As my radio friends and I drove to downtown Raleigh from our suburban Airbnb for the beginning of Hopscotch Music Festival, I crassly joked, “It’s like I have always said, Raleigh is the Portland of the South.” After a swift discussion it was concluded that Asheville is indeed the “Portland of the South,” so I revised my claim: “Raleigh/Durham–it is the Twin Cities of the South!” and nobody refuted me, so we moved on for a while. Over the course of the weekend, however, I managed to compare Raleigh to everywhere from Berlin to Seattle. The punchline of the joke was my ignorance–I had never been to Raleigh, so of course could not speak of its resemblance to any city in any kind of informed manner. But I found that my joke was actually drawing a parallel to what makes Hopscotch so great. The festival features a broad range of artists and genres, and also showcases often overlooked talent, just as Raleigh may often be overlooked (…or haphazardly compared to other cities). Raleigh need not be the “Portland of the South,” it is great in its own way.
We made it from press check-in to the Red Hat Amphitheater to see Busdriver, a veteran Los Angeles based rapper who was slotted to play the main stage of the festival at 5:20 p.m. While I had never listened to Busdriver, the stage name of Regan Farquhar, I assumed that the venue would already be fairly crowded–especially since Run the Jewels was playing the same stage within the next couple of hours. However, only a scattering of people lined the front of the stage to see Busdriver’s inspired, stellar performance. He rapped with unmatched vocal agility, providing those in attendance with a constant stream of energy, and owning the stage as if he were performing for a sold out crowd. All the while he functioned as his own DJ, mixing and manipulating beats on a whim, often rapping while toying with his electronics. On top of that, he artfully sampled segments of free jazz and a Bach flute concerto, which surprisingly felt natural over a bass driven beat. Busdriver addressed the crowd periodically, and suggested something along the lines of “if you don’t know me, then you don’t really know rap.” Of course, many rappers have made such boastful claims before, but the statement made me start thinking that Busdriver, performing in front of no more than 100 people, could very well be rap’s best kept secret.
The notion that Hopscotch possessed some of contemporary music’s “best kept secrets” permeated the rest of my festival experience. Following Busdriver, I saw the Make-Up perform in Raleigh’s City Plaza. The Make-Up are a heavily post-punk influenced band that formed in 1995 in Washington D.C. Their sound may seem familiar to those who are versed in the punk influenced underground of the late 20th century, but their music too has largely been kept secret, especially in the sense that physical copies are very difficult to come by, and streamable content is entirely impossible. While these gestures may speak to the pride they have in their recordings, one could argue that it has affected their audience, especially in the digital age. However their performance was extraordinarily fun, particularly for a band who desired to form a cult following in a very literal sense that was rooted in communist principles. Ian Svenonius, the lead singer, spent the majority of the show in the crowd (as opposed to on stage with his backing band), and every member of the Make-Up wore matching shimmering pink suits. Svenonius’ carefree attitude was reminiscent of the stereotypical 1970’s rock n’ roll star, making him practically a caricature of himself, and even conjuring up memories of Nigel from “This is Spinal Tap.”
Following the Make-Up I headed to the Pour House, where the North Carolina-based band Mourning Cloak filled the darkened, red-lit bar with droning, funereal doom metal that felt like an eerie descent into Pandemonium. Following this impressive opening was King Woman, who released one of my favorite albums the year, Created in the Image of Suffering. Unlike the aforementioned artists, King Woman has been on my musical radar for a few months now, yet they still feel like a hidden gem that has not received the full amount of publicity or praise that they are due. However, the music journalism behemoth Pitchfork mentioned Created in the Image of Suffering on their most overlooked albums of the year list (so far), so I assume I am not alone on this opinion of King Woman’s lack of critical acclaim or even attention. Their set transformed the venue (a drearily lit bar serving mostly local craft beer) into a space where Kristina Esfandiari howled and moaned over walls of distorted guitars and feedback, interspersed with samples of the chant “created in the image of suffering.” The beauty of King Woman is their combination of elements of shoegaze and doom metal, and as a result, their ability to potentially appeal to anyone who can appreciate artful textures of noise and heavily effected guitars. King Woman’s full potential for power, both sonic and emotional, was on full display at Hopscotch.
The next day, we checked out a “day party,” a recurring event at Hopscotch this year, at the “Art of Style,” a hip downtown boutique where “the most colorful people wear all black,” as a sign in the shop pointed out. Over the course of the afternoon, various local electronic artists, most of whom were also on the festival’s lineup, performed in shop. Kendall Cahan, product of Boone, North Carolina, was the highlight of the featured artists, delivering a minimal techno set that blended the thumping bass characteristic of EDM/IDM, while incorporating mid-range drones and samples (Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” was featured towards the end) that are more in line with ambient/drone electronic music. Naturally, Cahan’s set prompted me to say, “It’s like I have always said! Raleigh is the Berlin of the South.” As we learned at the day party, North Carolina has a thriving underground electronic music scene that features artists like Kendall Cahan and Blursome, a Hopscotch veteran who lives and works in Raleigh. These kinds of artists are supported by their respective communities, as I saw at the Art of Style, but for the most part it would seem that their music is confined to the niche corners of the SoundCloud community.
It is certainly worth noting that Hopscotch does feature a decent number of heavy hitting headliners that appeal to the masses more than the lineup’s best kept secrets. This year, Solange, Big Boi (of Outkast), Future Islands and Angel Olsen (both of North Carolina) all performed in addition to the more obscure talent. But even still, Hopscotch’s lineup feels like a more thorough survey of what is happening in contemporary music in comparison to other festivals, who perhaps tend to book as many headliners as financially possible. While this business model is understandable and equally satisfying in its own right, Hopscotch, and the city of Raleigh as a whole, provides a great space to explore new and unrealized talent alongside several established artists as well. Going all the way back to my hackneyed joke that Raleigh is the (Portland, Berlin, Twin Cities) of the south–it makes total sense that this was able to be said throughout the course of the festival. Hopscotch is a synthesis of the strengths of other cities’ music scenes, seamlessly producing a diverse lineup that allows attendees to see and discover music’s best kept secrets.