The eighth annual Mad Decent Block Party kicked off this year in Atlanta on July 31st. Since its first run, Mad Decent has grown massively, this year hitting 18 cities across the US and Canada. Attendees at any given stop can see five to ten acts for around $50 admission. While I can’t comment about any subsequent Block Parties, Atlanta’s stop, in the backyard of the Masquerade was just decent.
For the sake of relative objectivity, I’ll do my best to separate my assessment of Mad Decent from my criticisms of the venue that housed it. While one of the town’s most beloved venues, the Masquerade in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward district has been the site of my most unpleasant concert-going experiences. Nothing hideous, just some experiences with disagreeable staff and their no-funny-business attitude to live music, at least compared with similar spots. (I should mention that midway through the event, while standing near the entrance, I witnessed a troubling encounter: A Masquerade bouncer forcibly inserted his hand into the breast pocket of a young girl to get a second look at her ID, groping her for several seconds in the process. A fellow staff member did nothing to intervene and actually laughed.) The current site of the Masquerade has been sold to developers, but according to a representative, the venue will continue booking into 2016 and remain in Atlanta. Anyway…
About half the acts on the tour are signed to the Mad Decent label, founded by producer Diplo, of Major Lazer fame, while the other half tag along for the ride — many are relatively unknown but a few are festival headliners, like Tyler, the Creator and T-Pain. Diplo has built his Philadelphia-based label (with many thanks to the Block Parties) into a roster of almost 100 signees, many outside the country. He’s also helped bring certain international styles into the EDM consciousness. The festival is living proof of the melting pot that is mainstream electronic and hip-hop music, incorporating tropes from the past and present styles of electro, moombahton, dancehall, dubstep, trap, etc., etc. Still, Mad Decent Block Party couldn’t exactly be described as a showcase of musical prowess or innovation. But that’s not the point.
One of most commendable aspects of EDM culture is its trendy brand of self-expression. Mad Decent Block Party’s a time for being mostly naked (if you want to) or wearing full-body spandex (if you want to), a time for dancing wildly without analysis of the music (if you want to) or just standing there, kinda rubbing your pelvis on an adjacent body (if you want to). It’s pretty easy to fit in at these of events as long as you’re not dressing or behaving like a normal human. And fans lack pretension about the music because the performers do not have pretensions about it — just about their self-image. Truly, these performers know when not to put the “art” in “party”.
Okay, okay, we get it. Musical composition is not the priority here. (Hopefully that explains why, halfway through a music festival review, there has yet to be any specific mention of the music.) But really, the grounds by which we should judge these kinds of events are in their ability to facilitate a bumpin’ dance party. So how did Mad Decent fare here? Well, dec— not bad. A popular philosophical grievance with outdoor EDM festivals often manifests as, “Fucking turn it up!” And while we shouldn’t fault the performers or engineers for the volume inadequacies—they weren’t the ones to sign the city ordinances—it’s hard to resist when you can carry on a normal conversation only twenty-five feet from the stage. One of EDM’s vital characteristics is the loudness, necessary to drown out the ecstasy-fueled, emotional gushing and incessant chanting of “ATL ho!” which can be heard at approximately every youth-attended Atlanta concert. (In enforcement of a new policy, Mad Decent now only admits those eighteen and older. Funnily enough, an impressive number of attendees looked to be exactly eighteen years of age.) Now, by Zeds Dead’s penultimate set, the levels ramped up, and by Major Lazer’s finale, things got plenty loud.
Despite the variety of musical influences Mad Decent brings to the table, I had a hard time identifying many redemptive moments. Torontonian Keys N Krates’ nondescript EDM provided minimal variation in tempo and energy level. Likewise for Amsterdam-based trio (or duo, in this case) Yellow Claw, whose most memorable moments were emcee Bizzey’s antagonisms of the crowd. (His repeated instructions for the audience to “jump, jump, jump” roused dusty clouds that left me blowing dirt out my nose for hours to come.) At one point, he commanded everyone to “get low”, calling out those who refused, asking if they “felt cool”, and another time, he paused the set to give the audience a lesson in dancing to 6/8 meter. I imagine only those with the uncanny ability to dance through condescension really enjoyed this set. Even renowned bass droppers Zeds Dead seemed to go easy on the bangers, but those with the greatest stage proximity might disagree. Overall, I sensed a general malaise about the crowd that I’m sure could have been remedied by more attention to the festival’s energy.
Some of the most effective moments of the earlier sets were when the performers evoked well-known samples. Notable instances were the sampling of “Seven Nation Army’s” legendary guitar line and the pitched-up “reaching for high” and heavy horn riff of TNGHT’s “Higher Ground”. At these moments, audience members would perk up and maybe begin twisting their hips more vigorously. Still, I can’t help but dismiss this tactic as somewhat cheap, especially as the samples were not used at all subtly and relied entirely on the anthemic effect achieved through audience recognition. These samples would loop in my head long after they ended on stage, which I suppose was the point.
By the time Major Lazer took the stage, darkness had finally set it. As easily the most bumpin’ set, it was worth the wait. The energy level benefited not only from adequate loudness but also from a smaller, denser, and more dedicated crowd. Plus, the inclusion of female dancers and Diplo traversing the crowd in a giant, inflatable ball certainly elevated the festival to new heights, even if through pure theatrics. But the biggest surprise, in light of the other acts, was the music. With their fiercer reggae- and house-influence brand of EDM, Major Lazer handily won over the expectant crowd. Although they sampled the impregnable “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy)” and even facilitated the infamous “ATL ho!” chant, they still put on the best Mad Decent set I’ve ever seen.