Based on location alone, New Orleans’ BUKU Music + Art Project is poised to be the most New Orleans thing there is, right? Held on the sweeping grounds of Blain Kern’s Mardi Gras World — the place where floats are built and props hang from rafters staring you down like that teenager on molly — to the untrained eye, it’s mostly EDM fare. The genre obscures its real bread and butter, though: hip-hop. Cool rhymes and bass-heavy beats shined during Day 1 of BUKU, with major highlights coming from Run the Jewels and Die Antwoord -two disparate yet wholly innovative acts. Below, we present the biggest highlights (and low-lights) from BUKU:
Lines and Security
As to be expected given the festival’s sold out designation, there was a bit of a crowd for just about everything. Tech issues near the will call area plus a lack of communication had already drained festival goers shuffling between lines and thoroughly confused by the time they’d retrieved their wristbands and made it to the first of many barriers of entry. This year also marked an actual age requirement for the festival — 18 years and up and security was checking every single ID, to the point that I immediately found one on the ground that had gotten lost in the shuffle. Only after a series of bag searches and a metal detector could wristbands be scanned and fans could go in. The process went surprisingly smoothly but still may feel a bit alienating to fans.
Run the Jewels
The duo of Killer Mike and El-P sure have a devoted fan base. Their clamor is enough to make Meow the Jewels a reality and an especially feisty set all the more memorable given that it was their first time performing in New Orleans. Killer Mike may have accidentally spilled El-P’s drink prior to getting on stage but it was Killer Mike with the spoils, taking a spliff from a front row fan and basically giving the crowd full permission to toke up, which they gleefully did. RTJ’s second LP factored heavily into their set, with “Lie, Cheat, Steal” being perhaps the most bombastic standout in their whole set.
More Sporadic Performances
One of the biggest draws of Buku is its high-minded aesthetics that include signature characters, an entire multi-tiered wall of graffiti and a now even more robust array of busker-like performers. Stilt-walkers ambled freely as a marching band quickly formed and second lined to a disco ball-studded tent that had been erected previous years and only loosely served as a venue for dance troupes late into the night. Now, in addition to that area, a roving breakdancing team has been setting up shop all over the outdoor portions of Mardi Gras World and a whole fleet of Bukreatures, the signature art from the festival come to life were free to roam amongst the already costumed masses. The aesthetics of such interactive performances really brought the whole inclusionary festival vibe together.
Portugal. The Man Fiasco
The most disappointing fan moment that most definitely worked against Buku’s favor was the fact that, according to security, someone had pulled the fire alarm in the Ballroom, though it was rumored to have gone off on its own during Run The Jewels’ set. As is protocol, following RTJ’s blunt-fueled mishmash of music, everyone was evacuated from the Ballroom and the area was thoroughly checked. Fans who somehow maintained enough willpower to wait outside the Ballroom’s many entrances watched the five-piece’s set time slowly tick by. When they finally were able to take the stage, Portugal. The Man delivered a stellar, evocative set that was surprisingly slow-burn and played well on the minimal lighting set-up, playing heavily off of their pivotal Evil Friends LP, whose eponymous track plumbed the depths of their jam band side.
The big headliner and perhaps the most bizarre fare of the entire festival went to South Africans Die Antwoord, whose in-your-face visuals and stage-shaking subs somehow managed to knock the power out of the Float Den. A full five to ten minutes went by where neither mics nor moving lights emitted a thing and by the time Die Antwood were able to return, Ninja was already on the mic explaining that this happens all the time. The brief break certainly didn’t detract from their overall energy — Yolandi did the splits, Ninja was a ball of energy, and even DJ Hi Tek got into the hijinks.
