Famous Dex: "I own this motherfucking city! I created a wave!" Credit: Matt Harvey

Cole Bennett founded local hip-hop blog Lyrical Lemonade almost five years ago, and on Sunday it hosted its first outdoor festival, the Summer Smash, in Douglas Park. Bennett and the site’s editor, Elliot Montanez, planned the event in the spring and announced it last month. Chicago had more than enough festivals already, but the Summer Smash justified its existence with a distinctive 25-act bill that leaned heavily on young rappers who’ve made their names on the Internet, including Joey Badass, Trippie Redd, Lil Skies, and Vic Mensa. Three Reader writers—Leor Galil, Matt Harvey, and Tyra Triche—were curious enough about it to spend another warm weekend day in another public park, watching live music behind fences. They had this conversation about the festival the next day.

Leor: As very probably the oldest person to voluntarily attend the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash (I’m 32), I feel obligated to start this conversation by pointing out how disconnected I felt from the crowd. The average attendee looked about 16, had no doubt scrawled the lyrics to XXXTentacion’s “Look at Me” in a school notebook, and somehow had the energy to jump around in the heat while Miami schlub Fat Nick pretended to be a rapper. I realize I sound like a cop, but despite being the day’s designated fogey, I did enjoy myself enough to endure the Fat Nicks of the day. What did y’all expect to see at the fest?

Tyra: Though I’m a bit closer in age to the 16-year-old attendees, I also felt a bit out of place, which I expected after looking at the lineup. There were a lot of artists whose names didn’t ring a bell, like Germ, Lil Mosey, and Felly (whose set I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I would). But I will say there was a good balance between these lesser-known rappers and more popular folks like Famous Dex and Joey Badass. It was an interesting mix, to say the least.

Lil B
Lil BCredit: Matt Harvey

I’m not sure what exactly I expected from the festival, but I do know that the lineup looked like a list of artists who’ve started arguments about whether they belong on an XXL freshman list. I too felt out of place at first, but in talking to other people there, I learned that most people were “out of place” at some point in the day, in the sense that most everyone was there to see their artist. Folks who’d come for, say, Lil Skies, often looked about as lost when Joey Badass hit the stage as 30-year-olds like Leor were at Fat Nick’s set. It was perhaps the most segmented audience I’ve seen at a festival.

Leor: Wow, Matt, you found other people my age? It’s funny, the fest really did show the division of fan bases within hip-hop, which isn’t something that gets a lot of oxygen in the press. We tend to talk about hip-hop in eras or waves, and whichever is the “latest” gets talked about as if it’s the only thing that exists. But the truth is far more complex than that, and seeing it play out at this festival was fascinating.

DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia
DJ Paul of Three 6 MafiaCredit: Matt Harvey

I got to see Germ, a young Atlanta rapper who’s basically a Three 6 Mafia LARPer, perform on the small stage an hour or two before Three 6 founder DJ Paul ran through their catalog of hits. And I appreciated that Paul knew the Lyrical Lemonade crowd wasn’t largely his—he had his DJ spin Cardi B‘s “Bickenhead” before performing Project Pat’s “Chicken Head,” demonstrating how current tracks still riff on material from the Three 6 family. Paul knew he had to school the crowd—I just wish more people wanted to learn. But hey, these kids are still on summer break. What surprised you most during the day?

Tyra: I was surprised to see indifferent responses even to artists who were Chicago natives. I checked out Lucki and Queen Key‘s sets, and they both had audiences that didn’t seem very engaged. Since they are both local underground rappers, I figured this would be the perfect event for their fan bases to come out and support. For Key, it wasn’t until she brought out King Louie to perform their song “Toes Out” that the crowd really got going. And Lucki’s crowd seemed to know who he was, but they didn’t seem very excited to see him. (To be fair, he’s not cut out for a show in a park—onstage he said, “My shit be mad intimate.”) The two of them definitely didn’t garner the attention that many non-Chicagoans on the bill got, which was strange.

Vic Mensa
Vic MensaCredit: Matt Harvey

Matt: I was surprised by a similar thing myself. I also noticed that Chicago artists weren’t getting the kind of love that I expected, but I saw it as less of an issue with the audience than it was with the artists. They seemed to be under the impression that everyone had come out to see them, and ended up performing like it was their concert rather than a music festival. For example, Vic Mensa performed songs that people were unlikely to appreciate—or even know about—unless they were die-hard fans of his. They weren’t really songs for riling up a big crowd. (I’m thinking of “16 Shots” and “Liquor Locker.”) Artists like Vic, Lucki, and Mick Jenkins are a lot more DJ Paul than they are Trippie Redd, in terms of how many people know their music. They definitely would’ve benefited from taking a page out of Paul’s book and leaning into that otherness. To me there seemed to be a sense of camaraderie amongst guys like Trippie Redd, Ski Mask, and Skies that I’m interested to hear if y’all noticed too.

