Another day, another racial controversy at the Power & Light District.
For a year, the black community has been up in arms about perceived racism at the entertainment district, a place their tax money helped fund. But it’s always refuted. Every one is welcome at the P&L, the officials say.
Well, those who follow the hip-hop music scene have more to chew on since late Saturday night, when one of hip-hop's icons, DJ Jazzy Jeff, cut short a set of music and left the stage in a dispute over the kind of music his show was spinning.
I walked in just as his set was being packed up and he was walking off the stage. He had performed less than 30 minutes.
In his wake, the crowd booed and I heard people, both black and white, yell about how the Power & Light didn’t want him to play hip-hop. I saw Jazzy Jeff and his crew power-walking out of the venue. My stomach dropped. I wasn’t sure what happened, but I knew it was bad.
A conversation I had with him early Sunday confirmed it.
I grew up listening to this man’s music. He might be best known as one half of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, but he is more than Will Smith’s old DJ and friend. The two won the first rap Grammy. He is more than the menace on “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”
Jeff Townes, his given name, is legendary. He introduced "transforming," the scratching technique turntablists use that cuts up forward and backward scratches with the crossfader.
This man has toured around the world for 25 years. He’s a critically acclaimed producer: He has worked with musical stars such as Jill Scott and Michael Jackson.
He has been around the block and has millions of fans.
So what happened to make a legend walk off a stage in downtown Kansas City?
According to his Tweets (twitter.com/djjazzyjeff215), he was kicked off stage for playing hip-hop.
Jon Stephens, president of the Power & Light District, says it was about the sound levels.
"The issue that arose with the performance last night was completely about the sound levels," Stephens said. "His audio tech was maxing out the sound system to a point that risked damage to the speakers and sound system. His sound techs and management refused to bring the decibel level down. They were told to bring it down or cease performance. They refused to go on."
Just hours after he returned to his Philadelphia home, I spoke to Jazzy Jeff on the phone to hear his side. He says it was about what he was spinning, not the levels.
His set started with sounds of hip-hop and pop favorites -- Jay-Z, Biz Markie, Rihanna. His MC, Skillz, a celebrated rapper and ghostwriter, hyped up the crowd. They were off to a good start.
But after 15 minutes or so, in the middle of an R&B hit by Ne-Yo, "Miss Independent," he was told to stop.
"My road manager walked up to me and said they were having problems with the music I was playing," Jazzy Jeff told me. "I played three more songs and he comes back. I knew something was wrong. They said I had to kick Skillz off the stage, change the format of the music I was playing or quit. They said if I continued playing they had 30 cops ready to come escort me off stage. So I stopped."
Jon Stephens says that isn't so.
"Obviously we have a desire to book a diversity of acts,” he said. “We booked Jazzy Jeff on a Saturday night, the biggest night of the week in the district. We were excited to have him there. It’s unfortunate that his sound and management people had problems adhering to the sound and audio rules. We wanted him to play, that’s why we booked him.”
Jazzy Jeff was excited to play here, too, he said. Of all his travels around the world, he had never played Kansas City. So when the Bacardi B-Live Tour was stopping here, he thought, cool. When they arrived early on Saturday, they loved the vibe of the district, the restaurants, the people, the decked-out movie theater. Jeff says he just knew the party would be great.
But it all went wrong. Venue officials said the set attracted the wrong kind of element, he says.
“They said they didn’t like Skillz's posture,” Jeff said. “They said he made gang-like signs and grabbed at his genitals.”
So P&L officials wanted him off stage. But Jeff felt it was wrong because Skillz is no gang member. He is a father. His hand gestures were the kind of excited movements you make to get the crowd excited and their hands in the air.
He wasn't cursing or being offensive. He was playing the part of hypeman. Jeff said he was told to play Top 40.
"I was playing Rihanna, she is Top 40," he says. "If they would have let my set play, they would have known I play everything. I play rock, funk, soul, pop, hip-hop, reggae. I don't play for a certain genre, race or gender. I play for music lovers. I have played in Dublin to an Irish crowd of 5,000, screaming, drunk people. We had a great time. When you love music it doesn’t matter.”
