Beats in search of buzz fill the quad at Howard University's Yardfest

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 24, 2009

The sky was gray. The ground was scattered with a strange confetti of fallen leaves and abandoned party fliers. And the bass was thumping.

It was Friday's Yardfest -- one of the most anticipated events of the annual homecoming festivities at Howard University, an all-day concert where gaggles of rappers and singers and more rappers grace the stage in short, emphatic blips. The concert can feel exhilarating, exhausting and anarchic -- all at once.

The day can also serve as a launchpad for rappers on the verge of stardom. Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco both made early-career appearances on Howard's quad in autumns past, and Los Angeles rapper Nipsey Hussle seemed poised to be this year's breakout. With a handful of buzzed-about mix tapes to his name, Hussle was making his first Howard homecoming visit in hopes of winning fans with his sly, tough-talking rhymes. He had 10 minutes to get the job done.

"I understand that there's time restraints," said Hussle, before his three-song set, unfazed by all the nervous energy backstage. "But letting [the crowd] see you, it's word of mouth from there. The publicity -- it's worth it."

The theme of this year's Yardfest was "Past, Present and Future," and if Hussle embodied some unknown future, '80s funk group Cameo (of "Word Up" fame) evoked a pleasantly familiar past. Yardfest coordinator and Howard senior Kai Deveraux Lawson booked the band with alumni in mind, but admitted that the booking had raised eyebrows on campus. "Some people were like, 'What's Cameo?' " she said. "Other people were like, 'Oh! I have this on my iPod!' "

With a squad of clipboard-holders calling her name, Lawson raised a perpetual "hold-on-a-sec" finger before dashing back to the artist check-in desk. It was only 2:30 and the concert was already running behind. "To me, this is the hardest [homecoming event] to coordinate because everything is off the cuff," she said. "I'm still getting [artists] calling, saying, 'Okay, I'm gonna come, I'm gonna perform.' You just have to be cool with being on your toes."

Backstage wasn't always so cool. Artists lined up on stage right, with managers and stagehands squabbling over set times. Fans out on the quad seemed both delighted and surprised when Fabolous bounded onto the stage at 2:45 -- hours before a headliner was expected.

Chris Chatelaim, another Howard senior, weaved through the throng during Fabolous's set, handing out high-gloss fliers for various after-parties around town. "We always try to get it done before it rains," Chatelaim said. "Because it always rains."

The north side of the quad felt a world away, the air thick with the smell of fried-everything and clusters of alums bursting into "Ohmygod!" reunion hugs. Tracy Smith (Class of '95) and Orisha Hayes ('03) posed for snaps with Howard's Bison mascot, while the 808 kick drums boomed in the background. "The undergrads come to see the celebrities, but we don't care," Smith said. "We come to see each other."

Near the stage, students pressed up to the barricade with camera phones held high, capturing the routines of emerging rappers, student dance teams, and emerging rappers who danced like they should be on student dance teams (namely, loose-limbed California duo Audio Push).

Hussle's set finally arrived around 4:30, and he sauntered onstage with his street anthem "Hussle in the House," a song that re-purposes the beat to Kris Kross's "Jump." Corbin Butler, a Howard freshman from the Los Angeles area, led Hussle's cheering section to the right of the stage, mouthing along with every rhyme while his pals hoisted their L.A. Dodgers caps toward the clouds.

The rest of Butler's classmates were more muted. "I think he came a little too gangsta for the Howard crowd, but that's him," Butler said. "And we love it."

And Hussle loved 'em back. The rapper closed his set with "Let's Talk $," chucking handfuls of dollar bills into the crowd. Unlike the party fliers on the rest of the quad, none were left behind.

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