2021 Head in the Clouds: Love ‘em or hate ‘em, 88Rising throws a damn fun festival
Ask any two people about 88Rising, and you’d probably get two wildly differing opinions on their work as a group. There are those in the camp who think everything that they touch turns to gold. Others will say that they’re all hype.
But no matter what your opinions on them are, it’s impossible to ignore 88Rising’s influence on Asian American culture and their own respective goals to spotlight the works of Asian musicians worldwide. You’d be hard-pressed to find an Asian American who doesn’t know at least one of the songs they’ve released under their label — much less one who hasn’t heard of them at all.
Founded in 2015 by Sean Miyashiro, 88Rising has grown exponentially not only as its own record label but as a brand in general. Somewhere along the way, they picked up three promising musicians — Joji, NIKI, and Rich Brian — and turned them into global superstars. They’ve spawned collaborations with hundreds of brands and partnerships, forcing the world to reckon with their staying power.
In their most recent venture, they were one of the major driving forces behind curating the soundtrack for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, an integral cultural moment for Asian American representation. Don’t get me wrong — 88Rising has long been the purveyor of what’s cool in Asian American culture. They managed to turn Asian/Asian American culture mainstream, and dare I say it, fucking cool. However, the creation of that soundtrack may very well be the act that cements them as a lasting global brand. According to their own timeline photobooth that heavily features the milestones of the brand’s growth, it’s incredible that this festival and everything that came before it was founded “atop a parking garage somewhere in the Bronx, powered by Dunkin’ Donuts WiFi.” Who knew that they would get to this point?
Compared to all that they’ve previously achieved in the past (and especially the past year), the 2021 edition of Head in the Clouds felt like a mere victory lap: a chance to celebrate yet another high point of the 88Rising canon. Taking place from November 6-7 at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, the 88Rising Head in the Clouds festival welcomed to their two stages a wide variety of Asian diasporic musicians who represented some of the best in rap, hip-hop, EDM, and indie rock. Justin and I were granted media passes and were able to scope out what the festival had to offer.
Here’s how our weekend went.
The first people who should come to your mind when you think of 88Rising are their three tentpole artists — Joji, NIKI, and Rich Brian. It came as no surprise that the three of them were going to be the ones headlining and closing out each day. What did come as a surprise, however, was how 88Rising filled out the rest of their admittedly impressive lineup.
While rap superstar-on-the-rise Saweetie and Korean K-pop royalty CL served as the two other big draws to the festival, the performers who I think were the most exciting were buried in the middle of the lineup poster. Outside of the hip-hop musicians akin to the 88Rising brand (DPR, Warren Hue, Guapdad 4000), Asian musicians outside of the genre had their own chances to shine. Indie rock/pop artists (and admittedly, From the Intercom favorites) Japanese Breakfast, beabadoobee, Luna Li, Wallice, and the Linda Lindas played solid, enthusiastic sets. Internet-famous musicians ranging from Rei Ami to Audrey Nuna to UMI had sets to remember. R&B inspired come-ups My Anh and Ylona Garcia gave it their all. Elephante and Josh Pan both brought festival-friendly EDM jams to each day. The list goes on.
As much as Head in the Clouds seemed like it was a way for everyone on the Shang-Chi tracklist to get together to party (seriously, almost every artist who was featured on that soundtrack was there), Head in the Clouds also gave generous, prime festival time to artists on the rise. Many, including Audrey Nuna and Rei Ami, stated on-stage that this was their first-ever festival appearance. That’s pretty awesome — and it seemed like a conscious decision by festival organizers to uplift some possibly lesser-known artists and give them some experience playing a festival.
Though there was a glaring lack of South Asian performers at the festival, the weekend’s lineup worked for all types of music fans.
There’s always going to be timing issues at any music festival you go to. Artists run late. Equipment doesn’t work. Artists go over their allotted time, making you miss part of another artist’s set. The list of problems goes on.
However, whoever was keeping sets moving at Head in the Clouds deserves a special shout-out. Rarely, if ever, did a set go over time. Aside from Saweetie showing up fashionably late to her own set (to be fair, later on in her set she cut one of her songs short because she “wanted to respect the set times” so it was definitely on her mind), everyone else who we saw were pretty much ready to go at the time they promised.
HITC’s general vibe
Along with the diverse sets that the festival stages saw at the festival came a different kind of crowd — one that seemed a lot more relaxed. The Brookside at Rose Bowl is basically the golf course behind the famous stadium, which meant that there was a lot of open, spacious area on the festival grounds. Dozens of people brought their own blankets, claimed a spot on the grass, and enjoyed the festival from afar. Aside from having to dodge a few sprinting festival-goers (that’s how you knew if an artist was popular — if they had runners!), everything else felt calm.
