BUKU Bests: A BUKU Music + Art Project 2014 Review

posted by Laura Baker-Finch on March 26, 2014

Photos by Marjana Jaidi

New Orleans, Louisiana -- Lodged between a railroad and the Mississippi River, The BUKU Music + Art Project maintains a small-scale vibe with an easy-to-digest attendance and walkable festival grounds. Yet its small size says nothing of its big personality. From the artists on the lineup to the impromptu street performers and crazily-dressed festivalgoers, BUKU displays an organization and character far beyond its three years. 

The EDM-focused festival had a healthy dose of hip hop and indie rock acts grace its four stages Friday and Saturday - and while an eclectic mix, the performances and the fans blended effortlessly. Festivalgoers who came for Tyler, The Creator also watched Explosions in the Sky and attendees who named Bone Thugs-N-Harmony among their must-see acts, equally enjoyed Sleigh Bells

While the festival as a whole was an ideal experience to kick off my 2014 festival season schedule, the best way to break it down is by, well, bests. Scroll down to find out who was the best throwback, who lived up to the hype, who had the best insults, and what set prompted me to compare post-rock to dubstep. 

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony: Best Throwback Jams

Friday evening on the Power Plant Stage, Krayzie Bone, Wish Bone, Flesh-N-Bone, and Bizzy Bone - aka Bone Thugs-N-Harmony - proved the “Cleveland Sound” to be relevant more than two decades after its creation, and they made sure everybody new it. 

“Y’all know we got 20 years worth of music, right?” was repeatedly asked to the festivalgoers in the crowd, many of whom didn’t even have 20 years worth of life under their belts. Yet age appeared irrelevant as all bonded over the marijuana leaf emblazoned behind the rappers, wafting smoke over the crowd, and the quintet’s entrance to Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova” (“Where were you while we were getting high?”). 

While the crowd rapped along to tracks “1st of tha month” and “Tha Crossroads,” where Bone Thugs-N-Harmony truly shined at BUKU was in their covers. They appropriately started with Eazy-E (he gave the group their first record contract in 1993), announcing “Let’s bring that mother fucker back to life” before rapping “Foe Tha Love of $.” 

The rap legend up next? Notorious B.I.G. Bone Thugs rapped “Hypnotize” before getting into “Notorious Thugs,” the track they collaborated on back in 1997 for Biggie’s Life After Death album. Moving right along to the West Coast scene of their heyday, The five Bones paid their respects to Tupac with his track “California Love.” 

If crowd rap-a-longs are any indication, these covers may have been the most enjoyable part of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s set. Though for the festival’s largely young demographic, it didn’t matter. The 90s rap throwbacks were exactly what they wanted out of the performance - regardless of origin.

Chance The Rapper: Best Hyped Band 

As with most buzz bands, I was skeptical to like  Chicago MC Chance The Rapper despite my enjoyment of his 2013 mixtape Acid Rap. His name has appeared on countless music blogs and “Best New Artists” lists since the mixtape hit the internet, but too many times have hyped artists let me down in a live setting. On Friday night at The BUKU Project, however, Chance proved his chops. 

The 20-year-old rapper commanded the stage in overalls and a Dodgers hat as he led the crowd and his band through most of Acid Rap, at once appearing as a seasoned rockstar and a kid just realizing his dream (“Thanks for knowing who I am. This is cool”). Despite the multiple hip hop artists and rappers on BUKU’s lineup, Chance’s set stood apart, adding all the elements of the festival to support his rapping. While Chance moved around the stage and engaged the crowd, his band - The Social Experiment - held their own, and it wasn’t taken for granted. Not only did Chance introduce the band (comprised of Nico Segal, Peter Cottontale, and Greg Landfair, Jr.), he truly made them a part of the set. The trumpet player got special attention during “Interlude (That’s Love)”; Chance displayed his respect, requesting him to “tell them what I’m trying to say.” 

Explosions in the Sky: Best Excuse to Compare Post-Rock to Dubstep

On a lineup of largely electronic and hip hop artists, Explosions in the Sky seemed, well, out of place. The post-rock four-piece have no computers on stage nor any vocals in their songs. What they do have, however, is talent. EITS consistently have an effortless set, during which I cannot take my eyes off the stage. For a full hour I stood transfixed on both their technique and the light show put on by the festival’s production crew and, while many around me hadn’t previously heard of the band, I wasn’t alone. 

The Ballroom crowd started off small when Explosions picked up their instruments in their traditional silence and launched into "The Only Moment We Were Alone" off 2003's The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place. Yet by mid-set the space had filled as the symphonic rock of EITS proved similar to a trance-like DJ set or electronic jam band - the crowd got lost in it. Sure I still had to zone out some festivalgoers yelling by the bar and answer “who was playing?” for others, but their set wasn’t as juxtaposing as initially expected. I was even able to compare the roller coaster-like journey of each Explosions song to the “drop” in a dubstep track - seriously

Big Freedia: Best Twerking 

New Orleans’ own Queen Diva played twice during The BUKU Project - first during a VIP-exclusive twerk lesson then followed by a set in the Float Den. If you don’t know Big Freedia, she’s best described by the title of her Fuse reality show, “Queen of Bounce,” and for bringing twerking to the non-New-Orleans-hip-hop masses before Miley Cyrus ever rubbed nasties with Robin Thicke. 

