DC’s Something in the Water Music Festival: Right Place, Right Vibe

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It’s annoying to start like that, but sometimes you have revelations in fancy places: I was walking through Paris six years ago when I came across a grove of trees piled up on a tuft of grass in front of the Fondation Louis Vuitton. It was spring, and the late afternoon sun illuminated the wildlife in a way that made each leafy branch look like a stroke of Monet that hadn’t yet dried. As the colors swirled in my eyes, an idea became clear in my mind. Monet and his peers painted these kinds of trees with these kinds of colors because that’s how photons from the sun land on that locality. Which means the walls of your dentist’s office would look very different if the Post-Impressionists had operated in Detroit. The quality of the air, the angle of the sun, this art belongs to a very particular planetary geography.

Since then, I wonder if the music could work the same way. Regional folk music traditions are obviously shaped by cultural migrations and collisions of social customs, but I’m talking about something environmental, biological, or perhaps even metaphysical. The way our circadian rhythms are synchronized by sunrise and sunset. As the seasons change the speed of our steps. The way the temperature seems to tighten and relax our speech. The way our shared weather experience can feel like quiet group telepathy. Our physical surroundings unquestionably shape our sonic world and the way we experience it – which must shape our “local” music, right? The idea seems indemonstrable and undeniable.

This weekend, Washington will host a star-studded music festival called Something In the Water, and everyone is coming from everywhere: Lil Uzi Vert, Justin Timberlake, J Balvin, SZA, Jon Batiste, Lil Baby, Tierra Whack, Usher, 21 Savage, Dave Matthews Band and many more. Founded in 2019 in Virginia Beach by Pharrell Williams, the festival’s name is a nod to his hometown’s outsized influence on 21st century pop. Twenty summers ago, when Williams and his co-producer Chad Hugo ruled the airwaves as the Neptunes, the only hitmakers who could match their futuristic style were Virginia Beach-area natives Missy Elliott and Timbaland. . But maybe instead of water, there was something in the air. Perhaps all these global megahits were born from this precise geolocation because it is both hot and cold, North and South, a latitude that makes people more attentive to the fluctuations in the rhythms of life.

Six Must-See Acts at Something in the Water

Williams seems to have grown hyper-attentive to every sound within earshot. He obviously loved the rap songs that hit radio stations coast to coast in the ’80s, but when he talks about the influence of old-school go-go music flowing along the tide, he speaks as if the native DC funkstyle arrived from a whole other world. Chat with Mark Ronson for Fader magazineWilliams once described Trouble Funk’s signature go-go anthem”drop the bombas “the most alien, space, African, really another fucking genius on the planet”. Try listening to “Drop the Bomb” through Williams’ ears again today and it becomes hard to miss the go-go rhythmic influence on the Neptunes’ stalled syncopation – which, of course, means the Monumental hits from Jay-Z, Britney Spears, Snoop Dogg, Nelly, No Doubt and more each contain a tiny go-go spore.

Was go-go in the DC water supply? We know the music-making myth – about how Chuck Brown added percussionists to his band in the 70s, using those surplus drums to put together his funk sets like a DJ so partygoers wouldn’t leave the dance floor. dance between songs. . And we know how quickly the go-go has become the sound of public life in Black Washington, binding the community together with its synchronous rumble. But why this sound and not another?

I’ve always wondered if go-go was an unconscious, communal transposition of DC’s summery humidity into rhythm – music sticky and slow, enveloping and invigorating. And if so, does that also explain why so much doom metal was born nearby? Pentagram, The Obsessed, Iron Man and other doom bands all specialized in slow, sultry riffs that, at their respective peak, sounded as endless and extreme as Washington at its heaviest.

If there’s a distinctive slowness to DC’s music, there’s also a compensating speed. Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and subsequent generations of DC’s hardcore punk outfits made music to mind-blowing beats with a ferocity that felt reactionary to the political and cultural malaise of their respective times. Perhaps these bands were trying to challenge the speed of everyday life here too – fast music as a tacit revolt against psychic inertia, Beltway traffic, August and more.

Dave Grohl knows more than most about making music in the riptide between DC slowness and DC speed. He grew up in the district’s hardcore scene, playing in the Northern Virginia band Scream before helping change the whole vibe of rock and roll as the drummer for Nirvana. In a recent conversation between Grohl and Williams, filmed for the TV series “From Cradle to Stage”, Grohl explains how he cut the volcanic drum fill that opens “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by the Gap Band, a funk band he couldn’t to have missed Black radio grows so close to the District. During the conversation, Grohl steps closer to that all-important flamingo filler, palms on thighs, and Williams looks like he’s opened the greatest birthday present of his life. And so a kid from Virginia who changed music forever understands another one better.

Here’s the sobering thing about this place of musical power we live in: we export, not import. No one comes to the DMV to shake the song tower. We are not New York, or Los Angeles, or Nashville or Atlanta, or any music industry city to which people like Williams and Grohl bring their latent physical knowledge of the environment in the hope of broadcast to the rest of the planet. It makes it hard to hear the massive influence of this region on pop at large, but I think it’s still happening all the time – the rhythms of our lives distilled and dispersed into something in the water of everyone. world.

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