Walking down the steps of the LA Coliseum to chest-wobbling Dubstep at this year’s HARD Summer was a full circle moment; more than 10 years ago, I lamented that an experience like that would never happen when Insomniac had to start throwing EDC in Las Vegas. A slow but sure progression of shows following the pandemic saw events return to that space and Exposition Park. It all culminated this past weekend when Pasquale Rotella did us one better: he booked a wide swath of land beyond the legendary arena to compose an epic 2023 iteration of the fabled weekend.
This time a decade ago, there was a different face and vibe attached to HARD. A heavy-handed approach to booking cutting-edge artists still remains at the heart of this event, but new management begets a closer look at the holistic experience. A uniform string of neon, summer-y decor, upgraded production to visualize the sounds one would hear, and quirky experiences like a clever bike-powered slushie machine for your inevitable Beatbox all made a pilgrimage to the middle of DTLA way more memorable. Barring some critical growing pains that I think need to be heavily considered for next year’s event, HARD Summer 2023 can be regarded as a huge success for Los Angeles’s rave scene at large.
For this year’s iteration, HARD established its most ambitious map yet. Instead of a mix of megastructures and hulking stages with a more controlled area than normal, the festival booked two stadiums and three wide open spaces. One could walk directly into the grounds and find the HARD Stage, which boasted the two main B2Bs of the weekend from Kaskade and John Summit as well as Skrillex and Four Tet. Revelers were also treated to numerous performances from Thee Mike B and an eclectic mix of House and Bass Music from Noizu, Dillon Francis, Jersey Club queen Uniiqu3, Black Coffee, and several others. Knowing there would be a hot sun pelting the grounds, a big space of shade and misters were available to hide under. LED Screens lined the sides of the stage, giving people a view of acts that may have been farther away.
For those who wanted a deeper dive into the edgier side of Dance music, the HARDER stage was your destination. The contrasting B2Bs at this stage were Kayzo/Sullivan King as well as AC Slater and Chris Lorenzo’s “Fly With Us” project. Ludacris and Fat Joe found themselves there as well to massive reception along with DJ sets from Kaivon, Frosttop, Chuwe and Nøll. Though it looked to be the smallest stage on the map, there was still plenty of options to see and hear the sounds that the stage had to provide. Those with VIP even had access to a shallow pool to cool off and float around to the madness.
House heads found a haven at the Pink Stage with Nala, Ben Sterling, Pawsa, Loco Dice, Denis Sulta and a load more denizens of the House and Technoverse. Insomniac has hosted several events in Exposition Park, so the layout was familiar and just as great to groove in. The stage was in the center of all the action as well, so any stage hoppers may have found an easy time B-lining wherever their heart desired.
If you hit the Purple Stage at the BMO Stadium, you were treated to a slew of live acts. Rochelle Jordan, Kid Cudi and 21 Savage were just a few of the many performers who filled the second stadium with their performances. Plenty of DJ sets occurred from Hayden James, Yune Pinku and Oliver Tree as well. I had the most fun at this stage mainly because of the easy access to seating and an inside area, with the beauty of the sky during golden hour. This stage boasted the most versatile design, with folded LED screens and room for any vocalist to engage the crowd.
The Green Stage was a massive footprint on the map at the famed LA Coliseum. Bass Music permeated the dancefloo with Drum N’ Bass stylings from Wilkinson and Luude, Dubstep from Kai Wachi and Space Laces, and a wild close from DJ Diesel on night one. The only B2B there was one of the wildest of the weekend, with Yellow Claw and Flosstradamus shelling out more fire than every stage’s pyrotechnics combined.
There was some confusion as to why the Coliseum wasn’t where the headlining artists performed; while I shared in that confusion, it seemed as if there was a big capacity restriction compared to the space where the HARD stage was. I noticed a more controlled flow of traffic going in and out of this stage and feel as if there could be conditions in place to make it easier to fill the venue further. Regardless, Bass Music is one of the biggest proponents to the EDM boom in the early 2010’s, so it felt appropriate to have acts like Netsky and Hamdi play classic UK-bred sounds inside of the arena.
At its best, the venue provided several spots to both have a good time and take a break from the action. Better still, an unblocked journey between the stages with the furthest distance wasn’t nearly as bad as viral social media memes(ours included, admittedly) made it seem. That being said, we can’t quite ignore an issue that several of our readers and other outlets have brought up numerous times: the crowd was far too dense.
