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First Class Fest 2023: The Youth is Everything to Underground

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Part One: A Sit Down With the Founders

I arrive at the chain bistro in Toronto’s financial district at the exact same time as Leo and Jake, we crowd the hostess’s area. Unanimously, we agree to sit outside on the patio. It’s a warm October afternoon, exactly a week before Leo (@ leostrang) and Jake’s (@ lotteryjake) second First Class Fest, a music festival the two founded, focused on bringing international underground talent to young fans in the city.

Let’s start with Leo Strang, he’s just turned twenty-one, celebrating his birthday the weekend before our meeting. A Vancouver native, school brought him to Toronto. In his third year of a degree in the creative industries, he’s grown to love the city and wants to make it his home after graduation. Before meeting Jake he’d been trying to get into the music business, running online ads and promotion for up and coming rappers with some success. He laughs: “The whole hustle was trying to not sound like a bot”.

Photo by William Scarth

Jacob Pretorius seems more of a nomad. Born in the remote South African town of Secunda, he spent the first few years of his life there, before moving to the capital city of Pretoria, then another move with his family to Canada. First Vancouver and now Toronto. Before meeting Leo at an afterparty, Jake, also twenty-one, was working in different studios and running a clothing line that was sending out styling packages to artists like DC The Don, Lil Tecca and 24kgldn: “When we came here [to Canada], I tried everything. Being around music is what stuck”.

After only two encounters, Jake asks Leo if he wants to tag along with him on a college tour he’s managing for Yung Tory, three whirlwind days on an RV during the middle of Leo’s exam season. Naturally Leo says yes, completing an online exam after a wild first night on tour the next morning in a local Starbucks. By the end of the three days, it’s clear they have a common goal and the idea for First Class Fest has been born. In the interim Jake and Leo get some event experience under their belt, organizing two successful festivals in Montreal.

The server returns with our drinks, Jake orders dinner, talks shift towards the festival itself. I voice the observation that they both seem to have that talent of knowing who’s going to be big before the rest of the world does. Leo takes control of this question after a quick look between the two:

LEO: “ That’s our whole motto with First Class Fest. To bring international acts, specifically American acts, underground rap acts and get them to Toronto/Canada for the first time. Artists we think are going to go really big like DC [The Don]* and Rich Amiri … Amiri for example, is someone who we think is going to be superstar level”.

Photo by William Scarth

When I ask about the choice to make the event all ages, both speak up:

LEO: “I would say that the demographics of the artists we’re working with – it’s a younger audience. The people blowing these artists up on TikTok aren’t twenty-five. Our whole brand is about accessibility, not only for the artists, but being able to let as many people enjoy the shows as possible. We’re trying to build lifetime First Class fans.”

JAKE: “The youth is everything to the underground. When I was in high school, that’s when I know I was most active on music blogs, discovering new artists, and talking to kids at lunch time about what music we were listening to. I hated when there was a show I couldn’t go to.”

LEO adds: “Everytime, every show we do a fire afterparty. If you want to just come party, that’s for the 19+ afterparty.” (This year hosted at Apartment 200 Toronto)

Photo by William Scarth

The conversation turns towards this year’s lineup and decisions made when selecting artists, promoters and sponsors for the festival. Despite their laid back demeanor, it’s here their serious dedication and work ethic reveal themselves. They explain the months of emails, the back and forths with artists and labels who initially accept then reject due to scheduling misalignments, other tours, legal mishaps – it’s not a consistent business.

Finally, they reach a lineup that feels authentic to the year 2023 and the second First Class Fest: Headliner’s Dom Corleo and Rich Amiri, with further performances by Bandmanrill, Devstacks, Groovy, Gunnr, 10k Moss and some special surprise guests.


Part Two: The Show

The night of the show is dark and overcast. Arriving at the Axis Club Theatre in Toronto, the thought strikes me: Attending an underground rap festival is a bit like being in the wilderness on a survival mission. You have to be prepared for anything – uniforms are worn, supplies (of questionable legality) are packed, and if you aren’t wearing chunky platform boots honestly just go home.

Leo greets me, pushing through a chaotic mob of leather clad teenage boys in Rick Owens, apologizing for the chaos with a stressed smile: “Security is worried, they think it’s going to be over capacity”. We head inside just as doors are being opened to fans, and I see Jake, he also hugs me with a big smile, helping us to get set up on the stage. Despite a barrage of questions every few seconds from artists or other media, the two remain calm and chill.

Photo by William Scarth

Doors open at 6pm and the show promptly begins an hour later to a packed venue. The crowd stretches from the stage to the doors without a break, every one of them dressed in their most fashionably opium looks, most of them under the legal drinking age of 19. Before the first performance, Leo and Jake get on the stage and hype up the crowd. It’s nice seeing them get to enjoy the efforts of all the months of hard work.

What follows can be described in two words: mosh pit. And then another, and another. The opening acts intensify the crowd’s energy which continues to rise along with the temperature in the venue. The artists dive into the crowd without hesitation, demanding over and over to “open that s**t up!”. The strobing lights and heavy smoke haze that has settled create a trippie atmosphere that amps the vibes up further. Everything is a wash of neon blues and vape smoke. One after another they ramp up the energy in the venue and just when I think they can’t mosh any harder, Rich Amiri takes to the stage.

Photo by William Scarth

Rich Amiri is the definition of the new underground. The 19 year old Boston native, signed to Internet Money is a star on the rise, with a unique, deeply melodic voice that strikes you instantly. Careening onto the stage with his hit song “Ain’t Nothin”, the crowd surges forward, screaming every word right back at him. For his song “Havoc” , a feature with Republic Records artist Slump6s, he brings out Slump, who had a set of his own, to perform alongside him which fans love. He closes out his set with the song “Walk In”, which catapulted his career when it was released in 2021.

The heat and intensity of the crowd is at a fever pitch by the time Dom Corleo runs onto the stage. The headliner, from Fremont California, Dom begins his set in shades and a black puffer, with fans excited by his first song “Penthouse Shordy”. Doms music is characterized by brash and melodic vocals that flow overtop high energy, new-wave trap beats. He performs a couple songs before the night’s most anticipated surprise guest appears: Toronto’s own Killy. Fans go crazy as the two debut a song they have coming out shortly, and Killy treats the crowd to insanely high energy rendition of his hit “Killamonjaro”. Dom closes out the night, and a hugely successful set with his viral breakout hit “WAKEUP”.

Photo by William Scarth

Towards the end of our first meeting I asked Leo and Jake about their dream festival lineup. Who would perform at their next event in an ideal world. Their answers? Not out of the realm of possibility: Ken Carson, Lil Tecca, SahBabii and Brakence.

The youth underground scene is having a new resurgence in Toronto thanks to First Class Fest, and others like it that remain unique in their accessibility, as well as serving as a strong predictor of future stardom. In a post Covid era, young fans have a hunger to experience shows from new artists that, up until now they’ve only watched from a screen. I’ll be at the next First Class Fest – I think you should be too.

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