The inaugural MAD in Belgrade — brought to us by the founders of the renowned EXIT Festival — kicks off its life in a sombre reflective mood. As many of you will be aware, Serbia is in the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis, having suffered the worst floods the country has seen in over a century when the river Sava recently burst its banks south of the capital. In Belgrade there has been a massive influx of refugees, with many schools and public buildings having been turned into makeshift camps to house them.
Walking over the 200m Brankov Bridge on the way to the festival site, it is plain to see that the situation is still very much not over. The river is tempestuous, with swirling eddies and currents clearly visible, and the banks are lined with thousands of sandbags. Trees, which should be standing strong on the river’s banks, are half submerged about 50ft away from dry land. Converted restaurant and club boats bob gently, surrounded completely by swirling brackish water, their gangplanks leading deep into the watery abyss.
Obviously there was talk of the festival being cancelled, with many of the planned boat parties having to be cancelled for obvious reasons. However instead of doing this, the organisers took the decision to carry on, re-jigging the line-up to accommodate the boat party performers and offering the public incentives relating to helping and supporting the people affected by the crisis if they still attended.
Firstly, all of the proceeds taken from day one have been donated to the flood appeal campaign. On top of this, punters are being given free entry to the festival if they donate a pack of nappies, of which piles and piles can be seen at the site's front gate. Their “the show must go on” attitude is stoic and commendable, and with their philanthropy clearly on show it means we can all have a good time and help a worthy cause out at the same time. Win, win.
Having unfortunately arrived too late to catch performances from Hyperdubbers Dean Blunt and The Bug & Flowdan — both of whom would have been promoting new, unheard projects — Evian Christ was the first artist on the agenda.
Walking through the ever-expanding crowd, through lovingly lit up copses of trees, towards the monstrous Crazy Rabbit area — a high tech, AV-ready, Donnie Darko-channelling art installation-cum-stage, focusing on broken, experimental beats — we stop at one of the many Tuborg bars.
Beer and alcohol is notoriously cheap in Eastern Europe and in Belgrade this is par for the course. A half-litre Tuborg (basically a pint) is about 220 dinar (works out at about £2 — bear in mind this is actually within the festival site) and spirits are about 150 — getting messy at MAD in Belgrade is pretty much expected.
Evian Christ — an artist who has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of the electronic music game in the last 18 months — kicks things off with a bout of twisted, bass-heavy R&B that sounds absolutely immense through one of Funktion One’s newest hanging rigs. His set continues at a leisurely pace, taking in a lot of diverse, bass-orientated influences. Grime rubs shoulders with trap, with club-ready R&B mixing in with hip-hop and even juke/footwork influences. It's nice to experience a multi-genre set at the best of times and the 19-year-old producer carries it off, save for a few basic errors, extremely well.
Belgrade is a city that has truly embraced the footwork and juke sound, with local residents Jackie Dagger and Felonezzy proud to be part of the late DJ Rashad’s seminal Teklife Crew — a 21-man strong team of producers, DJs and performers celebrating the sound of Chicago’s current dance scene. As Evian Christ bids his farewells, an electric atmosphere of expectation hushes the swelling crowd as the first associates of the Teklife Crew begin to take to the stage, plugging in equipment, testing the sound and ferrying copious amounts of bottled spirits onto the stage.
About 15 or so of the collective’s members storm onto the stage and immediately unleash a flurry of 808-based beats onto a raucous crowd who lap it all up graciously, eager and excited to be part of this mammoth showcase.
For those that aren’t familiar with the music Teklife peddle, know this, footwork and juke absolutely kill it live. Its abstract-yet-familiar framework pumps the crowd up like nothing else. DJ Spinn announces that “this is a tribute to Rashad” — a statement that gets an uplifting, loud response from the braying, energetic audience.
