A six-hour traffic jam, officers in riot gear, and reports of a gunman on site raised serious questions about personal space, but couldn't stop us from having a great time.
All photos by Christina Craig
We shouldn’t have tried to fit seven people in the Uber, but here we are. The overhead light in the E-Class (2008, black) stays on because one of the doors doesn’t sit flush. I'm in the back, behind the passenger seat; to my left is Craig, a rapper from Chicago who is balancing his girlfriend, Heather, precariously on his lap; to Craig’s left, a DJ from St. Paul named Marty; and Fetu, a rapper from Inglewood whose left hip is quickly bruising against the driver’s-side door. Ahead of me is Hannibal, who ordered the Uber and will probably be called to testify about it some day.
Our destination is the inaugural Day N Night Fest at Oak Canyon Park, a 750-acre space on Irvine Lake in the Santiago Canyon, 25 miles east of Anaheim in Orange County. To get there, you have to take something called Blue Diamond Haul Road, a highway with a steep downhill grade. It was precarious when Marty drove us here for the morning session; we figured that after nightfall, it would either be stop-and-go, or a weird death spiral.
That is, if we ever get there. Our Uber driver’s GPS is giving him directions to some point in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a fact we realize far too late. When Craig catches on, he tries to direct our driver, who responds by jerking the car from lane to lane, across off-ramps and shoulders, the passenger side—my side—waving in front of the cars beside us like a matador and a series of Nissan bulls.
Heather’s head keeps jarring into the roof; Marty’s legs are pulled into his chest and propped up against the center console.
We hit Blue Diamond Haul Road, going 20 MPH on a 60 MPH highway where the slope hides the cars ahead of you until you’re right on their bumpers. Trucks flash their brights at us, cars slam on their breaks and calculate whether they would survive an abrupt stop on the curb. At one point, our driver screeches to a halt—at a green light.
My right foot falls asleep as we swerve violently into Oak Canyon’s entrance, a dirt alcove with four police cruisers, a handful of college-aged girls, and little else. Heather objects—an overstuffed car careening into a bank of officers is never a good idea, especially when some passengers are carrying weed, and some are black.
But the six of us spill out of the Benz, startling a California Highway Patrol officer who’d been chatting up the girls.
“You can’t park here! It’s two miles up.”
Craig tells the officer, in no uncertain terms, that we wouldn’t spend another second in that car. The officer laughs heartily and says, “We’ll take care of him.” And in that second, we snap from self-preservation to deep concern for the guy: a cackling cop saying he’ll “take care of” somebody who very nearly crashed into his car. But the officer taps on the window with his flashlight, solicits a thumbs-up from the driver, and sends the car careening on its way. We give him three stars.
The two-day Day N Night Festival is wonderfully conceived. Eschewing the massive scale of Rock the Bells or the party-lines baggage of Paid Dues, Day N Night's debut brought a comprehensive look at rap in 2016 to Orange County, with a lineup ranging from established stars and influencers to more acute, of-the-moment flashes: ASAP Rocky, Young Thug, Metro Boomin, Mike WiLL Made It, Chief Keef, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Post Malone, Maxo Kream, and so on. Kodak Black was scheduled to play before his incarceration.
Earlier on Saturday, before we retired to the DoubleTree to eat room service and watch Olympic volleyball, we caught a stunning set from Joey Purp. Now we're heading back to see YG play before Rocky’s headlining set.
Oak Canyon Park is beautiful. The lake itself has been ravaged by California’s drought, but it’s set against rolling hills and vast skies. There’s no cell service—not spotty cell service that gets worse as the grounds get more crowded, but no cell service in the sense that if you came here for lunch on a weekday, you couldn’t use your phone. It’s havoc for artists and their managers (and presumably for organizers Goldenvoice, if they want a flurry of Snapchats and Instagrams), but it’s quiet. It’s nice.
As many as 20,000 people flowed through the grounds on Saturday, but if you were standing in the GA areas, you didn’t have to be shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, nor did you have to be hoisted onto someone’s shoulders to find your friends.
The walk away from the cops is dangerous, or it feels dangerous. The laughing officer’s advice had been, in just about every sense, correct: This was way too long to go on foot, especially at night, especially as cars went both ways on the narrow, shoulderless, unlit road. We string out single-file, but Fetu keeps breaking away to talk animatedly about sets we’d seen earlier, or about the Canadian girl who recognized him and started dropping hints about how much closer her hotel was. He weighs in with his chances of finding her in the crowd, then dives for the side of the road as a filthy Lexus speeds by.
Hannibal spots one of those extended golf carts about 150 meters up the road, a festival worker lounging in the front seat. Craig, by this point our de facto leader, bounds ahead and explains that he was an artist who’d performed earlier, and could we please get a ride, we’re late, they’re expecting us. We hop on.
