The Quest for the Next Great Hip-Hop Festival
At the moment, the Rolling Loud Festival reigns as the king of hip-hop festivals. The inaugural edition took place in 2015, at a warehouse in Miami’s Wynwood Art District, with performances by more than a hundred rappers, including Awful Records, Travis Scott, Curren$y, and the headliners Juicy J, A$AP Ferg, and ScHoolboy Q. At the time, it was an undeniable draw for fans interested in the prominent, ever-growing world of rap outside of the Billboard charts. It drew around six thousand people. (I was one of them.) By the following year, attendance more than doubled, to fifteen thousand. This year’s Miami edition, in May, topped out around two hundred thousand attendees, and was headlined by Migos, Travis Scott, and Kid Cudi.
From the beginning, Rolling Loud was a perfect storm of good timing, serendipitous geography, and unfulfilled demand. By 2015, the platform for independent artists, SoundCloud had become a major player in music listening and creation, spawning its own subgenre, “SoundCloud rap,” which had found a fertile hub in South Florida. Rolling Loud gave these rappers a stage—they included Denzel Curry, Ski Mask the Slump God, Lil Pump, Smokepurpp, and the style’s most popular proponent, the late XXXTentacion—and the promoters then watched as the local scene, and, coincidentally, hip-hop’s reach, exploded on parallel time lines. Of the major hip-hop festivals that had come before, few felt as tailor-fitted to the moment as Rolling Loud.
Before Rolling Loud, there was A3C, in Atlanta. Founded in 2005, it is sprawling and comprehensive, with five days of programming, more in the mold of South by Southwest, complete with panels and classes. It meets the need for a place where hip-hop scholarship exists alongside the concert experience, but, in the past, its lack of a centralized location meant that the venues were far too spread out, making it feel less like it was capturing the moment. The now defunct festival Rock the Bells was, for most of its existence, decidedly traditionalist in its selection. Starting in 2004, it was a venue to honor hip-hop’s heroes; such legends as Wu-Tang Clan, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Slum Village, DJ Premier, Nas, and A Tribe Called Quest all held court on its stages, offering rare opportunities to hear classic albums in their entirety. Rock the Bells was still evolving to include a younger generation of artists when, in 2013, for its tenth-anniversary show, it skidded to an unexpected end due to low ticket sales. After this, Rolling Loud filled the void, becoming the preëminent hip-hop event, swelling from a nondescript, smoke-filled warehouse to a small Technicolor city complete with art exhibitions, a skateboard ramp, and a Ferris wheel.
Recently, a new contender has entered the ring. Goldenvoice, the company that produces Coachella, Hangout Music Fest, and several other festivals, announced the inaugural lineup of Day N Vegas, a weekend-long event in November that casts a spotlight predominantly on rappers. The curation seems to mirror the Rolling Loud lineups of years past: Travis Scott, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar are slated to headline, alongside Lil Uzi Vert, Juice WRLD, Migos, 21 Savage, Lil Baby, and ScHoolboy Q, all of whom have performed at Rolling Loud, most more than once. Day N Vegas’s inclusion of R. & B. artists—an in-vogue selection of rising and established stars—could tap into a different sort of market: somewhere between the grown-and-sexy demographic of Essence Festival, the country’s biggest black music event, in New Orleans; the contemporary vibes of Smokin Grooves, in Long Beach, California; and the crossover appeal of ONE Musicfest, in Atlanta. But the new Goldenvoice project is decidedly a hip-hop event. This new addition to an already bloated festival landscape could signal the initial—and inevitable—wave of big brands with deep pockets creating hip-hop and R. & B.-specific events. It was just two years ago that Nielsen’s end-of-year report for 2017 declared that hip-hop and R. & B. had bested rock music’s popularity in the streaming era.
Historically, hip-hop has fought a difficult battle for space in America’s musical lexicon and on its biggest stages. Censorship, surveillance, and outright racist contempt for the genre, the community, and the people who contribute to it have led to hip-hop’s suppression during the genre’s forty-year history, but hip-hop is a cultural phenomenon that can’t be contained. Even as its popularity rocketed through the early two-thousands, finding a place on pop-music bills at such festivals as Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo, diverse representations of hip-hop were largely absent, which made wide-ranging gatherings like A3C and Rock the Bells essential.
Artist-driven hip-hop-oriented festivals have also sprouted en masse. With the creation of Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, in 2012—then known as the OFWGKTA Carnival—Tyler, the Creator, offered an alternative to festivals that were embarrassingly skimpy on mainstream rap acts and essentially non-starters for unconventional artists. Nowadays, Camp Flog Gnaw tends to offer some of the most dynamic and compelling lineups, which feel at once timely and forward-looking and, occasionally, reverential. (It’s also now produced by Goldenvoice, though Tyler remains its driving creative force.) A few years later, in 2015, Lil Wayne built his own Lil WeezyAna festival in his hometown of New Orleans. Initially, it looked like a crash course in New Orleans rap history, with such legends as Master P, the Hot Boys, Mia X, and the bounce music artists DJ Jubilee and 5th Ward Weebie, but it has since grown to include the rapper’s famous friends as well as up-and-comers from near and far. And, earlier this year, both Pharrell and J. Cole débuted events with Something in the Water, in Virginia Beach, and Dreamville Fest, in Raleigh, respectively. The former was as expansive as its creator, with a lineup that included a mix of genres and artists, right down to a pop-up church service that featured some of gospel’s biggest names; the latter had a more intimate but equally alluring bill, built around acts signed to the Dreamville label. In most instances, these artist-backed events tend to be far less mainstream and predictable than their splashier peers, making them destinations for fans tired of the usual suspects.
In a musical and cultural landscape that is ruled by rap (and, quietly, by R. & B., too), there is no one right way to do a hip-hop festival in 2019. Surely, the ideal festival would be cross-generational, taking in those who came before and juxtaposing them with those who carry on their artistic D.N.A. It would include women—lots of women—as well as trans and nonbinary rappers, who are still largely unrepresented on any stage that isn’t specifically and intentionally dedicated to such groups. It would be equally as diverse in the styles it showcases, honoring the multitudes of rap (and rap fans) that exist. It wouldn’t include abusers, because, to put it bluntly, at some point, we just have to do better. And, perhaps most importantly, the festival would see and give back to the community that feeds it.
It remains to be seen how Day N Vegas will fare (early enthusiasm across social media seems promising); whether its presence in Las Vegas, just weeks after Rolling Loud’s Oakland event, in late September, will make it a viable counterpoint; and, depending on its level of success, whether it will summon still more competitors. (Another, Real Street Festival, is also set to début in Anaheim, in August, with A$AP Rocky, Cardi B, Migos, and Future as its headliners.) It’s almost certain that hip-hop’s increasing dominance will continue to attract brands thirsty to capitalize on the genre’s growing market power. One can only hope that the result is as culturally sustainable as it is profitable.