Lots of festivals seem designed to fuel cynicism. Maybe it’s just naïve enthusiasm driving organisers to spread themselves too thinly, charging big with the promise of a fleeting utopia, giant yurts advertising every entertainment imaginable in between neck massages and platefuls of organic manna from heaven. Funk the Format seems to promise little of this, keeping its promotion and ticket prices low-key. It’s not unambitious, but perhaps it’s a mindfulness of the audience – too wizened to battle through any more Bestivals, but not desperately old enough to look at a Shine On flyer with any real intent – which makes the Saturday edition (the family one takes place on Sunday) refreshingly laidback.
There are plenty of friendly former raveheads, girls in mermaid trousers, circus performers (on a trapeze next to the main stage) and big bands playing carnival movements in between the stages, but no-one’s trying too hard – least of all a man in only a pair of pants, his back burnt to a crimson crisp long before belated attempts to rub suncream on him by his posse. You still have to wait for an overpriced beer and the toilets still end up splattered in unfathomable levels of gruesomeness, but there’s no overcrowding, always space for a dance and you can even see and hear most of the action while sitting on the knolls, which is a welcome relief when the expansive sections of headliner Goldie’s set are more like watching a slightly indulgent rehearsal than witnessing the kind of carnage Goldie hammers out when he’s behind the decks.
The idea of a godfather of drum and bass playing the serene environs of Hove Park might once have seemed implausible, but we live in a world where Arcade Fire recently played Scunthorpe and Wu Tang Clan, no less, have brought the ruckus to Shoreham Airport. Goldie’s crew, The Heritage Orchestra, are gifted, from the lush vocals of Terri Walker to the soaring strings of cellist Ben Trigg. The coup of seeing them in Hove is undoubtedly a bit surreal, as is the sight of Rodney P – the self-styled Riddim Killer and a man brimming with lairy pronouncements – playing rudeboy in a place where the only uproar usually comes in the form of a misplaced football or a pair of pugs getting over-randy on an afternoon stroll.
Still, here we are, watching Rodders himself in typically imperious form on the mic, backed by Skitz, the wiry, grinning DJ who has been paternally known as Daddy Skitz since he released one of British hip hop’s most important albums, 2001’s ‘Countryman’. It would be churlish to begrudge Darrison, their guest vocalist, his cheery spot in the sun, singing a few of the summery tunes he made on producer Ed Solo’s debut album a decade ago. But the feelgood platitudes are a bit Radio 2, and you end up wishing for more of Skitz’s invincible beats, exemplified on ‘Twilight Of The Gods’, from ‘Countryman’, which sees Rodney at his menacing best.
There are many magical moments during The Nextmen’s set. The constant smiles on their faces, as befits a pair capable of raising and dipping the tempo whenever they choose through faultless, lovingly-chosen mixes, would say it all without inflatable bananas being missiled merrily by the crowd. Nextman Brad Baloo cuts a sermonising figure, singing along as he spins, and an extremely brisk two hours passes in their company. It highlights another strength of the festival: the acts have time to pay homage to the music they love – in this case, golden age hip hop, breaks and occasionally cheesy dance – rather than trying to wedge it all into 45 minutes. Maybe that’s why Funk the Format gets it so right: the music comes first, creating an understated festival with an atmosphere to cherish.
Funk The Format Festival, Hove Park, Saturday 17th June 2017
Photos by Xavier Clarke