Every Independence Day since 1995, New Orleanians have had their choice of two sets of downtown fireworks: over the Mississippi River or inside the Louisiana Superdome. The Essence Music Festival's Sweet 16 — a celebration of 40 years for its parent publication — features a gift-wrapped weekend with a little something for everyone, from soul and R&B royalty to funk and hip-hop ringleaders, both native and visiting, classic and contemporary. Rivaling the main stage and Super Lounge performances by the likes of Gladys Knight, Mary J. Blige, De La Soul and Earth, Wind & Fire are a growing slate of seminars with scores of academics, politicians and celebrities, including Bill Cosby, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Ca., and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Essence has become more than just an explosive music festival — it's a cultural market and meeting place.Gladys Knight
Fans of classic rock are fond of pitting the Beatles against the Rolling Stones, but soul cronies face a potentially bloodier showdown: Diana Ross or Gladys Knight? Deep down, everyone falls on one side or the other, preferring Ross' finger-wagging sass or Knight's wounded, fiery defiance. That Knight's family band the Pips began its seven-year Motown run as the opening act for Ross' Supremes only further scalds the argument — as did Knight's allegation, in her 1997 autobiography Between Each Line of Pain and Glory: My Life Story, that Ross once had her removed from a tour because audience response to Knight was too strong. True or false, it isn't hard to swallow. Though the Pips failed to supplant the Supremes, the Temptations or Marvin Gaye on Berry Gordy's A-list — the band's biggest success, including defining torch song "Midnight Train to Georgia," came after leaving Motown for Buddha Records in 1973 — one listen to Knight's pyrotechnic take on "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" is all the evidence needed to support her claim. (The divas themselves seem to have buried the hatchet, appearing together for a heart-health benefit in 2008.)
Knight, whose solo career during the past two decades brought her back to her gospel roots, returns to New Orleans for the first time since headlining a November 2008 tribute concert for Xavier University president Dr. Norman C. Francis. Her Twitter account (@MsGladysKnight) contains no digs at Ross; instead, it's currently ablaze with information about a new jewelry line, debuting at Essence, that benefits the Ghanaian Kumasi Women's Cooperative, whose beads grace her bracelets and necklaces.De La Soul
What have we learned from De La Soul? Thanks to the legendary Long Island, N.Y., hip-hop trio, we know the magic number (it's three, of course); we know jazz, rap and abstract pop can coexist without sounding like bloated elevator music (apologies, Arrested Development); and we know of dozens of then-radical East Coast groups like A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian and Queen Latifah's Native Tongues posse, whose cues from De La Soul's 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising migrated west with California's Hieroglyphics crew and continue to influence mainstream artists like Black Eyed Peas, Mos Def and Common today.
Perhaps Prince Paul should get the most credit. The New York rapper and DJ discovered De La Soul's three MCs when they were still teenagers, and it was his '60s-sampling, variety-show production — paired with their off-the-cuff humor and tag-teaming flow — that turned 3 Feet High into a critical and commercial landmark. The LP reached No. 24 on the Billboard 200 chart and topped year-end lists from transatlantic publications The Village Voice and NME, who respectively called it "the Sgt. Pepper of hip-hop" and "one of the greatest albums ever made." A more incisive comment came from Playboy writer Robert Christgau, who dubbed De La Soul the New Wave to Public Enemy's punk. Indeed, it was the paisley group's stark contrast to the burgeoning gangsta-rap movement that made it so revolutionary.
Tommy Boy follow-ups De La Soul is Dead (1991), Buhloone Mindstate (1993) and Stakes is High (1996), while innovative in their own right, were surpassed by Tribe's jazzy leanings and harder-edged scene leaders like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur and the Wu-Tang Clan, lending 3 Feet High the feel of a fading snapshot from a distinct moment in hip-hop history.
Essence Music Festival
Louisiana Superdome (night concerts)
Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (seminars)