When the world’s king of hip hop Jay-Z is set to headline the biggest free ticketed festival in the UK, championed by none other than BBC Radio 1, you know there will be high expectation on the sleeve.
The BBC Radio 1 Hackney Weekender was one of the most prominent festival dates on Britain’s burgeoning calendar of events this summer, not least because of its new location at the heart of the Olympic borough.
Poised to host sporting legends from the end of July, East London first welcomed A-list music stars into its realms on June 23 – 24, attracting some much needed positive press following the rioting that riddled the area last summer.
Superstar after superstar from the worlds of pop, rap, dance and R&B stormed the six stages across Hackney Marshes to an audience of 50,000 each day, including Lana Del Ray, Example, Ed Sheeran, will.i.am, Professor Green, Plan B, Jessie J, Dizzee Rascal, Kasabian, Florence & The Machine, David Guetta, Rizzle Kicks and opening act Leona Lewis.
But the most anticipated attraction was undoubtedly Saturday’s Radio 1 Main Stage headline slot by US rapper Jay-Z, an icon of such status that his set was star-studded with surprise cameo performances from Rihanna, MIA and a finale encore with Kanye West. Jay-Z was fresh from his 57-date Watch The Throne tour with the latter artist, which travelled across North America and Europe, ending in Birmingham the day before the Hackney Weekender.
Jay-Z was keen to produce a unique one-off stage show especially for the headline slot. It was an electrifying set that featured an industrial looking 27’ high structure flickering intensely with bursts of white light, evoking scenes of an abandoned warehouse rave.
As the first clapping beats of “Run This Town” start to resonate around the crowd, a central tower of white light flashes in time, whilst red moving heads search around the set, giving some indication of the enormous scale of the structure (lighting by Neg Earth). Jay-Z’s outline appears in front of the central video screen as his first guest star Rihanna emerges behind him to break into song.
Creative Director/Designer Willo Perron and Show Producer/Designer Antony Randall need little introduction; their portfolio reads like a who’s who in global concert touring, from Jay-Z, Kanye and Drake, to Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Coldplay. Behind the scenes time was tight in terms of pre-production and the pressure was on to deliver a show that would be head and shoulders above other performers on the night.
Antony Randall first turned to studio, set and staging company LS-Live, whom he had worked with on a number of hugely successful projects, to pull the production together.
He said: “Willo’s vision was perfect for Jay-Z and the BBC, but the sheer weight and size of the structure was going to be a massive problem for the festival. There was very little time to produce the show compounded by the challenge that Bobby Schneider and his production team were still out on the road with the Watch The Throne Tour.
“In addition to this, the fact was this was a brand new show end to end, so we had a massive challenge on our hands.
“I talked through the options with Bobby and the only way we could build and produce a show this size would be at LS-Live. We were going to need all hands on deck, and we needed the staging company, engineers and drawing team on hand throughout the building process.”
LS-Live’s in house designer Gareth Mallon worked the client’s sketch of the proposed stage set into a realistic visual, refining the dimensions and architecture, and together with the team determined how the set should be built, devising a parts list from their decisions, which were based on delivering a professional looking set that was safe and robust.
With the added benefit of having the 17,664 sq ft studio on site, LS-Live was able to pre-build the stage set predominantly using its off-the-shelf standard hire stock of staging equipment.
The set comprised two identical structures stage left and stage right, each designed to be a three-platform rectangular performance space. The frame was built from sections of 520 truss, with a 6’ high space underneath, an 8’ high mezzanine level in the middle and a 6’ high platform at the top crowned by a polycarbonate roof, all 16’ long by 5’ deep. LS-Live added a 2’ extension on the back of each level to accommodate more backline for the performers and a 4’ x 4’ LiteDeck either side for a sub speaker to sit on.
LS-Live’s industry standard LiteDeck stage decking was attached to the truss using ratchet straps, with a black carpet covering. It also provided a tiered rolling step unit to the back of each structure with access treads and a safety handrail to the rear of each mezzanine level.
“We used four one tonne chainhoist motors from the roof of the studio to lift each corner of the truss whilst we built the next level from the ground,” explained Studio Coordinator Adam ‘Bullet’ Bettley.
“We brought in structural engineer Lee Covelrey of CCS to assess the structures’ weight loading capacity and structural calculations when Willo and Randall decided they wanted the entire structure to roll forward downstage during the performance. We wanted to examine what the point loads were that would be weighing down on the stage at the festival, which was a Serious Stages stage.
“Then we implemented a Brilliant Stages tracking system to make it move.”
Sixteen Versa Tubes were attached inside the truss frame using scaf and couplers to achieve the flickering light effect. Video panels (provided by US company VER) formed a central tower of light and were also attached to the central sides of the structure to light up the platforms.
Towards the middle of the set, the visuals intensify. The imposing structure behind Jay-Z continues to flood with piercing light at different locations in time to the beat. In one beat the band are lit up by a block of white light from the inner video screens, in the next beat all three levels of the platforms are highlighted by the strobing effect of the Versa Tubes positioned at equal intervals on the upper decks, and in the next the front of the stage becomes the focus as it’s flooded with light from the middle LED screen tower. The A-list star delivered an A-List performance, setting a great precedent for the Olympic borough.