Even though the temperature dropped to as low as ten degrees in central Auckland last night, everyone seemed to have left their Kathmandu puffer jackets at home, swapping the winter attire for t-shirts, crop tops, jean shorts and high heels as they geared themselves for the one-night-only dance and hip-hop music festival Listen In at Spark Arena. As an offshoot of Australia’s sold out Listen Out, this was the first time the festival has been brought to the New Zealand audience. Boasting a mega international lineup that included Skepta, A$AP Rocky, and Skrillex, the audience was in for a long five hour ride of grime, hip-hop, R&B, and EDM –but at some points along the track you may have wanted to hop off.
Sydney hip-hop rapper B Wise kicked off the festival on a high. Announced as a last minute replacement for Lil Skies who was scheduled to perform at Australia and New Zealand’s festival but cancelled on both, B Wise stepped into the unknown – yet in spite of the sudden lineup change, his limited New Zealand fan base, and a pitifully small crowd during his set, the odds were in his favour. Knocking off a string of tracks from his latest record Area Famous, including Feel Something, Actin’ Different, and Flex On, the rapper won the crowd over with his exuberant stage presence and solid lyrical flow. The sea of bopping heads in the crowd was a clear sign that unfamiliarity with his work posed no barriers to enjoying his music, particularly when most tracks had hooks that were instantaneously memorable with the crowd rapping the lyrics back to him in little time. Rounding off the set with the buoyant, jazz-influenced hip hop banger It’s Key, the bright trumpet sound sent him on his way – but B Wise, you are welcomed back anytime.
Our homegrown DJ Quix gave the audience the first taste of EDM for the night by spinning the crowd into a frenzy with remixes of his bangers Riot Call and Supernatural. It was difficult to picture this hair-whipping, invisible-drum-playing man behind the DJ booth as once a full-time landscaper before he decided to pursue a music career. Well, he made a good call. Oozing with the kind of confidence and dance moves that should be seen in front of rather than behind a DJ desk, his on stage antics were equally as wild as his music. His set peaked with a remix of Zedd and Foxes’ Clarity, but after the bass dropped, so did the energy. No one could resist a beat on the dance floor, but even though the crowd was still pumping, the energy was slightly saturated towards the end of the set.
It was unfortunate that headliner Skepta was greeted with a half-full arena – another pity of the night. Announcing his presence with a wailing siren sound, the Mercury Prize-winning grime artist pierced through the blazing red lights on stage in an unassuming lime-green hoodie. Hiding his face behind black shades and a cap with a cross-body sling bag wrapped around him (that held no practical use for his performance), he promised the already-sweaty crowd to “get this place bouncing”.
Grinding out hit after hit from his Konnichiwa album with a passionate intensity and an impeccable flow, Skepta delivered some of the best performances of the night. Amidst flaring red and blue police lights shooting across the stage, Crime Riddim, Skepta’s defiant, “f*ck-the-law” anthem made every good citizen in the crowd become bad for a few minutes as they rapped along guilt-free. A pit of drunk people hoisted up on shoulders and punters being carried out was obviously not chaotic enough for Skepta’s liking as he ordered for bigger mosh pits to be created while he segued into It Ain’t Safe, another crowd favourite with the slick repeating hook “it ain’t safe for the block, not even for the cops”. Nothing could kill Skepta’s vibe, not even when someone threw a glow stick into his face to which he only responded with a compliment – “nice shot”. It would not be a Skepta show without the certified banger Shutdown that filled the arena with echoing chants of that word, while the word GREATNESS was emblazoned across the screen in the background.
Having released a psychedelic, post trap-influenced album TESTING earlier this year, A$AP Rocky’s set was an aesthetic reminder of this new spacey, experimental Rocky. At times, however, the spectacle became larger than the music itself. With a strong emphasis on the visual experience, his show relied heavily on smoke effects, shooting flames, and hallucinogenic imagery. His band was placed in the middle while two halves of a crashed car were placed on either side of the stage, each with a dummy in the car seat as to replicate a car crash scene. After numerous chants of the word “gang”, A$AP welcomed his “gang” (his band) onto the stage for A$AP Forever, an ode to his loyal crew.
Praise The Lord, his biggest single this year, incited a unanimous crowd sing along to the choppy, almost monotonous, hook. Stripping down to create a more hazy, dream-like atmosphere with the nostalgic Kids Turned Out Fine and the impossibly woozy L$D, there were moments of vocal instability that became apparent when a vocal back track was not present for these melody-based songs. Not to worry, however, the spectacle saved the day as the crowd was drawn to trippy visuals of mountains, blooming flowers, and optical illusions in a hypnotising, vibrant palette of colours. Returning to familiar territory, Tony Tone was a diss track to his critics built upon a repeated distorted riff. To go out on a high, A$AP delivered a stream of high energy hip-hop tracks such as Wild For The Night, F**kin’ Problems, and Yamborgini Highs.
Working behind a large black fortress of a DJ desk, Skrillex remained quite the mysterious figure throughout the night as he was obscured in the dark for a good portion of his set. The times that Skrillex did reveal his face, he was seen jumping onto the DJ booth and waving a large silver fern flag with the words New Zealand on it. To spice up his set further with Aotearoa flavor, Skrillex also remixed a version of Lorde’s Greenlight, to which he was dissatisfied about the complementary green lights that were lighting up the stage during the song and shouted to the technicians to “dim the motherf*cking lights” so that he may return to the darkness.
It has been three years since Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü and four years since his solo record Recess. Without much new original material to offer, his set became an hour of churning and re-churning remixes that he has churned and re-churned over and over again to beaming, seizure-inducing lights and open flame effects - and the crowd still went manic for it. His set list mainly consisted of remixes of other artists’ famous tracks such as Avicii’s Levels, Calvin Harris’ Summer, and Rihanna’s Work. Despite a small personal catalogue of songs, the crowd still revelled in his early 2010s hits such as First Of The Year (Equinox) and Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites as well as the Grammy-winning Where Are Ü Now. Turns out that the good ol’ build-break-bass drop formula is something you cannot beat to death.
Listen In was a bumpy ride, but one that was thrilling if you embraced all the highs and lows. The festival brought together major international acts and homegrown talent for a one-off show that surprisingly did not sell out in spite of it performing well in Australia. The situation begs the question: did New Zealand fail to support or did the music fail to impress?
More images from the event can be found in our photograph gallery below.