Serbia’s biggest festival, EXIT is a Balkan haven for drum n’ bass and techno. But this year, as it's the 50th anniversary of the creation of hip-hop, Euronews Culture was invited to participate in a programme showcasing the best international and regional rappers around.
For those unaware, many people credit the birth of hip-hop with a block party in the Bronx, New York City, all the way back in 1973. There, 18-year-old Clive Campbell throws a party for his friends. Campbell, performing under his moniker DJ Kool Herc, attracts a bigger and bigger crowd spinning the best dance tunes from artists like James Brown. Herc's revolutionary approach to breaking between two spinning records is credited as the founding force behind hip-hop's distinct sound.
50 years later, hip-hop is one of the defining genres of popular music. Having spread far beyond its South Bronx origins to become an international sensation. In Serbia, they've taken the genre to heart in a whole new way.
To get to EXIT Festival, we wake up at the crack of dawn to shuffle aboard a cramped flight to Serbia’s capital Belgrade. From there, we’ve got an hour in the car before we reach Novi Sad, the country’s second city. Like many festivals with an emphasis on dance music, EXIT won’t get started until the blistering heat of the day has abated and will continue on until well past daybreak. Our 4am alarms to fly from London Luton to get here has put us at a natural disadvantage for the first day.
Speaking to Marijana, a promoter who grew up in Novi Sad, she recalls hearing the festival from the river banks of the Danube aged just nine-years-old and being desperate to get involved.
Situated in the Petrovaradin Fortress since its second ever edition in 2001, it’s not hard to see how it became such a crucial pilgrimage for locals growing up in the festival’s vicinity. High up in the hills, we watch the sunset turn the Danube orange and put away our first few drinks of the evening. It’s time for some music.
Sarasvati Druna Bend provides a relaxing dose of Balkan folk mysticism while Šajzerbiterlemon brings Serbia’s answer to garage punk. That gets the blood pressure pumping in anticipation of Swedish punk band Viagra Boys. Frontman Sebastian Murphy cavorts across the stage, topless and tatted dadbod out to the elements. Chaos reigns. Saxophonist Oscar Carls in short-shorts dry humps the air, smoking between sax solos. At one point it looks like Murphy is too drunk to continue but they power on through an impressive set of feisty hits.
An opening ceremony chucks fireworks into the air before tonight’s main event takes the stage. The Prodigy are here, back in Serbia for the first time since the loss of frontman Keith Flint. They’re EXIT regulars, and the set has a Flint-shaped hole ever present. During a short rendition of ‘Firestarter’, neon impressions of his iconic look are projected above the band.
Even without one of their legendary frontmen, The Prodigy still knows how to pack a punch. In Maxim’s hands, they are still one of the most aggressively impressive drum n’ bass acts in history, their jaw-clenchingly heavy set confidently cycles through history with a finishing one-two of 2018’s ‘We Live Forever’ and 1992’s ‘Out of Space’.
Chase and Status bring another collection of neo-classic British beats with a DJ set after, but we’re straight on over to the dance stage to check out the all-female first night line-up.
There’s a vertigo-inducing set of scaffolding steps down into the dance arena that’s set into the depths of one of the Fortress’s cavernous chambers. Lanna, the 17-year-old Serbian wunderkind sets the tempo for the night before a tight minimal techno set from Belgian DJ Amelie Lens. It’s a preamble for Nina Kraviz, the seasoned Russian star who keeps the 17th century surrounding walls pulsating into the night.
We get a quick boogie to one of Ben UFO’s ever-immaculate collages of British house before heading back over the Danube for an early-ish night.
We get to the festival later on Friday night and the place reverberates with anticipation. The centuries old fortress walls are humming as we climb cobblestone steps to reach the musical arenas.
Darting through the crowd, we catch Dutch symphonic metal band Epica on the main stage. For the most part, EXIT is dedicated to dance and hip-hop this year, with smaller stages covering other genres like metal and reggae. Epica kicking off the evening with their Eurovision-inflected metal is a nice mix up to set the stage for the evening’s headliner: Skrillex.
One of the architects of the early 2010s dubstep obsession, Skrillex stepped away from the limelight since his initial success. His return, sans one-sided undercut, has seen him release his second and third albums this year, a collaborative tour with Four Tet and Fred Again, as well as teasing another two albums.
The Skrenaissance (yes, I went there) is fully evident from the scale of his anthemic set. The stage is ablaze with pyrotechnics and an immersive light show. The set is a confident spread of the DJ’s career. He references new friends with a version of Fred Again and the Blessed Madonna’s ‘Marea (We've Lost Dancing)’. But the true showstoppers are still his classics. No one’s too cool for dubstep in 2023 when ‘Bangarang’ drops.
Over in the dance arena, Swedish DJ and producer Eric Prydz brings an eclectic mix of trance accompanied by one of the festival’s most impressive visual shows, transfixing revellers as they bathe in light.
Ahead of their late-night set, we meet Bane Bojović, the frontman of Serbian rapcore group Sunshine. They’ve been on the Balkan hip-hop scene since the early 80s, releasing their first album ‘Ljubavna likvefakcija (Love Assassifaction)’ in 1995. Over their career, they’ve made their name with a high-octane combination of live metal backing Bojović’s rap vocals.
