MAD in Belgrade festival report, 24/05/14-25/05/14

30.05.14

Click any of the photos above to launch the gallery. All photos by Nemanja Knežević.

MAD in Belgrade is a brand new event from those responsible for Serbia’s incredibly successful Exit Festival, and seems, in part, about heading back to the roots of good music and vibes while Exit has swelled in size. The line-up looked eclectic and lovingly curated: featuring a tantalising selection of names across house, footwork, and the wider electronic underground, while also propping up Belgrade’s rich nightlife (something that can all too easily be lost as Brits flock to Europe for their festival fix).

But just as the festival neared its final week of prep for 48 hours of pumping Funktion One soundsystems and crazy parties, the Balkan region was hit by disastrous (and sadly, at times fatal) landslides and floods. News of the events haven’t exactly received much exposure in the UK press in the midst of UKIP-geddon, and it’s not until landing in Belgrade that you start to get a feel for the full extent of the tragedy. Villages just 20 kilometres from Belgrade are still in a ruinous state, and the city’s sports centres and halls have been turned into makeshift refuge camps. For many, the government’s response is cause for anger and frustration, and it’s anticipated that the aftermath will set the tone for the political agenda in Serbia for a long time to come.

In light of the tough backdrop, it’s testament to the organisation from all those involved that so much of the weekend ran so smoothly. It was clearly seriously touch and go as to whether the festival could go ahead, which ultimately seemed to be remedied by the highly admirable decision to give all first day ticket revenue to the help the flood relief.

The main site for MAD in Belgrade took place in a lush riverside parkland near the Museum of Contemporary Art, with the open and well-designed space centred on the Mad Dog and Crazy Rabbit stages displaying MAD in Belgrade’s Tumblr-styled hi-def take on the hippie naturalism of UK fests like Bestival or Latitiude. This will also likely be one of the only times Visionist or Evian Christ effectively perform out of the middle of an illuminated rabbit’s mouth, or that a Boiler Room session goes down just a stones throw away from a gigantic orange teddy bear smoking a fag (but could it be the one thing BR is missing on its path to world domination?).

Not surprisingly, the backdrop of the flood crisis meant that far fewer revellers made it out than was implied by the thousands-strong mock-up images on MAD’s site – so something like Omar S’s main stage set on Sunday afternoon stood out as one in need of a real crowd injection. But he was all smiles and seemed in a carefree mood, at one point even dropping a seriously out-there pumping 4/4 remix of Ting Tang Walla Bing Bang. What definitely wasn’t lacking during Omar S, and rarely did, was the quality and sheer gut-wrenching clarity of the sound: with both main stages carrying a brand spanking new version of the Funktion One soundsystem. Leaving the site on the second night, the weight of sound that these systems produce really sunk in, with the sound of Belgrade collective Vatra’s rap and trap selections blasted across the Danube River in a full-on sub-bass assault.

With the latest Funktion One system behind him, Kevin “The Bug” Martin couldn’t be more in his element: so no surprises that his set with Flowdan on Saturday was one armed with the bass weight to shift craters and blow eardrums. The wait for slated new album ‘Angels and Devils’ goes on, but what comes out in the live show is how the noise and dub elements of his sound meet in such an electric collision: early on, Poison Dart’s instrumental is teased, before collapsing into calamitous shards of noise as Martin pushes the speakers to their very limits. Flowdan is surely one of the most gloriously economical MCs around – able to build the hype and atmosphere in a single line that others may take a whole verse to craft. Audiophiles love to nerd out on this kind of thing, but it was a revelatory experience seeing some of these DJs again with this sound and impressive stage behind them. House of Trax producer/DJ Rushmore’s ghetto club sounds bounded out powerfully: sounding out the alarms with L-Vis 1990’s mean mix of Icy Lake. Even Dean Blunt had a mess around with the sub-bass potentials on offer, pausing later in his set to kneel down and mess about out with a protracted version similar to the cavernous sub-bass of that X-tasy track shared last year, only with added unsettling hi-end to accompany it. 

Dean Blunt was the first name on Saturday’s Crazy Rabbit line-up (expertly put together in a collaboration between MAD and Berlin label Leisure System) to start one of the most memorable evenings – in terms of the quality of acts on show – I’ve experienced at a festival. As his material since ‘The Redeemer’ has frequently indicated, the ex-Hype Williams man of mystery’s set wasn’t particularly frustrating or difficult, but a rich, trippy world to get lost in. He’s still a tense performer – pacing about, frequently throwing down his mic and disappearing off-stage, an Aba Shanti t-shirt tucked deep into his trousers. Joined by a saxophonist, Joanne Robertson and with obligatory bouncer overlooking proceedings, something like ‘Stone Island’s’ Three have the space to sound like the wavy, lo-fi pop gem that it is: and on this occasion, no layers of conceptualised, academic thinking necessary to prop up its effects.

