Four turntables lined the raised back of the stage, and as each rapper strode out from behind a screen, the excitement in the New Orleans Arena redoubled. Girls freaked for Bad Boy recording artist Loon, then grew louder for Lazie Bones from Bone, Thugs-n-Harmony, and started charging the stage when Dr. Ben Chavis, president of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), introduced LL Cool J. This is not the sort of reaction anyone expects at a get-out-the-vote rally, but at the Hip-Hop Summit on June 17, the young crowd often seemed like it was more interested in the dozen or so artists onstage than who will be in the White House in November.
The summit was the seventh such event organized by hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons and HSAN in an effort to encourage young African Americans to vote. Simmons organized the summit with Cash Money's Bryan "Baby" Williams, Ronald "Slim" Williams, and civic leaders. Ernest Collins, executive director of arts and entertainment for the city of New Orleans, announced that the goal was to register 30,000 to 40,000 new voters in the New Orleans area alone. As significant as the summit's goal, though, a guy in the front row trying to get his CD to Simmons while Rev. Run was talking suggested the message was overshadowed by the star power onstage.
One of the most provocative presences was LL Cool J, who asked the crowd, "Can you picture yourself a millionaire?" then later asked, "How many of you feel American? Really?" The significance of these questions was lost on many of the 14-year-olds in the audience who cheered more like he asked how many wanted a million, but asking them steered the discussion onstage in a more political direction. Producer Duane "Hump" Hobbs said of the Florida vote count in 2000, "I can't take another 'accident' like happened in Florida." Simmons speculated, "If we had a different president, we probably wouldn't be in Iraq."
Simmons stopped short of endorsing John Kerry. "I haven't heard nothing from Kerry about Haliburton," he said. "I haven't heard anything about getting out of Iraq." More than once, he joked that he was endorsing Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, though with each reiteration, it became clearer how unsatisfied he is with Kerry as a candidate. He later admitted he cast his first vote when he was 32, and it was for Bill Clinton. Similarly, David Banner of Jackson, Miss., said offstage he only recently registered and hasn't actually voted yet.
At times, the message clearly got through. City Councilman Oliver Thomas quieted the crowd when he said bluntly, "Politicians love people who don't vote because those are people they don't have to worry about." Lazie Bone connected the Hip-Hop Summit's efforts to the civil rights struggle: "We owe it to our grandparents (to vote) for giving us a voice."
Overtone is reborn. The New Orleans modern rock quartet played what was to be its last show Oct. 10, 2003, but Saturday, exactly nine months later, the band is back at The Howlin' Wolf, the site of its send-off.
"We all had different things we wanted to pursue," singer Chris Recinos said. "I was in Mississippi, everyone was in other bands." He was running a music club in Ocean Springs while guitarist John Rincon had started playing in Interstate Pond and bassist and brother Miguel Rincon was in Low Drag. Drummer Ash Hendley had joined Each Sold Separately and has since become so busy he chose not to rejoin Overtone.
The bigger issue was how being in the band had become too much like a business. "We got so close with labels so many times that it left a bad taste in our mouths," Recinos says. The near misses were frustrating, but dealing with labels started to affect the band's music. "It changed the length of our songs. We needed to make them three and a half minutes for radio," he explains. "We cut intros because they want lyrics to kick in within 15 seconds." It got to the point that the members not only lost sight of why they were playing, but they didn't even recognize their songs. "We've made them what they were again," he says proudly. The split, however, was amicable. "Miguel and I never stopped talking," Recinos says, and conversations led to reuniting. This time, the band just wants to make itself happy. "Our average age is 30," Recinos points out. "We're past the standard age for artists to be signed now." Overtone's playing again with David Dale, the original drummer, and though the band's as heavy as ever, it has added more Latin elements. "I'm playing congas and timbales onstage," Recinos says, and though he doesn't say he'd turn down a major label recording contract if offered one, he's happy to be playing again. "The biggest joy was to be onstage. That was the best part."
- LL Cool J (left, next to Duane "Hump" Hobbs and Loon) asked the Hip-Hop Summit July 17, "How many of you feel American? Really?"