In this era of bloated three-day music festivals, the Washington-born Trillectro can feel like an imperfect, messy block party of a gathering. That’s not a failing, but rather the event’s charm. No plane tickets, no hours-long car ride into the desert, no $300 passes required: A $60 ticket and a SmarTrip card are all that’s necessary for a savvier understanding of the future of music.
Homing in on rappers and DJs before they blow up and into music’s mainstream, Trillectro is where you go to see who’s next. More than 3,000 attendees packed the Half Street Fairgrounds in each of the festival’s first two years to hear sets by such up-and-comers as Schoolboy Q, Flosstradamus and A$AP Ferg.
But as the festival returns Saturday at RFK Stadium’s festival grounds, its growth has forced it to adopt some of the big-festival practices of its rivals.
Trillectro’s organizers say the larger digs fit their vision for the growing event. The lineup also will be outsized this year: Headliners include Big Sean, who, after kicking around the rap game for years, is poised for pop stardom, thanks to a collaboration (and coupling) with pop star Ariana Grande. Migos, Southern purveyors of the earworm “Versace,” and the electronic act Baauer, whose “Harlem Shake” spawned an international meme, are also bound for the festival. (See more about the acts on Page 22.)
One thing that hasn’t changed: Trillectro’s 20-something founders, Modi Oyewole, Marcel Marshall and Quinn Coleman, still make deals with handshakes and promote their shows with the zeal of a hip-hop street team, because — as the friends from their first days at Boston College note a little nervously — it’s their savings on the line.
Before Trillectro, Oyewole and Coleman’s foray into the music world consisted of “DC to BC,” a college radio show and blog that served as an outlet for the duo to play fanboy in interviews with up-and-coming rappers. (Marshall says he preferred to stay behind the scenes.) The positive attention they lavished on hip-hop upstarts — Kid Cudi, they say, was still working in a Bathing Ape shop in SoHo, and Kendrick Lamar didn’t yet have an East Coast following — helped them build a reputation as a kind of street team for rap shows.
“We were trying to align our brand with these big acts. But it was really for the tickets,” Oyewole said with a laugh. “We were just trying to see some shows, slap our logo on something and look official.”
Settled in a bustling coffee house in Columbia Heights this month, the three, who are all from the Washington area, recalled that the spark for Trillectro was a trip they took to one of those bloated music gatherings: Coachella, in Indio, Calif.
“We paid 80 bucks to basically sleep on the ground for three days. We didn’t rent a villa and all that other stuff,” Coleman, 25, said of the 2012 trip. “That stuff is expensive.”
Invigorated, they returned to Washington with a dream of throwing the city’s own version of the desert music festival. “We came back from that experience on withdrawal. We saw all this awesome music, met all these cool people. And we wanted to bring a similar energy to the city,” Coleman said. No big deal, right?
There are big differences, he said: “The fact that we’re an urban festival, it’s accessible to everybody. It helps that we’re in a spot where everyone can get to us. It’s not like you have to be affluent to make it, you don’t have to save up your money for a whole year to attend.”
As they grasped for an idea that would mesh the desert’s spirit with the East Coast’s urbanity, Oyewole, 27, landed upon “Trillectro,” a portmanteau of the words “trill” — hip-hop’s catchword for keeping it real — and “electro.” It’s a name, as well as a guiding principle.
Trillectro brings together fans of both EDM and hip-hop, said Marshall, 26. “Whoever was there to see a Salva or a Nadastrom had to be in the same space as someone who was there to see an A$AP Ferg.”
Added Coleman: “You see lawyers and doctors, and kids who work at these sneaker stores and people who work on the Hill. It’s like the city, the full spectrum of all the youth in this town.”
Indeed, the diverse, stylish crowd seen at the first two festivals could have inspired its own Tumblr. Trillectro has been a blur of neon streetwear and logos, tanks and snapbacks and whatever else was currently chic, from U Street to Philly to SoHo.
But if Trillectro’s inaugural 2012 effort was an unexpected success, the surprise last year was that things don’t always go your way. As the music began, lines outside the Fairgrounds, the outdoor venue in the shadow of Nationals Park, began to stretch; inside, there was a problem at the gates.
“We had scanners that broke. The WiFi was out. We couldn’t scan people in, so we had this huge line that grew,” Oyewole said. “The fire marshal was like, ‘We can’t have this.’ ”
After some attendees waited for more than a hour to get in, the line began to break up, with some heading home and others trying to cut the line. “It started getting messy,” Coleman said. Watching their festival begin to fall apart was emotional, Oyewole said.
The guys concede that last year’s door debacle means they’ll have to win back those who felt burned. Oyewole said they began by issuing refunds to ticketholders who requested them. Then, there’s the move to the RFK Stadium grounds, which has a history of hosting festivals, including the annual ShamrockFest, for up to 10,000 attendees. (And they’ve happily decided to outsource the ticket-scanning.)
The founders feel better equipped, too, having learned from Trillectros past. In the days leading up to Saturday’s event, the trio is here, tying up final loose ends. But for the past few months, they’ve had little more than a bird’s-eye view of the city they called home for most of their lives.
Of Trillectro’s founders, not one lives in the District anymore. Oyewole is in Portland, Ore., making his way in digital marketing for Nike, while Coleman and Marshall live in sunny Los Angeles. Coleman is a marketing assistant for Warner Brothers Music, and Marshall spends his days planning Trillectro, hooking up with musical up-and-comers in a city where connections are infinitely easier to make.
But the city they left behind, they insist, is quickly becoming an important place for rap music, an untapped market for artists on the rise.
“A lot of the people Modi was blogging about, their tours — their first tours, when they were at that emerging-talent level — they wouldn’t come to D.C.,” Coleman said. “We were like a city they sort of skipped.”
In a few brief years, and maybe thanks to the influence of their little festival, that is changing. Artists are recognizing “we’ve got this culture where people are open to listen to anything,” Oyewole said. Now, he marveled, “we’re in rap lyrics.”
Saturday from noon to 11 p.m. at the RFK Stadium festival grounds, Lot 8, 2400 East Capitol St. SE (Metro: Stadium-Armory). www.trillectro.com. $49-$69; VIP tickets, $115-$130.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Quinn Coleman was an intern for Warner Brothers Music. He is a marketing assistant.