By: Natty Morrison
Ever since the inaugural Rothbury festival in 2008, there has been something magical about partying down electronic style in the tall, lush forests of Michigan. Perhaps it’s the winds coming from Lake Michigan; perhaps it’s the crucial shade found in the tall pine trees; or maybe it has something to do with Tim “The Toolman” Taylor. At any rate, the Mitten State has proved to be ample grounds for music lovers looking to have a good time. This year’s StereoTerra looked to follow in the grand tradition of festivals like Rothbury and the Electric Forrest Festival. And boy, did it ever deliver. StereoTerra was essentially a dream come true for any fan of IDM, Bass and Beat Music, with massive headliners such as RJD2
, Michal Menert
and Bad Buka. But the festival was also host to Michigan home-bodies like Shadow Attack
, Freddy Todd
, Ty Beat
, and MuzzY
. It’s all the more impressive when you consider this was their very first year.
First year festivals are usually pretty hit or miss. So much goes into running an event and it becomes inevitable that some things will be overlooked. This was not the case in at StereoTerra. Though there were no more than 1,000 people at the inaugural celebration of Michigan’s next great music festival, the infrastructure alone was something I wouldn’t have dreamed of when I decided to head up for the show. Mojo Films, half of the partnership responsible for the festival, did an amazing job building the stage, a sturdy, 15 foot high stage with heavy-duty scaffolding and a massive soundsystem. This was a major festival-grade stage that made the audience feel like they’d stumbled upon their own, private Bonnaroo. And Curated Music, the second half of StereoTerra, did an amazing job booking a plethora of acts from across the electronic and beat music spectrum. It felt, in some ways, like the early years of heavy hitting festivals like Summer Camp or Camp Bisco. Within moments of arrival, I knew I was witnessing something special.
Though I’ve been to festivals with K@dog, I’d yet to have the pleasure of catching one of his sets. The breezy Saturday afternoon weather seemed to be the perfect backdrop for his intensely mellow production. Though K@dog (aka Grant Jackson) works heavily in dubstep, he leaves the heavy out in favor of a much more subdued take on the genre. Though his drum sounds are crisp and snappy of the West Coast bass variety, his use of the low end draws much more from the UK aesthetic. In the heart of his set, I took a moment to appreciate the setting sun behind him; I watched the sunlight trickle in through the mesh over hanging the back stage, while Jackson cued up a gorgeous horn section over a garage/two-step beat, and a smile crept across my face. I’ll never tire of the pleasant surprises a festival line-up can bring, especially when they sound this good. Though a time-slot change caused many fans to miss his set, a hearty crowd had gathered in time for Jackson to play a brand new song as his closer. The tune was decidedly his most aggressive, with a stutter-stop bass line that he used to build the track to a thunderous peak, but still never slipped over into the over-concentrated pool of so-called brostep music.
Though I had been obsessing over the opportunity to see RJD2, I was getting more and more excited to see many of the Deepblip
label mates over the course of the weekend. Having had the chance to relax with the guys Friday night, it had become easy for me to forget that the same guys with whom I was sipping ice cold beer and compulsively eating Reuben sandwiches from the Chow Truck were the same guys I had been non-stop listening to for the past 6 months. So it caught me completely off-guard when I made my way over to the Grassroots Dome for the set of Mr. Mike Sabatini – Jaws That Bite – Saturday afternoon. What I saw completely blew me away. Jaws That Bite is, simply put, a symphony of noise. His drowsy beats, when juxtaposed next to his high octane controller attack, create a simultaneous anxiety and sedation in the listener, like chasing Redbulls with cough syrup. His fluttery vocal samples get rapidly chopped up, hearkening to artists like Four Tet or Burial. When he’s remixing rappers’ verses, he likes to use his Weezy-style bass drum drops to accentuate significant lines. Or, maybe the lines are only significant BECAUSE he accentuates them. In any case, watching Jaws That Bite is watching a master at his work.
