The online music magazine Pitchfork is synonymous with indie rock, but as it’s grown in reputation and influence it has also branched out stylistically to give nearly equal space to rap, metal, dance music, and other genres that aren’t based on fuzzy, jangly guitars. (Full disclosure: I was a regular contributor there until recently.) This year’s installment of its annual music festival was a reflection of that diversity, and of the expanding listening habits of the contemporary counterculture.
One of the first performers to take the stage on Friday night was Neneh Cherry, whose 1989 Raw Like Sushi was an unprecedented collision of pop, punk, R&B, rap, and dance music, and whose “Buffalo Stance” remains one of the best singles of the ’80s. Since she came out of retirement in 2012 she’s traded the brashness of her early years for a subtler approach, particularly on her most recent album, Blank Project, where she traded the hard-edged beats she built her career from for an emphasis on texture. Her performance, backed by the group RocketNumberNine, used the same approach, peaking with a rendition of “Buffalo Stance” that was considerably softer and smoother than the original, but still delivered the same crowd-moving energy.
While Cherry may have moved on from her ’80s template, there were a number of performers over the weekend who are working from the style-crossing template she created. Kelela is an R&B artist who songs over propulsive beats by dance music producers who occupy some of the genre’s darker corners. While her collaborators still reside in the underground, the massive crowd at her side-stage performance indicates that she’s on her way to a much larger audience. FKA Twigs also brought a big crowd to the smaller stage for a set of heady electronic R&B that pulls from a variety of sources–from Houston rap to the post-dubstep UK dance scene–and ends up sounding like a batch of Aaliyah songs drifting psychedelically through outer space.
R&B is a recent addition to the festival. Hip-hop, on the other hand, has been a part of it nearly from the start, but never to the extent that it was this year. Danny Brown and Pusha T both delivered performances from one of the big stages on Saturday that overflowed with sing-along hooks and swagger. Brown has spent most of his time since 2011’s XXX blew up on the road, and onstage he delivers energy as tightly focused as his raps.
Rap dominated Sunday, with performances by up and comer Isaiah Rashad, Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt, and Schoolboy Q in quick succession, the latter two back to back on the big stage, which hasn’t happened before at the Pitchfork Festival. Kendrick Lamar closed out the festival on Sunday night, which was another first. Backed by a full band and some gorgeous cinematic visuals he blasted through a set of already-classics from his 2013 Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City to a crowd several times the size of the one he played to from the side stage at the 2012 Pitchfork Festival. In scale, ambition, and crowd response it was the biggest set of the festival, its one true rock-star moment.
Dance music still isn’t Pitchfork’s strong suit, and lackluster sets by Jon Hopkins and Hudson Mohawke never quite ignited. But the genre did provide the most moving moment of the weekend, during a Sunday afternoon performance by Chicago producer DJ Spinn, whose creative partner DJ Rashad died in April. Spinn and Rashad are to of the most important figures in a style called footwork, and Spinn brought out a stage full of footwork dancers—whose speed and acrobatic dexterity can seem almost superhuman—to accompany him. It felt something like a wake, and a celebration not only of the music that he devoted his life to but the very power of music to make us move, sometimes in extraordinary ways.