photo by Ian Witlen
Best of the Best 2009 featuring Bounty Killa, Mavado, Beanie Man, Rick Ross, Young Jeezy
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Bicentennial Park, Downtown Miami
Better Than: Being stuck on Collins Avenue
Memorial Day signals time for dancehall diehards to flock to Bicentennial Park for Best of the Best, the largest North American festival that brings together, well, the best of the best in Caribbean music. Last year, the bill featured acts like Buju Banton, Sizzla, and the don-dadda himself, Super Cat, and this year's line-up was similarly star-powered.
Aside from the cloudy forecast, more than 15,000 dancehall enthusiasts bared their respective island flags (not to mention the all excessive hand-held bullhorns) and braved the muggy weather. By the time 5 p.m. hit, the sizable audience was greeted by none other than Ms. Dancehall Diva, herself, Spice. Spice has been getting much underground buzz for her recent collaboration with Vybz Kartel, the sex-fueled "Rompin Shop," and she most definitely got a warm response from men and women alike.
The highlight of her short 15-minute set was when Spice brought up a well-built gentleman from the audience to show her "how it's done." The audience then went wild as Spice and her new-found boy-toy showed off some impressive sexual dance moves that would make any adult-film stars take notes.
Keeping things moving, up next was up-and-coming act Ricky Blaze and the Rolling Stones, also known as the Stones, who hail from Brooklyn. This group, in a nutshell, looks like the hipster-hop act the Cool Kids gone dancehall reggae. The guys' bright fluorescent get-up and over-the-top swagger had the traditional dancehall crowd bewildered, many looking as though they couldn't decide if they should throw up their lighters or throw their bottles at the stage. Lucky enough, no Red Bull cans were chucked and the Stones left the stage unharmed.
At exactly 5:51PM, the legendary roots reggae singer Cocoa Tea came bouncing onto the stage. Now last year, Best of the Best brought the uncompromising Barrington Levy. This year, the old-school roots fans were not disappointed by the presence of the 59-year-old Cocoa.
Cocoa started his set with the spiritual "Rastaman Chant" and by the end of this beautiful rastafari gospel, the sky opened up and the rain came down. His soothing vocals kept the crowd in place, umbrellas at hand, as he charmed the sea of people who sang along to his classic hits "Young Lover" and "Riker's Island" as well as his latest, "Barack Obama."
After Cocoa left the stage, the rain was still coming down. Everyone huddled under whatever shelter they could find until the announcer came onto to welcome the King of Fire himself, Capleton. And rain or no rain, everyone flooded to the front of the stage as Capleton roared through, slipping at first on the wet stage. But his energy overtook the park and the weather. By the time he was mid-way into his hit song "Jah Jah City," the rain gods were pleased with what they saw and now the sun gods were upon us.
Like clockwork, as the sun was setting towards the west, the stage lights were getting ready for something major. As the festival roster promised us the best of the best, it was no surprise that "We the Best" himself came sliding through with a few of his closest friends. DJ Khaled, Rick Ross, Ace Hood, T-Pain (sans vocoder) and an entourage of about 40 bum-rushed the stage, and the audience of over 15,000 went buckwild.
Rick Ross' newest Maybach Music artist, Magazeen, accompanied the boss onstage, surprising the crowd with his hip-hop lyricism and dancehall deejaying abilities to boot. Hits like "Hustlin'" and "I'm So Hood" blared through the speakers, and as if the stage wasn't crowded enough, Young Jeezy then stormed through, yelling "ATL in the building!"
Quickly, this dancehall festival was becoming the Best of the 305 Fest. As Young Jeezy finished off his chart topping song, "I Love It", who else entered the building than Puffy ... P. Diddy ... Diddy ... Sean Jean ... yes -- all four identities in one. Talk about showmanship. Just like that, Diddy rolled through with Ricky Rick Ross as they sang "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down." And just like that, tease that he is, he disappeared.
