The Underground Roots of Suwannee Hulaween
The Suwannee Hulaween Music Festival is a feast for the senses. Some 800 acres of north Florida oak forest are transformed into five stage areas, art installations, aerialists, and the Spirit Lake light shows for the more than 20,000 people embracing all that is around them. Yet Hulaween’s late-night underground music scene is a driving, thriving, force within itself, yielding a subculture of festival devotees. Musically, it offers the perfect end to each day’s scheduled lineup with “renegade camps,” as they are known, scattered throughout the woods.
Spirit Lake Dragon, Hulaween 2019 Photo by Scout it Out Media
Each camp provides its own unique experience, from the style of music played to the hours held. For those who grew up in Florida during the ’90s and were part the house/EDM scene and pre-“rave law” era, music was discovered and enjoyed in a completely different format. There was no social media post or text message. The synthesis of Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park and the renegade camps is reminiscent of the days where DJs could only be found by word of mouth and forced to play in relatively secret warehouse locations in an attempt to avoid being shut down by the police. Dark alleys, obscure buildings, and late nights that went until the sun came up were all part of the underground scene.
Since Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park has virtually no internet access, it requires friends to share information face to face. Key details, such as approximate location, who’s playing and at what time, become daily check-ins amongst your Hula crew and neighbors alike. Campers gather up their “Hulagans” at the end of the night’s last official set and head off into the pitch-black woods to find these mystery sets, as many of us did years ago in the cities, wandering out, going off our communal memory, homing in as the music slowly grew louder. Only at #SOSMP, we weave through the cars, tents, and tapestries to discover what is a secret world of sorts.
Much More than a Pop-Up
There are multiple renegade camps throughout the park: “Funky Love,” “Positive Collaborations,” “Camp Minglewood,” “Camp Friendship,” and “Camp Reddit,” to name a few. Although these are referred to as “pop-ups,” the amount of work required to pull one off is a massive, near-Herculean group effort. Hosts provide space, power, and hospitality with open arms to new and old friends alike. Musicians haul in their equipment. Some camps have artists actively painting. It’s an organized chaos of juggling schedules and working together to support each other – all while providing the eager crowd a few more fantastic hours of dancing musical bliss.
I spoke with Sammie, the co-organizer and media outreach of Camp Minglewood, and asked her what drives her crew to host an event within an event. “We do it because we are passionate about creating a strong community,” she said. “Our camp isn’t just about music, it’s about art in every sense. We have live painters, art installations, life-size games, and a hammock nest. It is a great opportunity to expand our festival family and meet new, like-minded people. My favorite part is watching everyone’s eyes light up when they stumble upon our camp and realize they are welcome to come in and explore.” Their crew traveled from the Tampa area ten days prior to the start of Hulaween in order to pull off the type of renegade camp they envisioned.
Let’s not forget that all of these hosts, musicians, and artists have been out all day enjoying the same music that the rest of us came to see. Yet they are passionate and selfless enough to create a space for the communal masses to enjoy every minute of the festival and their time in the woods.
Skyler, who drives the three hours from Destin, Fla., to Live Oak to host Positive Collaborations, is equally selfless in heading the crew that puts in the extra effort.
“We are all extremely dedicated music lovers and festival-goers that also happen to produce various types of art and music, along with hosting local events in our home town,” he said. “We enjoy being able to create a safe space and some positive vibrations for the late-night crowd to immerse themselves in. It is also a great opportunity to show the good people a little piece of what we are capable of as an event production crew and make some new friends along the way.”
Each renegade camp has its own vibe, rules, and way of operating. Camp Minglewood thrives on collaborations between genres and functions under the premise that “anyone is welcome to participate, but the guy that owns the speakers has the ultimate authority.” Sammie enthused that they had a rapper and drummer playing together this year as evidence of how blended and diverse their camp can be.
Over at Positive Collaborations, they take a different approach. “First, we give time to our resident artists, then we reach out to artists we know from the underground bass scene,” Skyler said. Then they invite artists on the festival’s lineup. “We had Charlie Hustle, Kozmic, and Ployd all come throw down a set with us at the renegade after they played their sets for the festival,” he said [big ups to them for the blessings]. “Then finally we do an evening of ‘Open Decks,’ which gives any unknown talent hanging about a chance to showcase what they can do in front of a crowd, sometimes for the first time.”
A Timeless Tradition
As unique as each camp is, their passion for music, art, and the community is carried through every step of the process. You can’t talk music without talking to the artists. So I asked tech house to psy-bass to riddim talent FKN Craig what he loves about playing the renegade camps. He didn’t hesitate. “Pop-up parties are the best part of the festival,” he said. “It is where I have cut my teeth over the years and the die-hards go.” He went on to say, “After the main stage stuff ends is when you get the people who are really there for the music, and before anyone ever gave me a chance I had to make my own opportunities. I got my start by running my own renegade camp.”
Craig’s insight embodies the underground music scene and embraces the key components that make it unique: the intersection at the love of music and drive to make something succeed in a nontraditional setting – all while welcoming others and embracing the challenges from the beginning. Some of these DJs will move from solely participating in the renegade camps to the Silent Disco, Incendia stage, or Spirit Lake. Their drive and determination mixed with passion are the keys to their success. As Positive Collaborations mentioned, some of those artists still want to be part of the renegade camp lifeline even after a night of playing on a different stage.
Facing Real-World Realities
At Funky Love on Sunday night, FKN Craig and Charlie Hustle rotated to close out Hulaween in a funky disco style. Ultimately, they were faced with the same reality that all of these camps face, being shut down by the Spirit of the Suwannee management or the local sheriff. As the terms “underground,” “pop-up,” and “renegade” imply, not everyone embraces this magical little world. This is an unpredictable variable that seems to weigh on each camp host I spoke with. To them, the idea that an artist is pouring their soul into something but the powers that be have no choice but to shut them down is very difficult.
The camps share other unfortunate, all-too-common threads: camp attendees not cleaning up, disrespecting the host sites, and theft. Positive Collaborations commented that a DJ’s phone and wallet were stolen while he was playing, and the thief used their credit cards before they were shut off. Sammie back at Minglewood shared part of their struggle.
“It’s stressful having to tell people they can’t camp with us because that’s not the kind of people we are,” she said. “But a lot of us work really hard (and put in a lot of money) to show up early and kind of curate an after-hours experience, and some people just don’t get that, I guess.” Val at Funky Love took a proactive approach and asked each person to pick up three pieces of trash before they left. Many did; several did not. I would like to believe that at least on that night some of us overcompensated for others.
However, even with these obstacles, hard work, and long days and longer nights, these camp hosts will be back next fest – with open arms. This underground world of devoted camps is an integral part of what makes Hulaween – and many music festivals – so special. They are the lifeline to a side of the music world that is filled with passion.
So let’s be good to them. It should go without saying, but bring things to share, clean up, and leave with only wonderful memories of another magical night out in the woods.
Writer Michelle Leigh has contributed to JamBase, Live for Live Music, NY State Music, Jambands Online, and Scary Mommy, among others. A free-spirited mother of two, she embraces each day and strives to be the change in the world. Her adventures include travel with her husband and children and all the concerts and festivals her schedule allows. A lifelong music junkie, Michelle’s playlist is wide and varied – and she’s passionate about sharing it with others. Check out her blog at www.gratefulmommabear.com/my-music-blog/ com or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.