Though Wale's break-out hit "Nike Boots" has the feel of a crunk tune — a surging march rhythm with programmed hand claps and snare feels, a gurgling looped vocal sample (Flya then the resta them, flya than the resta them, fly-flya than the resta them, still got my Nike boots), and a slurry cameo from famed Cash Money rapper Lil' Wayne — the DC rapper's better songs swap the sample-driven hip-hop form for live instrumentation. Besides his slack vocal cadence, innate sense of rhythm, and ability to rattle off pop culture references, Wale's best asset is a genuine understanding of Washington go-go music, a type of syncopated funk that emerged in the 1970s but never quite caught on. The rapper revives go-go style in tracks like "Dig Dug" and "Ice Cream Girl," which blend goofy studio effects with congas and live horns, often structuring the raps around a dotted rhythm with a second-line feel.
The thing about Wale that has attracted everyone from Amy Winehouse producer Mark Ronson to Southern crunk rapper Bun B is his ability to bring real musicianship into hip-hop in a way that doesn't seem contrived. The rapper often rolls with the nine-piece go-go band UnCalled4 Experience, though he's just as comfortable trading boasts with Lil' Wayne over a backing track. "It's not the type of flash-in-the-pan thing that the hipster movement is about," said Wale's manager Dan Weisman, defending the artist's street cred, despite his newfound popularity in hipster blogs and indie magazines. "I would never put him in the same category as Cool Kids or Spank Rock." To Weisman, Wale — who performs Friday, Feb. 29 at San Francisco's Club Mighty — has an anomalous presence in the mostly indie-rock lineup at Noise Pop, even with the addition of electropop band MSTRKRFT, who perform at Mighty the following night.
These artists may seem out of their element, but for Noise Pop, the inclusion of dance music and hip-hop is a real daring move. Festival programmers started venturing away from their comfort zone with last year's Treasure Island Music Fest — which placed psychedelic Cambodian rock band Dengue Fever on a lineup with DJ Shadow, Sri Lankan baile funk artist M.I.A., and the electronica group Thievery Corporation — which established Noise Pop as a more commercially viable concert promoter. This year, Noise Pop all but jettisoned its indie-rock tradition by teaming up with the electronic-and-tech-oriented production team Blasthaus — which sprang from San Francisco's Rx Gallery in 1995 — and soliciting sponsorships from Diesel and Scion. According to festival co-producer Jordan Kurland, a general diversification of content and the incorporation of more electronic acts (along with DJ-based venues like Mighty) seemed like the logical next move for a company that's trying to broaden its reach in an ever-fluctuating market. "It's been moving in that direction for a while," Kurland said. "Over the last three to five years, I think that's something we've always been trying to incorporate."
Still, Kurland insists that "diversification" isn't carte blanche for "anything goes." "We want it to be quality ... something that will work with our audience," Kurland explained. "Something like Tiesto is not going to work." Indeed, acts like Wale and MSTRKRFT don't yet rank as "high profile," but they've got enough pull to bring in a whole different crowd, and if the Electropop fest proves successful, it could alter the stature of Noise Pop. Those fringe band showcases at El Rio may quickly become a thing of the past.