And no, it’s not as simple as “hip hop is dead,” because it’s not.
If you’re plugged in to what’s going down at Coachella, you’ve no doubt heard by now that one of the most illustrious hip hop acts of all time suffered a disastrous reunion set in California on Friday night, to the point where Andre 3000 asked the lackluster crowd mid-performance, “are y’all still here?” As the set progressed, people streamed out of the crowd and the supposed climax of “Hey Ya!” went over with the intensity of a poorly faked orgasm. Well, this got off to an awkward start…I guess appropriately so. There’s no other way to describe a legendary reunion show being met with such malaise.
Fifteen years ago when lyrics-based hip hop ran the popular music scene, a Coachella audience would go crazy for a show like this. Live hip hop was the most exciting game in town, and your average festival-attendee would have a more personal connection with the act on stage. They were more likely to buy their ticket not with a “music festival experience” in mind, but with particular artists in mind. With the advent of the modern music festival, driven by dance music, this sentiment has shifted dramatically.
A large portion of your average, mainstream festival-goer of 2014 heads out their front door with a different expectation than their counterparts in the past. Festivals today with any sort of electronic tilt have implicitly promised stratospheric production values, insane light shows, and flawless control of crowd energy: in summary, an opportunity to lose your fucking mind. You can plop down hundreds of dollars without knowing a single artist and still know you’re going to have a blast. The needle has slowly shifted away from “music,” towards “party.”
That’s okay. We all like to party and dance around. But now a great deal of people that come out to festivals have an expectation of immediately accessible music. You could have wandered into Dillon Francis’s Coachella set without knowing a single song and absolutely loved it. EDM, in a live setting, has a way of being instantly entertaining – and here’s the kicker – in a way lyrical, 90s-style hip hop really has no chance at matching. When you’re accustomed to thousands of perfectly synced strobe lights and the energy-building peaks and valleys of a common electronic dance music set, suddenly, watching a guy pace back and forth on stage uttering halfway-audible lines isn’t as entertaining anymore.
So when Outkast took the stage, and began performing Outkast songs, with no dramatic flourishes or fireworks displays, the crowd almost seemed puzzled. A song that should be easy to sing along with, “ATLiens” for example, barely got a vocal reaction from the crowd. Wave your hands in the air, that simple command they could understand. But calling out one of the quintessential hooks of the 90s? Not happening, because most of the crowd didn’t know it already. What we saw in full force Friday night was a generational disconnect, mixed with a mismatch of expectations. To be fair, not a single person could be expected to go berserk for “Aquemini” if they were hearing it for the first time at a concert. If you’ve been bumping that album for a decade and know every word, you’d be loving it – but that type of person is increasingly becoming an endangered species at massive festivals.
When Andre asked “Coachella are you tired?” it was indicative of the fact that most of the crowd had no idea what was going on. Having no idea what’s going on works just fine at most popular EDM performances – that’ll soon be remedied by a catchy melody, easy-to-follow chorus, or blast of bass – but at a hip hop show it’s fatal. Lulls between hit songs used to be tolerable, because A) it was expected to happen, and B) the crowd would be stocked with fans who knew every song anyway. But now the percentage of people like that has been diluted, and perhaps most critically, everyone is conditioned to that time between hit songs being filled with, well, more hit songs, often from other artists.
Which is why many forms of music outside of the electronic sphere now just can’t hang with even a GTA or a Deniz Koyu at a major festival. The bar for energy and excitement has been set too high, and the mainstream interest at attending music festivals, driven by the proliferation of EDM mega-fests, has brought in a wide swath of people who simply aren’t what readers of a site like this would consider music fans. Everyone, from the most intense fan who listens to full albums on the day of release, to the casual listener whose only source of music is the FM dial in their car, can have a great time at a big EDM show. Toss that same wide cross-section of people in front of Outkast performing “Spottieottiedopaliscious?” You get the artist exclaiming, “I feel like I’m here by my goddamn self.” Can you even imagine a DJ at Coachella having to say that?
It’s a new era for live music, and acts that aren’t going to be bringing the requisite amount of energy to please a crowd filled with thousands of casual fans need to consider their audiences more carefully now than ever before. You can’t expect someone who just staggered away from getting their brain rearranged at an explosive, confetti-filled Zedd performance is going to respond in any meaningful way to lyrical hip hop, unless they’re already a fan. It’s sad in a way, that a duo with such a storied career can no longer sufficiently entertain a large festival audience - but all is not lost. It’s a matter of “picking your spot,” and I can say with complete confidence that Outkast, or any of their contemporaries from the bygone golden era of hip hop, can still rock a crowd of thousands. Just not at a mainstream festival anymore.
Check out the set below: