When the UK feels like it’s drowning in its own darkness and isolation, partying on a beautiful island in the blazing sun while watching all your favourite artists isn’t just escapism, it’s bliss.
What immediately springs to mind when you think about a "music festival"? Old wellies crusted in four days worth of mud and human excrement? Clutching warm paper cups of lager and soggy, limp roll-ups in the pouring rain to the distant whine of an indie band? You and your mates taking turns to shit down an overflowing long-drop in a box? Sitting alone and dripping in sweat in your tent after one too many key bumps before lunchtime? Buying a pair of tie-dye harem pants and hiding them under your bed as soon as you get home because you’re thoroughly ashamed? Eating something constructed out of chickpeas? Cow onesies made from fleece? Watching Coldplay? Projectile vomiting? The inevitable sadness of being?
Here in the UK, our festivals are characterised by a palpable sense of shittiness coupled with the overriding ability to get on with it anyway. Like the perennial adventurer of the wilderness, we open our arms to all the horrible experiences we will inevitably endure, hoping they will serve as a valuable exercise in character building. The thing is, without sounding like an absolute killjoy: the future of British music festivals, like the future of Britain as a whole, looks pretty bleak. From the aggressive branding that comes hand-in-hand with the rising costs of running them, to the line-ups that we've seen endless times before, to the fact that their idealistic spirit has long been trampled under the big black boot of austerity, UK festivals are starting to look less like millennial reincarnations of Woodstock, and more like extended Vodafone adverts (apart from Glastonbury. Hi, I still love you Glastonbury.)
Call me naïve, but I had never considered that there might be an alternative to this – that I didn’t have to clutch onto the crumbling debris of UK music festivals and sit through another set from Calvin Harris or The Courteeners, or a DJ that used to be on Hollyoaks. That I could, actually, follow the other two-thirds of festival goers in ditching UK music festivals entirely and hop on a plane to another part of the world where the sun always shines, there's white sand in place of mud, and everyone wears bikinis and swimming trunks instead of not-very-waterproof £1 ponchos. But then Noisey sent me off to Fresh Island Festival in Croatia, and I realised that it's here, away from the sodden fields of Britain, that hip-hop and grime is able to reign supreme.
Unlike the majority of UK festivals, Fresh Island doesn’t have a daytime line-up. Instead, it’s essentially a handful of clubs on Zrce beach, the same resort in Croatia that also hosts Hideout, Sonus and Croatia Rocks. And rather than a slew of old rock and disco legends, indie bands, or pop artists baring synths, Fresh Island plays host to everyone who’s anyone in grime and hip hop, from Nas, Eve and Snoop Dogg to JME and Stormzy. This year, the festival’s fifth year in a row and arguably their best yet,as they had booked the likes of Chip and Big Narstie alongside Ty Dolla $ign, Wiz Khalifa, Chris Brown, Skrillex and Kehlani.
With the exception of the odd swirling cloud of weed smoke, drugs are thin on the ground, meaning that the sweaty, manic-eyed gurning and erratic thrusting of limbs that comes with a crowd off their face on stimulants throughout the night is replaced by easy conversation, people who can genuinely dance, and the feeling that everyone is there to have a chilled time with their mates rather than get so wasted they can’t remember what’s happened in the past 15 years. Not that the latter is necessarily a bad thing – it's just that the peaceful sunshine of Croatia offers a different pace, allowing you the chance to relax in a very real way.
There’s also the fact that nearly everyone at the festival is a massive grime nerd. Not in the sense that they rate Stormzy and caught BBK at Glastonbury once, but in the sense that every time a grime tune comes on the crowd goes absolutely wild, chanting every word and bouncing so hard the palm trees shake. It’s abundantly clear that a lot of people come to Fresh Island exclusively for the grime, which isn’t surprising considering the distinctive lack of decent grime festivals anywhere else in the world bar Born & Bred and Wireless.
