“Yo, I’ll be there in a minute!” I stood outside The Crofoot Ballroom, a mid-size venue in Pontiac, waiting for an event organizer to let me in. I was there for a show that boasted one of the most bizarre and dynamic series of acts I’ve seen, ranging from Toronto-based collective CMDWN to Atlanta trap-toddler Lil Yachty. Pontiac was the unlikeliest of settings for summoning some of the biggest names in hip-hop culture; the juxtaposition of fading Americana-style diners and rap posses from Atlanta never lost its novelty. As the youth poured into the streets in droves, the message was made pretty clear: “We ain’t from ‘round here.”
I was admittedly surprised when David Leica — a high school student — let me in. Not yet graduated, Leica and his partner Joe Sasson organized the entirety of Supernova Fest, from booking the artists to selling the tickets.
“You did this?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’ve got something even bigger lined up after this,” he responded. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
They remained tight-lipped on their future plans, but something about their smug grins meant business.
I made my way backstage and down into the artists’ dressing rooms. A single piece of paper taped to a closed door read “Lil Yachty.” Though a full five hours remained until the headlining act took the stage, a deafening bass rattled the basement; 50 yards in any direction might’ve led you to an ordinarily middle-aged Michigander, but for one night, this basement had become a caricature of a perpetually shifting youth culture.
Though I’m only 20, I’m old enough to have witnessed a certain shift in “the scene” over the past four years. I remember when Odd Future first stormed onto the Internet and brought Supreme to the leafy suburbs of West Virginia; kids started drawing upside-down crosses on exams and vandalizing bathroom stalls with insults aimed at Steve Harvey. The kids at this show were rocking Gucci scarves unironically.
The increasingly transparent lifestyles of cult figures like Kanye West, ASAP Rocky and Ian Connor have lead to the creation of a cartoonish mold kids gnaw to fit into. You’re only as good as your last flex. I had a kid brag to me about hanging out with Playboi Carti after I asked him for a bottle of water. I watched, in real time, as a kid posted a photo of his Supreme boxers on Instagram. The phones remained loaded on the forward-facing camera, ready to capture priceless selfies with the dozens of artists who rubbed elbows with us commoners.
The first artist I met was a kid from Portland named TYuS. Arguably the best-dressed dude at the event, he was refreshingly down-to-earth and humble. A lot of the kids there were in search of an elusive high from kicking it with celebrities, yet TYuS would float in and out of rooms, totally evading any unwanted attention. You would’ve never guessed he has millions of plays on Soundcloud. Though he was comfortably the most approachable artist backstage, he preferred for his music to do the talking.
Then there was the CMDWN collective, comprised of Ca$tro Guapo, FIJI, and Teo Nio. Castro had turquoise dreads and wore a MC+R Noir “f*ck off” vest over a pink hoodie with vaguely Japanese imagery. If you thought he wanted attention, you couldn’t have been more wrong; he spent six hours planted on a couch, sunglasses on, headphones in and using my phone charger. Despite the clamor of the packed dressing room, I overheard FIJI ask incredulously, “Yo you’re smoking a second blunt?”
“I don’t give a fuck,” Castro responded.
Though most everyone in the room had committed themselves to a career in the “creative industry,” it was apparent that these guys had an exceptional commitment to music. At one point in the night, the three of them huddled around a single iPhone, each with an equally unreadable expression (though the sunglasses helped). “Yo what are you listening to?” “They’re playing us on Beats One.”
Fellow Toronto-native Roy Wood$ had the guest mix that night, and broadcasted “On Road” to millions of listeners as a part of a star-studded program that featured new music from Drake and Gucci Mane. Castro rapped along to specific excerpts in his venomous roadman slang (“You’re just taking the piss!”), before plugging his headphones back in.
Before his set, I linked up with a dude named “Evan the Twerkgod.” He wore a white tee with a naked woman on it, which naturally became the topic of our discussion; he mentioned something about the possibility of working with a record label launched by Pornhub. Yet he was dead serious when it came to his creative vision. He stressed the importance of visuals in the experience he gave concertgoers, and I feel like the number of women twerking on stage might’ve been carefully calculated. The Detroit-native gave off a certain Danny Brown-esque “black rockstar” energy, and was probably the most in-tune with the audience out of all of the performers. The crowd had grown restless and impatient for Yachty when Evan turned a potentially awkward situation into the most energetic set of the night.
The only constant amid all of the movement and confusion was the door to Yachty’s room — it remained shut. When it finally did crack open, I paid particular attention to who was leaving. As my luck would have it, it was Dj Durel, who I met at Migos’s recent show in Ann Arbor. With countless “media dudes” in the room fiending for an interview with Yachty, I knew I’d found a plug. We caught up briefly, and he told me to just follow him after Yachty’s set.
When I’d first heard Yachty’s music, I was entranced by how he combined the playfulness of Lil B with rapid-fire triplet flows and 808s. The endorsements were promising and the music was better than he probably had even intended. I had no idea what to expect for his performance.
