Hip-hop has a bigger presence at Riot Fest this year than ever before—hugely influential acts such as De La Soul, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, and Cypress Hill are sure to steal some of the spotlight from the lineup’s army of guitar heroes. But some of the best rap artists at the festival are less well-known. If you want to see the shape of hip-hop to come, start with these five sets.
Fri 9/11, 12:30 PM, Roots Stage
Cloud rap began in the early 2010s with a geographically scattered collection of producers and rappers united by a love of dreamlike, slow-motion melodies, and though the subgenre hasn’t gotten any easier to define, it’s definitely crossed over into the mainstream. A$AP Rocky has experimented with the sound, and it helped launch the career of producer Clams Casino. Oakland duo Main Attrakionz helped shape cloud rap from the beginning, and MCs Mondre M.A.N. and Squadda B should get a little more shine, not just for their contributions to the style but also for their distinctive take on it—they bring tension and energy to what’s ordinarily laid-back, almost ambient music. On this year’s 808s & Dark Grapes III (Vapor Records) their playful, unraveling cadences combine with sparkling but soporific instrumentals to create a surprising feeling of elation.
Fri 9/11, 3:30 PM, Radicals Stage
The obvious draw with Ground Up are the resplendent, animated instrumentals of producer Bijan Houshmadinajad, but the rappers in this Philadelphia hip-hop group, Alexander Azar and Malcolm McDowell, set each other up for devastating punch lines like the undefeated world champions of two-man beach volleyball. The MCs could use help with their lyrics—they rarely get beyond self-congratulatory boasts—but when Azar and McDowell lock in with a nasty beat, their shortcomings as writers cease to matter. The flows on their self-released, self-titled 2014 album draw you in like a tractor beam.
Fri 9/11, 5:30 PM, Radicals Stage
Himanshu Suri, aka Heems, broke out as part of rap group Das Racist, who reflected the climate of late-aughts Brooklyn with a keen eye and a dash of good-natured humor. The zeitgeist hasn’t been as kind to Suri since Das Racist broke up in 2012, and part of it might be timing. After two idea-crammed, omnivorously poppy, politically engaged solo mixtapes in 2012, he was silent till this winter’s Eat Pray Thug (Megaforce)—and a gap that long between releases might as well be a lifetime in hip-hop years. Fortunately Suri’s thumping, thoughtful, and slightly goofy new jam “Sometimes” picks up right where he left off.
Post Malone with FKi
Fri 9/11, 8:30 PM, Radicals Stage
Dallas-bred, Los Angeles-based rapper Post Malone has just a handful of singles floating around the Internet, but he’s become an unexpected phenom thanks to the viral hit “White Iverson.” Over an elegiac but strangely triumphant instrumental from FKi, he unspools carefully considered rhymes in a flow that’s so soft-edged and unforced it sounds half like he’s yawning. The “coulda been a contender” weariness and heart in Post Malone’s delivery makes him seem older than his 19 years, and counterintuitively it could be the thing that earns him his big break.
Tasha the Amazon
Sun 9/13, 1:30 PM, Radicals Stage
If all you’ve heard of Toronto hip-hop are Drake’s shifty nighttime confessionals, then Tasha the Amazon will broaden your worldview. This fire-breathing MC and producer approaches her music with the hunger of a rookie with something to prove and the eagerness of a rhyme warrior jumping into a cypher. On her only mixtape so far, 2013’s FiDiYootDem, she rattles off the same sort of self-congratulatory boasts that generations of MCs have thrown down, but her controlled flow and venomous delivery give them a new sting.