YG is LA’s greatest rap star, even if his reach outside of his home state is small and might be shrinking. Kendrick is already a legend to lots of people, but you can put on YG records anywhere in the city—well, most places in the city—and the room goes crazy. This was true back when he was a barely-average rapper at the tail end of the jerkin’ craze (“Toot It and Boot It,” which could have been a Ty Dolla $ign solo song), and it’s true now that he’s grown into one of the decade’s best artists.
My Krazy Life was an unqualified win. It came after years of YG sitting on the shelf at Def Jam, it was uncompromised, it opened at #2 after the Frozen soundtrack. Drake was on one single, Quan and Jeezy on the other. It was (is) still inescapable in Los Angeles County, and it made him something of a national star.
Last summer, YG got shot in the hip outside of his apartment-slash-studio while his daughter slept upstairs. He drove himself to the hospital, refused to talk to the police, came home, and dropped the best song of his career, “Twist My Fingaz.” Def Jam never shot a video. Still Brazy, his masterful sophomore record, came out this June; it sold 38,000 copies, or about half of what My Krazy Life did.
But Orange County is well within his kingdom. He opens his Saturday night set with “Twist My Fingaz”; stoic twentysomethings in gator loafers rap along, excited teens film themselves dancing.
Heather, Hannibal, Craig, Fetu, Marty, and I watch from beside the stage as YG runs through a litany of hits: “BPT,” “I Just Wanna Party,” “I’m a Thug,” “Bicken Back Being Bool.” He jokes with his DJ, he taunts fans in the front row, he suggests they see his man backstage to inquire about buying molly.
In the middle of “Left Right,” a kid who can't be older than 14 hoists his tiny frame over a railing and into the VIP section, only to be intercepted by a burly security guard, who picks him up by his sides and slams him down on his back over an equipment trunk. Two other guards rush over to help, one eyeing his coworker nervously. What’s this guy doing? The two late arrivals escort the kid back out to the GA area (or out of the festival entirely, maybe to a doctor).
The guard who’d done the throwing turns to his audience across the metal barrier—a small group of pre-teen girls, whom I’d guess are getting ready to start 9th grade next month—and screams, “If any of you fuckers try me, that’s what happens!”
We try to slip out of the area, but the crush of fans begins to lock up. We can’t move.
When the drones started hovering during ASAP Nast’s introduction, we decide we’ve seen enough.
Figuring we’ll get to Marty’s car before the bulk of the crowd leaves, we weave and elbow our way through the still-growing sea of fans, eventually landing backstage. Someone shouts about Kendall Jenner. Two kids sprint toward Uzi Vert. We exhale.
We take a series of shortcuts, and Craig talks yet another burnt out volunteer into giving us a lift to find Marty's car.
This makes the Uber ride feel like a Sunday on the yacht. Hannibal and I get stuck with the rear-facing seats, our feet dangling over the edge. The kid driving think it's hilarious to take turns as fast as possible, so we’re screaming as the outside wheel lifts off the ground and the tire with all the pressure on it skids. There are shooting pains up and down my back.
We spot Marty’s silver Jetta, and Hannibal and I hop off while the cart’s still moving. We load in, one fewer body than in the Mercedes, but the car is half as big. Marty pulls out of his spot and joins the stream of traffic that feeds onto the narrow road that will takes us, eventually, to Blue Diamond Haul Road. It’s 10:24 p.m.
By 11:30, we realize something is wrong. Specifically, the fact that we've moved about eight feet in the course of an hour. All six of us have suffered through our fair share of festival exits, but this feels different.
As far as we can see in any direction, people are turning off their cars, getting out, and walking around. Street dog vendors host lines thirty, forty people deep; I joke that maybe they've colluded to slow the flow of traffic. Fetu goes searching for a cigarette. We tell him not to go too far.
Shortly before 1 AM, we decide we need answers. Not a single car had moved; it's a sea of brake lights and a cacophony of horns.
(It's also worth noting at this point that Day N Night was an all-ages show, and that the parents of several thousand kids, who had probably paid for the $205 tickets on the condition of a midnight curfew, can’t reach their kids by phone.)
We snake through the Acuras, stopping to talk to a group of girls touching up the graffiti on a school bus.
About a mile and a half down the road, at a T-intersection with a service road for festival personnel, we come to an impasse. A volunteer directing traffic tells us, in a hushed voice, that he’d heard there was a DUI checkpoint at the entrance to Blue Diamond Haul, and that both the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol are there, checking every car. By this point, there are about thirty of us walking together, all immensely fed up. The news that lily-white Orange County was targeting an all-ages rap show, despite this park having a packed calendar for most of the year, isn’t sitting well.
