All photos by Nikki Hearts
A couple weekends ago, my wife Leigh Raven and I woke up early and geared up for our trip to the Smokers Club Festival in Long Beach, California. I'd been looking forward to the event for months, seeing as it was a festival celebrating two of my all-time favorite things: Hip-hop and weed!
But unlike your typical cannabis event, or your typical music festival, Smokers Club brings out the best of both, while nixing the eye roll-worthy traits we've all come to expect from these big-box shitshows. Whereas weed festivals will typically take whatever talent they can get, here the event was finely curated with slamming lineup — featuring the likes of Wiz Khalifa, Kid Cudi, 2 Chainz, Lil Pump, Schoolboy Q, Ty Dolla $ign, Earl Sweatshirt, and other heavy-hitters. And while you might see the occasional CBD booth at a mammoth fest like Coachella or whatever, those corporate music spectacles are not truly down with weed.
So imagine if Hard Summer and The Emerald Cup had a delightful, resin-covered baby, and you're getting close to the spirit of Smokers Club… I was headed to the two-day event to hear some of my favorite rappers and get high on my own flower (yep, at the same damn time), and MERRY JANE asked me to shoot photos and videos of the performances and backstage happenings.
On top of snapping pics, my editors asked me to wax poetic about the fest, as this was one of my first professional gigs after leaving the adult film industry. Through the smoke and the thundering bass of the speakers, these were a few of the moments that stood out to me and Leigh as we perused the best g'damn event — one where you could finally smoke Blue Cheese as 2 Chainz performed "Blue Cheese" smack-dab in front of you.
Juicy J at Smokers Club 2018
Stoked as I was, somehow I was unaware that Leigh had no large music festival experiences under her belt. She appreciates both hip-hop and weed, but also really doesn't like crowds. After some rallying, we dressed cute, packed a backpack full of loud — a literal "loudpack," if you will — and we were ready.
Once we got to the general vicinity of the Queen Mary, where Smokers Club was going down, and saw how massive and crowded the event actually was, I got a little intimidated! And Leigh had a full-blown panic attack. She explained to me that she had never been to anything like this, not even close. I thought she had at least been to Warped Tour — she's SoCal born and raised, after all!
But alas, she was immediately overwhelmed by the monstrous crowd before we were even in the thick of it. So we grabbed lunch, she did her best to shake it off, and we entered the festival through the smaller stage's VIP entrance. After Leigh chiefed a blunt backstage, she warmed up a bit. Imagine if we weren't at a weed-friendly festival? She would have been dip-set before we caught any of the sets!
Leigh Raven at Smokers Club 2018
The first act we caught was Yung Pinch, who performed on the second stage. I had heard his name before, but wasn't sure what to expect. I joined the front stage photo pit and noticed that his DJ and hype man looked like they could still be in high school.
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Leigh and I both turned 26 at the end of last year. This was the first big current music festival I have been to in a while, as well as my first time in years being surrounded by so many up-and-comers.
Yung Pinch, photographed by Nikki Hearts
When Yung Pinch hit the stage I have to admit I was somewhat surprised to see such a young white kid with beautiful long blonde hair — decked out in Gucci — prancing about the stage. I liked his sound, he got the early crowd hyped up, and kept his energy up. General consensus: he was catchy. When he mentioned that he had just turned 21 before performing "When I Was Yung," I felt officially out of touch (and a little old). Still, it made me even more excited to see what the rest of the day would have in store.
We made our way to the main stage through the crowd of 10k people, which was comprised of mostly undeRagers, as this was an all-ages event. It was such a cool feeling to be emerged into a new age of hip-hop culture, alongside the diehard fans of over 40 artists. I have always appreciated the similarities in the ethos of punk and hip-hop music, but this was the first time I witnessed a crowd that really represented that with their modern style — both aesthetically and aurally.