Immediately following Jaws That Bite was his fellow Deepblip-er Shadow Attack. Out of the entire Deepblip roster, Shadow Attack (Jeremy Judkins) has logged the most time played on my iPod. His set from Detroit that he released this summer has logged close to 500 plays on my Soundcloud account, and I’ve been praising the guy’s name to anyone who would – or wouldn’t – listen. Though the switchover between Jaws that Bite and Shadow Attack had some brief technical difficulties, it became abundantly clear when Judkins’ set had officially began. The first thing I noticed was a perceived conflict; Judkins’ boysish good charm is in direct conflict with the aggression his music boasts. But this isn’t the typical agro, brostep aggression EDM has grown used to. Rather, this is aggression with swagger, like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. His music is simultaneously psychedelic and instantly engaging. At times, it sounds like an abstract noise composition; there are elements of randomness, but it always seems to be served with overtones of pure intent. If you squint just right, he almost looks like an incarnation of John Cage in the electronic age. He pushes his audiences’ boundaries of patience and dancing, but all the while staying locked into the groove, whatever groove that may be.
ill.so.naj put on the dance party set of the afternoon. In many ways, ill.so.naj’s music is the closest to pure hip-hop beats on the whole Deepblip label. He keeps his drum beats locked into the head-nod variety, while his shimmery synth sounds are always met with an overwhelming sense of calm and fluidity. My first thought as he began his set was, “This is like trap music, without any of the failed clichés.” But I was wrong. It’s not even trap, it is its own woozy, warped take on hip-hop. He’s also one of the label’s closest Dilla incarnations; his beats are simply begging to be rhymed over. Musically and melodically, it’s full of shiny sounds, tainted with plenty of grime, like looking at your reflection in a dirty pond. The possibilities, here, are endless.
It deserves to be noted that all three of these monumental sets, I caught them all at the Grassroots Dome. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to see the Dome, it’s a large, geodesic dome that doubles as a vendor booth for Grassroots’ fabulous array of hats, AND as its own, self-contained stage. At every festival Grassroots travels to (which is essentially every festival there is) the GRC crew selects some of their favorite DJs to come play sets all afternoon, and well into the evening. The beauty of this, from a purely festival-runner’s standpoint, is that by having Grassroots at your event you not only increase a level of commerce inside the festival grounds, but you also get a free side stage. The company supplies its own sound, its own artist line-up; all it requires from you is the space to let them set up. And for a festival like StereoTerra, which only had one true stage this year, the benefits of having Grassroots set up shop at your show seems like a total slam dunk.
The true highlight of the weekend, of course, came in the form of six turntable decks and one thin man of average height named Ramble John “RJ” Krohn. RJD2, a man whose influence on beat music, beat culture, hip-hop, and turntablism cannot be overstated, was far and away the most impressive set of the weekend. Throughout the festival I had been talking with friends, acquaintances, strangers and random festy goers about the fear I see in the eyes of so many DJs. There is a real, palpable fear among so many electronic acts I see to play exactly what the crowd expects of them, to never stray away from a specific genre or sound. Dubstep acts play dubstep; electro guys play electro; house DJs…well they don’t really exist anymore, but if they did they’d be playing strictly house. So it’s insanely refreshing to see someone like RJD2 completely unafraid to play not only all original tracks, but to take so many risks during his set. In the middle of his set he began looping a menacing guitar riff, turning a Black Sabbath-esque breakdown into a fractured breakbeat. And then he launched into “Ghostwriter.” And then I lost my mind. My reaction to him playing this song was the same of a young tween getting a glimpse at Bieber backstage: Extremely loud, with a lot of “OHMYGOD” and screaming, all at an octave level way beyond my usual capabilities. When a festival is able to lock down a name like RJD2 in its first year, not only do I know it’s got the capability to become a legitimate festival, but it tells me the heart of the festival is in the best place. It’s simply astonishing that a first-year festival could accomplish this much, this early, and because of that, StereoTerra will be a force to reckon with in the years to come.