As the sun fell asleep behind the downtown Miami skyline last Friday, a school of neon-scaled ravers swam as a single unit through the southern Florida streets towards Bayfront Park, floating like a glowing bubble of glitter, feathers, spandex and lace—that typical gaudy Miami sensibility coupled with a more drug-enhanced exuberance—Miami’s version of Mardi Gras, with girls clad in eccentric offshoots of stripper uniforms and guys wearing beads and sunglasses. A kind of new age, bass-fueled Woodstock, the 15th annual Ultra Music Festival is the largest two-weekend electronic dance music (EDM) gathering in the entire world, a melting pot of over 100 performers for each weekend from all corners of the EDM realm, including the much anticipated last performance of Swedish House Mafia before their career-ending breakup, and dotted with some hip-hop live performances highlighted with a weed-puffed jaunt by Snoop Dogg.
Inside the gates, the crowd scurried between the half-dozen stages, buzzing around the park in small, radiating clusters, some bunches much younger than seen at other, more rock-orientated Americana festivals in Tennessee or California—pubescent males and females, some still with braces, smoking cigarettes and bobbing their heads in excitement. Body paint and beaded accessories such as cat masks trended through the crowd, with dozens of girls sporting furry leg warmers—a traditional accessory for dancers in clubs here in New York City—as well as illuminated pacifiers. A large group funneled under the archway of the Worldwide Stage, throwing themselves in the undertow of the crunchy Euro-techno of Markus Schulz, girls climbing onto the shoulders of their boyfriends, shaking their chests and throwing their arms above their heads.
Ferry Corstein came on after Schulz with a fierier, back-end produced junk drawer of wheezing house music, provoking constant crowd movement. The spectators had filled in by now and dancers took the stage next to Corstein in one-piece glitter-splashed outfits and knee-high leather boots, adding sex and performance to a traditionally one-man show, a spectacle normally associated solely with sound and intricate lighting regimentation (you can barely see what the DJ looks like from the crowd, whereas every other genre brands itself on what the artist looks, sometimes more so than their music). Two more dancers, equally svelte and tan, entered the stage in similar outfits, closing the performance with their sultry wiggling.
Off stage, within the dense crowd and the meandering river of ravers on the street to the other stages, a lot of pupils began to dilate. By far and away, MDMA (informally known as “molly,” a purer version of ecstasy) is the drug of choice for this type of crowd, adding a physically intense sense of euphoria to the loud and bright concert experience—on MDMA (which people licked and snorted throughout the weekend on grassy knolls and beneath palm trees) you don’t just see the lights and hear the music, you feel them diving and swooping through every organ in your body. I’d like to say that the more outlandish the outfit was, the more drugs the person was pumping through their body. But everyone had off-the-wall outfits. And everyone couldn't stop dancing, even if they were between stages with no singular, coherent sound source—just flailing and writhing in the vibrations where two or three stages came together, screams of light passing over their sweat-drenched bodies.
As the night went on, Boys Noize from Germany took over the amphitheater, spinning atop a silver skull with glowing red eyes and a distorted smile grinning at the crowd, “ecstasy, one for me” chanting in the background of his beats, scrolling code and blasts of light coming from a screen at the rear of the stage. His electro-robotic sound had people standing on the chairs in the crowd, twisting and fist pumping, neon lasers beaming from the stage. A girl with neon-fingered gloves stood on the outskirts of the spectators, waving her hands in rhythmic patterns in front of a friend’s face that sat and chewed gum. Fans held flags of their home countries in the air as the set went on—numerous European representations, including Germany, Sweden, Holland, and the UK; one kid with an Israeli flag; another with a Brazilian—showcasing Ultra as much more of an international phenomenon rather than a national spectacle. People had come from all over the world for this weekend, their one chance a year to fully immerse themselves in everything EDM, with over 100,000 spectators making their way to Miami for Ultra.
Crystal Castles, a more experimental, female-vocal-laden electro-duo from Canada, took the stage after Boys Noize, and flooded the crowd with a more live-band exuberance not seen in previous acts. Synth tinklings on top of techno-wompings, lead singer Alice Glass crooned her distorted vocals, hanging her head of purple hair down between verses, and stood on the railing between the stage and the crowd, yelling, fans holding her ankles to keep her from falling. Her moody, echoey, squeaky and whining vocals carried the performance, puffs of smoke engulfing her as she stood atop the bass drum at the back of the stage.
