By Laura Latzko
Justus Samuel of Respect the Underground vowed to celebrate all aspects of hip-hop music when he formed the Arizona Hip Hop Festival.
Now in its sixth year, the Arizona Hip Hop Festival—set for Saturday, November 16, and Sunday, November 17—will move to a centralized location, The Pressroom, with all the stages close together. That way, fans can have a fuller experience.
“All of these stages will be within eyeshot of each other but far enough away that the sound won’t bleed,” he says. “I also don’t want people to walk a block, get to the mainstage and stay there because the other stage is half-a-block away. It will give people the ability to maneuver through the festival, and it won’t be as far of a walk.”
During the two-day festival, more than 350 hip-hop artists will perform on six stages.
Audiences can expect to hear all different forms of hip-hop, including gangster, Christian, electronic and punk-inspired versions.
This year, the festival has expanded with the addition of a breakdance expo, organized by 602 Cyphers. The expo area will have a kids’ battle, popping and locking workshops, and a performance by the Monster Energy Breakers. The festival will also offer a live graffiti competition, sponsored by the Just Blaze art supply shop.
The festival allows local hip-hop artists, including female artists, to perform for large crowds of fans. This year, female artists will headline on Sunday night.
Samuel’s drive to uplift other artists inspired him to start the festival.
“I want to create a platform that helps artists to reach their goals and fulfill their dreams. I want to give them the necessary tools and resources to create entrepreneurial businesses for themselves and turn their passion into a paycheck,” Samuel says.
The hip-hop artist goes back 20 years. He was a member of the rap group Cut Throat Logic, and he just dropped a solo album last year.
These days, he concentrates more on his work with Respect the Underground than on his career as an artist. He hopes, through the festival and other events hosted by his organization, to make others more aware of the talent in Arizona.
“It has only perpetuated my passion to help other artists. It’s only perpetuated my passion to make the festival even greater than it already is. I want to scale it out, take the show on the road and take Arizona artists to other cities and really introduce the world to what our beautiful state has to offer,” Samuel says.
During the festival, artists have a chance to meet with others in the industry, including producers, engineers and videographers.
Most of the artists come from Arizona, and a small contingent of out-of-state rappers perform each day.
The festival has helped to advance the careers of many Arizona hip-hop artists.
Some artists, such as Anthony “A-Train” Ramirez, started out doing the open-mic stage and are now performing on the mainstage as headliners.
Samuel says headliner spots are given to artists who have been working hard all year to advance themselves and their brands.
“We are really celebrating the acts that climbed the ladder. They worked their asses off, and now they’re in a special place. Now, they are going to be doing our most coveted slots and our most coveted stage. It’s because they earned it,” Samuel says.
Ramirez has been performing at the festival for the last four years, but he has been rapping since age 8. He started performing in front of crowds in 2014 as part of Futuristic’s PROVE IT series.
When he first started rapping, Ramirez didn’t have a lot of support for his music and was often bullied. He says his struggles helped to make him a stronger person and artist.
“You can’t truly be a rapper, a poet or a musician if you don’t go through hardships in life. I feel like that’s what makes a better artist. If you are able to tell these crazy stories of what you went through, there’s beauty in the struggle,” Ramirez says.
Last year was one of the busiest for the rapper. He released his debut mixtape and dropped eight remixes and 10 singles.
He started out this year as a featured artist on Sincerely Collins’ “Fall Away.”
Ramirez grew up listening to rappers such as DMX, Nas, Rakim, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and the Game and blends East and West Coast and New School into his music. He has tried to avoid being boxed into one hip-hop style.
“All of my music sounds different. I try to keep my music different, so I can catch the ears of different listeners,” Ramirez says.
Hip-hop music has always been important in Ramirez’s family.
Ramirez’s father was also a rapper and shared his love of hip-hop music with his son.
“One thing that we really had to connect with was rap. He wrote my first rap, gave me the name A-Train,” Ramirez says.
Ramirez started to pursue music even more seriously after the passing of his little brother, who would sit in with him during studio sessions.
“He believed in my dream when I was 12 years old, and I sounded like the worst rapper you can imagine. The fact that he was riding with me up until his death, I got to keep this dream going for him,” Ramirez says.
In almost every one of his songs, he pays tribute to his brother. His newest album, “42,” which he will release in December, is dedicated to his brother. He plans to perform some of these unreleased songs during the hip-hop festival.
Ramirez’s other little brother is also a fan of his music. This is why he always strives to be a good role model for him.
“As much as I wish he didn’t look up to me, he looks up to me. At the end of the day, I have to be that person that can show him that anything is possible in the world,” Ramirez says.
AZ Hip-Hop Festival, The Pressroom, 441 W. Madison Street, Phoenix, azhiphopfestival.com, Saturday, November 16, and Sunday, November 17, weekend passes $30.