Young Thug thuggin' out. Photo by Nikki Hearts
Eventually, we made our way to the Super Clinik backstage entrance — much larger and more crowded than the prior setting. The artist trailers were arranged like a Trap God trailer park, and a smoke sesh was going down in the middle of it all that would leave any rap nerd salivating. We smoked a J and then it was time to get out there, front and center, to shoot Young Thug. Who doesn't love Thugger? Coincidentally, he was one of the first rappers I'd ever seen perform, and he also made me want to photograph the genre in the first place. His performance was an entirely new spectacle up-close, especially in front of this monstrous crowd, compared to when I'd seen him in a small club from the bar. It was a great start to shooting the main stage.
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Lil Pump pumpin' – photo by Nikki Hearts
Lil Pump. The polarizer. Most people who stay up on hip-hop have an opinion on the kid. And I mean "kid." Pump is 17-years-old and has become a sensation over the past year thanks to his hit "Gucci Gang," in which he raps about using drugs, fuckin' bitches, and the fact that "none this shit be new to [him]." Don't get me wrong, it's catchy. I just can't help but be baffled that people are promoting this young kid rapping about life-ruining drugs like meth and prescription pills to a radio audience. Does that make me sound old? Well fuck you! Either way, he came out and did his thing, and the audience ate it up like candy… or meth (?)
2 Chainz, performing Saturdy at Smokers Club
I was probably most excited to photograph 2 Chainz at the Smokers Club. He's a bona fide rap legend, trap legend, and weed legend. Plus, Titi Boi is known for putting on a great show, a reputation he 100% lived up to. He nailed all the hits and did not disappoint. After shooting the first three songs of 2 Chainz's set, I left the photo pit and immersed myself into the unified, diverse crowd of youngsters and OGs, smokers and tokers. "It's a Vibe" blasted through the speakers as I smoked my blunt and it gave me everything I had hoped for while shooting my first hip-hop mega-fest. Note to 2 Chainz's management team: Hire me and Leigh as your tour photographers! We'll do it big!
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At the end of the night, Leigh and I agreed that 2 Chainz was our favorite performance of the day. It was genuinely such a good vibe that we might go so far as to say it was iconic.
Leigh wanted to comment that her least favorite performance of the day was Lil Pump because "he caused too many mosh pits. It scared me. I do like him, though. He's cute, despite being 17!"
I left wondering again, when did rap become so outwardly punk?
I asked Leigh if the festival lived up to her expectations. She said people were way more "poppin" than she had expected, as she assumed it would be a bunch of mellowed-out stoned people sitting on the grass.
Leigh continued: "Everyone was really young! The girls were so slutty! They were definitely tryin' to get it. Some of those dudes looked like fuckin morons, the ones that have like fake face tattoos. You could tell everyone was just so drunk, high, stuffed with junk food, and sprawled out that I'm sure there were some people straight-up boning out there."
This crowd for me personally was somewhat of an all-too-real look at teens today. Lots of privileged, confused white kids. I knew it wasn't going to be a hard crowd, but it was way greener than I imagined — in terms of both attendees' average ages and the omnipresent pot. At least it all felt new to me!
The entire crowd was lit, with blunts on blunts on blunts being passed everywhere. It probably looked like there was a fire from the highway. Backstage and VIP guests had access to promo pre-rolls, which was nice, but this was definitely more of a BYOC event. Which is why I think, for the most part, everyone was having a good time. Instead of being hit with a deluge of free dabs offers, or being pressured into trying a suspicious-looking (but free) edible, like what happens at every other weed event, people knew what they were getting themselves into at Smokers Club. After all, the ganja came from everyone's own personal stashes.
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At the end of day one, it was clear I needed to step up my weed game. Fuck the pre-rolls: I would have my blunt supplies ready and packed before day two began.