Meanwhile, the majority of the crowd was cramping in for Swedish House Mafia, the headlining act of the evening (and perhaps the entire weekend), over on the main stage. Squished towards the front of the stage, fans still managed to hold their iPhones in the air for the trio’s last series of performances as one of house music’s most iconic groups, the three of them standing atop the massive booth on stage, introducing their set with a simple mantra: “We came. We are. We love.” Many in the crowd fawned at the performance, their mouths agape in awe and wonder at their favorite group performing atop the most enormous stage ever seen at an electronic music concert—a baffling structure of light and sound, a machine and cultural icon made of metal and electronics, a reflection of the younger generation’s predisposition to the artificial and bombastic, a sensory overload of music and the universal purpose of being here for these once-in-a-lifetime moments. Although only the first night, the dedication was just as strong as a rock and roll festival headlined by Metallica or Paul McCartney. “You guys look happy!” the trio yelled at the crowd from atop their booth and, as they dove back into song, a young guy in a wheelchair was hoisted up atop the crowd and surfed his way to the front, his wide eyes glowing red and pink, reflecting the LED screens pulsating on stage.
Ending the night across the park was Fatboy Slim, an English pioneer in electronic music since the 1980s, his stage filled with acrobats dangling on hanging fabric, blasting his classic-Slim tunes into the crowd, probably some of the first mainstream electronica these kids had ever heard. Clusters of honeycomb-woven LED screens hung above the crowd, blasting neon and sound from every direction—a mass of energy feeding on vibration and light. The Anonymous icon, from the political activist/hacker association, stood as a constant figure in Slim’s performance both on his projection screen and his personal attire; he wore the signature mask for much of his performance, utilizing his opportunity as a musician to make his own political distinctions. Despite coming up on his 50th birthday, Slim exuded youthful energy on stage, a coif of grey hair standing atop his buzz-cut head like a humble crown that has been with him for years.
The crowd came early for day-two of the festival, Porter Robinson taking charge in the late afternoon with his aggressive, knife-laden ruckus, spliced with M83 and Prodigy samples that could be heard from nearly five blocks away. The crowd still held their trademark energy despite the gates opening at noon, and some of them showed just as much enthusiasm as the previous night, despite the park being much less crowded. Fans, too, still held true to their unique fashion decisions, especially guys, who were afficionados of ironic T-shirts, including, but not limited to, slogans such as: Where Neon Goes to Die; Don’t Laugh, It’s Your Girlfriend’s Shirt; Keep Calm and Roll Face; Who Needs Life? I’ve Got Drugs; Bitches Love Bass; YOLO; I’m Fat, Let’s Party; Drop Bass Not Bombs; Party With Sluts; Swag Don’t Come Cheap; Wanna Make Out?; We Pre-Game Harder Than You Party; Sun’s Out, Guns Out; Don’t Hate Me Bro; etc.
Before Robinson, as the afternoon rolled along towards dusk, Brooklynites Matt and Kim performed and, despite an injured ankle wrapped in a grey temp-cast, Kim crowd-surfed, standing upright, fans holding her boot as she sang and shook her cropped head of black hair. Yeasayer, also from Brooklyn, followed shortly thereafter, more vocal and candid about their unique position as an indie-pop-rock band performing at an electronic music festival. “So, this is an electronic festival I hear,” said lead singer Chris Keating. “I’ve seen some weird shit today. I mean, what’re you gonna do at midnight [when the music stops] since you’re all on drugs?” As the crowd gave in to Keating’s antics, interacting with him between songs, one fan actually gave him her Portuguese flag (Keating’s wife is from Portugal), and he sang the rest of the set with the flag draped over his head, the small but excited crowd singing along.
