Hip hop festivals in Australia cop a lot of flak and a lot of cynicism. Any time a new hip-hop festival is announced, it comes with overwhelming eyebrow raises from those within ~the business~ who expect poor ticket sales, disapproved visas and ultimate cancellations to follow. It’s not without credit though – this comes from a history of these things happening at fresh hip-hop events, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a shot regardless. Maybe it’s a timing thing, maybe it’s an overestimation of how much Australian fans enjoy international hip-hop. But, if Listen Out‘s Sydney leg proved anything, it’s all about to change. Hip-hop is on the cusp of taking over our festivals, whether you like it or not.
Listen Out has always been geared towards both hip-hop and electronic music, but it has always been the latter that was the drawcard. This year, despite two gargantuan electronic headliners, it was the rappers earlier in the day that everyone cared about most, and it was those same rappers who stole the show.
Take our very own Triple One, for example. Taking the stage after the powerful entity that is Miss Blanks – whose fiery bars were the perfect kickstarter to the day – Triple One kept it fresh from the very start. Not since Hilltop Hoods has an Aussie rap crew come along with such an adoring legion of fans at their beck and call. They play into the boyband vibe similar to BROCKHAMPTON, but pack it with raw energy and electrifying recklessness that sets them apart from any other act in the game. On top of that, they proved they’re keeping the community close by bringing out fellow up-and-comer Chillinit on stage. Everyone’s invited to the Triple One party, and maybe that’s why they have skyrocketed in ways some other local acts haven’t.
If Triple One aren’t your thing however, you could head over to the 909 stage to see a wild, shirtless JPEGMAFIA dominate his set. It’s a name that’s been inescapable all year, and his 2pm non-main stage set didn’t really seem to do him justice, especially considering the size of the crowd. Follow that up with Slowthai – another rapper who has been omnipresent all year – and the 909 stage didn’t stand a chance. It could barely contain all the energy that these two rappers exploded with. At one point, Slowthai was rapping in nothing but his own-brand underwear and a pink cowboy hat and it never became a spectacle. He echoed that feeling of community that Triple One brought, but he did it by bringing up an audience member, Kate, to rap the entirety of Skepta’s verse on ‘Inglorious’ (and she completely nailed it). Once his set was over, the scantily clad rapper could be seen leaning over the fence saying hi to his fans – that five minutes of his time made the day for those punters.
One of the biggest clashes of the day came after Slowthai’s set, as two of the biggest hip-hop names on the bill were playing simultaneously. On the ATARI stage was the superstar Denzel Curry, who had already given himself huge hype with his appearance at Laneway festival earlier this year. He pulled the biggest crowd of the day as he bounced his way through his large discography, and even bringing up Slowthai to perform ‘Psycho’. But, on the 909 stage, the completely unique flow of Doja Cat dominated. Her amalgamation of hip-hop, R&B, pop and memes makes her one of a kind, and the crowd erupted as the thumping bass of ‘Tia Tamera’ – one of 2019’s best songs – kicked in. Wearing a prom dress, gnarly boots and devil horns, Doja Cat made that stage her own and also showed Australian crowds just how diverse the hip-hop scene can be.
So it’s no secret now that Aussie fans might be more devoted to hip-hop than what it seems, it could also be said that the feeling is mutual. Slowthai and Curry both made note of how they’re coming back to Sydney as soon as they can, but it was 6LACK’s emotional confession that really set it home. After crooning his way through a sundown set, and finishing it with ‘PRBLMS’, he revealed that, the night before, he lost his cousin to gun violence in Atlanta before saying that’s how much it means for him to be here and left the stage. A deeply emotional moment following a supremely smooth set really solidified the relationship between audience and artist.
All of the above is not to say that electronic music didn’t have its pull as well. If you could venture far enough away from Slowthai’s raucous set, you’d be enchanted by the pop and electronic stylings of golden girl Wafia, who bewitched her particularly large crowd with her angelic voice complete with a total party to ‘I’m Good’. Diplo took to the main stage once the sun had set, and delivered his endless stream of hits with pyrotechnics to boot. But it was Flume, the biggest Aussie musical expat in recent years, who aimed to redefine what live electronic music could be.
With a string of friends alongside him like Vera Blue, Reo Cragun and aforementioned JPEGMAFIA, Flume endeavoured to make his set as interactive as possible. Bordering on performance art, he had three separate stations set up across the stage to ensure he wasn’t just standing and pressing a button – as detractors would have you believe he’s done since 2012. He incorporated spray painting and, at one point, was potting plants only to smash them on the stage later in the set. It’s not for everyone, and it goes directly against the accessibility Flume had garnered for himself a few years ago, but it’s different, fresh and it shows just how pioneering Harley Streten has become.
Freshness and difference is what kept Sydney Listen Out alive, and with the exception of Flume, it all came from rappers and hip-hop artists. While the divide between stage and mosh can feel ever expansive, these artists went out of their way to bridge the gap and make the crowd feel as special as possible. So, hip-hop festival cynics, and hip-hop cynics in general, can keep being snide if they want, but the hip-hop revolution is about to spread to our festivals and we suggest that everyone holds on tight.