Things tensed up as Visionist followed, in part due to spins for his own frostbitten grime, but also due to the hard winds and far-off thunderclaps filling the atmosphere. Kind of miraculously, no rain really came, so by the time Neneh Cherry & RocketNumberNine stepped up for their headline set, the butterflies were felt for one of those “big” festival moments. Before they’d really played a note, Neneh sent love out to the people of Belgrade in light of the tough times, and point out the significance of people gathering in the midst of adversity.

As 95% of DJs don’t really go in for talking, and as they dominated the bill, it felt special that she took a moment here – and warm acknowledging applause followed. From there it was all about bringing ‘Blank Project’ to life: the big chorus of Weightless raced into the skies, and even minus-Robyn, Out Of The Black sounds every bit a big-stage festival piece. As Neneh threw shapes and worked the stage, Tom & Ben of RocketNumberNine – a “steam engine”, as she describes them – kept things rolling with their pulsating synth and drum-led grooves. Buffalo Stance came at the end, and the crowd were well up for it, one guy at the front held up what looked like the liner notes from ‘Raw Like Sushi’ for ages. The air was filled with a sense of release: people coming together at the end of a testing and tragic week to lose themselves in sound.

Another tragedy sadly still hung in the air at MAD in Belgrade, that being the untimely passing of footwork legend DJ Rashad last month, who the electronic underground have been in a sustained state of mourning for since. DJ Spinn and Taso made it out to Belgrade, and like all the appearances they’ll have been making of late, they represented Teklife and honoured Rashad with passionate force. They were joined onstage by Serbia’s Teklife contingency, Feloneezy and Jackie Dagger, and their mate and recent LuckyMe addition DJ Paypal. Speaking to them on Friday night, they talked openly about Rashad and how much the debt they owe him for his support and guidance – why his passing makes them more determined to do right and work harder than ever. Sifting back through Rashad’s catalogue since his passing, it’s hard not feeling the deep emotion in tracks like Itz Not Right and Love U Found, so when a mellower moment comes, it feels like there’s a brief pause to look up to the sky and reflect. For the most part, though, this Teklife session was about pure unbounded energy and release. Evian Christ joined them for a few swigs from the liquor bottles passed around, and special recognition goes to DJ Paypal, who skanked and flailed about for pretty much the full two hours. Teklife ‘til the next life.

Jackie Dagger and Feloneezy and the rest of Belgrade’s Mystic Stylez gang seemed to be absolutely everywhere throughout the weekend, clearly buzzing off having such a rich reflection of the music they love on their home turf. On Sunday evening, the pair were back bringing the Teklife heat to round up Serbia’s first ever Boiler Room, some of which featured tunes about as hot off the press as they come: with Feloneezy dropping a MAD in Belgrade original, a collaboration between themselves and Paypal that was cooked up over the weekend. Any posey Boiler Room stiffness was hard to find here, with many more Rashad cuts fired out as the crowd clambered to make it onto the stage.

Following the headline Teklife session with Spinn & Taso, the Mystic Stylez crew still had enough in the tank to make it across the Danube River to join London label Crystal Culture’s afterparty at Barutuna, an intimate open-air space at the bottom of the beautiful Belgrade Fortress, which housed illegal raves in the ‘90s and will now be reopening as a club. Starting at 4am, you can guess the kind of goggle-eyed, edgy atmosphere that was around, but it featured more standout appearances, including a wicked UK funky set from Pedro 123. Before a festival, you always hope to have that one artist you’re dying to see for the first time, and for me it was Jam City.  He suited the mood to a tee: while the cold cut corners of ‘Classical Curves’ is usually credited as a key influence to the unforgiving club sounds Night Slugs/Fade To Mind have cultivated, but he can also be a measured and mellow selector – playing out a soft-focus selection of house and R&B that breezed through the morning light. Twelve hours later, he was back on the buttons with Kelela: another DJ from the NS/FTM axis helping her to bring out new edges to the many gems found on ‘CUT 4 ME’.

Despite the exceptional circumstances, spending a weekend in Belgrade was a really memorable experience – not every local is overjoyed the festival went ahead, but generally the vibe in the city is welcoming and positive. As you pass through the mesh of historical architecture and start to notice more and more colourful graffiti on every street corner, this feels like a place with a certain something in the air. Belgrade is already recognised for its healthy nightlife, and it was great to see it so well represented at the festival. There’s talk of other clubs preparing to open, and if bloodsuckers looking to pounce on the cultural capital of a city like Berlin get their way, then the possibilities open in Belgrade are clearly ready and waiting. Having made it through the other side of a tough but thrilling first year, MAD in Belgrade can go anywhere from here.

Donate to victims of the floods, who are still in urgent needs of medicines, by following the link