As hip hop’s domination in our local nightlife culture doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, it was quite strange to see that, even though our country is playing in the Champions League of the European festival game, there was no dedicated festival format that focussed entirely on this movement. That was until May 2017, when Fire Is Gold held its inaugural edition, exclusively showcasing acts from the urban scene. For the second round, however, the F.I.G.-team has decided to move the date to a sunnier June 23 - and they have upped the ante by supporting a proper amount of local artists. Young festivals always have a hard time surviving the first few editions, but Fire Is Gold seems to have no trouble standing out. In anticipation of this celebration of hip hop culture, we exchanged a few words with team player Jef Willem (who you might know from Trillers) in order to check the temperature in the Fire Is Gold offices.
Hi there, Jef! How are your nerves at the moment?
"I'm pretty calm to be honest. I used to be the most stressful guy ever, but I've learned to ease myself over the years."
Hip hop may be ‘booming’ at the moment - and the genre dominates the local charts, yet, organizing a festival that deals with just hip hop is still a big challenge if you compare the situation with The Netherlands, France or Germany. What’s your take on this?
"I think Belgium is usually a little slow when it comes to picking up new movements. It does makes sense to me, because there are just a lot more people in those countries, each with their influential major city like Paris, Amsterdam or Berlin. We love a good challenge over here at Fire Is Gold, and we're happy we are more or less the first to act upon this 'urban' movement with a fully dedicated festival. With Fire Is Gold, we want to be ‘different’, so, in the end there's less competition here."
What stands out when you take a look at the lineup, is the overwhelming amount of local names. Is booking local an important value for you guys?
"Hip hop is more than music. It was created from a cultural perspective which is still (and maybe now more than ever) the case today. There are definitely a lot of great artists abroad, but there's loads of talent in our own beautiful country, so we cannot overlook this. A lot of these artists have a unique style and their own community. We want to give them a platform to build on. It's all about the culture."
Many major hip hop names have exclusivity contracts with bigger summer festivals in Belgium (meaning they are not allowed to play for a certain time before or after this gig, ed.). We can imagine that lead to frustrating situations sometimes. Is this a problem you have to deal with often? And if so, what’s your stand on this way of business from a small festival perspective?
"I'll be honest to say that a lot of festivals in Belgium are fishing in the same pond, and we definitely had our difficulties as a small organisation to get the big names. That's why we decided to be different, so we've only booked names that we strongly believe in, artists who are pushing the sound of tomorrow. Take Killy for example. This kid just bursts with potential; success is inevitable for him. Last year we booked Roméo Elvis just before he became one of the biggest Belgian artists. We try to keep our eyes open for these kind of things."
I think the biggest point of critique after the first edition last year was the ‘relatively high’ ticket price. At least, it was perceived as such by many. Is that something you consciously dealt with to avoid the same comments this year?
"A while ago, I already stated that I disagree with the claim those tickets were too expensive. Why do we think it’s normal to pay €6 for a latte in a coffee shop or €12 for a movie in cinemas, but the value of a ticket to see multiple performances of great artists in a unique location is “too expensive”? We, all the promotors in Belgium, need to re-educate our audiences about the fact that quality deserves money. A solo concert of most of our artists in any given concert hall will set you back around €25, so we feel like €30 is a very reasonable price for our festival. The main reason we dropped the price, is because we really want to build our community and invest in the future of hip hop music in Belgium."
What was the most important lesson you learned after last year’s edition?
"That May 14 isn't the best period to do a festival (laughs). That's why we moved the date a bit closer to the summer: June 23! Additionally, it will be a Saturday this year instead of a Sunday."
You guys are doing a lot of gigs on the side, like the concert with Lil Skies at Trix, or the party with Lunice at Bar Helder. It’s quite unusual for a Belgian festival to host launch parties locally. Why did you decide to go against the grain?
"That’s an easy one! As we’ve said, we strongly believe in building our community. You cannot build that with just one day every year. In his book 'Holy Trinity Events', I Love Techno founder Peter Decuypere states you have to “give people an excuse to connect”. With all our events (and more are coming up by the way), we are giving people plenty of those excuses!"
Fire Is Gold clearly focusses on other fields than just music too: skating, football, basketball, fashion, etc. Is this a way you want to stand out? Or is it an extension of the versatile identity in hip hop you want to represent? Or maybe both?
"It is definitely both. We want to be different, so adding sports to your music festival is a great way to do so. Hip hop is more than music. It's a way of life – and we’re trying to highlight all different elements of this culture. There are many people who share a similar passion for music, sports and fashion, but until recently they didn’t have a festival that celebrates all those in one event. Now they do!"
Compared to the first edition, which things will be different this year?
"The vision has remained the same. We will build around our music, sports and fashion theme, but we'll step it up a notch this time. For instance, one of our stages is a Vice stage now, because we want to build on the socio-cultural aspects of our community. We'll have some unique fashion collabs and street art experiences. The VIP experience will be brought to another level as well, provided by the Bloody Louis crew. And as far as sports go, everything will be bigger and better."
Last one: which name are you most proud of to have on the bill?
"Although we are very proud to have international big shots like Stefflon Don and Kalash, we are the proudest of our local names. Caballero & JeanJass for example, they have sold out Ancienne Belgique on their own. Everyone in Belgium who has been in the scene for a while knows how crazy this is for a local hip hop act. This music is on the rise in Belgium, and we carry this movement deeply in our hearts for all years to come."