On the S.S. BLU-KU for her twerk lesson, Big Freedia led us through pre-bounce stretches and a crash course of six different bounce variations (we’ll be giving you a tutorial later this week) before performing her real BUKU set a few hours later. In the Float Den, festivalgoers got to put her lesson to the true test - and some more than others. After a few songs of twerking with her monochrome-dressed dancers (The Divas), Freedia pulled volunteers onstage to twerk their stuff. The biggest lesson learned from Big Freedia at BUKU? Twerking is best left to the professionals. 

Tyler, The Creator: Best Insults

While most artists at The BUKU Project thanked their audiences profusely, Tyler, The Creator took a different approach. The riot-inciting rapper and Odd Future founder spat insult after insult, and the crowd lapped it up. After kicking out the photographers from the press pit after 1 song (“You’re not special”), Tyler turned his insults to the audience - “Okay you assholes, you pieces of shit. Stand there like you’re retarded and you fucking hate me, you EDM bitches.”  

When not hurling insults at the crowd, rapping happened too. At first in the form of DJ Taco warming up the crowd with Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” M.I.A’s “Paper Plane,” and Snoop Dogg’s “SMOKE WEED EVERYDAY.” Once sufficiently pumped up, Tyler, The Creator and Jasper “the fat one in the grey sweater” took over, playing through the hits and letting the crowd know it isn’t only them they make fun of - Jason Derulo was chastised as well. 

Sleigh Bells: Best Reason to Wear Earplugs 

Since I last saw Sleigh Bells, they added two touring members but kept their signature burst-your-ear-drums noise and can-barely-see-the-stage smoke machines and strobe lights - both of which were added to by the Float Den’s enclosed, echoing walls. Alexis Krauss danced in front of the wall of Marshall Amps that acted as their backdrop, giving off enough energy in the first three songs to take off her leather jacket. The crowd, rocking out as hard as black-leather-clad Krauss herself, could barely see the stage through the strobe-lit smoke that wafted from the sides of the stage, but no one seemed to mind. The dancing masses, glow-in-the-dark balloons bouncing overhead, and the fact BUKU marked the duo’s second-ever appearance in New Orleans guaranteed an enjoyable set - though one where everyone should be wearing earplugs. 

The Gaslamp Killer and Pres Hall Brass: Best NOLA Moment

Despite appearing three times at The BUKU Project (twice officially and once as a surprise set), The Gaslamp Killer never lost its edge - especially on Saturday evening. The alternative DJ and producer teamed up with New Orleans jazz band The Pres Hall Brass for a two-hour long set aboard the S.S. BLU-KU. 

The small VIP stage on the lower level of the docked riverboat was jam packed as musicians filed in one after the other. Press Hall Brass, the resident brass band of New Orleans' Preservation Hall,  played for roughly 10 minutes before The Gaslamp Killer approached his setup, slowly adding to the band’s improvisation. His additions were subtle, slight accompaniments that didn’t overpower the live instruments. It was a mashup that could have gone horribly wrong, but instead perfectly encapsulated the spirit of BUKU - the traditional flair of New Orleans was present, but with a new electronic twist. 

The Flaming Lips: Best Reason to Have a Seizure Warning

On The BUKU Project website, festival organizers warn “strobe lights, lasers, bright lights, and synthetic fog and smoke” may be used and that “these could cause the following health conditions in some people: epileptic seizure, headache, dizziness, disorientation, or anxiety.” Without needing to explicitly say so, these warnings were for The Flaming Lips. 

The psychedelic alt-rockers have become known over the years for their live performance antics, and their set at The BUKU Project is one for the books. Retiring their giant hamster ball, The Flaming Lips had a new set up from our past encounters - giant rope-like light cables hung from the stage’s bannisters and draped around a giant mountain atop which Wayne Coyne stood as if on a pedestal. The ropes of light switched from flashes of colors to a a falling star effect at various speeds and were accompanied by laser lights pointed at the audience, smoke machines on both sides of the stage, and a multi-colored, fast-paced production adorning the back screen - you get the need for the seizure warning now don’t you? 

To further the acid trip (sans acid) experience of their set, Coyne would exit and reenter the stage with various giant silver balloon formations - first in the form of the words “FUCK YEAH BUKU” and later as what on its own would be described as a cloud but when attached to the singer appeared as wings. The visual display, as it often does, overpowered the music - which ranged from sad song “Race for the Prize” through DEVO (“Gates of Steel”) and The Beatles (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”) covers to their go-to closing track “Do You Realize??” 

Wavves: Best Rock Interlude 

Overlapping on the lineup with Zedd and Tourist and immediately before Pusha T, it’s easy to see Wavves as an outlier of the BUKU lineup. The rock and punk (surf rock? slacker pop? suburban punk?) aesthetics of the band didn’t draw a huge crowd Friday night, but they drew a dedicated one. Fans bopped to the lyrics and politely almost-moshed to hits off last year’s Afraid of Heights and their heavier-hitting LPs from 2008 and 2010. 

Usual Wavves concert antics like crowd surfing were notably missing (and missed), but the low-key setting compared to their usual shows meant they brought their A game. Rather than partying in the crowd and displaying an onstage attitude that can best be summed up as “yolo,” Wavves were as clear and concise as their recorded-selves. The San Diego-based band even took the time to grace the audience with a new, untitled track despite wanting to hurry up “so we can go watch Pusha T.” It was a brief rock n’ roll interlude, but it was just the dose I needed mid-festival.  

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See Also:

Fest Digest: The BUKU Music + Art Project
Facebook Album: Faces + Spaces at The BUKU Project 
Photo Gallery: The Art and Atmosphere of The BUKU Project