Despite the absolutely huge crowd of 16-18 year olds dressed head to toe in EA7 and PrettyLittleThing, Parklife was a fantastic celebration to some of the best Dance and Hip-Hop music for ravers of all ages. Two packed days of mind-bending sets and energetic crowds made this year one to remember, and showed us that Manchester has still got the same spirit it’s known for.

Parklife unfortunately isn’t a camping festival, but it did mean we got to stay in a lovely Airbnb after the chaos we endured at the festival. Heaton Park was as packed as ever, with 80,000 expected attendees cramped into its muddy field.

Once again, this year led to many fights and even a stabbing, but despite all the bad news to come from the festival, we luckily didn’t see any of that, and had a great time with the incredibly diverse array of acts across many spellbinding stages. Here’s how our weekend went…

After oversleeping for an hour and convincing ourselves the clocks changed, we swiftly got a Maccies breakfast, and made it into Manchester for 10am. The train station was already rammed with sniffer dogs (perhaps more threatening than the cocker spaniels we would see at the Parklife entrance) as hundreds flocked through the barriers. We headed to our accommodation, got ready, and made our way to the festival on four hours sleep.

We started off our Parklife experience with house and techno legend Carl Cox at the Valley Stage, which was the home of many brilliant acts across the weekend. It was a decent way to kickstart our day after unfortunately missing out on seeing Manchester emcee Black Josh.

It felt weird being 21 and already feeling like a bitter old man; trying our best to avoid crowds of teenagers, which wasn’t hard as long as we steered clear of any bassline, D Block Europe, or Becky Hill… although we did walk past KSI and see bigger crowds than nearly any act.

Next up we headed over to the Parklife stage to see Shygirl perform to a small crowd. It was a pretty exciting set, where she got through some of her experimental fan favourites like ‘BDE’ and some of her most creative deconstructed club and hip house tunes. We managed to catch the end of Sir Spyro’s set, which was a solid mix of classic and modern grime. So far, the day was yet to let us down, and we were still awaiting some of the best acts to grace Heaton Park.

We crammed our way into PAWSA at the consistently packed G-Stage, pissing off nearly everyone around us, but eventually we settled into the crowd of coked up House fanatics who were having a great time. Kettama also put on a great show, as did DJ Seinfeld who played an expectedly outstanding set. However, we were aggravated to hear the news that Young Thug had cancelled. This could have been predicted, especially seeing as the American acts were dropping like flies, but it was annoying nevertheless.

That was one huge downside to having a festival in the current pandemic we’re living in, lots of overseas acts were pulling out, likely because it was just too complicated, or would require too much effort on their part for a cheque. It did make the line-up a lot worse, with names like Channel Tres, Earl Sweatshirt, and especially Kaytranada missing; after waiting years to catch 99.9% and Bubba live, it was annoying. But, the volume of British talent on the line-up was difficult to ignore, and such complications meant acts like Mura Masa were added, although they could have got an act more exciting than Migos to replace DaBaby (who was rightfully but quietly removed from the line-up after his gross, ignorant homophobic comments).

Rejjie snow’s set was a relaxing change of pace, as he powered through the luscious sounds of Dear Annie in a short but sweet set. ‘Charlie Brown’ was a lovely moment, despite being cut short. It seems the sun came out for Rejjie’s set especially, and as our first time seeing him live, it didn’t disappoint.

Afterwards, we quickly shot over to see the awe-inspiring Honey Dijon tearing up a set full of classic Chicago house, unfortunately this meant we had to skip Burna Boy, but we quickly realised we were seeing something special as Dijon put a spell on the crowd with her anthemic bangers.

Honey Dijon unfortunately overlapped with Folamour’s disco/house vibrations, but before Four Tet took to The Valley stage, we wanted something a little different and did manage to catch the end of Celeste’s set at the Sounds Of The Near Future tent, which was perhaps the biggest surprise of the festival, as she showed off her vocal ability over powerful Neo Soul instrumentals.

Finding surprise new acts you would have never thought to see before was part of what made Parklife special this year. With such a heavy line up full of established favourites, it was nice to still be able to stumble upon some newer acts and experience the music for the first time, directly from the artists.

Some of the best moments we had were sat on the Parklife hill watching many world class acts tear up the valley stage. Four Tet clashed with Skream, but we had no regrets as he took hold of the crowd on the dystopian cyberpunk-esque stage, surrounded by fake high-rise towers, and bleak futuristic advertisements. The vivid lights and hazy smoke machines were stunning, as he soared through an epic 90-minute assortment of house, techno, IDM, Overmono, and PinkPantheress. Not only did he play electronic anthems, Kieran Hebden showed his sense of humour as he span Millie B’s BGMedia classic to a crowd of thousands, as well as mixing a track from bassline collective Bad Boy Chiller Crew. He ended the set with the ‘Opal’ remix, and his new track ‘Butterflies’, which was a blissful way to finish the virtuosity we had just witnessed.