Around 6 PM each day, when most people made it into the venue, navigating the sea of bodies was considerably difficult. Thankfully, each stage seemed to have spots that were easy to dance in once one arrived. Regardless, leaving the venue each day did not feel safe. This isn’t just from my experience; several videos posted from the event showed extremely congested streams leaving the venue and going to the parking lot and public transit. A few friends reported being completely stuck when leaving a primetime set at the HARDER stage. The most glaring issue one may have found was the VIP section being closed off altogether during the final set of the weekend on the HARD stage.
All who noted this issue seem to be pointing to the same problem: an overselling of tickets. I can only assume that Insomniac means to provide as many people with the positive impact of their events as possible, but allowing an almost unfettered capacity has a more negative consequences than positive. The difficulty of leaving and serious crowding could and did lead to more group separation, easier opportunities for violence and theft, and health risks for those with accessibility needs. I’ve heard rumblings that many groups of people are considering abstaining from these events until this ongoing issue is fixed.
Although I found myself in the brunt of this problem, the people in my orbit were kind and considerate through it all. I was accidentally elbowed in the chest about three times within the first couple of hours of walking in, but each person apologized and was kind through it. The next day, I even witnessed good manners from people moving along as they were singing along to Ludacris’s “Move Bitch.” The cognitive dissonance at Insomniac HQ that may exist in relation to these oversized crowds is likely more complicated than anyone realizes, but at the end of the day, I think something has to be done sooner than later.
HARD is typically an event that attracts a bigger mix of attendees than a full-on rave, so one might expect a less PLUR-esque crowd. I spoke with many who didn’t necessarily attend these kinds of events all of the time but were open to the new experience. As one might expect, there was also a wide range of rave apparel, totems, and behavior that begets a rave-y atmosphere. I even felt this at the one rap set I went to; when Ludacris played “Baby,” I was a bit-…taken aback. A stranger saw my reaction and joyfully encouraged me to sing along despite my initial feeling, and I decided to humor them and have fun regardless of my expectation of some deep cut from his Release Therapy album. Moments that sparked joy like that happened with a lot of kind strangers whom I interfaced with that weekend.
I’d lump health and safety into the “people and vibes” category as well, so Ground Control’s presence is an important point here. The purple-shirted heroes of the dancefloor made plenty of rounds at the event. A reader expressed gratitude to one Ground Controller for taking care of their lost friend for two hours. The safety-advocating volunteers’ headquarters was the Oasis in the middle of the grounds. There was the main section with an info desk, then a special area for people who were more strung out than normal. One of the members joyfully described themselves as “ravers helping ravers.”
They continued this mantra with a new and improved lost and found that involved a QR code tag you could add to your belongings. One of our writers told us that thanks to that system, she got her bag with all of the stuff inside of it back immediately. With the sheer size of the venue and crowd, it may have been useful to have a location at each stage as a precaution. Regardless, each time I walked through there wasn’t an overabundance of people there. End Overdose also had a presence, providing quick training and Naxalone to potentially save a life.
As it turned out, there were some concerns regarding bad actors amongst the population within HARD’s proverbial four walls. Social media recaps and videos detail many people who were assaulted during and after the event, as well as fights that occurred between security and some attendees. I myself witnessed someone who tried to hop a fence in the last hour of the event for some odd reason. I think the solution to both of these problems may lie within the Ground Control team; in the same way that ravers help ensure their fellow ravers stay safe, I’d love to see a separate squad of people looking out for women and helping to de-escalate situations that might turn sour without the intimidating factor a security guard or police officer may present.
Near the beginning of Day II was an experience that reminded me why I started raving in the first place. As I was checking out the Green Stage for Hamdi, someone from a giant group saw that I was partying by myself, attached a little sprout clip to my hat, and took me into their group without question. I had a blast not just dancing with them as if I’d known them all for years, but having a deep dive convo about the nature of these events, the label Hamdi is signed to, and getting music recommendations for a sub-genre I had strayed away from simply because I didn’t know anyone who listened to it. Though it was only an hour of vibing, the unconditional love by this entire group re-instated my love for events like this and the people it attracts. I can only imagine that that kind of moment happened in several areas of the grounds and changed lives as it did mine.
There are some qualifying issues that it wouldn’t be wise to look away from, but in my honest opinion, Pasquale Rotella’s main mission of facilitating a widespread collective effervescence was a success for the two days that HARD Summer took place.
We have plenty more to talk about, including the Food and Amenities, GA vs. VIP, a deeper dive into the musical journey one could have traversed, and a culmination of all aspects that I think make this the most historic massive in Los Angeles County. Stay tuned for Part II.