Los Angeles loves events. Just drive around the city on any given night and you’re likely to find people attending any variety of shows, plays or watching one of the 10 pro teams in the area. The city also loves its sports and while the Lakers may hold the strongest sway over the city, in their recent struggles the title has almost ubiquitously been ceded to the Dodgers. It may be odd to start with this, but because of that love, Flog Gnaw is one of the biggest events in LA this year. The festival (which sold out in a matter of hours) took place at the well-loved Dodger Stadium, allowing for an atmosphere that felt true to both the hip-hop artists present and the spirit of the city. Couple the excellent venue choice with the seamless logistics of the event (though those that paid for parking were undoubtedly frustrated at the pricing), and we were set up to have a show for the ages.
In keeping with Los Angeles fall weather traditions, the concert took place under a cloud of smoke which had coasted in from the nearby Woolsey Fire that was currently cutting a burning swath through the borders of Los Angeles and Ventura counties. However, in a city that is no stranger to mid-season infernos and their side effects, the show went off without a hitch. Arriving at the show around 4:00, the first act to witness was Virgil Abloh. Abloh is far more famous for his work with Louis Vuitton and Off White than as a musician, though, when viewed through the creative lens of festival progenitor Tyler, The Creator, his selection begins to make more sense. As a DJ he made sure to stick to current hits like “Mo Bomba” and “Nights” which helped keep the crowd loud and engaged as they waited for the main events of the night.
Kicking off the night portion of the event was The Internet, over at the Camp Stage. The group began with groovy funk laden songs like “Listen to Your Heart” adding much-needed instrumentation to the largely DJ’d festival. Before playing “Just Sayin” Syd asked the crowd to help with the hook of the song, hilariously teaching them how to yell “You fucked up!” at the right time, which got the crowd nice and warmed up for them to move onto newer songs from Hive Mind. After a few of the newer songs they comfortably transitioned into some of their oldest tracks, keeping every member of the audience happy and showing an excellent amount of crowd awareness, never letting things cool down or get out of hand despite the massive audience.
ASAP Rocky kicked off his set with “Testing” featuring pyrotechnics and awesome stage design complete with a monstrous crash test dummy head. Throughout the set exciting onscreen visuals were custom tailored to each song uniquely fitting the vibe of the show. Some of the more memorable visuals included Tron like grids and 3D renders of crash test dummies in action. Rocky stopped the show a few times to shout out the exceptionally rowdy, taking special note of the multiple mosh pits that had broken out closer to the stage. Meanwhile, at the farther back end of the crowd, a baby recording the show from the shoulders of his mother was gathering “oohs and ahhs” from nearby audience members. Before playing “LSD” he shouted out everyone in the crowd who had tried psychedelics and changed the lights to slowly pulsating cyan and magenta, which wonderfully fit the trippy vibe of the song. After playing “LSD” he teased Tyler for “kicking him off the stage” before launching into old hits like “Angels” then transitioned into “Plain Jane” and “Yamborghini High,” though hits like “Goldie” and “Wild For The Night” were suspiciously absent from the set.
Tyler, The Creator’s set was interesting in the sense that it wasn’t a headliner, but he sure performed like one. The stage design featured a treehouse scenic element with projections that changed from song to song, showing off different kinds of weather. He kicked off with an incredible run of “Where this Flower Blooms,” “Boredom” and “Okra” before moving into some lesser-known songs, though one would have a hard time guessing the popularity of any particular song given that seemingly every member of the crowd knew every single lyric. Largely the setlist was kept recent, playing off of the massive critical success of Flower Boy. Tyler took a few moments to address the crowd, letting them know that there are artists in the crowd that have great ideas, and to make sure not to give up on your dreams before they come true because there were artists on top of the world who aren’t anywhere to be seen, and that consistency and hard work are important. After his speech, he moved into “911/Mr.Lonely” and teased the crowd for rapping a whole verse before dropping out on the hook calling them “nasty as fuck.” Closing out the set was an excellent run of “Garden Shed,” “Glitter,” “I Ain’t Got Time” and “See You Again.” The highlight of the final moments was “Who Dat Boy” which more or less lit the crowd on fire, sparking multiple moshpits and even turning the previously calm areas into a gauntlet of thrashing bodies. Luckily for fans, after Tyler closed out his set they could run right over to the next big highlight of the night Pusha T.
Some artists perform just to bolster album sales. Others try to make it part of an art form. Others, however, are straight up professionals; that’s Pusha T. There isn’t a single moment of his show that doesn’t feel perfectly calculated to get you up on your feet and jumping around. He began by playing the entire first half of “Rap album of the year” Daytona before moving into crowd-pleasing selections of songs off My Name is My Name like “Numbers on the Boards” and “Nosetalgia” on top of selected verses from his career with G.O.O.D. Music, including “Runaway,” “So Appalled” and “New God Flow.” The old heads in the crowd no doubt appreciated him dropping his flawless intro verse off of Clipse’s “Grindin” before launching into the back half of Daytona. Once the album had wrapped up he went back to performing crowd favorite verses, including his verse from “Feel the Love,” “Mercy” and “Don’t Like” from G.O.O.D. Music, Cruel Summer. All in all, the performance was flawless, his onscreen graphics featuring watch faces and cherubim surrounded by a sizzling arc of electricity were phenomenal. The only moment that stood out as strange was when the words “Fuck Drake” appeared onscreen, which felt rather unlike something Pusha T would do. Anyone who had that gut feeling would end up being right, as he later denounced the statement as coming from “some corny tech” in a tweet posted later that night.
SZA was left with the difficult task of following Tyler on the main stage, and cooling the crowd down with her smooth voice after they had just been ignited by Pusha T’s icy coke flow. The main stage featured a nice design with giant CTRL letters posted across the stage. She was admittedly an odd choice of closer after the hype of Tyler and Pusha but given that she had no competition, she held the largest crowd of the night with her excellent stage presence and charming magnetism. Despite hearing that SZA has had difficulty singing live, she sounded fantastic at the venue, strongly dispelling all concerns over her ability to perform. Early on in the set, she shared fears that everyone would leave after Tyler but luckily for all of us, we stuck around to see one of the best sets of the night. Even if it didn’t possess the same type of energy as Pusha T or Tyler, it was an excellent closing set that relied on hits like “Supermodel” and “Love Galore” to get the audience nice and mellowed out to wake up and rock on day two.
A lot of people had assumed that Flog Gnaw would be the festival of the year ever since its lineup was announced months ago. After day one it certainly seems to be well on its way to claiming that title. With excellent showings from superstars like A$AP Rocky, Tyler, The Creator, SZA and Pusha T, there isn’t another festival around that can unite hip-hop fans to such a degree. Combine these excellent performances with the awesome atmosphere and delightful carnival vibe and atmosphere, it’s easy to see this becoming of the must-see festivals for years to come.
Photo Credit: Marisa Rose Ficara