best songs (“Childs Play” and “Babylon”), and Jay Electronica asked his DJ to cut his instrumentals way too often (which hampered “Exhibit C”). As the Master of Ceremonies comedian Dave Chappelle spent all of ten minutes on the mike and spent a good portion of it telling a tasteless transgender joke I’d rather not get into. Kanye held it down for about 40 minutes, but it went by quickly.

  • Alex Wroblewski courtesy Chicago Sun-Times
  • Kanye

At the end of the night, just after he finished off “Get Em High,” Common told the crowd this would be the first annual Aahh! Fest, and it sounded like a promise more than a wish. On the way out of the park, before picking up a bean pie, I walked down a gauntlet of people passing out flyers. Among the show flyers that wound up in my hand was one for a show at the Portage featuring Pivot Gang leader Saba and Mick Jenkins, an MC whose excellent recent mixtape has earned him comparisons to Common. The flyer had a ticket for the Portage show stapled to the back, and though a part of me hopes some of these made their way into the hands of Common fans eager to listen to someone new, I wish the MCs on that flyer would wind up playing Aahh! Fest next year.