Hip-Hop Coachella? Rolling Loud Has Its Own Thing

Rap world's biggest festival paid a visit to SXSW

When most people think of marquee music festivals, the first events that come to mind are Coachella and Bonnaroo, but there’s another name that’s entering the conversation: Rolling Loud.

Now in its fifth year, Rolling Loud is to hip-hop what the Electric Daisy Carnival is to EDM, a multi-day festival that has become one of the defining industry events of the genre. This year over the course of three days in Miami, headliners like Migos, Travis Scott and Kid Cudi as well as a stacked lineup of up-and-coming talent will perform for 70,000 rap fans per day.

“When we first had Travis Scott, he didn’t even have an album out. But we’ve also always had the underground guys …”

Like most hip-hop success stories, Rolling Loud’s popularity is the result of a lot of hustle. Its 29 year-old co-founder, Tariq Cherif, solidified his love of hip-hop back in fourth grade, thanks to Dr. Dre’s Chronic 2001 (he had the unedited version, don’t tell his mom). Then while at Florida State University, he noticed a void in local hip-hop market and began throwing concerts. Five years later he booked his first festival, which like most year one events, was a disaster.

 
Rolling Loud in Miami. Courtesy of Rolling Loud

Rolling Loud in Miami. Courtesy of Rolling Loud

 

“The first one was awesome … it was terrible, terribly awesome,” says Cherif. “The amount of rain that Miami gets for the entire month of February, we got in five hours. It was flooding into the venue, the fire alarm was going on the whole time, but 99% of the fans had a great time. It was a great learning experience.”

It’s not surprising that fans enjoyed themselves given the lineup: ScHoolboy Q, Juicy J, A$AP Ferg, Action Bronson, Curren$y, and a young Travis Scott, before he conquered the radio. Supporting him so early has led to a fruitful partnership, with Scott’s font size growing on the posters for subsequent fests.

“When we first had Travis Scott, he didn’t even have an album out. But we’ve also always had the underground guys, Robb Banks, Wifisfuneral. We had Pouya and Denzel Curry from day one,” says Cherif.

As the festival grew, Cherif and company began attracting even bigger talent, to the point where Cardi B’s appearance in Miami this year isn’t even getting top billing. Plus, they’ve expanded the brand nationally to hip-hop epicenters like the Bay Area, Southern California, and Los Angeles itself, as well as a less-likely locale in early 2019: Australia. To pull off such ambitious events, they team with local promoters who know the landscape and can help with boots-on-the-ground logistics. It’s similar to the Electric Daisy Carnival model, and although their attendance is roughly half of EDC Vegas’s staggering 150K capacity, they’re still selling out wherever they go, often within 24 hours.

Naturally the superstar lineups draw most of the attention, but as the brand grows, the overall festival experience becomes more important. As a single-genre festival, there’s a certain unity to the fanbase that allows Rolling Loud’s activations to really hit home. Skate parks and basketball courts are two amenities that you won’t find at many other festivals and that speak directly to their audience, although naturally there’s gotta be some Instagram bait, like a Google Pixel partnership on a mirror room laser installation. Social media helps build reputation, and that means staying true to hip-hop attitude.

 
Rolling Loud in Miami. Courtesy of Rolling Loud

Rolling Loud in Miami. Courtesy of Rolling Loud

 

“We’re cocky, and not afraid to say things that a young person from Miami might say. The Rolling Loud account doesn’t hesitate to retweet you and make fun of you,” says Cherif. “If you said something about ticket price, we might retweet you and say to stay home and watch the live stream.”

For budding promoters looking to start their own festivals, Cherif’s advice is to gain as much experience as you can before dipping into such an ambitious production. That means throwing events in small rooms, 300-capacity clubs, outdoor venues where you have to build a stage, clubs that have in-house security and those that don’t, just so you can see the difference in bringing your own. And more importantly, don’t give up: “The best advice I could give myself back then would be to just keep doing it. You’ll run into problems and fix them.”

Independence is also a crucial element of Rolling Loud’s success. They’ve made joint venture deals and strategic short-term partnerships for their expansions, but maintain 100% ownership of their Miami shows and overall intellectual property. Soon, they plan to start releasing music. Staying independent has allowed them to dodge the pitfalls seen by perhaps the industry’s most cautionary tale of festival disaster, Fyre Festival.

“I still don’t have all the facts, but it seems like a lot of malicious behavior with good intentions,” says Cherif about the Fyre debacle. “It sucks that those documentaries came out, because now if we try to sell RFID money on wristbands, people think it’s sketchy, but it’s also good, because people have more respect for what we do and that we actually pull it off.”

Check out the Rolling Loud official SXSW showcase on Saturday, March 16. Tariq Cherif is part of The Hip Hop Bubble That Popped Culture session on Thursday, March 14.

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