In his 25-year career, at 44-years-old, Jeff has never been told to end a set because of hip-hop. He says he has never felt that kind of racism. The "element" officials referred to felt like a reference to black people, a hip-hop crowd.
"I'm in shock," he says. "I didn't understand what element they were talking about. I looked out in the crowd and it was multicultural, but about 75 percent white. Everyone was having a great time. I wondered what was so offensive. I never had a race issue. I didn’t know how to feel. I was playing ‘Just a Friend.’ Is that offensive? What element? It’s uncomfortable when you feel unwanted."
To be fair, I have heard hip-hop played at the district. Biggie, Lil Jon, Jay. But it’s always a mash-up, always either mixed in with a rock song or followed by one. Of all the themes the district celebrates in its bars and clubs, there isn’t a hip-hop one.
Jeff says he doesn’t understand why they didn’t tell the DJs about the set expectations ahead of time. On the B-Live tour thus far, there have been no problems. They were just in Vegas on Friday and played an eclectic crowd that had a ball. His friend, Z-Trip, a fellow friend and iconic mash-up DJ on the tour, told Jeff about being warned 15-minutes before his set that the district wanted top 40.
"I respect a venue if they say we don’t want hip-hop," he says. "But tell me that beforehand and let me make the decision about what I want to do. Don’t tell me 15 minutes before my set. You want me to change and do something different from what I do, but you never told me.”
Jeff says one of the reps asked him to go back on because the crowd was disgruntled that his set ended so briefly. They asked him to make the set changes and go on without Skillz. But he said that was like booking the Jackson 5 and asking Michael not to sing. Jeff left.
Skillz stayed behind, not on the stage, but in the crowd. Jeff says a fan asked for the MC's autograph, but he was asked to leave by police officers. It added insult to injury.
"Being from Philly and traveling the world, this experience blows my mind," Jeff says. "You don’t get this outside the country. I can walk down the street in Hong Kong and see no one that looks like me and be more accepted than this. It’s like I should be watching this on the news happening in a third world country. I can’t believe this happens where I live.”
He didn’t sleep Saturday night. The DJ stayed up until 5 a.m. when it was time to catch his flight back to Philly. He said he had a nervous laugh he couldn’t shake. He’s still figuring his emotions out.
Most of Kansas City’s hip-hop scene was awake too. Miles Bonny, Damon Smith of thismayconcernyou.com and DJ Sku all blogged and tweeted overnight. There was a Twitter movement to get Jeff to perform at Firefly, a Westport lounge where he could play whatever he liked. I stayed up, hoping he would go to the lounge, praying for some resolution.
But Jeff says he so badly wanted to play for us, to visit Firefly and have a good time. But he didn’t want to create any waves by performing at another venue when he wasn’t able to fulfill his commitment to Bacardi. The Bacardi reps understood the situation, he will still be paid. Jeff says he hopes to return to Kansas City under different circumstances.
“Now more than ever, I have to come back. I’m not going to let 25 years be changed by one day,” he says. I got to wash this under the bridge and keep doing what I’m doing I don’t blame the city, this was an individual, an establishment,” he says.
"My issue is that with all that is going on in the world, it is my job as a DJ, to help you forget that for one and a half to two hours. I play music so everyone can have a great time. And someone deliberately stopped people from having a good time for no reason. If you are looking for a fault in last night’s set, you are just looking for it.”
Now that he’s back home in Philly, he’s reading the blogs and starting to learn about the dress code issues of the P&L and the exclusion. He says it’s unfair.
“I’m not the Malcolm X guy,” he says. “I have very good and very deep morals. I don’t know what to tell everyone to do. But I absolutely think it’s wrong,” he says of the problems at the district.
“I don’t know if I could go to work 9-to-5 and have my taxes help build an establishment that I don’t feel welcome to go to. I don’t know if I could sweep it under the rug. If I can’t go, give me my money back.”