By now, any argument that plants rock music at the forefront of cultural relevance over hip-hop rests at a platitude — it’s an observation neither fresh nor intriguing anymore because of how obvious it is that hip-hop (in all of its manifestations) is the new rock ‘n’ roll. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the one music festival to rival the Observatory’s Day N Night lineup, the transcontinental champion of SoundCloud rap from its very heart, Florida’s Rolling Loud.
For the first time, Rolling Loud brought its chart-topping headliners and underground sensations to SoCal, specifically San Bernardino’s Nos Events Center. Entrance routes stretching out for what totaled over a mile popped with the face of a youth culture keen on streetwear and the depths of SoundCloud. 17-year-old rapper Lil Pump’s abrasive “ESKETIT!” (a bastardization of “let’s get it”) mantra reverberated between complete strangers, a domino effect galvanizing parties before setting foot on the grounds.
The grounds themselves offered more than the average enormous parking lot: A pond, small as it were, provided a scenic backdrop for the smallest of the three stages, the Sauce stage. Larger and in the middle of the venue was the second-tier Dab stage, a platform housed under an expansive tent and neighboring the food trucks and merch booths. To the left of the Dab stage was the biggest of the three, the Loud stage, where headliners and larger name acts were set to perform throughout the two nights.
In an odd decision, the closing act of Day 1 was LA rapper Schoolboy Q, headlining over Migos, Lil Uzi Vert and Gucci Mane; more appropriately, Future ended the second day of the festival, which more accurately catered to the taste of the audience. Trap reigned supreme at Rolling Loud, and artists were expected to instill their audiences with enough vigor to overcome their kush-induced stupors. For the most part, they succeeded.
Initial hiccups clouded my expectations of what was to come when Pierre Bourne proved to be a no-show. Bourne, producer of hits like Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia” and Tekashi 6ix9ine’s “Gummo,” was scheduled for an early, less-than-30-minute set, yet a full 30 minutes into the set DJ playing over Bourne’s set time, it was obvious was we wouldn’t be seeing him. “XXXTentacion isn’t going to be here, so there’s some solace in not seeing someone I would have liked to see,” I thought to myself as I peacefully accepted this downside. In fact, the inclusion of acts like X and Kodak Black — rappers from Florida accused of domestic assault and rape, respectively — was the elephant in the room amongst eager festival goers with a smidgen of concern for where their money is going toward.
Chants of “free X” were heard not once or twice or even three times but too many times to keep track; most disconcerting was when Trippie Redd, a friend and collaborator with X, began a chant to free the “Look at Me” rapper at the end of his set. Days before he was to perform, X was once again jailed. This time, the young rapper was (who, reminder, was accused by a former ex-girlfriend of a long-lasting pattern of violet domestic assault) facing seven additional felony charges, including witness tampering and witness harassment. “Innocent unless proven guilty” argument aside, these cries of empathy burned like something akin to hearing one of your buds from high school start spewing some bigoted vitriol.
This annoyance, however resounding in the moment, doesn’t stain the rest of the day’s events but rather helps to paint a clearer picture of the festival and its attendees. Maybe it’s just easier for me to distance a rapper I like from their run-ins with violence (in Gucci Mane’s case, murder, albeit justified) than it is to distance myself from heavier shit, the kind that turns my support to resentment. I get it, people want to have a good time and enjoy music without thinking too deeply about the morality of the artist. But it’s still pretty fucked up.
Day 1 was still great. The later the Saturday got, the better the performances were. Smokepurpp was fun and while his energy was a bit lower than I would have liked him to be, songs like “Krispy Kreme” are engineered so well that the artist could literally be asleep on the stage and the crowd would go nuts.
One of the highlights of that first day was seeing Trippie Redd. Discounting the aforementioned awkwardness, the set was characterized by nonstop fun from both fans and newcomers alike. If anyone was the face of Rolling Loud, it’d be Lil Pump, but Trippie would be second in command. The young rapper’s got a unique voice that separates him from contemporary rappers of the SoundCloud rap ilk and commands a crowd amicably. He’s the people’s champ.