The largest crowd at the amphitheater, up until then, gathered around dusk for Pretty Lights, Derek Smith’s unique, indie-electro project that has gained notoriety through its soulful, vintage samples and, during live performances, improvised track transitions, his heavy-set frame shaking and bobbing behind his booth, constantly adjusting his flat-brimmed hat. Fireworks popped from the crowd and fans piled towards the stage throughout the performance, Smith’s set proving to be one of the least repetitive and most unique conglomeration of samples and original beats, relying more on artistic creativity rather than a typical bass-drop. He threw in a few Kayne samples on top of his soulful foundation, a high-energy stew of vintage hooks and new-age electro thumpings. After the performance, Smith immediately embraced his girlfriend, a petite blonde who popped on stage a handful of times to take photographs, grabbing her face with his oversized hands, kissing her long and hard on the lips. After the kiss, she smiled and nodded. “It was amazing,” she crackled, as if on the verge of tears, the crowd continuing to holler in the background, swimming in Smith’s aftershock.
Kaskade and Deadmau5 closed up the main stage, the former wamping behind rectangular screens moving up and down, like an oscillating city skyline. A cluster of girls holding Japanese flags lined the front row, screeching throughout his twisting beats and asymmetric off-drops. Deadmau5 immediately followed, spinning atop an enormous broken cube, crowned in his signature wide-eyed mouse mask with upright, circular ears. The crowd, many of whom wore their own, homemade masks, yelled and waited for his growling introduction to flip. A more pulse-ish, entrancing, futuristic winding—an introduction to a battle on some far-off starship, two interstellar spacecrafts heading right for one another—the crowd finally starting thumping to the beat after his four-minute intergalactic teasing. The crowd seemed to exude less awe than at Swedish House Mafia, but people still shook their glowsticks and hometown flags, squeezing together in an enormous pool in front of the stage, rippling in the persistent vibration. The militaristic trance formalities of Deadmau5 seem to keep him as one of the most formidable DJs on the market—not necessary predictable, but consistent—a necessity in these late-night, drug-fueled musical excursions.
On the outskirts of the crowd, groups of girls dressed like an aquatic-mutant entourage of Brooke Candy lookalikes—neon eels for hair, luminescent furry boots, lace short-shorts, horns and goggles, glittered cheeks, and bracelets stacked from wrist to elbow—seemed to be just as much of a spectacle for passerby as the main stage performance, prompting many hugs and group photographs between dance spasms and licks of white powder from tiny capsules.
As midnight closed in on the festival, the end-point for each night at Ultra, dubstep heavy-hitter Skrillex made an unannounced guest appearance on one of the smaller stages, creeping in and collaborating in the booth with Alvin Risk, a young-gunner in the lineup. They both hunkered down in the booth for the small crowd, Skrillex tossing in his signature death-drops here and there, smiling as if him and Risk were in the studio together, messing around. Word got around fast and the crowd tripled in size within 20 minutes, fans gawking at Skrillex, who isn’t set to officially perform at Ultra this year, pointing and nodding at one another amidst the ruckus. He stuck around for the rest of the weekend, too, scurrying around behind the scenes on the back of a golf cart, sipping a bottle of water under a canopy of trees, and making friends with Snoop Dogg, who rolled into the last day of Ultra in a limousine, surrounded by an entourage of four black Denalis.
Before Snoop took stage in the late afternoon, a slew of talented and popular performers took heed to the crowd in Miami, most of whom had a hip-hop edge, like Chicago-based duo Flosstradamus, whose trap-inspired licks threw the crowd for a loop, pumping energy into the sea of spectators with their hooded get-ups, J2K, one half of the duo, sporting a Chicago Bulls jersey underneath his black sweatshirt; Autobot, the other half, with a backwards snapback and gold grill. The latter actually has a place in Brooklyn, right up from the street from the Williamsburg hangout Enid’s, who plays their tracks regularly on weekend nights. They tossed Rick Ross, Ludacris, Kendrick Lamar, and Juicy J samples into the mix, their overall sound like a constantly shaking fistfull of coins or a set of metal dice, ready to toss onto the pavement—gritty and urban. Miami-local SpaceGhostPurrp, who has produced tracks for some of the artists Flosstradamus sampled, performed even earlier in the afternoon for a mere 20 minutes, a much under-deserved timeslot for such an influential counterpart to the emerging underground hip-hop scene.
