Winston Churchill once said, “If you're going through hell, keep going.” That quote is surprisingly applicable for a rap fan like me spending time at Coachella. You know, if you want to get all hyperbolic about it. The three day music festival in Indio, California has about 75,000 people there each day, meaning 225,000 through the weekend (Woodstock supposedly had nearly twice as many people). But it’s not just in California, it’s in the desert, so there’s sweltering heat during the day, cold winds at night, and sand everywhere—like on Saturday when heavy winds of sand nearly ruined Pharrell’s set. But ultimately, Coachella really ain’t shit if you’re a hardcore rap fan like I am.
Coachella doesn't quite have the nine circles of hell, but there are six stages. There’s the Coachella main stage and the Outdoor Theatre, the two biggest stages. The other four are set up like enormous tents and can still house thousands of people: the Gobi, the Mojave, the Sahara, and the Yuma. I’ve been to festivals like Rock The Bells and Governors Ball and know that you’re in for a long day of walking (extra socks on deck and Nike Roshes on my feet, bruh!), but hearing the music in the distance keeps you inspired to keep trekking along. When I first got to Coachella on Friday, I walked through the entrance and campgrounds and realized a startling fact: I was so far away that I couldn’t hear the music, not even in the distance. Lost in a sea of people like Odysseus, I was too far to hear the kind of Siren I wanted so desperately to crash into.
When I first got to Coachella on Friday, I walked through the entrance and campgrounds and realized a startling fact: I was so far away that I couldn’t hear the music, not even in the distance.
Things get worse. You’re not actually allowed to drink on the festival grounds, only in designated beer gardens and VIP areas. There’s also less people smoking weed than I’d expect at a festival aimed at rich kids in California (there’s still a lot of weed though). This does have the positive effect of keeping things from getting too rowdy.
But considering the heat, long distances between stages, and long lines you’ll have to wait on for food, drinks, or bathrooms, you can go the entire weekend drinking without ever getting drunk because you’re constantly working it off. So there’s the negative effect of things not getting rowdy at all. That might explain why when I left on Sunday, me and three other people I came with were discussing how none of us saw a single fight and only one person saw someone crowd surfing. Geez, these kids might be better at camping out than turning up.
I can't speak for those kids camping out, but for me as a fan of music, I’m always looking for sounds to draw me in. Anyone who comes to a place like Coachella has a list of acts they want to see. But while you're there, you inevitably end up catching sets you didn't plan on and missing ones you halfheartedly wanted to see. But that's the unexpected joy of attending music festivals— discovering a new artist through their live show.
We've all had that moment when you hear a song for the first time on the radio or in the club and reach for your Shazam wondering, "What is THAT?" That's a great joy of being a music lover; finding more to love. But that experience often ends in itself. You find out what the song is, ignore the 10,000 other songs on your mp3 player, and play it on loop the entire train ride. Discovering an artist on stage, on the other hand, lends itself to a different experience. You stand there captivated in the set, not just a song. When it's over, you go home on a quest to immerse yourself into a new artist.
Spending three days at Coachella, I found myself going to sets in the hopes of being open minded, but ultimately just because. Often times, I just tagged along with one of the other journalists who were in the same press trip group as me. The other journalists are what I like to call "casual" rap fans in that they like some rap, but don't care about hip-hop innately. For them it's just another color in their palette of their musical taste, not the palette itself. In other words, they wanted to stay for all of Arcade Fire's set but not OutKast's.
I couldn't help but wish that the guy in the Reflektor suit was actually Kanye in disguise ready to pull off the Margiela mask and perform "New Slaves" so I could actually get excited.
For what it's worth, I could certainly appreciate Arcade Fire's artistry even if I'm largely unfamiliar with their music (besides the awesome "Reflektor," which my old editor Dave Bry used to play in the office all that time). Their show was obviously well thought out and the kind of performance I wish more rappers would consider (except for when they got a little too self-serious for my tastes). However, I couldn't help but wish that the guy in the Reflektor suit was actually Kanye in disguise, ready to pull off the Margiela mask and perform "New Slaves" so I could actually get excited.
Their show was a bit of a relief though; Coachella fans had the same lack of energy during their set as they did during OutKast's. In fact, lead singer Win Butler taunted the crowd at one point saying they were acting too VIP. Admittedly, I would have rather been chilling in VIP than awkwardly doing dancing on grass, but alas. I guess I'm just like everyone else at Coachella: A poser.
Okay, maybe that was harsh. There were what appeared to be some hardcore fans, but most of them were EDM fans. That’s kinda what Krewella’s set on the Sahara stage was like, the deepest level of hell where endless shirtless bros gather to jump around and make me uncomfortable. It’s not that I can’t get with it EDM as an idea, I just can’t in practice because it becomes crunk without the disorderly. The people are energetic, but there’s no energy. Everyone is dancing but not together, their having a private dance party for them and their friends. A party I crashed wearing way too much clothing.
I had a better time enjoying music I know nothing about at the Sleigh Bells show at the Outdoor Theatre on Saturday. I figured I'd set up shop there since Pharrell was playing there after them. Sleigh Bells were impressive. Their blasting industrial sounds mixed with lead singer Alexis Krauss' melody went a long way for me. Plus, Krauss had some of the best stage presence I saw all weekend.
Sometimes, I'd be on my way to one set but pass by a stage that was playing something that drew me in. That's how I found myself listening to RL Grime. On my way to catch Lorde, hearing Meek Mill's voice was a sign of sweet relief. (Sidebar: I was kinda banking on Lorde failing and it becoming a talking point. Instead, she had a good set but didn’t have enough songs so she just slowly thanked everyone for supporting and inviting her to Coachella for 10 minutes straight. Smart move.) I was hoping RL Grime would be something I could finally turn up to. But it was a false start. Grime just seems to build up the moment forever but the beat never drops, the party never pops. It’s like an escalator to nowhere. If I wanted that I'd just listen to Z Money.
Neutral Milk Hotel
The worst case scenario was something like Neutral Milk Hotel who played the Outdoor Theatre on Sunday. I was headed there to see Blood Orange, who I missed completely, but one of the journalists on my press trip was repping for Neutral Milk. I kinda liked the folksy feel and that they told everyone to put away their cell phones before the show. But sorry, bro, you lost me when you started singing about Jesus. Yikes.
I left Neutral Milk halfway through to head towards the other side to get a good spot for Little Dragon. (They had a great performance but played too much new material that no one seemed to know. I’m a strict believer you should avoid doing new material on stage as much as possible, especially if you’re debuting it. Just play the hits man!) That’s when it happened. I could hear it clear as a whistle. It was AlunaGeorge rocking out on the Gobi stage doing a cover of Montell Jordan’s all time classic, “This Is How We Do It.”
There was I, captivated by music I never heard before, but wanted to hear all along.
Except their version was kind of better because it’s didn’t have Jordan’s clunky Slick Rick-imitating rap verses. I looked over and the party was indeed under way. There was I, captivated by music I never heard before, but wanted to hear all along. This is the added benefit of coming to a place like Coachella. They kept on as Aluna Francis’ luscious voice served as a friendly guide to an unfamiliar setlist.
Their expert live show won them a fan. As I carefully watched lead singer Aluna Francis, I saw she didn’t just have the voice and the moves, but the look too. She wasn’t sexy in the way Mya always was (and still is) or flawless like Beyoncé. No, kinda like Sade or even Alicia Keys, she was beautiful but in a subtle way. They said the devil would be handsome.
Insanul Ahmed is an Associate Editor for Complex. He swears he listens to more than just rap music. You can follow him on Twitter.