A day of madness seemed like it couldn’t be improved any more, but Mura Masa surprised us by showing up with a full live band and the infinitely talented vocalist, rapper, and dancer Bonzai. Mura didn’t have to go as hard as he did, but he put on one fantastic, memorable performance, with a bit of help of course, and room for old classics pre ‘Lovesick’, and new favourites like ‘Deal Wiv It’. Bonzai seemed to be the star of the performance, filling in for every guest spot with complete confidence and star power, especially for her own feature on ‘What If I Go?’.

Dave also put on a solid performance, despite not being the biggest fan, he had plenty of room for some of his best songs like ‘Wanna Know’, ‘Streatham’ and ‘Thiago Silva’, although failed to recreate his viral Glastonbury moment with another crowd member who didn’t quite pull off the guest verse as well as AJ or Alex. The performance was a little too slow, although his James Blake and ShaSimone featuring album cut ‘Both Sides Of A Smile’ went over well, and despite being a fairly weak single, it was a cool moment for Dave to bring Stormzy out for ‘Clash’ to literal fireworks

It was time for some needed rest for the insane day we had lined up tomorrow. After weaving through crowds of thousands, and walking past hundreds of police and rowdy teenagers, we made it home, and I’ve never felt happier to have a bed. Managing 9 hours sleep was impressive, after being woken up by chickens outside, but the next morning was stressful as I got stranded in Manchester centre for an hour at a bus stop, with no buses showing up at all. The traffic in the city was awful, and next year much more should be done if they’re going to sell tickets to 80,000 people. I eventually gave up waiting for a bus that wasn’t coming, and had to pay £13 for a 10 minute Uber drive which I probably should have bit the bullet and done earlier, because we ended up missing Blanco, Fred Again…, and arriving just minutes after Pa Salieu begun.

Sunday maybe edged Saturday, with the sheer amount of talent we saw. It became clear quickly that Saturday was just a warmup, despite all the captivating performances. Pa Salieu graced the Sounds Of The Near Future stage, and the Coventry emcee was jaw-dropping as he glided through bangers like ‘My Family’, ‘Frontline’, and ‘Informa’. He was immensely energetic and packed a huge punch with such a short set.

After catching a little bit of funk/jazz via Kamaal Williams, and a little bit of a no-energy, lacklustre Migos set (who also showed up arrogantly late), we dug into an awfully overpriced Gyros platter as we sat on the hill watching Little Simz perform excellent songs from her last couple of albums. She didn’t let us down, and neither did Jon Hopkins just after who delivered as expected.

Slowthai was for sure a highlight. As it started to rain, and the crowds got more energetic, we watched a flawless setlist of back-to-back hits like ’45 Smoke’, ‘T N Biscuits’, ‘Deal Wiv It’, ‘Psycho’, ‘Cancelled’, as well as more sombre moments like ‘Feel Away’ and ‘I Tried’, before he finished with a bang with the monstrous ‘Doorman’. He even played singles like ‘ENEMY’ and ‘BB (BODYBAG)’, which were a welcomed addition.

We caught most of Bicep, which was another ecstatic experience, and the ran over to Jamie xx, who was genuinely breath-taking. Luckily, it only rained a little this year, and after sweating all day in packed crowds, it felt pretty good watching Jamie xx as it fell down on us. The best moment of his set was the 10-minute section dedicated to the ridiculous ‘Idontknow’, which sent the crowd into a frenzy.

This was the part of the night where we were faced with some hard decisions. I wanted to see Jamie xx from start to finish, but I also wanted to catch the end of Skepta. We decided to stay at Jamie xx for an hour, then walk through Disclosure briefly (in hopes they would do ‘My High’ with Slowthai), before making our way to Skepta. The clashes were very frustrating; god knows whose idea it was to have three big acts like that on at the same time. Still, Disclosure looked pretty fun as we walked over the hill to see a massive crowd that stretched all the way back to other tents, but Skepta is where our eyes were set.

As we were walking there it was pretty surreal to look in any direction and see beams of light coming from all the fantastic stages, Disclosure in one direction, Jamie xx behind us, some guy at a urinal telling people he’s got ‘pilly willy’ in another direction… It made me thankful to be back at festivals, this is what we had been missing for so long!

We arrived just as Skepta brought out AJ Tracey, and managed to catch JME running on to the stage for ‘That’s Not Me’, as well as a brief performance of ‘Show Out’, and ‘Man’. He annoyingly teased ‘I Spy’ before leaving pretty abruptly. It was already 10.50pm and he was meant to finish at 10.45pm, but it definitely felt like he could have given us more after ignoring chants of ‘one more song’, considering Dave went over his time till 11pm. Still, we actually managed to run back to Jamie xx and catch him do ‘Gosh’, which was just about the most perfect way to end Parklife 2021.

The biggest short coming of the festival was that the tickets had been massively oversold, making it difficult to get from stage to stage, and the amount of catering towards the younger crowd with acts like KSI given high billing, and LADbible promo everywhere, which really brought down the party atmosphere, and the idea of celebrating rave culture. Still, these are minor complaints for a great weekend, and hopefully next year has an even better display of top shelf talent amongst an even heftier line-up.

Thank god we’re finally back at all our favourite festivals, and despite all the muddy puddles, overflowing urinals, and being likened to Potter Payper by teenagers, we can’t wait to see what 2022 throws at us. Until next year.

Words Jay Fullarton