Saturday’s festivities happened to coincide with an influx of spring break tourists and the city’s Italian American parade, one of many celebrations loosely associated with the upcoming St Patrick’s Day holiday and the only parade to come within mere blocks of Buku’s home base of Mardi Gras World. Needless to say, the festivities readily spilled into the final day of Buku, where many revelers had been partying the night away at one of many Buku late night shows around the city. The highlights at the fest itself were plentiful and showed Buku’s booking prowess in consistently unearthing some of the best up-and-comers while highlighting legends in hip-hop. Here’s our highlights from Buku Day 2:
The Based God himself came to Buku to spread the love, spitting freestyles almost as openly as his many shout outs — to fellow performers, the city itself, New Orleans musicians and life itself. Only Lil B could get a rowdy Ballroom crowd to chant “I love life” and “I’m happy to be alive” without the faintest trace of irony. It’d be easy to dismiss the Oakland rapper as a perplexing performance artist a la Riff Raff but the more he cultivates his rhymes and continues to reach out to fans, the more it’s looking like Lil B is the real deal. In the face of a rap world fast-embracing an earnest front that harkens back to its social commentary roots, even the most absurd of Lil B’s rhymes are a good way to help shape that. His positivity is infectious and certainly pushing the movement forward, albeit ridiculously.
DJ Windows 98
A good friend of mine attended McGill University in Montreal and would regularly come across Facebook events and flyers for a DJ Windows 98, which we both thought was a joke. Who would name themselves after a shoddy operating system that has been basically unusable for over a decade? Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler, apparently. Butler even kicked off his set with the sweet fuzzed out tones of a dial-up modem connecting before launching into a world-bending set that mixed live percussion, contemporary tracks, and Haitian influences that Butler and co fully embraced for Reflektor. To the right of Butler was three percussionists, one of whom happened to be his wife and bandmate, Regine Chassagne. That added touch of analog music made for a far more engaging performance than the typical spin-and-fist-pump DJ you’d expect to see at an EDM-centric festival.
Passion Pit Fans
Compared to Buku’s typical stream of people, barely anyone watched DJ Windows 98. That was totally not the case for Passion Pit, whose fans stand as the most rambunctious of the weekend. Yes, Passion Pit, the band that has now honed in on the type of fun. expansive sound that kicked off their set with their latest single, the ultra-positive forced unifying singalong “Lifted Up (1985).” The track was preceded by hoards of screaming fans, of course, and also a full-blown medical emergency that saw a fan hauled out through the photo pit and another most likely inebriated festgoer swing her legs over the barricades and hop straight into the photo pit in hopes of reaching frontman Michael Angelakos. It didn’t take long before security removed her but for the rest of the fans who couldn’t get close enough to jump towards the stage, they exerted just as much energy clamoring forward and flailing about, making it nearly impossible to reach the Ballroom or the rest of the festival.
Preceding DJ Windows 98 but definitely besting him in the use of live instrumentals was Ghostface Killah’s wicked collaboration with young punks BADBADNOTGOOD. The band jammed through a Wu-Tang heavy set that saw fan involvement taken to a whole new, more welcome level. Ghostface pulled up a fan onstage to play the part of Method Man in “Protect Ya Neck” and damn could the dude flow, trading rhymes with Ghostface like his life depended on it. Amazingly, that wasn’t the biggest highlight of Ghostface’s set but rather a surprise cover of Nas’ “The World is Yours.” Like Public Enemy’s daytime slot the year before, Ghostface’s performance was an integral part of blending legends with newcomers in unexpected ways.
The biggest shock of the night and what closed out my Buku experience was IloveMakonnen. The guy whose biggest hit is a Drake slow burn in the form of the ubiquitous “Tuesday” happens to be next level energetic live. It’s as if someone swapped his cough medicine for a little bit of cocaine. Even opener “Whip It” popped off like it had a good 10-20bpm on the recorded version. The hits kept coming from his Drink More Water mixtapes and the crowd in the Float Den ate up IloveMakonnen’s every word as if they’d been tracking the mc since he was writing about the very musicians he shared a lineup with over the weekend. IloveMakonnen’s savviness and bravado is what makes him a seriously engaging performer. By saving “Tuesday” til the tail end of his set, he managed to add to his fan base through a type of live vs recorded bait and switch that spells big things for the newcomer.
All Photos by April Siese