Ultra is the American summer festival in reverse. At Coachella or Lollapalooza, EDM gets its own stage, which is tucked into a corner of the grounds and encountered by the average fan only in passing—a festival within the festival. At Ultra 2014, that dynamic was true for rap and rock music, with artists as successful as MGMT and M.I.A. scheduled to play a small amphitheater in the shadow of the festival's major stages.
A number of the artists on that stage were rappers: Pusha T, Chance the Rapper, Waka Flocka Flame, Riff Raff, and others. As rap's share of the pop marketplace has dwindled, EDM's has risen, and many rappers (including some playing Ultra) have made overtures to dance music fans as a means of growing—if not just sustaining—a fan base. But no mainstream rapper has yet fully crossed over to the lucrative world of EDM, and Ultra 2014 suggested that the road ahead might be a long one.
Rap and dance music have, of course, always been siblings (think Afrika Bambaatta sampling Kraftwerk, or rap's early culture of house parties), so it's not out of the question to think that modern rappers might be able to establish a fan base among America's newest wave of danceheads. And as EDM has grown over the last few years, popular tracks—from "Harlem Shake" to Skrillex and A$AP Rocky's "Wild For the Night" to DJ Snake's current smash "Turn Down For What"—have pulled from the sound, slang and moves of rap music.
But rap was a curio at Ultra 2014, with artists playing to crowds of a few hundred people at most, a tiny slice of the hundreds of thousands that attended the festival over the weekend. The first rapper of the weekend was Waka Flocka Flame, performing under the shortened moniker "Waka Flocka." Flocka was early to recognize the potential power of crossing over to the dance world—his 2012 album featured dance-oriented tracks like "Get Low" and "Fist Pump"—but is still only making inroads there.
He took the stage shortly after gates opened on Friday afternoon, always the least enviable set time of any festival. But the small audience—perhaps eager to party—was active and energetic, yet the thin delineation between rap music and an EDM-friendly sub-genre like "trap" that takes its name and sound from rap was easy to see. When Flocka played one of his booming hits, the crowd would hop around or wave its hands at Flocka's beckon, but when his DJ folded in a blurting drop or played an EDM remix of "Hard in Da Paint," it acted almost like an electric shock, with the crowd flailing wildly like an obedient puppy getting its first ever treat.
Flocka ended his set with a new single called "Bust," which is the "trap music" of, say, Major Lazer, and not Flocka's hometown of Atlanta. The song was fine, if not a bit bizarre, but didn't seem to be any sort of turning point. With about 20 minutes to go in his allotted time, Flocka bounded off the stage, leaving his DJ to spin tracks by Young Thug and A$AP Ferg.
Other artists, like Chance the Rapper on Friday or Pusha T on Sunday, played it straight. Chance, perhaps the most popular rapper of the weekend amongst young people, ran through a tight set of songs almost exclusively from his breakthrough mixtape Acid Rap with his four-piece band The Social Experiment. He performed his verses on songs by Justin Bieber and Lil Wayne, but didn't do—and made no mention of— his recent collaboration with Skrillex. It felt weirdly like a protest. "Try to listen to the sound of music over the DJ sets," he said at one point, motioning towards the live instruments on stage.
Pusha has never made an offer towards dance music, and probably never will. But his early Sunday crowd swelled as time went by, and was enthusiastic, reacting loudly to the growling bass of Future's "Move that Dope" and recent standards like "Numbers on the Board." But this was a young crowd, one that didn't have the messianic response to the Clipse classic "Grindin'" that Pusha is probably used to at other shows. With 20 minutes to go, he too, bounced early.
He was followed on Sunday by Dizzee Rascal, whose crowd was mostly derived of people with European flags draped over their backs. The jittery rhythms of British rap music is of a piece with much of what you hear at Ultra, and as EDM continues to spread over the world, it might be a thruway for international rappers that have never been able to crossover to America. (M.I.A., for her part, put on one of the best sets of the weekend.) But, that, too is a long way away: Rascal's name was misspelled as "Dizzie" on Ultra's official website.
The acquaintanceship of rap and EDM is maybe best personified by Riff Raff, a court jester of sorts who nonetheless is an imaginative lyricist and nimble MC. When Riff Raff first rose to prominence, he was a self-styled mutant of Southern rap, bending the tropes of Houston car culture and the flows of Atlanta mixtape rappers into new and bizarre shapes.
But he never established himself in mainstream rap—he is too weird or too white or too fake. Last year he signed to Diplo's label Mad Decent, and began to rap over garish and distorted house beats. But this, too, has not found him a core audience: Riff Raff's debut album NEON iCON was supposed to be released this year, but has been delayed indefinitely.
He is an orphan, looking for a proverbial home. He released a single earlier this year produced by rap producer du juor DJ Mustard that was not noticed by hip-hop fans, but at Ultra he played to less than 300 people, filling the amphitheater not even a fourth of the way. Riff Raff put on a show, but the crowd was bewildered and indifferent at times, and the energy flagged.
If Riff Raff is one of the first rappers to try and conquer hip-hop and EDM concurrently, he has yet to make much headway. The same can mostly be said for rap entirely—there are dance-rap pop successes like Pitbull and Flo Rida, but no DJ dropped those tracks at Ultra. Riff Raff, it seems, will have to choose one side over the other, or he may slip away forgotten.