Winter Music Conference and Ultra Music Festival have always been the place where new dance music records, artists, and genres are broken and made.
If your track catches fire at Ultra, you're guaranteed to have the best year of your career so far. Play your cards right, and you'll definitely get that invite to play the next time around.
This year, we heard nary a new summer anthem, nor an oh-my-god-you-had-to-see-it set. Most DJs played it safe with last year's house and trap anthems, rather than revealing any killer new tunes. It felt like 2013 all over again.
If anything was to be learned from this UMF, it's that hip-hop is coming back in a big way. For the first time ever, Ultra had five rappers on the bill -- six if you count M.I.A. -- and though relegated to the live stage, they were some of Ultra 2014's most interesting and exciting sets.
The rap game got started on Friday with an early 5 p.m. set from Waka Flocka Flame.
No stranger to EDM, the famously wild rapper just finished a tour with Steve Aoki and Borgore. His flair is just the thing for an Ultra crowd, and the live stage was tore up in all the right ways. Unfortunately, we didn't catch much of his set, and he left the stage a bit early, though his DJ stayed on to play big hits from other artists.
A few white girls jumped in front of the decks, trying to get their twerk on, despite somewhat lacking the requisite assets -- another frequent sight at Ultra 2014.
Later that day, superstar-in-the-making Chance the Rapper showed Miami how Chicago jukes. Backed by a guitar player, a trumpet player, and a live drummer, he brought the fuckin' house down.
You've never seen a rapper dance across the stage like Chance. His fancy footwork had us reminiscing about the days of James Brown -- not that we lived them. The crowd loved him and sang along loudly to most of the tracks from his killer Acid Rap mixtape.
He just finished an EP with UMF favorite Skrillex, and he's done additional collabs with James Blake. So we're sure it's not the last that EDM has seen of Chance the Rapper.
See Also: Ultra 2014: M.I.A., MGMT, Basement Jaxx
Saturday saw less rap action, but got a double-hitter when Riff Raff brought Far East Movement to the stage.
Both the Houstonite and his Asian-American friends have strong ties to the dance music world. Riff Raff is signed to Diplo's Mad Decent, and his well-known nonsense is a favorite of EDMers.
He turned things up with wacky dancers and giant cutouts of his own face, Katy Perry, and a random baby wolf head.
Though we're not particularly fans of Riff Raff's style, we can appreciate good showmanship. Unfortunately, the artist seemed more winded than energized, only half-rapping along to his own backing track and meandering from side to side on the stage.
When Far East Movement came out, they immediately brought more hype to the scene than Raff could manage. It was a nice surprise, and helped bring the set to a close with some oomph.
Sunday was the day of the real legends, beginning with Pusha T's stellar performance.
Famous for his solo work on Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music label, he's been an influential hip-hopper since his days as one-half of Clipse. He masterfully delivered with plenty of bangers from his recent My Name is My Name LP, plus some crowd favorites including "Mercy," "Runaway," and "Don't Like."
"Let's be clear," the rapper said before going into "Now God Flow," "G.O.O.D. Music makes the hardest records in hip-hop."
We can't argue with Pusha on that point, and the G.O.O.D. crew definitely brings tracks that DJs love to play. But as far as bringing the heaviest rap set at Ultra, we're going to give the nod to the one-and-only original dubstep rapper Dizzee Rascal.
Hailing from London, the grimey, dirty stank "Bassline Junkie" was easily one of the most energetic performers to hit Ultra 2014's live stage -- hip-hop or not. He kicked it off proper with tracks from his debut, Boy in Da Corner, pumping people up with "Fix Up, Look Sharp," and teaching them about "real London dubstep" with "I Love You." He gave them dancey tunes with "Holiday" and "Arse Like That."
The most refreshing thing about Dizzee was his no gimmicks style. He didn't need a big picture of his own face or flashy dancers to get the crowd goin'. All he had was a badass turntablist, an incredibly talented singer, a real hypeman, and his own insane flow.
When his set ended, we left encouraged by the knowledge that real hip-hop has a place in fans' hearts and heads, even at a dance music festival like Ultra.
As 2014 progresses, the future of EDM is a mystery. We're sure some star will rise from the abyss, and of course, some Diplo song is sure to capture everyone's attention before the year is done. But when it comes to fresh new sounds making waves, we're looking to hip-hop.
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Will there be even more rappers at Ultra 2015? Maybe someone can actually make it beyond the live stage for a chance to capture a real crowd. Either way, hip-hop is officially back in style, and these dudes are killing it.
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