In March 2013, Kendrick Lamar
— on the heels of his masterful 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City
— presided over a massive outdoor crowd at Mardi Gras World in New Orleans as the closing act of that year’s Buku Music + Art Project
. It was the festival’s second year, and its headliner couldn’t have performed at a better time. Lamar, who released To Pimp a Butterfly
this week, would go on to receive four Grammy Award nominations, including album of the year.
Among the hip-hop heavyweights at this year’s Buku was Run The Jewels
, who packed an indoor ballroom with its relentless, breathless raps that have earned the duo unanimous critical acclaim. Killer Mike and El-P performed a near non-stop 45-minute slot blasting through 2014’s monumental Run The Jewels 2
and its self-titled debut, pausing only to hit a blunt from the crowd or smash the Ferguson, Missouri police.
The following day, on the same stage, the Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah
(backed by his impressively in-the-pocket hip-hop-influenced jazz outfit BadBadNotGood
) casually and ferociously roared through Wu-Tang classics to another packed house, even inviting a few anxious fans to rap verses from “Protect Ya Neck.”
Buku just wrapped its fourth year. Its crowd is always overwhelmingly young (bullseye-hitting the 18-24 year old demographic), and its lineup taps exclusively into hip-hop, electronic dance music, and their approved indie rock counterparts. (Last year was The Flaming Lips, this year was TV on the Radio.) And it works — the festival bridges New Orleans’ underground electronic scene with a network of acclaimed touring artists that otherwise don’t touch down in the South enough or even at all. The crowds are having the best time of their lives (or so I have been told, several times — while standing alone typing into my phone — by day-glo-covered, crisp snapback-wearing self-described #bukreatures).
But Buku is not the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. There hasn’t been a mayoral proclamation or tourism board welcome wagon rolling out the red carpet for A$AP Rocky. It’s not even the Voodoo Experience, where New Orleanians have reluctantly accepted that festival’s not-so-subtle Skrillex Mecca.
Instead, you hear jokes about teenagers listening to dubstep, dressing in rave outfits, and generally having bad taste — presumably until they snap out of it and, the assumption is, start doing the things “they” approve. Local media's preview coverage is nowhere close to the amount of ink spilled on Jazz Fest or Voodoo or Essence Festival. Armchair critics laugh at the lineup, full of unpronounceable or intentionally misspelled names and wish for when music “mattered.”
Incidentally, on Butterfly
’s “Hood Politics,” Lamar raps, “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rappin’ / Motherfucker if you did, then Killer Mike'd be platinum.”
So how long before Buku gets to sit at the big kid’s table?
I’m admittedly not interested in a bulk of Buku’s lineup, but that isn’t stopping thousands of people from rushing the stage to get as close to it as possible.
Following crucial rap duo Run The Jewels, an anarchic A$AP Rocky
and a throng of A$AP affiliates aggressively pounced the main outdoor Power Plant stage sending the crowd into a frenzy. (Oddly enough, it’s the second time “Fuckin’ Problems” has been performed at Buku, following Kendrick Lamar’s performance in 2013.)
Kicking off Saturday’s bill was Sweet Crude
’s dynamic pop, followed by In the Valley Bellow
’s slick, suspender-wearing take on Sleigh Bells’ big bang. Nineteen-year-old bedroom producer-turned-festival heavy XXYYXX
blended dreamy, surreal beats into Drake’s “Know Yourself.” Zella Day
’s Instagram-filtered, Los Angeles-styled melancholic pop segued into her club-ready anthem “Hypnotic.”
The fresh-faced Canadian crew of BadBadNotGood beamed as they laid into deeply thick funk and soul riffs to back Ghostface’s casual stroll through his catalog as well as the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Cream” and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” (and, briefly, Ghost’s take on Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”). The band’s backing track role on Ghostface’s Sour Soul
was brought to life on the Buku stage.
DJ Windows ‘98
— aka Arcade Fire’s Win Butler — layered simmering Haitian and African drum beats with a live drum ensemble (including Arcade Fire partner Regine Chassagne). The crew also stomped through “Iko Iko” and paired Beck with Kanye, and brought out New York MC Young Paris who paraded around Butler’s equipment and the drum trio.
Twitter lord Lil B
followed with his sweat-soaked ode to the shoutout — to Lil Wayne, Birdman, Cash Money Records, Mia X, the triggerman beat, among others. “Hands up if y’all love being alive,” he screamed, followed by proclamations of love to everyone and everything.
Elsewhere, along the Mississippi River at the Back Alley stage and inside the dim Float Den, crowds were enveloped by bass-heavy depth charges flying from every direction.
It was a surreal, colorful and defiantly loud weekend. Will next year's fifth anniversary change the city's tune? Maybe. Buku is unapologetically young (and not cheap). My generation's Buku was the punk rock Disney World of Warped Tour, which stopped only once in New Orleans (Kenner) in 2001. It was poorly attended, hot as hell on outdoor asphalt, and it never came back. It also was all-ages, something Buku is not. Young New Orleans-based post-Katrina "hip" festivals have come and gone in New Orleans — Foburg Fest, Project 30-90 — but Buku has survived. It sells out of tickets well before the gates open. It's only a matter of time and predicting audience interest before it becomes the unavoidable younger cousin of the old line of New Orleans music festivals.