Five things we learned at Philadelphia’s Made in America Festival

Philadelphia’s Made in America Festival took place this Saturday and Sunday just 100 miles from New York’s Electric Zoo, but felt like a different world entirely. The second iteration of the Budweiser-sponsored festival stretched over Fairmount Park with a 60,000-person crowd as diverse as the talent roster. Hip-hop heads were treated to performances by 2 Chainz, Kendrick Lamar, Wiz Khalifa and more; Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age, among others, catered to the rock set; and dance fans had their own stage filled with talent both new and established. The Freedom Stage, which housed the bulk of the electronic artists, was a marked improvement from last year’s tent of the same name, with more space for a far more sizeable crowd than that of 2012.

Line-up aside, Made in America had two different, coexisting dispositions, as fans alternated between partying and indulging in some end-of-summer laziness. The back of each stage area was dotted with attendees sprawled out on beach towels, taking in the music as well as the weather. The tragedies at Electric Zoo, and the subsequent Sunday cancellation, cast a surprisingly small shadow over Made in America (Saturday’s limited on-site security presence didn’t change the following day). Fans were in good spirits despite the events in New York and the usual small festival annoyances. Below, a few key takeaways from our weekend in Philly:

1. Some DJs are - wait for it - actually DJing

In the age of the “producer/DJ,” many dance artists find themselves learning how to put on a show after they’ve hit it big with a single or EP. But a number of Freedom Stage stars showed that they have skills behind the booth in addition to the studio… and gave some of the most memorable performances of the weekend.

On Saturday, TJR played a wild mix of, well, pretty much whatever he wanted. He took the energized crowd from a bass-heavy version of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” into Tupac’s “California Love,” only to speed up the beat and transform it into one of his signature Melbourne bounce creations. By the time TJR dropped his hit “Funky Vodka” and shifted into a bootleg of Swedish House Mafia’s “Don’t You Worry Child” and Bob Marley’s “Is This Love,” the crowd was completely at his mercy. At the end of his set, TJR joked, “I am Moby, and thank you.” (Solid bald-guy humor, if you ask us.)

Later that night, Porter Robinson kept things creative as only he does. His ever-shifting visuals (tons of anime, intergalactic imagery and a few Greco-Roman gods, because he can) worked well with the unexpected elements he threw into his set, like Super Mario Brothers’ “ca-ching!” sound and the distorted guitar melody from Sleigh Bells’ “Riot Rhythm.” Robinson also played ably with tempo, mixing everything from trap to drum ‘n’ bass to complextro easily while, as usual, including a few big breakdowns and slow-building transitions to catch fans off-guard. His cheeky, slowed-down flip of Martin Garrix’s “Animals,” for example – in which he essentially made his own beat out of the track’s central melody – basically stopped the action before stunned fans caught on and jumped back in.

GTA was clearly doing something right during their Sunday-afternoon performance: The Freedom Stage area was packed by set’s end. The duo’s mantra, “Death to Genres,” was the order of the day, as they integrated of-the-moment hip-hop and dance music with rock classics and left-field vocals. As trap brings hip-hop ever closer to EDM’s orbit, sets are evolving in kind; GTA represents the potential for expert scratching and creative mixing to find a place in dance music. Two examples: an electro remix of Kelis’ “Milkshake” dropped right into a trap-tinged version of Ace Hood’s “Bugatti,” and the duo made a brilliant bootleg featuring Trinidad James’ “All Gold Everything” and the beat from the 2002 NORE hit “Nothin.’” It’s safe to assume the latter song has never been played during an EDM set before. The same is true of “Apache (Jump on It)” by the Sugar Hill Gang, to which the crowd shimmied shamelessly.

2. Live acts are big crowd-pleasers

While masters of mixing thrilled crowds, live sets were also big hits throughout the weekend. After seeing so many figures behind CDJs and mixers – a simple reality of being an EDM fan – real, live instruments create festival experiences that stand apart, both visually and musically. Rudimental was among the first to perform sans DJ booth. The group’s nine-piece band sounded lush and layered at the Freedom Stage. AlunaGeorge also took the live route, as the duo augmented their show with additional performers (with group member George Reid on the drums) to create a more full sound. Robert DeLong, too, put on his signature one-man-band show, rocking the single “Global Concepts” and even a Rolling Stones cover all on his own.

Over on the Liberty Stage, Empire of the Sun delivered a hugely powerful show. A live setting is Empire’s true home, with their outlandish costumes and dramatic production, but the performance itself was what made their music sound bigger and better.

3. Dubstep isn’t dead… if it’s done right

Sunday’s dubby one-two punch of Feed Me and Nero far exceeded expectations. Both artists are known for making dubstep tracks a big part of their live sets (perhaps Nero more than Feed Me), but both made it sound current by defying genre classification altogether and simply going for interesting, exciting sounds. Feed Me played older tracks like “Death by Robot” and “Pink Lady” alongside more current songs, bringing dubstep’s pace and heaviness together with newer electro synths and uptempo energy. He also went for the surprise factor, dropping Nicky Romero’s now-classic “Cameras Ready” remix seemingly out of nowhere.

The instant Nero began – this was a DJ set, not a live performance – girls were already scrambling to get up on shoulders for a better view. The set’s overall sound moved between dubstep and drum ‘n’ bass, with tracks like Nero’s own “Etude” and Flux Pavilion’s “Bass Cannon,” and occasional detours into new territory. Justice’s “Genesis” turned out to be a perfect backdrop for the group’s own “Must Be The Feeling” vocals, for example. Fans excitedly reacted to every element of the performance, whether they chanted along with “Technologic” by Daft Punk or belted out the lyrics to “Won’t You (Be There)” by Nero themselves.

4. There’s still room for music discovery

Even with acts like Nine Inch Nails and Beyonce at the top of the bill, Made in America still offered attendees the opportunity to find new artists. Rock fans, for example, found a new favorite in a band called Diarrhea Planet, but we digress. Rudimental’s set started off with a clear divide among the crowd – fans, and friends of fans that were along the ride – but, a few songs in, everyone was a fan. The same was true of AlunaGeorge, whose Disclosure connection proved a major selling point.

5. EDM’s made it to the Main Stage

deadmau5 and Calvin Harris performed just before the headliners on Saturday and Sunday nights, respectively, and no one batted an eye. These are acts with major cache, even among the droves of rap fans who otherwise decamped at the hip-hop-oriented Rocky Stage for the weekend. Both acts did what they’re best at: deadmau5 brought an immersive spectacle with long-running versions of his biggest songs, while Harris played his hits and Beatport bangers in a very close replica of his EDC Las Vegas set.

Photos courtesy of MSO PR/Getty Images and