Wandering back through the site to the main, or Mad Dog stage — a massive, cube-based installation, rimmed by massive F1 bassbins and an even bigger hanging stack than the Crazy Rabbit stage — we catch the end of Dixon’s set. His techy house and bleepy techno has the crowd in awe, hypnotically dancing to his rolling, mid-tempo set. Hanging around after he has finished, we see local legend Tijana T take to the decks, ably following on from her well-received set at Berghain in Berlin recently, teasing out a lovely techno performance. The crowd continues to grow, as the large Teklife following slowly migrates across the site to see the main stage close down for the night.
Having arrived late on the Saturday, pitching up to both Serbia and MAD in the black of night, Sunday day affords us the first look at the festival site in all its glory. The site is set in acres of rolling, undulating parkland in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Peppered with copses of trees (which turn out to be absolutely vital to escape the burning, inland, central European sun) the four main stages are nicely spaced-out around the edges of the festival.
The Lavirint (or Labyrinth) stage is a maze of walls presided over by a giant, orange bear-like creature, cigarette in hand (or crotch — depending on the angle you are viewing it at), with a tight little soundsystem holding its own comfortably, whilst the succinctly-titled Kod Naduvanog Zeke is a quaint, elevated stage, tucked away near the chillout area, overseen by what looks like a bleary eyed, ket-addled, giant rabbit.
New R&S signing Alex Smoke kicks the day off on the Mad Dog stage with his detailed, abstract renditions of tech house and techno, getting the early starters moving in the baking sun. Playing live, Smoke drops tune after tune of chilled R&S-esque fare that moves easily from its laid-back openings into full-on dancefloor territory, morphing between traditional 4/4 beats and mutant, broken, UK techno with an effortless ease.
Following Smoke is Detroit legend Omar S, who instantly ups the energy levels by skilfully weaving buzzy, sequenced acid lines with tough 606-referencing rhythms and his signature Detroit house grooves, teasing the crowd out of the shaded bar area next to the stage and out into the radiant rays of the mid-afternoon sun.
The Boiler Room making its Balkans debut (save for Croatia) at MAD this year promises an exploratory, six-hour showcase of local talent. Live streaming throughout their takeover of the Labyrinth stage, Michail — one of the Boiler Room’s founders — starts the broadcast with a plea to the online audience to support the flood relief effort by donating what they can and sharing the live stream via social networking. The first local artist up to perform is the utterly beguiling 33.10.3402 who kicks off his set with a dark, industrial Young Echo-referencing tune that is dubby, weird and completely captivating. For the next 40 minutes the local producer teases out some of the dirtiest, most sombre sounds imaginable with a total lack of regard for the time of day he is playing, the audience present and the baking hot weather, smashing everyone who is present’s senses to hell and back. It’s exhilarating stuff to say the least.
Fade to Mind-signed R&B diva Kelela kicks off the Crazy Rabbit evening session backed by an on-fire Jam City. Her soaring, at points dainty, at points ludicrously strong, vocals combine with dark, dubby, misshapen urban riddims — as the sun sets over the city — in fantastic style, with her performance truly standing out as one of the best sets over the course of the entire festival weekend.
Not to be outdone however, trip-hop turntable master, DJ Krush steps up, following Kelela with a virtuoso mash-up of dubstep, bass music, hip-hop and trip-hop. Showcasing his turntable skills to the max, Krush unleashes vast swathes of oppressive bass pressure as he careens elegantly through dubstep’s many styles. He inevitably turns left in the middle of his set, taking in the downtempo, experimental beats that made him famous, finishing his set off with an incredible, live, 20-minute turntable mash-up of Portishead and DJ Shadow that ranks up there as one of DJ Mag's top festival moments ever.
Considering what has happened to the country recently, props really have to be given to the promoters and audience of MAD in Belgrade for refusing to cancel the festival; instead using the platform as an opportunity to spread awareness of their country’s plight around the world. Come next year, when hopefully most of their problems will have been sorted and ironed out, the combination of red-hot European sun, lush rolling parkland, boat parties, cheap booze and an ancient, beautiful city is going to be a very, very hard thing to miss out on.
WORDS: Al Kennedy
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