Lil Boat’s best moments were often somber and childish, so it was interesting to see how he would repurpose songs for live performance. He explored new crevices of each track, turning lullabies into bangers. “Minnesota” sees him hit a ridiculous falsetto on record, but performed live, the song was just a soundtrack to four minutes of emptying water bottles on the audience. After jumping off stage for the latter half of the piece, he was momentarily lost, later to be found as a patch of red braids in a crowd of white kids.
His set ended as smoothly as he had rehearsed, and I finessed my way onstage to link up with Durel. The room clears out, and Yachty disappears; Durel threw on a backpack and we head for an exit. We stand outside on a street corner for a couple minutes as Durel seems to soak in the lush Pontiac cityscape while rubbing his chin. I have no clue where he’s leading me.
“Yo is Yachty outside?” “Nah, I’m just looking for something to eat. Yachty’s back in the dressing room.” Munchies.
I race back downstairs, and the space that was once packed with obscure rap entourage leeches was now empty, with the exception of one man: Coach K. For those of you unfamiliar with this man’s involvement with Atlanta’s storied hip-hop scene, all you need to know is that he’s overseen the arc of the genre’s entire history, managing the careers of Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane along the way. He is the Godfather of Atlanta — the presiding impresario of the Bluff. He’s seen it all, and now manages Yachty, Migos, Skippa Da Flippa and Rich The Kid as well.
I said “Yo.” He said “Yo.” We exchange daps, and with the blessings of Durel, I’m let in. He closed the door behind me.
I inhale a cloud of smoke and, through squinty eyes, spot Yachty and his crimson dreads. Rich The Kid’s “Plug” played from some unknown source, heads nodded in unison.
Coach led to me to Yachty, who was surprisingly soft-spoken and polite. His rapping voice is his talking voice, akin to fellow Atlanta-native Andre 3000. He wastes no time, pulling up two seats to a table. “Right now?” He just nods, eyes redder than his hair.
You just came off tour with Young Thug, and also worked with him on Chance’s recent mixtape. There’s also the Yeezy Season premier with Kanye. What’s it been like to work with artists like them?
It’s crazy because I grew up listening to all these people, and now I’m working with them. I don’t know who my favorite is right now. I really wanna work with Cudi. The whole thing has just been normal though. I haven’t met Chance yet, he sent me the song to get on. Kanye’s cool though. He’s nice.
I heard you’re also a big Lil B fan; would you be down to work with him?
Yeah, we’re supposed to do something real soon.
You think it’ll be like that Chance and Lil B freestyle tape?
I wish! I don’t know. We’ll definitely see.
The past couple of years have been crazy for music in Atlanta. What’s so special about being a rapper from Atlanta right now?
I guess Atlanta is just the new city, the new wave for music. I don’t know what it is. It’s just original!
Do you have any ideas for your next mixtape?
Yeah, it’s coming real soon. I can’t speak on it, but it’s coming extremely soon.
How will it compare to Lil Boat?
*Pauses*…. I don’t know. I’m still working on it. It’s gon’ be good though. My main goal is to get it better than the first one.
What kind of music you been listening to lately though?
Just you? Forreal?
But you definitely grew up listening to other stuff too?
Yeah! Outkast, Kid Cudi, I grew up listening to Soulja Boy, Lil B. Some Coldplay.
What are some of your plans for the future?
I’m tryna be worldwide. I’m tryna take over the radio, take over the world. I’m tryna be the King of the Youth. The King of the Youth. I’m tryna be the King of the Youth. That’s it.
That sounds like something Ian Connor’s also talked about, tryna be the King of the Youth…
*Groans*… Yeahhh…. That’s my boy, but I’m the new king. I’m the new King of the Youth. I’m the King of the Teens, King of the Youth, King of the Teens. I’m taking over.
Summer Songs 2 coming real soon. Thank you.
And that was that. Yachty and company were clearly in a hurry to exit the building. As I made my way home that night, I couldn’t help but think about how many times he repeated the phrase “King of the Youth” or “teens” or some other equivalent variation. When I asked about Ian Connor, there was an audible groan; he even acknowledged their friendship, but didn’t hesitate to claim that crown for himself. This is what he, and so many other breakout rappers, have committed their lives to.
I think about acts like tween boy-bands that essentially fill the gaps in a revolving door; a like-for-like copy seems to replace its predecessor every couple years, and the kids lose their shit every time. The corporatization of rap seems to be pushing the culture in a similar direction; Look at this year’s XXL Freshmen and tell me it doesn’t feel like a stop-gap.
Why though? Why is “King of the Youth” a title to aspire to? Why is it working? Is music culture actually driven by directionless teenagers? Has the grass ever been greener, or has popular music always been a squabble for market share in the coveted 18-34 year-old demographic? Is this just entertainment?
Or am I just getting old too old for this shit?