And as if the surprise guest appearances couldn't get any better, 305er himself, Flo Rida, took the spotlight, accompanied by another Miami heartthrob, Brisco. By this time, it seemed there were more people onstage than in the audience! It was also a nice detour from Capleton's fire-and-brimstone set an hour ago. But it was only a matter of time until the hip-hop portion of the show ended, and it was back to dancehall.
By now, the park was getting packed, and the folks who were scared off from the rain earlier had all rushed back in line to enjoy the last few hours of the festival. A roll call at 8:30 p.m. turned up the Soca Queen herself, Destra. Once Destra hit, instantaneously the flags of Trinidad and Tobago hovered in the air as this beauty queen made her countrymen proud with her high-octane performance. Everyone was on their feet, dancing in unison as Destra belted out her classic tune "Carnival" -- it was a carnival indeed.
Keeping the momentum going, at 9:30 p.m. Beenie Man ran through, dressed as a modern-day dancehall Captain Hook. Aside from the flowery costume, Beenie didn't waste time in getting down to business. He and his band went hit after hit, not even needing to sing the full lyrics as the audience filled them all in for him.
Of course, controversy seems to follow Beenie Man. Bicentennial Park is a city-run venue with a strict curfew, making set times at these huge events crucial. And Beenie refused to leave the stage. And also like the gangsta that he is, he took the time to lay it straight that he's not threatened by "The Alliance" -- the group comprised of Bounty Killa, Mavado, and company who were headlining the event. The feud between Beenie and Bounty Killa is never-ending, but after the fighting words, Elephant Man entered the stage at exactly 9:50 p.m.
And Elephant Man, the energy god, appeared to have the same stylist as Beenie -- Elephant Man's golden captain's outfit, however, actually came with a sword! Still, the consummate professional, he tried to address the tension mounted by Beenie's words: "This is Best of the Best -- everyone came to see everybody, not just Beenie Man." He was obviously miffed by Beenie's extra stage time, and quickly plowed through a short 10-minute set.
This left us with uber-deejay and ultimate selector Tony Matterhorn. Just five years ago, Matterhorn was basically a background DJ, and now he was practically headlining the show. He kept the energy going by bringing out the dancers who all performed his famous "Dutty Wine" move, and as always, the ladies swooned over this handsome superstar.
Now, it was apparent that, even with the best of pre-planning, timing will perhaps forever be an issue with Best of the Best. After Matterhorn, it was 10:30 p.m., and powerhouse headliners Serani, Bounty Killa and Mavado all had yet to perform. So to killing three birds with one stone, all three came onstage at once. The audience, now numbering some 20,000, went insane as bull horns burst through the air and fake gun shots blasted through the speakers.
Mavado, who is currently ranked at the top of the dancehall game right now, was surely the main act to see. Due to a Visa mishap, both Mavado and Bounty were a no-show at last year's Best of the Best, and this year they surely made up for that absence. Unfortuantely, due to the heightening time constraints, the songs were cut short, down to just a minute per track.
And Bounty, respectfully known as the "People's Government" for his deep influence in the Jamaican ghettos, had to respond to Beenie's fire-starting exclamation: "I is a grown man with children and has no time for such child's play." Speaking of children, Bounty brought in his own, his son who goes by the artist name Majah. He performed for the first time in Miami a sweet R&B tune as all the women in the audience cooed and awed.
And just like that, 11 p.m. came and the stage lights blazed on. It was bizarre, especially considering this curfew was even an hour earlier than last year's. The audience just looked around in confusion, and some even refused to leave, hoping that another surprise artist would show up on stage. But no dice -- once the city workers start unhooking the stage, it's time to bounce. Oh well, at least there was the after-party at Bongo's.
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Personal Bias: I'm against the park shutting down at 11 p.m. Honestly, this is a dancehall festival with 20,000 people from the Caribbean attending! That time of night is when folks wake up and start their day. Next year, I recommend someone figure out a space where timing is not an issue.
Random Detail: Rick Ross really drives a Maybach, a two-seat, convertible dark blue model with spinners (of course).
By the Way: Much respects to Rhona Fox and her PR crew for holding it down backstage. The press tent was a nice escape from the rain.
-- Esther Park