This is huge, says Mixmaster Mike

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Mayor Nutter is riding down Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia in the front seat of his Mayormobile - a black Chevy Tahoe Hybrid - thumbing through a playlist of hip-hop songs on his mobile music player.

The former Mixmaster Mike has been nodding to DJ Kool's 1996 "Let Me Clear My Throat." Now it's time for a song by the main attraction of the two-day Made in America festival, which starts Saturday on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

"Gotta give Jay a little play," the mayor says. He clicks on "Otis," the exuberant rap from Jay-Z and Kanye West's 2011 album Watch the Throne. It begins with a sample of late, great soul man Otis Redding singing "Try a Little Tenderness," followed by Jay-Z announcing: "I guess I got my swagger back."

In May, when Nutter and Jay-Z appeared at the Philadelphia Museum of Art to announce the Made in America festival, the mayor recalls, the rapper was surprised at how large a crowd had gathered on the Rocky steps to greet them.

"There's a photo of Jay and I walking out, and he's laughing," Nutter says. "The backstory is that when we were coming around, I said to him, 'There's a lot of folks out here, and they're here for you.' And then I said: 'I guess you got your swagger back.'

"He was like 'whoa!' He was really surprised, apparently, that I knew that."

The rapper wouldn't have been so surprised had he been aware of Nutter's musical history. The mayor worked as a DJ at the Impulse Discotheque on North Broad Street in the 1980s and, like Jay-Z, has been backed up on stage by Philadelphia's the Roots.

Last week, as the city began to gear up for Made in America, building three stages and a DJ tent for the likes of Jay-Z, Pearl Jam, Skrillex, Jill Scott, Run-DMC, Santigold, Calvin Harris, and D'Angelo, Nutter talked about how "arts and culture are tremendously important to the city, and also very important to me." Hosting Made in America, he says, offers a "spectacular" opportunity for Philadelphia.

The idea of holding the outsized concert on the streets of Philadelphia was first floated in January, he says. That was shortly after the mayor's trademark performance of the Sugarhill Gang's 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight" ("I am Wonder Mike and I'd like to say hello . . . ") with the Roots as his band at his second inauguration party. That impressively limber performance was quickly followed by the mayor's announcement of his "official retirement . . . from rapping!" on Twitter.

At that time, Budweiser, the festival's sponsor, was looking at a number of cities.

Talking last week in his City Hall office, where the walls are hung with autographed pictures from the Roots, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the cast of the HBO series The Wire, Nutter says he found the idea of hosting the event on the Parkway to be "unique and different.

"But quite honestly, it's something we're really good at. We've demonstrated that time and again with Welcome America," the city's annual Fourth of July celebration, which drew an estimated half-million people this year and which, like Made in America, is produced by Live Nation.

"Fifty thousand people out on the Parkway" - the capacity each day of Made in America - "that normally has half a million? I think we can do this."

The benefits, he says, are manifold.

"Obviously, we welcome the economics. But this is really about promoting the brand and image of Philadelphia, nationally and internationally," the mayor says. "We know this from the Welcome America artists. They go back and tell others: Hey, I had this amazing experience playing at the biggest free outdoor concert in America, in Philadelphia. The more people come to know Philadelphia in that capacity is tremendous advertising and branding for us. It really is a priceless kind of thing."

Steve Stoute, the advertising executive who worked with Jay-Z in conceiving Made in America, said substantial credit for bringing the festival to Philadelphia should go to Nutter. "We were all over the place with a location, but we wanted to keep it on the East Coast. Honestly, your mayor has done a very good job."

"It's such an iconic city," Jay-Z told The Inquirer in May. He said the intention is for the fest to be "alive and electric, right in the middle of the city."

The mayor has heard the complaints. If it's on the Parkway, shouldn't it be free? Made in America isn't; two-day passes cost $135.

"I fully appreciate that this is a new idea and a new concept. And we're utilizing the Parkway in a different kind of way. But it's a group of different artists performing, and in most instances, when that happens, you have to buy a ticket," he says with a smile. "There's no other venue you would go to and expect to go for free. But I understand that this is different, and new and different often is a bit of a challenge in this city. Everyone likes change as long as things can stay the same."

Music has been a constant in the life of Nutter, 55, since he was growing up in West Philadelphia, listening to WDAS DJs Georgie Woods, Jocko Henderson, and Joe "Butterball" Tamburro. Nutter's father, a guitarist, was a fan of Wes Montgomery and kept Sid Mark's all-Sinatra radio shows tuned in.

The first record Nutter bought was by the Jackson 5. He gravitated toward the socially conscious '70s music made by Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye, and Gamble and Huff. "I listen to it still today," he says. "It's still relevant today. Same issues."

Politics and music are intertwined: He made crucial career connections at Impulse, meeting former U.S. Rep. William H. Gray, former State Rep. John F. White Jr., and Councilwoman Marian B. Tasco there.

The mayor, who had spent the morning listening to Nancy Wilson, doesn't only kick it old-school. His current faves include the black Irish R&B singer Laura Izibor, and Philly rap duo Chiddy Bang, whose song "Ray Charles" is on one of his hip-hop playlists alongside the Roots, which he praises for their continuation of the Sound of Philadelphia tradition.

Nutter has favorites he returns to, like Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "Wake Up Everybody," featuring Teddy Pendergrass. It's the first song on an R&B playlist he fired up on his Zune - he's a Microsoft man, not an Apple devotee - as his Chevy Tahoe headed down Broad Street past the f.y.e. record store, where fans were lined up to meet R&B star Trey Songz.

Nutter's aide Luke Butler remembers a 14-hour day during the first mayoral campaign, in 2007, when a mix CD including the song "Wake Up Everybody" got stuck, and played the song all day long. It might have driven his staff to distraction, Butler recalls, but the mayor didn't mind.

Nutter is fond of hearing back-to-back versions of the same song - for instance, R. Kelly singing "I Believe I Can Fly" followed by Gerald Levert and others doing the same. "It drives my daughter completely crazy," he says, referring to Olivia, 17. Asked if he's a compulsive playlist maker, he says drily: "I try not to use the word compulsive for anything I do."

Will Made in America become an annual event? "At this point we don't know that," the mayor says. "I'd like it to be. But we've got to get to it and get through it."

"It's going to be great," he promises, as "Otis" winds down and he arrives at his Delaware Avenue destination. "I'm excited about it. It's an opportunity to show the country and the world that Philadelphia is one of the great music cities." He gets out of the car, and takes his Zune with him.

 


Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.