The 21-year-old self-proclaimed King of Youth, Atlanta rapper Lil Yachty, hit the Loud stage after Jaden Smith’s headline-grabbing moonwalk and played hits like “Minnesota” and “Peek a Boo.” His mic might have been slightly under optimal volume but at least his hype man assisted in filling in the gaps. Yachty’s set was followed by the father of modern-day trap music — and, by extension, the father of a lot of these rappers — Gucci Mane. Out of all the names on the lineup, his demands the most respect. His set brought back classics (“Lemonade,” “Freaky Gurl”) and singles following his meteoric return to the limelight (“1st Day Out Tha Feds,” “Both”) in a healthy mix to please both longtime fans and casual listeners.
Why Migos or Lil Uzi Vert didn’t headline is beyond me. The little bit of time spent at the main stage seeing Migos before darting to see Uzi at the Dab stage was good fun, if a bit tiresome; a Migos crowd can never not be hype, but one can always hope that the three rappers can have more life in them when performing. Uzi, on the other hand, was a ball of energy and the ultimate payoff to a day struggling with the usual festival annoyances like overpriced food and obnoxious crowds. Seeing Q afterward felt … wrong. Q is great, his performance offered nothing to complain about, yet it’s likely that asking anyone who the true rock stars of day one were would likely earn a response of either Uzi or Migos.
The second day of any festival proceeds in a fairly typical manner. Tired but excited enough to soldier on, attendees pushed and shoved their ways to the front (the VIP secion was not excluded in this regard as some people were relentless in their pursuit of a clear view of the stage). But some things made that Sunday a bit more special.
For one, Lil Peep was set to perform. His performance was altered on account of his tragic death in November. The tribute set, held at the Sauce stage, began with a eulogy from rapper and close friend Fat Nick among other friends of the late rapper. It was quiet, a somber reflection on the circumstances that lead him to his passing, that was followed by a slideshow of the young artist during happier times. A few of Peep’s songs played overhead as the sun set. As an artist influenced by alternative, punk, goth and especially emo rock, Peep’s legacy is entrenched in the canon of hip-hop, and the tribute felt necessary.
Shoreline Mafia — LA Rap group and unofficial posterboys for lean, according to Fox News — took the stage afterward, and they brought out more people on stage than any security guard could have anticipated. They meant well, running manically to stop friends of the group from hopping beside them and rapping whilst sipping lean. Still, the rappers attracted more of a crowd than the small stage could handle; out of all the artists I didn’t expect to care too much for — this being my introduction to them — they were one of the best performances of the entire weekend.
With dramatic flair, Young Dolph emerged from an ambulance over at the Dab stage. Less dramatic but nonetheless noteworthy, Lil Pump — to my surprise — had one of the most energetic sets of the night. Running across the stage and rapping along to every song (a miraculous feat) word for word, he shattered expectations that were admittedly pretty up there. Him throwing about three pounds of weed to the crowd was pretty dope too.
21 Savage rivaled Pump in this regard as his energy was an unexpected treat. Teaming with Post Malone to perform “Rockstar,” 21 foreshadowed a night of more dynamic duos. Closing the night off, Future welcomed Young Thug to the stage to perform “Relationship” and Thugger’s “Digits.” The Billboard-topping “Mask Off” was the biggest crowd favorite among the two nights and a testament to Future’s presence as a trap paragon and unrivaled relevance.
I learned two really, really important things come Monday morning when recovering from that weekend. The first thing was that going to a festival with a VIP pass rules and I hope in my life I can do it again. The second and more important thing I learned once noticing how many kids there were no older than 13: Rock music as a mainstream staple is in its death throes right now and hip-hop is the pillar of popular culture.