Bojović remembers playing EXIT Festival when it was still on the beach opposite Petrovaradin in 2000. He spent time living in the US as a foreign exchange student in the 80s, where he was quickly inspired US legends like Eric B. & Rakim, KRS-One, Run DMC and Sunday headliners Wu-Tang Clan. “Before that I listened to punk like The Sex Pistols, but when I first saw Breakin', something changed me 400%.”
Watching them perform, you can see the crossover influence of punk and hip-hop, with lyrics mostly about just having fun, relationships and being a gangster. They put on one of the most invigorating shows of the night before we head back to our beds.
We started our day off with a luxurious boat cruise down the Danube. After enjoying the view of Novi Sad for a couple of hours, we made our way back to the festival site for the third time.
As part of EXIT’s 50 years of hip-hop celebration, today’s mainstage has an impressive selection of some of the best female talent in the local rap game. We got the chance to speak to two after their sets.
Sajsi MC is one of the first acts on stage. One of the first women to gain prominence in Serbia’s rap scene, Sajsi MC debuted in 2002 and has grown a devoted fan base with her unabashedly sex-positive lyrics. Her feminist message and catchy hooks brings a great atmosphere with loads of young women passionately singing along word-for-word.
The bops are great, but the meaning is still crucial, Sajsi MC tells us. “If they don't speak Serbian, they can maybe feel the vibe. But I think it's crucial for them to translate the lyrics because my music it's all about the words and the message and the way I mix words.”
Sajsi MC is also well regarded as an LGBTQ+ ally through her music and as “godmother” of Belgrade Pride in 2022. “In Serbia to be a female is hard. And to be an ally, it's hard, but I do not complain. I love the way I do things,” she explains.
Next up is another Serbian legend, Mimi Mercedez. Coming to prominence in the early 2010s, this is the second time Mercedez has performed at EXIT. Also a champion of sex-positivity in her lyrics, Mercedez brings an aggressive snarl to her punchy tunes.
“This was a really really big deal for me because here, it's your biggest success to be on EXIT’s mainstage. This is the biggest festival in the Balkans, and the biggest stage, I’m so hyped up I can't even, you know, I can't even,” she tells us, modestly.
When discussing why hip-hop has such a big role in the Serbian music scene, Mercedez gives a simple explanation connected to the many years of strife the Balkans faced after the break-up of Yugoslavia.
“Life in Serbia is so hardcore. We don't have the ghetto, we’re only ghetto. The whole Balkans is a big ghetto. So it's really hardcore,” she says. “We grew up in these kinds of conditions that made us be brutal. But funny in a brutal way. That's the main thing about Serbia, our dark humour and very brutal lyrics.”
Later in the evening, there’s an incredible set by the US duo Sofi Tukker. The virtuoso pair has Tucker Halpern mixing every dance genre under the sun together as Sophie Hawley-Weld spends her time singing, dancing and shredding on guitar.
Before the final night of EXIT, we wash away our hangovers in the Danube at Štrand, Novi Sad’s city-centre beach. With most of the acts not taking to the stage until the evening, one of the joys of the festival is the chance to discover the joys of Serbia’s second city.
Back on site, British post-punk band Dry Cleaning eases us into proceedings with vocalist Florence Shaw’s spoken-word delivery resonating over thrashed guitars.
It’s over at the main stage though that the festival’s 50 years of hip-hop theme is being celebrated most. The Blackout 30 Showcase highlights some of the industry’s best lesser-known talents including Prti Bee Gee, Bolesna Braca, Smoke Mardeljano & AJS Nigrutin, Bege Fank and Phat Phillie. Onyx put on the last set of the group and bring the stage alive, inviting the entire collective on for their final song.
And then finally it’s the main event. What we’ve all been waiting for.
If your goal is to honour the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, you’d be hard pressed to find a better group to represent the genre than Wu-Tang Clan.
Across the long weekend, the festival has been awash with fans garbed in the group’s iconic ‘W’ logo. As the crowd anticipates their arrival, hands fly in the air spread into the symbol. From the level of dedication and Mercedez’ comments yesterday, the Serbian soul has an affinity for the trials and tribulations of the rap genre and to many, Wu-Tang is its apotheosis.
Besides Method Man, the whole crew is there playing with a live band. Drums crash, guitars scream and decks rip as they jump into a parade of their greatest hits. From first hit ‘Protect Ya Neck’ through a dazzling rendition of ‘C.R.E.A.M.’, RZA, GZA, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, Cappadona, U-God and DJ Mathematics give it their all.
Throughout the set, there are multiple touching tributes to the memory of Ol’ Dirty Bastard — who died in 2004 — including performing in front of a projection of his first album, 1995’s ‘Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version’ during covers of ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’ and ‘Got Your Money’.
Wu-Tang last performed at EXIT in 2007 and they’re clearly happy to be back in a country that welcomes them so warmly. They finish the set with their high-energy outro, putting a medley of their own songs among covers of The Beatles ‘Come Together’ and Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
Wu-Tang Clan leave the stage to rapturous applause, wrapping up the EXIT experience. Well, for us at least. We’ve got an early morning flight home. For those without publishing deadlines to meet, the party continues on through to an afterparty at eight in the morning.