Interview: Trillectro Festival Founders Get D.C. Jumping for a Third Year

The founders of the DMV's rap restival want to keep things in the city.

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Complex Original

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D.C. is a little bit indie, a whole lot of funk, a go-go Mecca, and a tricky market for hip-hop. With rappers like Wale and Tabi Bonney breaking out of the local music scene in the latter ’00s, however, it’s about time for Washington to thrive as a music scene and talent pool. Fat Trel and Shy Glizzy are just the latest evidence of such a come-up for the DMV (the District plus neighboring Maryland and Virginia). 

Despite the D.C.’s historic insularity as a music scene, Trillectro Music Festival founders Modi Oyewole, Marcel Marshall, and Quinn Coleman are committed to keeping the annual, single-day, outdoor festival based in D.C. proper, even as other local concert organizers opt for larger, exurban venues like Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland, 25 miles north of the city.

Trillectro’s balance of hip-hop and EDM draws a young, restless, eclectic crowd. This past weekend’s headliners, Big Sean and Baauer, were joined by Migos, SZA, DJ and producer Lunice, and Travi$ Scott, whose evening sets inspired cheers louder than you'll hear at most Nats games down at Navy Yard. Last year’s Trillectro exceeded both expectations and capacity, to the point that hundreds of ticket holders struggled to even clear the gate of the Half Street Fairgrounds at the Anacostia riverfront. This year, Trillectro’s organizers staked out the RFK Fairgrounds, the city’s biggest campground, a quarter mile downhill from RFK Stadium, with plenty of room for all attendees to wander among food trucks and hookah tents. Growing pains be damned.

With late-night surprise guests like Scott and hometown conquerors like Fat Trel and Tabi Bonney, Trillectro has mastered the Rolodex. The major label guests delivered, and the crowd braved the afternoon with minimal bitching. Gray​ sky aside, Oyewole and Marshall insist this third time was the charm.

How did you feel about using the RFK Fairgrounds this time around, given the change from last year?

Marcel Marshall: Whenever you enter a new space, there are logistical hurdles you overcome. Coming from our background, we’re very in tune with the culture. That’s our forte. We know artists very well, we know music. Maybe the part that we’re not as familiar with is the logistics, how to throw a concert, that whole side. Working with a venue that knows how to process people is a benefit, but there’s still a gap where you have to figure out how this knowledge of culture and this knowledge of logistics come together.

Modi Oyewole: Talking to people, it sounded like this was a big improvement on last year. Logistically, we were a lot tighter. I don’t want to speak on last year’s problems, but I think we improved a lot.


From start to last night, how many months did it take to pull this year’s festival together?

Marshall: Immediately following last year’s Trillectro, we knew that we had to change venues; we had outgrown the space that we were in. Then we had a period where we were looking at what was possible, knowing that we didn't want to leave the city—

Oyewole: That’s a big thing for us. We don’t want to leave D.C. All the festivals happen at Merriweather [in Maryland], they happen outside of D.C. We want to make this D.C.’s festival.

They canceled Virgin FreeFest this year, right?

Oyewole: Yep, at Merriweather. Life and Color used to be in D.C., now it’s at Merriweather. A lot of things are moving out there because it’s a bigger space. But it’s harder for people to get there because there’s no metro.

Marshall: That’s a goal for us, to keep this thing in D.C., and keep it something that’s for D.C. and about D.C. We don’t want to move it out, so that takes away a lot of venue options. Finding the right space took a little while. RFK is a venue that’s operated by the city, so negotiating and figuring out how that would actually work takes a long time. We finally got that venue finished by the end of May, beginning of June—

Oyewole: Which is late. Super-late. Then you only have so much time to book talent, and by the time that talent is booked, they’re going on tours to Europe, they’re on their own tours; and that really limits your talent pool.

Marshall: We had to get creative. I think we did a pretty good job of putting together a solid lineup of music that we really care about and like. Everyone on the bill, we can make a case for. We’ve heard it, we listen to it, we’re a part of the culture, we’ve seen it. It’s not just a hype thing; we know who has great music.

We announced the festival on June 18th, and then released the lineup on July 2nd. That’s less than two months out from the actual d-day. We’ve never really gotten a full run at Trillectro; a full year where we get to look at this and plan our sponsors. It’s always been us figuring it out with not necessarily the full amount of time, but we’ve had a lot of good help from a lot of different people, sponsors, partners, mentors. If you come to one of our team meetings, it almost feels like a family event. We’re just all in it together. There’s so many people who come just to help. We figure it out together. Very down-home.

Oyewole: Very homegrown. It’s DIY. Getting larger, so it’s less DIY, but we’re still running everything. It’s independent.

Looking back at 2012, the first year of Trillectro, did you guys think you’d still be doing this in 2014?

Marshall: I don’t think we even expected to be doing the first one.

Oyewole: Exactly. We just had a moment. We went to Coachella [in 2011], we saw how they did things, and then it was just a vision. We put it into writing and put all our resources together, spoke to everybody that we knew, locked down a venue, brought on partners, sponsors, used our network to lock all of that stuff down. After [the first year], I think a lot of people in the city just saw where we were going, and that gave us more confidence moving forward.

We put the first one together in three or four months. Started end of April, happened Aug. 12th and 13th. It was bare bones, it was nothing like the production you were at yesterday. The stages have been getting bigger every year.

You all live outside of D.C. at this point, but you’re committed to this being a D.C. festival. What in your mind makes Trillectro a definitively D.C. music festival?

Oyewole: First year, we wanted to show that D.C. had this culture. The first show we did was Kendrick Lamar. Happened at 9:30 Club. Before that, a lot of artists used to skip D.C. You used to see the New York show, you never saw a D.C. show. So one of our goals was to make sure that artists wouldn’t skip D.C. anymore.

And Trillectro’s also an opportunity for these national and local artists to share the same stage. A lot of these artists that are D.C. talent, they’re like, “Wow, I’m on the same stage as ScHoolboy Q, and I’ve got an audience; people are watching and learning about me.”

I think this year was a good look for Fat Trel.

Oyewole: A lot of people texted me like, “I think he’s about to blow up.” They’d never seen him. A lot of people hadn’t even heard of him. That’s what we do. We’re like SoundCloud A&Rs. Someone like Makonnen, who we thought was gonna pop up as a surprise guest but didn’t make it, but somebody like that we’ve been hip to for a minute, watching when he had like 308 views on his YouTube videos. Being a part of the culture enables us to call shots like that, before those artists “happen.”

Was Tabi Bonney in the previous years? How did he get involved with the festival this year? I was surprised.

Oyewole: He wasn’t on the setlist.

Marshall: He’s just a hometown guy. He was actually billed the first year.

Oyewole: He’s sort of a mentor figure, as one of the few people out D.C. that have made it outside of D.C. There’s Wale, Tabi, and now Logic. But not a lot. Wale called yesterday just to wish us good luck. And that’s cool. He didn’t want anything, just, “Good luck, I know y’all got a big day today.” Wale and Tabi are mentor figures.

I think it’s important to speak on teamwork. Living across the country has got its pluses and minuses. Having these guys in L.A. means they’re able to see what’s going on in the industry a little closer. That’s why [Marcel and Quinn] moved out there, right?

Marshall: For sure. Being on the ground, there’s all these artists and so many agents that are in L.A. Artists are having their release parties there. You can hear it live and have a sense of what’s all gonna feel like. You either have to be in L.A or new York to really do that, on the ground, and it’s all been about taking what we’ve seen in these places and bringing it back here. Whether we’re in New York, or Portland, or L.A., the goal is to bring it all back to D.C.

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