Hopscotch 2013 in review

by Ryan Snyder

With Raleigh’s City Plaza aglow from the Hopscotch Music Festival’s mainstage lighting rig operating at high capacity, Canadian turntable savant A-Trak made an observation that was fairly common among the weekend’s performers, but probably not to him: “I guess everybody might not know my name.” Those were words that could have easily come from Scottish songwriting wunderkind Richard Youngs, or drone shaman Charlemagne Palestine, but for one of the world’s most able DJs to express mild dissatisfaction with a crowd of a little more than 1,000 — one of the smallest to occupy that slot in its four years — speaks to both his own presence and the alternatives presented.

Granted, his 9:40 p.m. start time was the latest of any main-stage set, putting him right in the thick of a litany of solid club shows like the deep-rooted South Carolina hip-hop collective OXYxMORON or Aussie flower kids High Highs, and he was a quasi-last-minute replacement for Atlanta rap giant Big Boi. But A-Trak, as much as any artist can, bears the duality of being the antithesis of the Hopscotch norm while also embodying its spirit.

Hopscotch is a music festival that favors the conscientious over the wanton, a genuinely catholic and thoughtful newcomer to an industry increasingly saturated with booking-agent package deals and chart hype. It assumes acumen and premeditation among its attendees, demands close listening, challenges with esotericism and wows with virtuosity, and it is as far from the spoon-fed summer feeding frenzies as any music festival of its size can be.

With those principals in mind, however, it would be easy to dismiss A-Trak on surface presumptions, and based on the crowd size, many likely did. The knee-jerk reaction would have been to quantify him by his devotion to electro house and hip hop, the root chakras of the contemporary EDM scene. That would be overlooking the fact that his approach is entrenched as much in academia as it is in the party. This is a performer who blows up the button-pushing Avicii archetype decisively. He’s a prodigy who created his own scratch notation system as a teenager and lectured on it, and dominated world DJ competitions so thoroughly that the DMC asked him to stop competing, and he truly does make his craft look effortless. Clinical, even.

The first appearance of his vaunted Dirty South Dance series came midway through his 75-minute set as he latticed in eighth- and sixteenth-beat scratches with a wink to the hook from Roscoe Dash’s “All the Way Turnt Up,” a literal quarter-second of the rapper’s nasally anthem repeated over and over but also enough to spark hundreds of hands in the air. That’s the true genius of A-Trak: The node is already buried in the listener’s brain, he’s just exceptionally good at turning on the voltage at the right time.

Saturday night headliner Spiritualized was the treble yin to A-Trak’s bass yang, the sound of the British space-rock ensemble floating upwards over the tall buildings at the plaza’s perimeter and quite discernibly into the surrounding blocks. After the Breeders delivered spooky sister harmonies and a spoton Last Splash as the perfect setup, band primary J. Spaceman performed like the final evolution of a singer/ songwriter, seated on a swivel

Spiritualized drummer Kid Millions was one of the few artists at the festival with a notable side project that didn’t find a moment to show it off at one of the multitudes of day parties (though he did perform as Man Forever last year), but connecting the dots from one show to another was bonus entertainment. You could have walked into the Pour House on Thursday night expecting DJ Paypal, only to instead unexpectedly find Moss of Aura seated on the ground spinning melodies from Youth Lagoon’s Wondrous Bughouse over Casiotone drum beats, or checked out Slim’s on Saturday afternoon to hear Hemlock Ernst’s old-school-cum-nu rhymes, not knowing that they’re Gerrit Welmers and Sam Herring of Friday pre-headliners respectively.

Herring had the personal pleasure of pausing his classic, Leonard Cohen-meets-Bryan Ferry charm to make the weekend’s most controversial announcement: that heavyweight rapper Action Bronson has thrown out his back, ostensibly doing what 350-pounders do, and that the festival had plucked hiphop legend Big Daddy Kane from a Friday night just lamping to put on what would be one of the most stone-cold all-around efforts by any emcee Hopscotch has seen. There were some audible groans from the lightly buzzed dusk-time crowd, but Big Daddy Kane is a rapper who, in a paradigm that values only true ballers, has balled out harder and more literally than almost any rapper alive. Recall the image of him with Madonna and Naomi Campbell in Madonna’s book SEX, all three in the buff and in the penultimate compromising position (and forget, if you can, that Vanilla Ice was similarly depicted in the same book).

He wasn’t half-stepping then, and he wasn’t half-stepping three days from his 45 th birthday. Ex-Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, just a few hours removed from Caught On Tape duo show in which Japanese noise father Merzbow made one of his half-dozen guest appearances, was counted among those with high expectations of Kane, who did not disappoint. His freestyles remain remarkably sharp and topical, his command over the packed Lincoln Theatre was superlative, and his B-boy skills are practically an inspiration to stiff-legged thirty- and fortysomethings. As post-middleaged asskickers went, Kane just barely edged out the Overmountain Men’s David Childers for the festival’s best.

If Action Bronson’s absence left the need to simply see a large body do amazing things unfulfilled, Sleep’s closing set on the festival’s final day offered a ballooning guitar idol in Matt Pike, whose own girth has still yet to exceed the voluminous din that the stoner-metal gods inflicted upon their audience. It was an opportunity for the trio to celebrate 10 years of their epic Dopesmoker in front of a crowd willing to endure whatever they put forth, but what they got was a passing reference to it, along with a sizeable portion of Holy Mountain and a snippet of Volume Two, all of it brutally loud and heavy as pig iron. It was one of the handful of items for which it was impossible not to hear crosstalk about leading up to it, and it delivered like a truncheon to the skull — close listening not required.