What better way to celebrate Juneteenth in hip-hop culture’s 50th anniversary year than with an old-fashioned park jam? Pioneering hip-hop DJs Kool Herc and GrandWizzard Theodore captivated crowds of teens and young adults in South Bronx schoolyards and recreation grounds like Crotona Park during the 1970s. As part of this season’s Central Park SummerStage program in New York City, the legendary DJ Premier, Kid Capri and Grandmaster Flash entertained a lively crowd of mostly Generation X hip-hop lovers assembled at Rumsey Playfield. Observing Juneteenth’s third year as a federal holiday, there was arguably no better place to party.
Hosted by Lil Keys from four in the afternoon until well after sunset, Park Jams: A Juneteenth Celebration of Hip-Hop attracted hundreds of New Yorkers laying out blankets on the artificial turf near the elevated stage to picnic and enjoy the jams. Lanky and loquacious, Keys threw out questions to the crowd about their favorite hip-hop songs, favorite rappers and most beloved rap albums while shouting out all of NYC’s boroughs. (By night’s end, he’d made a joke out of the underrepresentation of Staten Island.)
DJs Nyla Simone, Diamond Cutz, SpinKing and Statik Selektah warmed up everyone for hours with golden-age rap classics. A parkwide singalong broke out for Slick Rick’s “Mona Lisa”—the section he sampled from Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By” gets the crowd every time. Oakland rap quartet Souls of Mischief popped out during Statik Selektah’s set to perform their biggest hit, “93 ’til Infinity.”
But DJ Kid Capri truly set the night off, appealing to an older set who once partied through his NYC residences at bygone 1980s and 1990s nightclubs like the Red Zone and Mars. Citing his playlist—everything from “My Adidas,” “Eric B Is President” and “Slow Down” to “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and “Ante Up”—doesn’t do justice to how the older crowd instantly found their youth again. Aged B-boys started backspinning on the AstroTurf as others made room for moves like the Humpty dance. Kid Capri ended his set emceeing along to a songs from his 2022 album The Love, and a surprise performance by rap duo The Hoodies.
As one of the celebrated “holy trinity” of DJs credited with spreading essential innovations throughout hip hop, Grandmaster Flash brought the most amount of showmanship to the Park Jams event. Deejaying in front of an enormous jumbotron shuffling scenes from Netflix’s The Get Down (a series loosely based on his life), Flash took everyone to school. Rather than spin “It’s All About the Benjamins” for the umpteenth time that night, he dug for deeper selections: “Rigor Mortis” by Cameo, “Main Theme from Star Wars” by David Matthews, etc. His set also included a section dedicated to rappers who’ve passed away too soon, from Biggie and 2Pac to Pop Smoke and Juice Wrld.
Finally, DJ Premier closed out the evening with a huge swath of songs he’d personally produced for just as huge an amount of rap luminaries. Starting with “Freddie’s Dead” (the Curtis Mayfield classic cut and scratched in Preemo’s inimitable style), he quickly dipped into his own deep catalog of produced hits: Nas’s “NY State of Mind,” KRS-One’s “MCs Act Like They Don’t Know,” Rakim’s “It’s Been a Long Time” and so many more, including a segment devoted to his own group, Gang Starr, and its star MC, the late, great Guru. He also reconstructed songs like the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments” on the spot from their original samples (in this case, “Vallarta” by Les McCann).
Rappers were once traditionally known as masters of ceremony (aka MCs). At the Park Jams' Juneteenth Celebration of Hip-Hop, Kid Capri, Grandmaster Flash and DJ Premier all performed double duty as both DJs and masters of ceremony, turning back the tides of time to celebrate a half century of hip-hop expression. And it don’t stop.