Written by Nick Murray • Photography by Arik McArthur/Kevin Mazur/Theo Wargo.Getty Images • August 22, 2016
Day One of the 2016 Billboard Hot 100 Festival was about breadth, how just about any kind of music can be called pop, so long as people want to hear it. Day Two was more about intensity. Although rappers like J. Cole and Desiigner delivered two of the evening's most energetic sets—and Moon Taxi made sure that old-fashioned rock & roll still had a seat at the table—Sunday belonged to the DJs, from the 17-year-old Ryos, who opened the event at half-past noon, to the chart-topper Calvin Harris, who shut it down 10-and-a-half hours later.
EDM may not dominate the Hot 100 as it did at the beginning of the decade, but both the genre and chart share a similar ethos, insisting that no moment matters as much as the present. Which isn't to say that the past doesn't make an occasional appearance. Early in the day, Party Thieves wound down his set with Oasis' "Wonderwall," then added a siren-sound drop that Noel Gallagher almost certainly didn't sign off on. Meanwhile, at the Next Up Stage, Haywyre doodled on his keyboards while funk played in the background. The performance was almost prog; it was hard to discern whether the artist's self-awareness amplified the cheesiness or undid it.
One fun thing about attending a festival so aimed at teenagers is watching their parents feel around for music they like. After Haywyre, a woman danced to "Murder She Wrote" playing over the PA, while her daughter stood by nonplussed. They soon found common ground via Jillionaire's dancehall samples. This was before the rain began, so when the Major Lazor DJ mixed "Pon de Floor" into "We Dem Boyz," he instigated a mosh pit that filled the air with dust before security intervened.
Back inside the Nikon Theater, Hot 97's Funkmaster Flex spun for an hour and 15 minute, which meant that the local DJ had more stage time than J. Cole or, on Saturday night, Ariana Grande. "I'm not gonna leave nothin' on too long," he told the crowd, and he held his promise by burning through rap records as a truck driver smokes cigarettes. And though the set wouldn't have been possible without EDM—how else would a DJ earn such prominent billing?—it also served as a fast-paced rejoined to the remix fiends mixing at the other stages: Flex, one of the city's most lovable curmudgeons, showed that you don't always need drop and a remix to make a crowd turn up to Jay Z or "Commas." The originals still work.
Flex played from 6:00 to 7:15. The rain started around the same time that Galantis did—roughly 6:45. It slowed the Swedish duo not at all. Occasionally, one member would leave the turntables to ornament their soaring tracks with a live synth flourish, or a drum roll played on an electric pad. Later, J. Cole topped this setup by performing not just with one DJ and two keyboardists but also two back-up singers, a drummer and a guitar player. The weather affected neither the rapper nor the crowd, which knew the lyrics to old mixtape cuts and went wild for "Don't Save Her," one of the biggest songs of the festival.
And the next act: a man dressed as a giant marshmallow, calling himself Marshmello, playing dance music that delivered one sugar high after another. As a DJ, this anonymous figure was closer to Flex than Galantis, not interested in songs so much as pulling the weirdest sounds he could from his computer. In front of graphics that suggested Nyan Cat on Rainbow Road, Marshmello pitched up vocals the point of deliriousness and distended syllables until they became unintelligible. The mask hid his facial expressions, but it sounded like he was having fun.
With Calvin Harris, his own face just a silhouette between LCD screens, it was harder to tell. DJing from a command center 20 feet above the stage, he looked slightly sinister, which became part of the excitement. There are some thrills a man in a marshmallow suit just can't provide.
Appropriately, Harris' set was more song-oriented and very Hot 100. "We Found Love" was tweaked only slightly, before it exploded into a cacophony of synths. When that faded out, "Feel So Close" emerged. After it, Harris' version of "Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat." The song promised—and maybe demanded—an endless loop, a now that last forever. As Jillionaire had yelled when the day was still dusty, "Put your hands up if you're not going to work tomorrow!"