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Hard Summer, at a turning point, is driven by political hip-hop

Hard Summer, at a turning point, is driven by political hip-hop
Ice Cube performs among the smoke-filled stage during the Hard Summer dance music festival. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

During his Saturday set at Hard Summer, Canadian Palestinian rapper Belly paused to talk about a gig he'd recently spiked. "Jimmy Kimmel asked me to perform on his show," he said. "But then I found out this [jerk] was going to be on too. So obviously I canceled that."

Upon saying that, the back of Belly's stage-light rig turned into a giant portrait of Donald Trump, mid-grimace with a Hitler mustache. The crowd booed in sympathy with Belly, and took up a chant with a profane anti-Trump message.

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"We're worried about living in peace and comfort with our friends and family," Belly added, before ripping into his own version of Kanye West's seething "New Slaves."

Even at Hard Summer, in its biggest incarnation yet, politics were inescapable.

Hard Summer, this year at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, is at a turning point in its nine-year history. The two-day festival faced an uncertain future in 2015, after two fans died of drug overdoses. That led to local government demanding that the fest leave the Pomona Fairplex (the family of one of the overdose victims is suing Hard Summer and its parent firm, Live Nation).

But instead of scaling back, the festival moved a bit east, raised its ambitions (Saturday had an estimated 70,000 fans) and booked its most incendiary lineup to date.

Atop the bill, rapper Ice Cube joined MC Ren and DJ Yella from his canonical L.A. rap group N.W.A. They were an unusual old-school hip-hop headliner at an event most often associated with electronic dance music.

Cube also performed at this year's Coachella — then, with rarely seen cohort Dr. Dre onstage as well. But he was even more ferocious at Hard Summer, mixing brutal videos of police shootings into Black Lives Matter protest footage to draw a through line between N.W.A's frustrated rage to today's civil rights movements.

Black artists were the backbone of this year's Hard Summer.  The adventurous, virtuosic soul singer Anderson .Paak played one of Saturday's most insistent sets.  With an ear for pop and a wild experimental streak, he made Hard Summer feel all the more urgent and current. Other ambitious acts,  like Travis Scott and Kaytranada (booked for Sunday), proved that radio pop and ravenous sonic exploration lived side-by-side here.

Younger dance talent, like rising producers Mija and DJDS, bolstered the fest's underground club music credibility. But in the end, all the most necessary music was coming from Hard Summer's hip-hop-aligned corners.

The shift was apropos for a fest in flux. The new site, a gigantic auto racetrack, provided opportunities that Hard's other venues never could have accommodated. For one, there was an actual public swimming pool by the main stage (which many fans, already in swimsuits and panting in the 99 degree Inland Empire heat, happily availed themselves of).

The layout wasn't perfect. Even with all the new space, confused patrons often bottle-necked by the main stages and a few entrances, which could have used clearer maps and signage out front. At the night's close, event organizers had to play pedestrian traffic cops, sending a flurry of tweets steering fans to the proper exists.

Hard's far too established to call these blips growing pains; at this point, its organizers also know that local governments are watching with utmost scrutiny. But the fact that the festival is keeping up with new demand proves there's never been more interest in its mix of club music, hip-hop and the of-the-moment ways they're intermingling.

And when acts like with Belly and Ice Cube hit it right, it can also make for riveting political theater.

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