There was a moment during the Mad Decent Block Party that kind of summed the…
There was a moment during the Mad Decent Block Party that kind of summed the whole thing up. Diplo, Jillionaire and Walshy Fire, the trio of personalities that make up Major Lazer, were standing on the edge of the stage, none of them really manning the decks at all, wearing Springbok shirts while Diplo waved a South African flag the size of a house. ‘DO YOU LOVE THE SPRINGBOKS?’ he yelled to a slightly bemused crowd who roared back their approval nonetheless. The crowd, a refreshingly diverse one for an inner-city event, had yelled back to many other prompts from the DJs, who all doubled as full-on MCs, but at no other point was the strange, beautiful and sometimes awkward coming together of cultures more apparent than this: it was a truly 21st Century moment.
On its first venture outside of America, the Mad Decent Block Party showed in full display the reasons why it has been such a success in America. Starting in Philadelphia in 2008 with just a few hundred people, this Diplo-approved party series saw a gradual but massive expansion, going on to sell out in multiple cities around the States. And now, in 2014, it was time for the globe-trotting super-producer to export his latest product.
While Diplo’s rise to meteoric fame has been well-documented, the particular path he took is still notable for its strangeness. From becoming the underground darling of the indie world on the back of a couple of amazing collab albums with M.I.A., to a very public fall-out with her, to being the self-proclaimed ‘random white dude’ who’s everywhere, Diplo then seemingly shirked whatever ‘roots’ he might’ve claimed to embrace, endorse and blow up alongside trap music and twerking with a string of high-profile commercial collaborations to boot. Which is not to say he hasn’t lost any of the talent and savvy that precipitated this rise. The restrained production he utilized on Usher’s 2012 track ‘Climax’ caused that song to stay on the Billboard charts for 20 weeks, won both of them widespread critical acclaim (it was Pitchfork’s 3rd best song of that year) and propelled Usher right back into nu-RnB relevance.
All of which is to say that Diplo is one of the most unquantifiable forces in pop culture today. Much has been made of the fact that this is the first Block Party to occur outside of America, and the decision to bring it to South Africa first was brought into stark clarity when Diplo donned a shirt that read ‘Africa is the Future’. It’s a forward-thinking and typically savvy move, and Seed Experiences and Olmeca should be applauded for facilitating the entire thing.
The Cape Town leg of the event was held on the back-end of one of the most exciting weekends that the city has experienced in a long time. The Cape Town Electronic Music Festival had been ongoing that entire weekend and indeed the last day of that clashed with this event, as did the Kendrick Lamar concert. The confluence of all that made the many wishing to experience all of it unhappy, but it turned out to be a bizarrely happy coincidence.
While all involved might have expected a greater turn-out at this event than was enjoyed, the party ended up representing the solidification of something that was very visible the entire weekend. Cape Town itself has also lived through a strange trajectory, and while it might not yet enjoy such overwhelming global significance, many have suggested that right now all eyes are on the global most-South. The city has long held a reputation for being a place where people are too hip to have fun, too concerned with image to let loose. Lately, though, there has been a strong tide to suggest that things are moving in the opposite direction. Parties like After Hours have built their name around senseless fun and reckless abandon. That was seen throughout the weekend at CTEMF and was definitely on display at the Mad Decent Block Party.
The line-up certainly aided that, as every act who showed up brought the party straight to the receptive crowd. White Nite kicked things off at 2 o’clock in the unfortunate but inevitable first-slot where not enough people were around to appreciate what he had to offer. Towards the end of his set, though, the crowd started to arrive and were treated to a set grounded in hip-hop and trap. The Ruffest were next, an interesting and necessary inclusion and the only bona fide live act on the bill. Their kwaito set was the most misplaced genre-wise but still managed to fit seamlessly and their onstage presence was electrifying. Their collaboration with LV, ‘Uthando Lwaka’, in particular showed the, unexpected to some, crossover appeal of this act.
The first artist to play from the Mad Decent roster was Paul Devro, and though few if any in the audience had ever heard of him before, he was the first DJ to pull a properly sizeable crowd based purely off the strength of his trap-infused, Drake-heavy set. Das Kapital and Sibot started the steady progression to the party’s climax and both acts flexed their respective chops, with sets that highlighted the big-event experience that both of them have. While Sibot has been doing it for years, Das Kapital’s Kyle Brinkman has certainly shown if nothing else that he has learnt the ability to play to a massive crowd of any kind, feeding off their energy to in turn feed them what they want.
Flostradamus came after this, and he along with Dillon Francis after him started to coax the die-hard Mad Decent fans out of their shell. By this stage the crowd was warmed, the sun was setting and the atmosphere was rich with anticipation. Flostradamus’ set was more hip-hop heavy, while Dillon Francis played no less an eclectic set than anyone else on the night, though he was the only one to play mass-accessible EDM. The reaction, like it was to everything else that day, was entirely receptive. The biggest annoyance was the fact that between them, Paul Devro, and Major Lazer to follow, a number of songs, including Mad Decent hits ‘Bubble Butt’ and ‘Express Yourself’, were played at least three times. Though in all honesty, the response to the songs increased as the night went on, which perhaps serves as some justification.
And then it was time for Major Lazer to play. Given the facts already stipulated, that the set started with the opening song from the Lion King shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, and neither should the fact that barely a soul in attendance showed the first bit of hesitancy toward dancing to the build-up and the trap drop when it came. Two full hours of debauched crowd behaviour followed, prompted at every turn by the on-stage trio, who proved exactly why they’ve been so successful. While ‘Get Free’, their brilliant collaboration with The Dirty Projectors’ Amber Hoffman, was played sometime in the final third of their act, for the most part this wasn’t a set filled with their own music. In fact, musically, the set wasn’t very distinguished at all. But that didn’t matter a single bit to anyone. What Major Lazer brought was the most ‘turnt up’ performance imaginable, with crowd antics that included Diplo entering a hamster cage and running through the crowd and bringing a large group of women on stage to twerk. That latter moment did leave a sour taste in the mouth of a few, as the Major Lazer team threw money at the girls and generally excelled at objectifying them. There’s no excuse for this, and it did highlight one of the less savory parts of their entire shtick as a whole. While a certain brand of masculine craziness is definitely part and parcel of Diplo’s persona by now, it still left didn’t sit quite right with many who were just there to have a good time.
In spite of that one blip though, their set was a master class in entertainment. Only in the last third did the word ‘dancehall’, the supposed genre of the group, even get mentioned. ‘Township Funk’ and ‘Nkalakatha’ were played before a single Caribbean song, which more than anything else probably just means that they know their audience.
The Mad Decent Block Party was certainly one of the least conventional full-day events that has ever been thrown in this city, and was a welcome breath of fresh air. It was also fun, in the pure unbridled sense. Much credit must go to the organisers, Seed Experiences, for securing a beautiful spot in the inner-city and for putting on a watertight production, just like they always do. The evening was closed with Major Lazer shouting ‘Thank you, Cape Town, we’ll see you next year!’ If that is the case, then the Block Party has given itself a wonderful platform to build from. The party can certainly grow – they always can – but for a first effort this was about as good as it gets.