Although her set was delayed for almost half-an-hour, Harlem upstart Azealia Banks gathered a significant crowd for her gritty, quintessentially New York showcase, clad in a custom made, spandex one-piece, dotted with asymmetrical cutouts with neon trim. A greenscreen video played in the background alongside her potty-mouthed performance, blasting cartoon sharks and dolphins, fish and seashells, and her signature mermaid moniker. Performing mostly off her hit album 1991, she filled in the blanks with new and old tunes, “I’m a Ruin You Kunt” reading on the screen at the rear of the stage during her breakthrough “212,” DJ Cosmo, from Montreal, spinning in the background.
The caribbean-fueled side project of famed producer Diplo, Major Lazer, took the stage next, gathering an even larger crowd than Banks, eight-foot-tall inflated spheres and the letters M and L lining the edges of the stage. Their unique, islander flair packed the amphitheater close to that of Pretty Lights, despite the sun being high in the sky, the group giving shout-outs to numerous latin countries, fans waving their country’s flags in the air. Two girls danced and grinded on one another at the front of the stage, waving their own Major Lazer flags. Diplo dropped House of Pain’s “Jump Around” in lieu of it being St. Patrick’s Day, just before bringing a dozen girls from the crowd on stage, having them twerk and shake their asses for the audience as vigorously as they could, some tossing their feet up on the DJ booth, hands planted on the ground, Diplo tossing one-dollar bills into the air. After playing their signature “Pon de Floor,” they snatched a male fan from the crowd, laid him on stage, and had the two dancers grind and dance over him, splashing their crotches down onto his face in time with the beat. The crowd hooted at the antics, tossing balloons and glow sticks into the air with every raunchy nuance, again adding a performance element to an experience traditionally held to just a guy in a booth.
After Major Lazer, Snoop Dogg (now technically named Snoop Lion) sauntered on stage with his trademark nonchalance, puffing a blunt. After his first song, he tossed the blunt into the crowd, spectators charging and vying for the collector’s item (which was probably smoked, rather than saved, anyway), and immediately sparked up another one, tooling through old Long Beach hits like “Gin and Juice,” and newer, reggae-driven beats, stopping to do a cover of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” Kids in the crowd shook and screamed, just as energetic for Snoop as any other electro-outfit, packing the amphitheater with their appreciation of a hip-hop legend and a turning point in music, which, in its musicianship, is a driving inspiration for many of the younger performers at Ultra.
As darkness fell over the last day of weekend one at Ultra, U.K. dubstep aficionado Rusko took over the Worldwide Stage, the crowd spilling into the outskirts of the structure, jamming the walkway to a near standstill. For most spectators in that general area, you were forced to stand and listen to Rusko’s set for a least a few minutes, harsh bass drops and squeaking transitions dumping into the crowd. Rusko swilled from a bottle of Grey Goose, shaking his fluffy, rough-cut mohawk in the booth above the crowd, and actually refused to stop playing when his slot was up, writhing and twisting with a smile on his face while avoiding the production crew, the crowd blowing up even more with every additional track, falling in love with the rouge mentality of the British DJ even more so than his music, hanging onto his antics rather than scooting over for the tail-end of Tiesto, just one stage over. The Dutch heavy-hitter, who held onto an enormous crowd of his own, playing the card of a more introductory arist into the world of EDM than the more niche-oriented DJs and producers performing simultaneously at the other stages.
Electro bigwigs David Guetta and Armin Van Buuren ended the first weekend of Ultra, playing simultaneously as the crowd suckled the last hour of a gathering held in such high esteem in this musical subculture. Fans gobbled up the last of their MDMA, soaking up the final vibrations and screaming neon lights. But despite its seemingly obvious predictability by the general public—just an excuse for kids on spring break to avoid going home, dress more outlandish than Halloween, and see how much drugs their body can handle—the EDM culture is built on some sort of strong, internal foundation that, at first glance, is hard to pinpoint and define. Is it the drugs? Is it the music? Or, perhaps, the effect of the two simultaneously as an experience generator—a religious enterprise of vibration and light that can’t be transcended or explained, only experienced. An international phenomenon pumping something through the veins of ravers and bass junkies that their hearts actually enjoy pushing through their body—something that, even the next day, could be heard in that persistent ringing in the ears of everyone that joined, something that, in its strangely addictive way, seemed to hang in the air throughout Miami before peacefully floating out to sea.