It’s uncanny how closely the development of D.C.’s budding Trillectro Music Festival follows the titles of the original Star Wars trilogy. The blend of hip-hop and EDM music’s 2012 maiden voyage was literally like A New Hope, injecting the city with a breath of fresh air. Similar to The Empire Strikes Back, its successor was a bigger deal. Its long-awaited third venture, which took place this past Saturday, has been the largest production of all, similar to the revered Return of the Jedi. Changes made to Trillectro’s most recent installment raised the stakes for the festival in year three, solidifying its identity as well as its meaning to the city that inspired it.
The most substantial change to Trillectro this year was its relocation to a new venue. After spending its first two years at Southeast D.C.’s Half Street Fairgrounds, the event moved to the city’s historic RFK Stadium’s festival grounds. “We moved to a new venue because we had outgrown the previous space,” festival co-founder Modi Oyewole explains. Oyewole adds that choosing RFK Stadium was important to Trillectro’s overarching mission: uniting opposite ends of the spectrum, and doing it in D.C.
"It’s important for us to be in the city," he says. "It’s important to have a festival that’s easily accessible, and we didn’t want to move to a Merriweather Post Pavillion in the cut somewhere [in neighboring Maryland], because—and I’m not saying there's not culture out there—we wanted to do it in the city that made us who we are."
Upon trekking through the massive tunnel to access RFK Stadium’s festival grounds, attendees could immediately feel the festival’s growth. This is the first year it felt similar to a traditional festival, and not only did it graduate to a larger space, the sponsorship presence was even stronger. For example, the massive Reebok tent situated in the middle of the festival served as a divider between the main stage and the aptly-titled "finesse stage," as well as shelter from the rain which subdued the festival early on. But not even the showers could stop a crowd from gathering for one reason: the celebration of music.
Trillectro is powered by its lineup each year. This time around, Big Sean headlined a bill that featured other national acts like the man behind the other "Harlem Shake," Baauer, Migos, teenage "No Flex Zone" creators Rae Sremmurd, and TDE’s ethereal vocalist SZA. There was also a healthy blend of local talent like rising rappers Ras Nebyu and GoldLink, favorites like Oddisee, yU and Uptown XO (who make up the trio, Diamond District), Tabi Bonney, who performed at the first Trillectro and surprised everyone this year, and MMG signee Fat Trel, who paused his set to offer a moment of silence for slain teenager Michael Brown, as well as antagonistic remarks about law enforcement.
Just as A$AP Rocky’s special appearance during A$AP Ferg’s set (and the resulting unforgettable performance of "Work") became last year’s apex, an impromptu performance from Houston rapper and previous Trillectro act Travi$ Scott became this year’s pinnacle.
Scott handing the show’s reigns to Big Sean during their performance of "Don’t Play" superseded the anticipation and payoff surrounding Migos’ raucous "Handsome and Wealthy," and the Detroit rapper closed the show by running through a medley of his own hits (like "Mula") and guest appearances (everything from G.O.O.D Music’s "Clique" to Drake’s "All Me"). The performers satisfied the crowd, but, more important, so did Trillectro’s organizers. For the very first time, this is something they accomplished without all of them living in the area.
"We’re still here, we just live elsewhere to build our networks," says Oyewole, who, like fellow founders Quinn Coleman and Marcel Marshall, no longer resides in the D.C. area. "Building your network in other cities helps, because living in D.C. and staying in D.C. doesn’t give you that much perspective. When you travel, you learn from people that are from different communities, and we want to get all of that."
Furthermore, Oyewole maintains that absorbing different environments only strengthens what they’re building in D.C. "D.C. has a lot of great things, but that doesn’t mean outside influence is bad," he asserts. "Outside influence is awesome if it can help us take it to that next level. There are folks in New York and L.A.—where the entertainment industry thrives—that we need to link up with, and you’d never be able to link with [them] if you just stayed in D.C."
Music aside, Trillectro’s unique selling point is that it offers something outside of what the District is typically known for. Though the government will always be the dominant industry, D.C.’s rapid evolution as a cultural epicenter in recent years resulted in Forbes magazine crowning D.C. America’s "coolest" city earlier this month. Even with Trillectro’s success, Oyewole remains skeptical of its position in relation to that honor.
"I think from a subculture perspective in terms of music and the arts, Trillectro definitely plays a role. The reason we got into it is to show people that D.C. had this culture that exists," he explains. "D.C. is definitely becoming cooler, but I think the ‘cool’ that Forbes is referring to... I don’t even know if they’re speaking to the same type of cool. I think we’re a different type of cool."
The reality is that D.C. didn’t just become cool overnight thanks to gentrification and the sudden abundance of condos and restaurants. An event like Trillectro is influenced by other subcultures that thrived in the area decades ago. Not only does D.C. have a reputed punk music scene, it has go-go music, a highly-percussive sound that’s specific to the area. Both paved the way for Trillectro, as has D.C.’s emergence as a hip-hop outlet within the past five years. Trillectro has capitalized on the opportunity by bringing its marriage of opposites out of the underground and into the light for the world to see. If there’s any doubt about that, check the amount of national coverage its drawn over the past two years.
Despite Trillectro’s progress and expansion, Oyewole believes there are areas the team could strengthen moving forward. "That was our first run at this venue from a logistical standpoint, so there are plenty of opportunities to improve logistically," he confesses. "I’d love to get more electronic music involved next year; I think this year was kind of hip-hop heavy. More talent that can bring new audiences for new experiences."
With another year before Trillectro 4.0, its braintrust is focused on getting better as opposed to basking in the glory of this year’s festival. "We just want to improve," Oyewole says. "We’re never satisfied." That commitment to excellence bodes well for D.C. moving forward. —Julian Kimble
Julian Kimble has written for Complex, Billboard, The Washington City Paper, HipHopDX and more. Follow him on Twitter here.