Trippie Redd
Trippie ReddCredit: Matt Harvey

Leor: There was definitely a sense of a loose, open network among the so-called Soundcloud rappers (though the only things they seem to have in common are their preferred streaming service and face tattoos). You can tell who’s close with whom, like when Pennsylvania heartthrob Lil Skies popped onstage to perform with Yung Bans, who sounded like a sheep with laryngitis. Though of course artists in that community also collaborate with people outside it. Maxo Kream, a grizzled gangsta-rap storyteller old heads love, closed out the small stage—and he performed “Capeesh,” which features Trippie Redd (who was about to headline the main stage). Trippie’s scream-singing has helped make him a rare Soundcloud rapper who’s managed to cross over into more mainstream pop.

Maxo Kream backstage
Maxo Kream backstageCredit: Matt Harvey

If anybody has made Soundcloud rap into an identifiable community (and commodity), it’s Cole Bennett. As a video director, he’s provided those artists with an animated flair, and his early collaborations with Dex helped make them both famous. While I waited in line for food—appallingly, the fest had only five food vendors for around 10,000 fans, so that took me literally two hours—I heard Dex scream, “I own this motherfucking city! I created a wave!”

The Soundcloud rap phenomenon reminds me of how Warped Tour felt when I was in high school; people on the outside realize it’s a big movement, but it seems closed off to them. (It also reminded me of Warped Tour when every other rapper asked the crowd to form a circle pit.) Dex recently debuted at number 12 on the Billboard 200 and remains hugely popular in this community, despite video documentation of him beating a girlfriend. But he doesn’t often get mentioned as a Chicago rapper who’s moving the needle, at least not outside of this subculture. Were there any other acts whose work and performance represented the spirit of the festival?

Ski Mask the Slump God
Ski Mask the Slump GodCredit: Matt Harvey

Tyra: For me, Ski Mask the Slump God’s set was the epitome of this festival based largely in Soundcloud rap, less because of his work than because of all the time he spent honoring the late XXXTentacion—he called him his “brother.” Ski Mask called for a moment of silence and had his DJ play X’s “Sad!”, which hit number one on the Billboard 100 after his untimely death in June. Just about everyone in the crowd sang along while holding their arms up in an X. It was at this moment that I really got a sense of the love that exists between these artists and their fans. Ski Mask wasn’t the only one to shout out XXXTentacion—I heard multiple DJs and performers pay their respects throughout the day. X, like Dex, is someone who’s prospered in this sector of hip-hop despite evidence of his abusive behavior. While this wave of Soundcloud rap has helped launch many careers, it’s also been very male-dominated—and it’s promoted some of the most repugnant rappers out right now. Ski Mask’s set, and the festival overall, captured this well.

Wifisfuneral led one of many onstage tributes to murdered rapper and alleged abuser XXXTentacion.
Wifisfuneral led one of many onstage tributes to murdered rapper and alleged abuser XXXTentacion.Credit: Matt Harvey

Matt: That male dominance really reared its ugly head often throughout the day. Many times I heard artists doing call-and-response and saying “bitches” instead of “ladies,” “girls,” or any other nonderogatory way to refer to women. The closest anyone’s set got to acknowledging the women in the audience was DJ Paul during “Slob on My Knob”—in place of Juicy J’s original hook, “Suck a nigga dick or something,” he chanted “Eat a lil cat or something.” Queen Key was the only woman in the lineup, and her set was over before McDonald’s started serving lunch.

Queen Key backstage with Twista
Queen Key backstage with TwistaCredit: Matt Harvey

Overall there seems to be a blatant disregard for the place of women in this—and I’m using the term quite loosely here—community of rappers. I’m sure there’s some deeper conversation that needs to be had, one that goes far beyond the scope of Summer Smash and veers into the tumultuous relationship women have with male-dominated music overall. It’s unfortunate to say, but for all the ways Lyrical Lemonade and the artists performing at its festival have broken the decades-old mold of “getting on” in the industry (or further broadened the arbitrary definition of hip-hop, or changed the way that music is delivered), they’re still agents of the music industry’s systemic misogyny.

Leor: And I wonder what those messages are doing to the audiences receiving them. I mean, we’ve said it before, but the crowd was old enough to figure out how to sneak beer out of the house but too young to be able to hold their liquor. I saw several people vomiting or having trouble standing up or being carted away by medical personnel—it was just as bad as Lollapalooza. To be clear, I have no emotional stake in Lolla, but I’m more invested in Summer Smash—I feel more positive about what it could end up being. They just need to figure out (among other things) how to get people through the gates quicker and not run out of bottled water. Final thoughts from y’all?

Yung Bans
Yung BansCredit: Matt Harvey

Tyra: Next year’s festival definitely needs some changes, but overall it was a fun time and I would definitely go again. I enjoyed the two-stage setup, even though two acts with overlapping fan bases ended up performing simultaneously. Better scheduling would be great. Let’s cross our fingers and hope that Summer Smash’s future holds more women performers and cheaper lemonade. (I paid $7 for mine before Matt showed me where I could get free water. Sad times.)

Matt: With scarce food options, few extracurriculars, lax security, and fragmented audience, Summer Smash felt like exactly what it was: a music festival in its infancy. While it has a lot of growing to do, it got the most important parts right. The lineup was surprisingly deep for a first-time festival, and it had some great highlights. Can’t wait to see the glow up next year.

Leor: I have a whole year to rest and forget that I watched a minute of Fat Nick!