Photography by Philip Cosores
It was no secret going into HARD’s Day Of The Dead festival that things would be a little different this year.
Following a pair of drug-related deaths at the event’s summer incarnation, the county and venue enacted an unusually heavy set of rules on the promoter including cut capacity, beefed-up security, and an age limit, preventing those under 21 from attending. As if that wasn’t enough, the fest worked with a reported 184 police officers and dozens of medical staff alongside at least three on-site emergency physicians to ensure things ran smoothly, and believe us, they did.
With a lineup boasting heavy hitters Skrillex, Deadmau5, Gesaffelstein, and Future, alongside the less predictable bookings of Hot Chip, Glass Animals, Groove Armada, and Club Cheval, HARD managed to maintain its musical identity across the weekend while simultaneously battling the man’s best efforts to suck the life from the party. It’s a war HARD ultimately won, though not without some sacrifice.
Whereas high energy sets from Alison Wonderland and Jauz impressed at the event’s start, many learned an earlier arrival time may be necessary as the fest now boasts multiple security checkpoints. Even before you reach the airport-level body searches, police await with hand-out safety literature educating patrons on the dangers of various illicit substances. Additionally, the outdoor stages of HARD Summer have been scrapped, transforming the event to an entirely indoor affair. This made for a more comfortable experience with the inclusion of air conditioning, though the overall vibe suffered with no music playing as fans moved from stage to stage.
None of these changes seemed to bother fans of the long running event, however, as attendees turned out both in costume and in droves (a reported 20k graced the grounds on day one) to catch their favorite acts, and cruise the grounds with drinks in hand, a definite upside to the age restriction.
Across the weekend, however, one couldn’t shake the feeling of a witch hunt, and the fact it was Halloween had little to do with it. Los Angeles’ tumultuous relationship with dance music is well documented, and has seen HARD faced with numerous challenges since vacating its long time home in LA’s Historic State Park part due to renovation. “This scene is getting a bad wrap,” Skrillex echoed over the mic during his Sunday headlining his set, urging attendees to get home safe and be responsible with their choices, clearly aware of what founder Gary Richards and co. have been through in order to put on the show at all.
And it’s those sort of acknowledgments that help contextualize how in such a short window and under such serious scrutiny, a lesser event would have toppled from the weight of its challenges. But across the weekend at Day of the Dead, HARD proved that by staying true to their vision of impeccable curation, they could turn even the most overwhelming circumstances into a party like no other. Who cares if it takes 200 cops, if HARD events are a world where we can see Future and Deadmau5 in the same day, that’s a world we want to live in.
Check out our 10 most memorable sets from the weekend while you ponder what HARD will come up with in the next nine months before HARD Summer.
If EDM were comparable to Nu Metal, and HARD were the genre’s Family Values Tour, A$AP Ferg most definitely fills the shoes of predecessors Redman & Method Man (who coincidentally also graced the HARD grounds elsewhere). As 2015’s genre hopping rap favorite, thanks in no small part to his “Work” remix showing up in virtually every Skrillex DJ set, Ferg was ready to get rowdy, and not afraid to lead the crowd in a number of expletive-laced chants. The Trap Lord came out of the gate swinging with such charmingly titled tunes as “Hella Hoes” and “Dump Dump”, whose sing-a-long chorus I can’t even type out without blushing. And while the rumored-to-play Ice Cube never materialized, it was hard to be mad with Ferg offering up more than enough sincere aggression in lieu of a 20-year-old “Fuck the Police” mantra. That probably wouldn’t have gone over so well anyway considering the police presence on site.
If there’s one thing that makes HARD events truly shine above their competitors, it’s the festival’s penchant for booking forward thinking and rare acts, despite the known draw or expected turn out. Case in point: Bromance boys, Club Cheval, who took the stage early on day two for their lone U.S. live appearance. Armed only with analog excellence, the foursome (producers Myd, Sam Tiba, Canblaster, and Panteros666) proved themselves ready to fill a void vacated by Belgian legends Soulwax years ago. The set translated studio creations into true live performance pieces, placing singles “From the Basement To The Roof” and “Discipline” from their forthcoming Warner Brothers debut alongside remixes of artists like The Weeknd, pulling in plenty new fans along the way. Perhaps the boys may have been better suited for a later day appearance, but the fact that they’re on the grounds at all speaks volumes to HARD’s open-minded approach, continuing to put the sounds they believe in first, no matter if fans are ready for it or not.