Some of those walking mention, loud enough so that the security supervisor a few feet away can hear, how nakedly racist it all felt. The supervisor says he'd just heard on his radio that the checkpoint was clearing up, and that we should all be home in a few minutes.
At 3 AM, Marty, Fetu, Hannibal and I are lying down on couches and makeshift beds under a tent in the backstage area of the festival grounds. We can’t leave because about a dozen officers from the Sheriff’s department are scouring the area, dressed in full tactical gear and holding tight to what look, at 3 AM and maybe in the daylight, like AR-15s. They point the guns around corners of fencing; they shine flashlights in the eyes of hangers-on who are clearing the bank of artist trailers.
Hannibal and I strike up a (quiet) conversation with yet another festival volunteer. He dismisses the notion that the police might be targeting a rap festival as “that conspiracy theory shit,” but does recommend that we build personal bunkers for when the civil war pops off. He nods to the officers, who refuse to answer questions, and says that we're living in a police state. He offers us water bottles and walks off.
There's a tiny pocket of reception in the southeast corner of the tent. From there, we reach people waiting for us at the hotel. The volunteer returns to tell Hannibal that the current rumor was that the police had heard about a man walking around, shirtless, with a gun, and were searching each car for weapons while they canvassed the area. Two helicopters linger overhead.
Reached by phone Monday, a watch commander for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said that he had no record of a search for a gunman Saturday night, and that if he didn’t have a record of it, “it probably didn’t happen.” Multiple tweets from festival-goers complained of traffic caused by a weapons search prompted by a man with a rifle or BB gun. Calls to event hosts at the Observatory were not returned at press time.
However, when reached on Wednesday, OCSD Public Information Officer Lt. Mark Stichter confirmed to Noisey that dispatch received a call from a civilian about a man with a gun on the festival grounds. After sweeping the area, officers concluded that no such threat was present. Lt. Stichter said officers’ attempts to corroborate the report did create a bottleneck that “slowed things down for a bit,” but that the majority of the traffic slowdown was caused by the high volume of attendees and the site’s one way in/one way out course of egress.
He also explained that the protective equipment and rifles officers wore have been department standard at large-scale events since “post-Columbine,” and that many officers carry rifles in their patrol cars as well. He dismissed the charge that a hip-hop festival was unduly targeted.
“We take into consideration how many people are gonna be there. We try not to concern ourselves with what kind of music it is,” he said. “We have a very routine and very coordinated response and preparation to any event like this. We try to do same things every time. We'd rather be over-prepared than not prepared. We've all been to concerts before. Some people get more excited and crazy, and others get more mellow.”
When asked about whether the presence of armored officers might unnecessarily stoke tensions with the crowd, Stichter said, “In today's world, in 2016, things happen each and every day...We're there to protect the public regardless of how we're dressed or whether we have a helmet on. It's all done from a precautionary level. We called in more officers once we realized it grew to a larger number of people [than we expected], out of an abundance of caution a) for our own safety and b) for the safety of the people there.”
Stitcher added that in his 22 years with the department, he has no knowledge of any major incidents taking place at area music festivals or similar events. He described Day N Night as “extremely peaceful.” When asked if a stabbing at a Santa Ana concert in March was considered in the festival’s security preparations, Stichter said, “We take into consideration every possible scenario when we prepare for or respond to events like this. Past events do help in considering staff options and for preparation.”
An aside on the Fourth Amendment: While the Fourth Amendment protects Americans against “unreasonable searches and seizures” and outlines the responsibility of law enforcement to establish probable cause, the Supreme Court has ruled that once a police officer has probable cause, he may search a vehicle for evidence of a crime or other contraband in the area that “he reasonably believes contains that evidence.” He does this without a warrant, and with virtually the same authority as if he had obtained that warrant. In effect, if an officer wants to search your car, he’s going to search your car.
When we finally leave Oak Canyon Park an hour later, at 4 AM, nobody searches our car. No one we know from the festival has been subject to a search, and nobody has seen a shooter or heard that one existed. (A friend who called the Sheriff’s department on our behalf and inquired about “her 14-year-old daughter” was told that there was an individual on the grounds with a gun, that every car would be searched, and then was rushed off the phone.)
Craig and Heather are asleep; my thigh muscles are on fire; Fetu is grimacing and biting his bottom lip. We're waiting in a Del Taco drive-thru when an SUV pulls up behind us, peels out over a grass median, and speeds off down Katella Avenue. A few minutes later, a police car pulls up, backs up, then drives off—under the speed limit—in the same direction.
UPDATE: A previous version of this article identified the location of a Santa Ana venue stabbing in March as The Observatory. However, the stabbing occurred at the venue Underground DTSA.
Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of its subjects.
Paul Thompson is still asleep. Follow him on Twitter.
Christina Craig is a photographer based in LA. Follow her on Instagram.
Additonal reporting contributed by Andrea Domanick.