On the drive home, Leigh expressed that she had fun losing her rap fest virginity. She also really liked Lil Skies. That said, my wife told me she wanted to sit out day two: 12 hours amongst head-banging teenagers wearing Supreme and Yeezys, blowing smoke in every direction, had tapped this girl out — understandably, so. This meant day two would be solo for me…
Lil Skies and Leigh Raven, photographed by Nikki Hearts
Smokers Club Fest Day 2
I've never considered going to a festival on my own, and the thought made me nervous — in the eating lunch alone at school kinda way. At the same time, I was curious to see how my experience as a hip-hop photographer would change while going at it alone.
Luckily, I knew where I was headed this time — the labyrinthine festival grounds were ingrained into my THC-filled brain — and I arrived just as Juicy J was getting on stage. The legendary Oscar-winner (still not over that!) is one of my personal favorites, though I had never had the pleasure of seeing him perform before.
Juicy J, photographed by Nikki Hearts
When the founding member of Three 6 Mafia finally got going, he brought the most genuine energy to the festival I had seen yet. He was fueling the energy of his set entirely off the energy of the crowd, and vice-versa, creating a adrenaline-filled feedback loop of frisson.
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Juicy J and Henry AZ, photographed by Nikki Hearts
Juicy introduced a new artist he's working, Henry AZ, and brought him out to perform a few songs. Everything about their vibe was fun, positive, and high-energy — a perfect complement to the bud everyone was burning throughout the crowd. Of course, the set wasn't complete until Juicy threw weed into the crowd — not as if anyone needed extra — which was another reminder that all-things ganja are a go at the Smokers Club.
And then, in the most Juicy J fashion imaginable, he brought an 18-year-old "virgin" with a curvaceous booty on stage to give a lap dance as — you guessed it — "Bandz a Make Her Dance" boomed from the speakers.
Ty Dolla $ign, photographed by Nikki Hearts
Ty Dolla $ign is another big player on the charts today — a modern R&B legend in-the-making. Seems like he's got a verse on every hit these days. He came out and gave a dope and humble performance. Not only did he bring fans up on stage to dance; he entered the crowd himself multiple times to hit blunts — all while continuing his performance without missing a beat.
There were so many great artists that I wanted to shoot, but I had minimal time to check out the rest of the fest in between sets. I did venture out for some fried vegan dumplings at one point, and I made a point to eat at a lunch table on my own and people watch. I was mostly surrounded by kids with neon braids Snapchatting or retreating from the sun to nap.
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The last set I was able to catch was Flatbush Zombies, the psychedelic/horror-friendly mic fiends from Brooklyn. I'd been hearing great things about their live performance for a while, so I was eager to see what they could bring to the game. To put it lightly: These three guys came out with a vengeance! It was easily the loudest set of the weekend, both in terms of energy and straight-up decibels. I was blown away by what was easily the most unique sound I heard all weekend, and the fans responded as if they were seeing a new color for the first time. It's a strange scenario to see so many minds blown at the same moment.
Flatbush Zombies, photographed by Nikki Hearts
Smokers Club lived up to the hype of being a festival repping the best of both my favorite past times: smoking weed and listening to rap bangers. It was a true hybrid, if you will. By encouraging attendees to toke on their own bud, without the "let's get as high as humanly possible" vibe of a normal cannabis fest, the atmosphere was a winner. Gone was the paranoia of worrying about security booting you out for smoking. Gone was the paranoia that comes with one too many free dab rips. It was a culture-first cannabis event, which is probably how everyone should approach organizing these behemoths.
This was one of my first big mainstream projects to tackle after distancing myself from the adult industry. I was overall pretty nervous about throwing myself into a semi-unfamiliar environment with such an over-stimulating task. But I have to say I left feeling inspired and excited for more. My main goal as an artist right now is to hone in on my snapshot skills while focusing my lens on subjects I enjoy — all while getting high and making those bill$. The future is looking bright, fam.
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Stay tuned and keep your third eye open for more of my photo diaries here on MERRY JANE — you better know I'll be shooting Flatbush Zombies later this month in LA! See you there. I'll have the blunts on deck.