The first night at Fresh Island was largely defined by this love affair with grime. Because Noisey is very kind and generous, we threw a massive Grime Karaoke pool party during the day, hosted by Beats 1’s Julie Adenuga and with a DJ set from BBC 1xtra’s Sian Anderson. And rather than having to grab reluctant sunbathers off the beach and convince them to have a go on the mic, the whole place was heaving with festival-goers from the off who were more than eager to spit their way through grime classics from Kano’s “P’s and Q’s” to Giggs’ “Look What the Cat Dragged In” and Jammer’s “Merkle Man.” By the time the sun was setting on the foam-filled pool, I found myself drenched in my own pina colada, bopping along to Big Narstie, and briefly realising that somewhere in the world, somebody was buying a tiny Argos tent to shiver in at Bestival. Screw you, suckers!
And then it was off to see Chip on the Noisey stage, who, for a man of such small stature, could summon up so much energy it felt like the sand was going to cave in under our feet and we would all be washed away by the Adriatic sea. Chip’s confidence was infectious, and it was uplifting to see a huge crowd not only spitting Chip’s recent classic “Can’t Run Out of Bars” word-for-word, but a bunch of his more underground hits too. Witnessing Chip at Fresh Island was like a witnessing an artist who had gone full circle, leaving his “Diamond Rings” days behind in order to bring real grime to the big stage. I also couldn’t help but think that at a huge festival in the UK like Glastonbury, Chip would have been swallowed among the big names and endless stages. But at Fresh Island, he was given space to shine, and came off like a legend in the making.
As the week went on, the festival became less about grime and more about hip hop and R&B. If you want to know what heaven feels like, you should probably consider laying on an inflatable crocodile, gently letting yourself drift around a swimming pool, while Kehlani’s silky smooth rendition of “The Way” drifts over you like a wave. Kehlani killed it, as always, and it was refreshing to hear a female voice among a line-up that was relatively male heavy.
If there was one oversight during the week, it was that Ty Dolla Sign and Wiz Khalifa’s sets briefly clashed, meaning that one got parred for the other. I found myself watching the former, who brought the kind of brain-tingling electricity that’s easy to unleash if you’re a huge hip hop star performing to a bunch of pimms-drunk partiers on a beach at midnight. Watching the crowd bounce along to “Or Nah”, it felt satisfying to see an artist flourish in an environment that was tailored to suit him, rather than struggling to hold a crowd of people waiting for Foals to come on. In many ways, this was something that defined Fresh Island. It’s was a small festival, with only a few artists, but every single person going felt like die-hard fans. For that reason, it takes actual effort not to have fun at Fresh Island.
On the final night, just as I was beginning to tire of living off pizza slices and rolling around on Zrce beach, I decided to find out what Chris Brown would be like live. He seemed like a questionable act to have as a headliner, but I wanted to know what kind of crowd he’d attract, and whether he’d actually be any good. However, a few seconds before he was supposed to walk on stage, the previously motionless air suddenly switched to hurricane-like winds, meaning that he was not able to perform for safety reasons. Later that night, I heard that the stage which they had built specifically for him blew away - as in, literally BLEW AWAY. He ended up performing at one of the smaller clubs at midnight, but by that time I was long gone, trusting the not-so-subtle signs given to me by the universe.
In all honesty, there are a million and one reasons to still fall hopelessly in love with UK music festivals. As beacons of hedonism, escapism and human connectedness, they remain to be some of the world’s best – it’s what we’re known for. But you cannot deny that UK weather is shit, and life is about variety, and for four days at Fresh Island, I found myself in paradise. Granted, it wasn’t perfect – a lot time was spent being crammed between neon-vested bros drinking sugary cocktails and dancing to “Panda” on repeat, and at one point, a DJ legit played a happy hardcore version of the Titanic theme song – but at a time when the UK feels as though it’s drowning itself in its own darkness and isolation, partying on a beautiful island in the blazing sun while watching all your favourite artists isn’t just escapism, it’s bliss.
You can order tickets for Fresh Island 2017 here.
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