Our festival experience (and I assume many others’ festival experiences) was very chill and relaxing and gave you the option to stay far, far away from everyone else — exactly the type of festival that’s perfect mid-COVID.
Sound and stage visuals
Despite the recent trend to turn the music festival experience into a giant Instagram photo booth, at the heart of it, music festivals are still all about… the music. Luckily, HITC seemed to prioritize that aspect of the experience, since they brought top-notch sound engineers and gorgeous stage visuals to accompany each stage.
Even standing halfway across the venue, you could still hear every musician perfectly and see the striking visual elements they brought to their set. Never did I feel like I had to be up close and personal in order to enjoy the full festival experience.
When I saw that Panda Express would have a booth at Head in the Clouds, I audibly laughed. Who would choose to buy Panda when you had so many other food options at the fest? As it turns out, that person would be me.
Panda tested out their new line of Beyond orange chicken at the festival… and it was surprisingly delicious. With their somewhat modest price of $10 per serving, Panda became the saving grace and go-to food place of choice throughout the weekend (see the next section for the other food places).
Would highly recommend.
That one lineup booking
Perhaps the one glaring question mark for the weekend, and one question that might have crossed many festival-goers’ minds was this: Why was Illenium there?
Don’t get me wrong — I’m quite aware of the giant crossover between Asian American ravers and Illenium fans, and Illenium is great at what he does. However, would it have been that difficult to find an Asian/Asian American DJ to fill out the one hour timeslot that Illenium was given (his set was tied with NIKI’s for the longest set-time)?
Head in the Clouds is unofficially known as the “Asian fest” (Saweetie’s words, not mine), so it was puzzling that no one could find one of the many Asian DJs out there to take the stage instead (Bumping up either Elephante/Josh Pan to Illenium’s slot? TOKiMONSTA? Giraffage? Jai Wolf?). I don’t know what went on behind the scenes of curating the lineup, but this booking choice felt really out of place.
I get it, we’re at a festival and half of the people are drunk enough to not care about how much they’re paying for their food. But did the prices have to be this exorbitant?
Paired with the festival’s “no outside foods or drinks” policy, the 626 Night Market offerings almost felt like downright robbery.
The cheapest food items that we saw all weekend were salted cart pretzels for $7, and a tiny cup of coconut milk ice cream for $9. For anything not traditionally considered a snack, prepare to shell out at least $15 for a small portion of food that would cost $8-12 max elsewhere ($20 for a serving of Bang Bang noodles, $16 mapo tofu tater tots from the Bopomofo booth, $15 for vegan chow mein (add $5 for meat), $15 for mac & cheese). Oof.
Drink prices were $18+ for a cocktail, while a can of White Cherry White Claw would run you about $15. The cheapest boba option at the fest was about $7, but you had to wait in a giant line that would definitely make you miss out on your favorite acts.
I know that food vendors need to secure that bag, but I would love to see more affordable food options available at the festival next year.
Certain artist placements
Though it was never billed as such, the 88 Stage (main stage) was pretty much the R&B and hip-hop stage (with the exception of Luna Li). Everyone else performed on the much smaller Double Happiness stage.
I would’ve loved to see a rock act as big as Japanese Breakfast or beabadoobee take the main stage, but unfortunately they were both pushed out to the secondary stage, AND scheduled at the same time as some of the major festival acts. More rock representation on the main stage please!
beabadoobee had it especially bad because her set was cannibalized by NIKI’s hour-long set. It was especially hard to enjoy Bea’s soft acoustic version of “Coffee” with NIKI’s “Every Summertime” blasting in the background.
I like both of those songs — just not when they’re being played at the same time.
The dark pathways
For the most part, both nights at the festival were lit well and visually dreamy. The event venue lit up each night with striking colored giallo lighting, flooding the main areas with bright reds, blues and purples.
However, they must have run out of these lights — other parts of the golf course were extremely dark, which made it hard to see where you were going. By the time 8/9 PM came around and the fog rolled in, the festival grounds became a horror movie villain’s wet dream.
If you wanted to buy merch at the festival… lol good luck.
HITC wasn’t a place just for the hypebeasts and EDM ravers — it had a little something for the rock fans, the music aficionados, and the Instagram crowd. From a festivalgoer’s experience, the benefits definitely outweigh the negatives. If you’re in it for the music, the culture, and the relaxing weekend out, HITC has got you covered.
See you at the fest in 2022!
The 2021 edition of 88Rising’s Head in the Clouds Festival took place at the Brookside at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA from November 6-7.
Special thanks to 88Rising and Goldenvoice for providing From the Intercom with media passes.
Header photo by Steven Rood, courtesy of Goldenvoice.
Visit the Head in the Clouds website here.
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!