If you’ve ever been to Detroit’s Movement festival, you probably know that the Red Bull stage is somewhat of an anomaly. The far corner of the festival is reserved for acts that don’t fit the conventional bill, some with loose ties to house music, and others that leave techno diehards cringing at their inclusion. Personally I’ve always appreciated a break from the ever-present kick that enters your brain and stays for days or weeks after the festival, so it was a pleasure to review some of the highlights from the Red Bull Music Academy stage at Movement 2017.
The first assignment of the weekend came on Saturday night at 11pm, when most fans were flocking to Main Stage to pay tribute to their techno deity, Sir Richard Hawtin. After a full day of dancing, I was snapped to attention by the fact that I had to control my fandom and actually think about stuff so I could write a decent review. I had my phone out to take notes, which likely made everyone around me think I had better places to be, but on the contrary it was one of the best rap sets I’d ever seen. I’m still not quite sure why.
Earl’s demeanor was playfully cynical. He began by instructing the crowd that they were only allowed to Milly Rock during his set. His first song, “Burgundy,” begins with an intro where Earl plays the role of an outsider commenting on his emotions, casting his battles with depression in a negative light as he brazenly tells himself to brush it off. This type of lucid self-deprecation continued through the set, carrying a tone that was at once inviting and stand-offish.
The play between rapper and DJ was a highlight. Knxwledge didn’t say much but he let his mixes do the talking, coming up with unexpected drops in between songs that ranged from throwback soul tracks to rap and beyond. Every time he did it Earl seemed surprised, looking at the crowd like “You see this dude? What is with him?” It’s hard to say how much of it they’d rehearsed, but the banter flowed naturally and made the crowd feel like they were in on the joke. Knxwledge was like the goofy co-host, hinting at thoughts of sabotage despite laying down a notably crisp sonic backdrop.
Then, a few songs in, they did “20 Wave Caps.” Like what the fuck. I’m biased but that beat is sinister, and Earl did both verses himself. That’s when I knew the set was something special. I’d seen him a few times before but that song was a hidden gem I didn’t expect to hear, one of my favorites by far. He proceeded to run through songs from Doris and I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, leaving behind cuts from his earlier projects and mixtapes for the most part.
I was impressed by the way he carried himself; wearing his struggles like a suede jacket fresh from the cleaners. You could almost feel a sense of pride in his darkness, not so much to be thankful for it, but enough to wear it on his chest rather than upon his shoulders. His delivery at the show was notably different from recorded versions of the songs. This was very much a “rap show” as he continually insisted, and by wrapping these melancholy ballads in bravado he owned them in a way that gave weight to the words.
The set played like an answer to the questions posed in “Burgundy”’s intro, punctuated with reminders that he owed it to no one. Even at his most vulnerable he never fully relinquished his authority. That is, until a fan’s enthusiastic Milly Rock of gratitude moved him to leave the crowd on a high note, with one last toothy smile.
I thought my ears were deceiving me as I heard “everybody wants to be a cat.” I’d have to think more before decided about that particular line, but I found some of the others to be soundly relevant on that Sunday afternoon. “Sitting in the sun / letting the rains wash over me,” was an apt description of the weekend’s weather. The first line after the meowing intro, “I wish I had nine lives,” also struck a chord with me. After days and nights of music, and a morning visit to the Old Miami, I was feeling drained and would’ve enjoyed a feline snooze.
I won’t claim to be a Thundercat superfan, but I’ve always kept tabs on his music and I was looking forward to his set that afternoon. As I said before, the Red Bull stage often acts as a reprieve of sorts from the heavy techno heartbeat pulsing through the city during Movement, and in this way Thundercat’s set was both relaxing and exhilarating. At times the music would fall into grooves that felt comfortable and familiar, while other times Thundercat’s virtuosic prowess on the bass was dizzyingly complex. Even during those spurts of jagged melodics, however, his voice offered more sustained notes that worked to smooth the overall sonic offering, giving each song a sort of cohesion that made the density more accessible.
Thundercat is the type of guy that has spent countless hours alone in his room harnessing the power of his instrument, which he seems to address several times on his latest album Drunk. His interactions with the crowd were awkward and sincere, consisting of indiscernible noises and thank you’s delivered in odd voices. I’m sure his fans loved it, I know I did. If I didn’t like weird stuff I imagine I would’ve been turned off after hearing “Tron Song” for the first time, which is the first song I heard by him and to this day is a favorite. My casual fandom was satiated as soon as he crooned “Don’t you ever leave me turbotron,” so the rest of the show felt like dessert after a good meal.
