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Nas, hip-hop greats take over Kennedy Center

Thursday - 4/3/2014, 10:32am  ET

Nas and the NSO Pops led by Principal Pops Conductor Steven Reineke, March 28, 2014. (Courtesy Kennedy Center/by Scott Suchman)
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WASHINTON -- In its infancy, hip-hop was an outlet for inner city kids to express their struggles, to address the despair that until then was only mentioned through soul music.

But what was once an insider subculture has now become ubiquitous within mainstream pop culture.

Just this past weekend, rapper Nas celebrated the 20th anniversary of his landmark album, "Illmatic," by performing it in full with the National Symphony Orchestra. It was the headlining performance of this year's "One Mic: Hip-Hop Culture Worldwide" fest at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which commemorates the genre with a series of events throughout the D.C. region.

Born as a subculture in 1970s New York, hip-hop consists of four elements that make up its structure: Deejaying, breakdancing, graffiti art and rap, which, over time, has become hip-hop's most popular component.

But by the mid-1980s, rap was still seen as a fad. Sure, it was a cool thing done by cool people, but could it really survive long term?

The answer: A resounding yes.

So just how did the festival organizers get Nas to perform at the Kennedy Center?

Co-organizer Kamilah Forbes says that they considered screening Nas' forthcoming documentary, "Time is Illmatic," which depicts the influences behind the classic album.

"Then we were like, if Nas is going to be here, we should have him perform 'Illmatic,'" says Ross, the producing artistic director for Hi-Arts, which helped curate the "One Mic" series.

"We knew the moment could be epic. That was important to make a statement in a large way."

Organizer Garth Ross says he called Nas' manager to lob the idea, not knowing if the rapper would want to perform his album with a full string arrangement. Soon after, the manager told Ross that Nas loved the concept and would perform at the Kennedy Center.

The "One Mic" festival was created to celebrate the four elements of hip-hop culture, says Ross, the venue's vice president of community engagement. The series, in part, evolved from the New York-based Hip-Hop Theater Festival, which presented live theater shows about the hip-hop generation.

It was important to have the "One Mic" festival at the Kennedy Center, Ross says, because the genre is largely underrepresented there.

The three-week series not only acknowledges the national culture, it honors the local landscape as well. This past Tuesday, for instance, D.C. veteran rapper Asheru hosted an event that dissected the connection between hip-hop and poetry. On Wednesday, local group Liner Notes performed; on Thursday, the Maryland-based Low Budget Crew will discuss how it developed its signature "P.G. County Sound."

"We wanted to approach it as a positive cultural movement," Ross says.

"Hip-hop has spread throughout the entire globe, so we wanted this to be a full- scale festival. It's been a really great celebration. None of us could have done it on our own."

The "One Mic: Hip-Hop Culture Worldwide" celebration goes until April 14. Click here ( for a full list of shows.

And watch the video below for more on "One Mic:"

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