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HARD Summer Festival 2021: An EDM Festival Ruled By Memes, Hip Hop, & Future

Kaytranada hard summer performance

KAYTRANADA was one of the performers at the 2021 HARD Festival. Photo Credit: Allie Mischen for Insomniac Events

Although the main focus of the HARD Summer Festival is EDM, there were many prominent rap performances from the likes of Future, 2 Chainz KAYTRANADA, and Rubi Rose.

At 11:11 PM, during the first night of the 2021 HARD Summer Music Festival, Future is performing his cult classic “Freak Hoes.

A minute later, his DJ commands, “If you’re drunk make some fucking noise!” Echoing the crunching footsteps of soda and Truly hard seltzer cans on the artificial turf, the crowd delivers an intoxicated response. As the VIP partition noted far across the stage: “Hard Summer Is Back.” A seeming response to how music and pop culture planned on reviving the spirits of festival goers who experienced a COVID-19 drought, a year prior. 

In the span of a two day weekend taking place at the Nos Events Center, in San Bernardino, CA, a crowd witnessed the likes of Don Toliver, KAYTRANADA, and Rubi Rose sandwiched in the mayhem of raving EDM culture — a crowd that formed a sea of bikinis and fishnets; basketball jersey muscle shirts saluting Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Dennis Rodman; and nipple pasties and metallic platform boots. Many of the VIP ticket purchasers had the opportunity to dance in one of two pools located by the mainstage. Other festival goers decided to dip their toes in a lagoon that hosted a giant inflatable pink flamingo centerpiece. 

don toliver hard summer performing

With his auto-tuned riffs over a vocoder microphone, Don Toliver sang his way through cuts such as “What You Need” and “Cardigan.” Photo Credit: Julian Bajsel for Insomniac Events

With five separate stages spread outdoors, some sets overlapped. On Saturday, the booming Gucci-like bass of Pooh Shiesty and Lil Durk’s “Back In Blood” permeated through the walls of the Press Lounge, at the same time the warbling rumbles of A-TRAK’s electro house production filled the space. 

The two rappers stood on “Harder Stage” at around 8:05 PM, before going into a tribute for his late friend King Von. A night later, 2021 XXL Freshman, Rubi Rose would bring out Asian Doll to perform their parts of their latest female rap collab, “Nunnadet Shit.” 

About 40 minutes after Durk’s set, Don Toliver would take over the “Purple Stage.” At the beginning of Toliver’s set, while he was performing “After Party,” an attendee asked his friend “oh shit is that Akon?” 

Although a blunder, those words marked how far melodic rap has come in carving a niche spot in the R&B scene. With his auto-tuned riffs over a vocoder microphone, Don Toliver sang his way through cuts such as “What You Need” and “Cardigan.” He hopped around a stage of exaggerated Super Mario-like mushrooms, as his DJ ordered “ravers, open that shit up.” 

Eventually, Toliver’s girlfriend, Kali Ulchis, would join him for a steamy duet of “Drugs N Hella Melodies.” For a crowd focused primarily on EDM, “Lemonade” — which went No. 4 on Billboard’s Global 200, and Top 10 on the Hot 100 – garnered the largest response.

A moment that stood out during Toliver’s set was a performance of “No Idea” which remixes Aaliyah’s “One In A Million.” It would not be the only time the late Baby Girl’s music influenced the night. About an hour later, KAYTRANADA would play his edit of “Rock The Boat.” 

Sometimes the Grammy Award winner’s set didn’t translate as well as it could on the festival grounds. KAYTRANADA talks and engages his crowds at minimum, rather letting the music speak for itself. And by 10 PM, with a crowd who answered at any given moment about being intoxicated, there was a lot of background commotion over the chill house production of the DJ. Until he started getting into the zone of chopping his own remixes of Janet Jackson’s “If” and Chance The Rapper’s “All Night,” and his original “Lite Spots.” 

Future fire in the back performance hard summer

Future’s day one headlining set was arguably the best in terms of crossover appeal. Julian Cassady for Insomniac Events

During the second day of Hard Summer Music Festival, it became more apparent that internet cancel culture had no place in the minds of DJs or concertgoers. Songs played before sets ranged from XXXTENTACION’s “Look At Me” to Kodak Black’s “Roll In Peace” to Tory Lanez’s “Broke In A Minute.” When DJs ordered “hands up” to get the crowd hyped, they went up and down like oil rig drills on turbo speed. Mosh pits broke out to Shock Wes’s “Mo Bamba” prior to Rubi Rose’s night set. 

And with all the backlash from his homophobic and ill informed statements about HIV, DaBaby would have probably been welcomed to the festivities. Festival attendees carried around memes on giant sticks— some from Spongebob; another of Michael Scott from The Office wearing his Prison Mike bandada; and the album cover of DaBaby’s Baby on Baby. There were an assortment of pride flags waving around, but those were countered by the rowdiness of dancers once “Masterpiece” was played before 2 Chainz’s set. 

Speaking of 2 Chainz, although his performance skills are that of a seasoned veteran, he felt out of place at the festival. He was oddly timed at 7:35 PM on Sunday, instead of being a main headliner. (Day two’s headliner was DJ Snake B2B Malaa.) The crowd turned up the loudest to “I’m Different” as well as “It’s A Vibe,” but 2 Chainz seemed a bit numb to the energy. 

The rapper announced the title of his new upcoming album, Dope Don’t Sell Itself, which is rumored to be his “last trap album.” Earlier in his set, 2 Chainz performed “Grey Area” and reminded his audience about the hook: “Old enough to be your Daddy, young enough to fuck your Mama.” That line revealed where the numbness was coming from: 2 Chainz seems like he’s just about outgrown a lifestyle he’s held down since being a leader of the “Duffle Bag Boy” brigade. It didn’t feel like a retirement performance per se, but the formerly named Tity Boi probably wouldn’t have put up a fight if it was. 

Thinking back on Future’s headlining set— which was arguably the best in terms of crossover appeal— he’s not too far along from those realizations either. How 2 Chainz has made a mature point of processing ageism in hip hop through his lyrics, is how Future combats those notions with his blatant embrace of youth culture. Future looked super confident during his set, stringing his hits seamlessly into one another. 

Audiences got a taste of his Dirty Sprite 2 era; they mimicked his R&B serenading on “Incredible;” they sang his frequent collaborator, Drake’s, lines word for word during the silent breaks; they even “chopped bricks like Karate” with their dance moves. Watching him on the “Hard Stage,” audiences were in the midst of a living legend who soundtracked the raving and raging days of millennial college kids going on to adulthood, and Gen Z middle schoolers approaching Freshmen anxiety in high school. In front of the stage was a poster of Future inside an astronaut suit, a meme in remembrance of his early Pluto days.

It was prior to Rubi Rose’s set the next day where her DJ played “March Madness.” A song respected for its glimmering outer space production just as much as Future’s own rap-singing delivery, “March Madness” is a classic song. Although the main focus of the festival had been EDM, the vibrant energy of a hip hop song like “March Madness” had shown what drew the genres together. Both EDM and hip-hop have always been tools of escapism. They are married to the game of preserving youthful rowdiness. An energy that attempts to divert the uncomfortable realities of the world— at least until the music has to stop playing. 

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Da’Shan Smith is a pop culture writer based out of New York City. You can follow him @nightshawn101

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