Did New Zealand’s 'premier urban music' event live up to the hype?
‘Old school’ was the name of the game on Friday night at The Block Party, where several thousand converged on ASB Showgrounds to see a throwback-heavy hip-hop bill. The audience largely overlooked a few programming hitches and some logistical teething problems in favour of the legacy acts that they’d waited years - in some cases decades - to see.
The local artist stage felt like a well-intentioned but misguided gesture, and the lack of a cage around the sound and lighting engineers hinted at how full (or not) the promoters expected the room to be. The two-stage mini-festival was billed as “New Zealand’s premier urban music” event by Auckland promoters Talk Later.
It was an ambitious project from the outset - those artists, that venue - but the promoters correctly gauged the ferocious appetite for the nihilist-tinged rap of the 90s and it would have taken a lot for the mainstage lineup of DJ Quik, Twista, Mobb Deep, and Bone Thugs ‘n Harmony to disappoint ticketholders.
On the local stage - situated in the Logan Campbell Centre - PNC began his set playing to just a handful, but managed to rein in a hundred or so people by the end. Tomorrow People, Times x Two, and Che Fu & the Krates spent the night in similar fashion - delivering strong performances but struggling to pull the audience through the multiple doors and walkways from the mainstage next door in the pavilions.
It’s a pity, too, as the local artists had no laurels to rest on, unlike the mainstage acts next door who tended toward the lacklustre. That became glaringly obvious when local duo Times x Two were given extra stage time during a changeover and brought an explosion of energy and charisma to the room. But when you’re not hungry, it’s a lot easier to phone it in.
The mainstage took a while to hit its stride. It started to pick up during Mobb Deep around 8.15pm, then hit critical mass during Twista’s signature quickfire rap.
The mainstage took a while to hit its stride. It started to pick up during Mobb Deep around 8.15pm, then hit critical mass during Twista’s signature quickfire rap. The slow start out of the gate was likely due to a backed up entry line (still winding back through the parking lot as late as 7pm, 90 minutes after opening) and wasn’t helped by the late-in-the-day cancellation of Tha Dogg Pound & Lady of Rage due to Australian visa issues (Bone Thugs’ Bizzy Bone stepped into their curtain-pulling slot with a solo set).
Mobb Deep’s Prodigy didn’t make it due to a flare up of his sickle cell anaemia but Mobb Deep went ahead without him. Talk Later - in a display of notable good faith - made refunds available for those who wanted them.
Last-minute cancellations aren’t a surprise to anyone familiar with the live industry and the particular set of challenges that promoters often face with American rap artists. Entourages can be large. Artist support staff can be inexperienced friends. Visas can be harder to secure (criminal records are a thing).
Talk Later attempted to bring all five members of Bone Thugs ‘n Harmony to New Zealand for the first time in 2015 and had to deal with two of them failing to appear at both Auckland and Christchurch shows. For a country as devoted to Bone Thugs as New Zealand is, that was a lot of heat to wear, and meant pressure to deliver on The Block Party’s promise - a promise 22 years in the making.
Put simply, the main pavilions are not designed for bass-heavy live music… from the concrete floor that turns into a deathtrap once wet to the awfully harsh acoustics, it looked, felt, and sounded like a big tin box. But while Bone Thugs made it to stage intact, the major roadblock to success for The Block Party was the venue. Promoters noted that this was “the first time ASB Showgrounds had been used in a two stage concert/festival set up”; there’s a reason it hasn’t been previously, and shouldn’t be again.
On the bright side, some of the production design worked - notably the catwalk extending into the crowd and the extensive lighting rig that made the audience feel fully immersed.
Wicks suggests that the uniquely melodic nature of Bone Thugs’ music has an affinity with the sweeter side of contemporary Pasifika musical culture.
Free water stations abounded and bathrooms weren’t total carnage, if you knew where to look. A live stream of the mainstage kept the bar area feel connected to the show. Two blocks of bleachers provided some much-needed elevation for a large room, especially once it climbed toward capacity for Bone Thugs ‘n Harmony.
Bone Thugs, the headliners, were the undeniable draw card on the lineup. The melodic rap quintet who rose to mainstream recognition with the Grammy-winning Tha Crossroads in 1997 “have always been ghetto superstars in New Zealand,” says Music 101’s Sam Wicks, as we wind our way through The Block Party crowds on Friday night.
In their prime, Bone Thugs were uniquely positioned to appeal to both male and female audiences: they sang and harmonized while paying lyrical lip service to the gangsta rap content spat by their contemporaries like Easy-E. But they are weirdly big here, I press on. Wicks suggests that the uniquely melodic nature of Bone Thugs’ music has an affinity with the sweeter side of contemporary Pasifika musical culture, a theory corroborated by the overwhelmingly Maori and Pasifika crowd.
Whatever the reason Bone Thugs - and more broadly, the American rap landscape of the 90s - resonate so clearly with a New Zealand audience, it’s a potent connection. The room positively exploded when Bone Thugs came on stage. Women in their mid-30s were screaming next to me, the crowd literally heaved, and a thousand joints sparked up at once. Nostalgia overshadows phoned-in performances and devotion trumps logistical snags, at least in the long run… so here’s to next year’s Block Party, and a new venue.