Despite remaining one of the most brilliant live electronic acts out there, Hot Chip’s HARD debut was a bit shakier than they might of hoped for. Dressed for the occasion in any number of costumes (which were quickly shed under what we can only assume are blisteringly hot lights), the band never quite found their footing in a set that was plagued by sound issues and an unfortunately light turn out. Gary Richards’ heart may be in the right place, but HARD fans may not be ready to see the light when it comes to these more nuanced offerings just yet. That didn’t stop the boys from making a good time, though, as throughout the set guitarist Al Doyle made sure no one could mistake their show for anything but a Halloween party, offering goofy banter between tracks like set opener “Huarache Lights” and new album stand out “Need You Now”.
It’s difficult to deny the level Future is operating on right now. Fresh off his collaborative mixtape with king of the scene Drake, Future’s set at Day Of The Dead proved the rapper’s not only qualified to go head-to-head on record with Drizzy, but storm similar-sized stages as well. Fortunate for the HARD faithful, this round they instead got their DS2 dose in the Haunted Mansion hall, which Future pummeled with hits off his latest pair of records, including early set appearances of “Same Damn Time” and “Jumpman” before leading the crowd into bass heavy sing-alongs of “Thought It Was A Drought”, “Sh!t”, and the electro-tinged “Move That Dope”. A perfect compliment to the electronic savagery other stages offer throughout the day, sets from the likes of the Freebandz leader provide a welcome mix-up to HARD’s vibe without sacrificing a second of intensity. For long the event has touted itself as a festival and not a rave, and Future’s set only fueled that fire, making us hungry for a hip-hop headliner down the line. Kanye? We’re looking at you.
While fest founder Gary Richards may forever be the Hardfather, it’s recent Bieber collaborator, Skrillex, who remains the fest’s golden boy. Appearing in some incarnation at nearly every major LA-based HARD event over the past several years, Skrillex, aka Sonny Moore, refuses to disappoint, this round trading in his signature UFO stage for a spooky graveyard set up that kickied off with a literal blast that left streamers hanging like swamp vines from the venue’s ceiling. Backed by visual skeletal insanity drawn up by WEDIDIT’s Sus Boy, the packed hall seemed like it would never find its peak amidst a set that assured fans that HARD is stronger than ever. And as if to echo that sentiment, Skrillex threw back to his last headlining slot at HARD Summer, bringing out Diplo for a surprise Jack Ü throwdown to close out the weekend.
Without a doubt, the sleeper set of the fest goes to Jets, the high-powered teaming of underground kings Machinedrum and Jimmy Edgar. The duo offered an hour of interstellar insanity across their lightly attended set at HARD’s newest (and, in our humble opinion, coolest) Strobe stage. Culling a tracklist heavy on originals and not without plenty of reference to the eeriest of holidays, the pair’s brilliant appearance kicked off with wolf howls and bit-crushed cries of “It’s alive!” Crafting a cinematic set, the pair took the passionate and more-than-willing crowd on a journey down the rabbit hole of intelligent rhythms, warped synths, and hypnotic lasers, serving as the evening’s counterculture to an already counterculture event. Jets are hard to pin down in the EDM world, and by the sounds they served up, the duo are only looking to travel deeper into uncharted territory.
Sometimes you need a break from the sonic assault, and for those sometimes, there’s Bonobo. Gracing the decks this round without his full band, the producer flexed his rhythmic muscles, pumping out warm, organic tracks in delicate procession, providing a welcome refuge from the swirling synth drops of Nero leveling the grounds elsewhere simultaneously. The only drops one might expect to have found here were those of rain as the DJ invoked touches of fellow drop-escapists Jamie XX and Jon Hopkins across an hour of subtly tender selections, once again proving HARD knows how to provide a full spread of talent to match a full spread of personal tastes. Shrouded in darkness and smoke, his place on the Strobe stage inspired hopes of a one day sister festival to the EDM giant, this one, perhaps called SOFT.
Despite boasting a later second day slot, the presence of mysterious producer Marshmello was felt throughout the weekend via an abundance of fan-made merch and totems. After all, HARD marked the West Coast debut for the producer, prompting high anticipation, particularly as fans vied eagerly to uncover just who the mystery man is. The controversy of his identity is clearly something that remains at the forefront of the producer’s mind as well, with his set opening to the sounds of a young lady speculating the new name might just be an alias of HARD headliner Skrillex, a thought that was ultimately dashed when the two appeared onstage together just a night earlier in NYC. Alongside a marshmallow-shaped head, which remained in place for the set’s duration, the “Mello Gang” got down to a selection of saccharine remixes of familiar tunes including tracks from Watch The Throne and Yogi, backed by similarly artificially flavored visuals, leaving fans with the sort of high HARD is more than okay with: a sugary one.