In the final moments of his set, Thundercat offered up what was perhaps the most relevant song he played for the crowd that weekend. It’s no secret that Movement attendees know how to party, and by the time Sunday rolls around many people are feeling it. But in true raver fashion, everyone yanks up their neon bootstraps on Sunday morning (read: afternoon) to finish off strong, and Thundercat offered an afternoon pep talk that surely helped me get through the rest of that day. “…and I don’t know where the bathroom is / my friends are saying ‘you should eat something’ / But I’m not hungry, just wanna keep dancing in this corner baby / this song is jammin.” I was giddy as I sang along to the last few rounds of “I just wanna party, you should be here with me,” while at least 30 different people whipped around their air-basses in tribute to funk in the air.
It’s been said that the album cover for Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition looks like “Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4 on acid,” so the choice to use “Iron Man” as his walk-up song was perhaps more calculated than meets the eye. That song could work for almost anyone, but Mr. Brown made it his own in that moment, capping off a short ode to the dark opulence of celebrity by going straight into “Die Like a Rockstar.”
I’ve seen Danny Brown at least four times now; the shows can’t be characterized so much as sporadically detailed. I heard “Kush Coma” for the first time at the Blind Pig around 2012 and played it roughly twenty times a day for the three months that followed. I saw him at the Mad Decent Block Party in Pontiac the year after, where he did the same verse twice during “Blueberries” due to his blatant over-intoxication (I didn’t care, it almost made the song more real in a way). His Bruiser Thanksgiving show in 2016 was a triumphant homecoming in the basement of the Masonic Temple, hot of the heels of Atrocity Exhibition. And lastly, of all places, I saw him at Movement Detroit.
A few things from this show stood out to me:
He stopped the music exactly three times to talk to the crowd, saying a total of sixteen words in the process. Other than that, it was straight music.
It started raining just as he started to play “I Will.” I’ll let you decide what that means.
“I Will,” among others, featured some crazy beat changes courtesy of Skywlkr, including a mash-up of “Outer Space” and “Adderall Admiral.” Skywlkr had just played a set with BlackxNoise as Bulletproof Dolphin that past Friday at Paramita Sound, where they dropped a standout from Brown and Black Milk’s 2011 collaborative album Black and Brown (“LOL”). Zelooperz took the liberty of filling in during the cut-outs. Crazy.
Earlier in the day Barclay Crenshaw dropped “Grown Up” during his set on the main stage, in an apparent nod to his fellow Detroit resident’s upcoming appearance (to my surprise, VonStroke moved to Detroit around 7th grade), which of course Brown also played. On a related note, Crenshaw also dropped a portion of Royce da 5’9’’s “Boom” featuring DJ Premier.
He dropped his Silicon Valley offering “Kool-Aid,” which I’d never heard before.
The order was as follows: one song from XXX, then one from Atrocity Exhibition, then four more from XXX. Then followed “Kool-Aid,” then five straight from Old, then “Grown Up” which transitioned perfectly into ending with three from Atrocity Exhibition. In short I see it like this: After the first two songs he held it down with four reliable throwback’s from his debut album, included a notable network loosie, followed that with five tracks from what is perhaps his most honest acknowledgement of his complex identity to date, and then astutely buffered those songs from some gems off of his so called “Art-Rap” album (whatever that means) with a song about his regrets about trying to grow up too fast.
I think it’s important to note the absence of his go-to “Blunt After Blunt,” which he’d played every other time I’d seen him. In a synthesis of my first and last point from the previous section, I’d say Daniel was the most poised I’ve ever seen him. His discography offers fans a glimpse into his tumultuous story, but if this performance was any indication of his current mind state, he seems to have found his own. I’m hesitant to call it “mature,” I imagine he may not prefer that term, but he seemed to be all business as he finessed an assertive finale at the Red Bull Music Academy stage, at one of the biggest music festivals to grace his hometown.
About The Photographer
21 year old, Anthony Rassam, is based in Detroit and has experience in portrait, fashion, event and product photography. His style focuses on unique perspective, neat composition, and natural light. Being a visual storyteller, he believes that there’s beauty in the mundane.