Rolling Loud Co-Founders Matt Zingler & Tariq Cherif Talk Globalization, Spotting Trends Before They Happen

Donovan Brooks
Tariq Cherif and Matt Zingler

In just four years, the duo has transformed a modest Miami gathering into the country’s premier hip-hop festival.

Rolling Loud co-founder Matt Zingler offers a simple explanation for his festival’s meteoric success: “We know what you want to see onstage.”

There’s more to it, of course, but that intuition has certainly helped Zingler and his partner, Tariq Cherif, transform their modest Miami gathering into the country’s premier hip-hop festival in just four years. The two curators have kept their finger on the pulse of hip-hop for years, working with artists while they were still at ground zero and strengthening those relationships as they blossomed into superstars.

Those connections allowed Zingler and Cherif to throw their biggest Rolling Loud festival yet last month, drawing 135,000 people to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium to see J. Cole, Travis Scott, Future, Migos, Post Malone, Lil Uzi Vert and dozens more. Attendees got more than they bargained for when Nicki Minaj graced Future’s set and Meek Mill stormed the stage for his first performance following his release from prison in April. Some fans even got paid to be there: Young Dolph flew two baristas out to the festival and handed them each $20,000 during his performance after learning they were fired for playing his song “Get Paid” at their old workplace, Duke University’s Joe Van Gogh coffee shop.

Yet for all the headline-making moments that this year’s Rolling Loud produced, Zingler and Cherif are already plotting their next moves. They brought the festival to Southern California and the Bay Area in late 2017 and will host branded events in the United Kingdom, China and Japan later this year, all while improving the size and scope of their original Miami installment. The two partners spoke with Billboard to discuss their highlights from last month’s outing, their plans for globalization and the value of spotting trends before they happen.

What was your takeaway from this year’s Rolling Loud? How do you think things went over the weekend and what were some of your highlights?

Cherif: I think the biggest thing I take away from every show is just the fan experience. I think that it’s always just amazing to see our hard work from the past year come together and to see all these fans having the time of their life. That’s always the biggest takeaway for me. And I’d say another huge moment, or a big proving point for us, was everybody stayed through the rain. It rained on Sunday and people had a great time through it, and it’s really just a testament to how strong the experience is, that people are willing to stand through the rain for it.

Zingler: One of the biggest things for me over the weekend was that we had two of the largest stage structures in the U.S. on the same site, and we’re actually the first festival to do that. Not even Coachella or Lollapalooza do that. So having the two largest stage structures on one site is a big deal for us, because we always try to kind of outdo everybody else, from an experience standpoint and production.

I also think that having people come out just shows the level that we’re at, where you have artists that are superstars coming out unannounced. And that’s obviously the goal, right? Because you’re providing experience, but maybe not all the names that are listed on the bill are gonna be there. Maybe there’s more. So having that mystery factor to the event is super cool with the special guests that came out this year. Having Meek Mill perform was awesome for us, and being able to execute his performance was great, and having him attend was big for us. And it shows that we’re recognized by the big boys, like Roc Nation, for allowing him to do that. For his first performance to be at Rolling Loud straight out of jail is a big deal. They could have put him anywhere, but they put him at Rolling Loud. I think that that’s super awesome.

Was that the biggest audience reaction of the weekend?

Zingler: I think the surprise factor was there, like, “Holy shit, it’s Meek Mill!” You know? ‘Cause a lot of people didn’t know who it would be. So I think that was definitely a high point, but I think that when Nicki Minaj came out, the energy was crazy. People were freaking out about Nicki. I think when A$AP Rocky came out, people were freaking about Rocky. I think when XXXtentacion came out, people were freaking out about X. Any of the big stars that came out had a great response, ‘cause our crowd is so energetic and, as we would say, “lit,” that you can only get so crazy, you know? I mean, the energy was there, and the response was there from a crowd perspective. But from a shock perspective it was definitely Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill.

This was your first year at Hard Rock Stadium. How was the capacity different this year?

Zingler: This year we did about 15,000 people more than last year just due to occupancy restrictions. But for future years at Hard Rock, we have the ability to go a lot higher.

I’m sure that extra 15,000 makes a huge difference in the overall vibe of the festival.

Zingler: The energy’s a lot different and, when you have more space, I think it allows the consumer to enjoy the experience a little more. They can choose to put that pressure on the front or, if they don’t want to be involved, they can remove themselves from it, which a lot of places have issues with but we didn’t because we had the space.

You’ve booked some of the biggest names in hip-hop for several years now. What was it like booking this year’s headliners?

Zingler: It’s hard.

Cherif: Something we try to do is be ahead. That’s what we pride ourselves on. And we’re able to achieve that with our relationships and our ear for music. So that combination results in the lineup. We try to build our lineup from the top down, where we get the biggest headliners we can that we are able to determine are gonna be relevant at the time, and we combine that with critical darlings and up-and-coming talent that we find super early. The question strictly about the headliners -- that goes back to what I said about just knowing. We knew J. Cole was dropping an album right before Rolling Loud, and not a lot of people knew that, but our relationships in the game awarded us that knowledge. So a lot of it is that, but it’s gotta be quality, too. If we didn’t think J. Cole would’ve been super dope and groundbreaking, we wouldn’t have done it. But we did it for a reason, because we knew he was a polarizing act and a huge draw that would cause a conversation. And that’s exactly what we did, and we’re super stoked with him. And Future’s a staple for us. He’s colossal, and we love Future, and working with him is a pleasure. And Travis Scott as well. We’ve been working with Travis Scott since 2015, when he was playing for 1,000 people. When you grow with an artist like that, it’s a mutual respect. So it’s really just a pleasure working with these guys.

Post Malone played the same day as Future, two weeks after he dropped Beerbongs & Bentleys, which obviously became a massive hit. In those situations, do you see artists like that evolve into headliners in real time?

Cherif: Oh yeah. Post Malone played the first Rolling Loud and he wasn’t even booked for it. “White Iverson” had just come out, and [Atlanta rapper] Key! brought him out just to do "White Iverson." And a small amount of people knew what it was, but the video footage went sort of viral because as the song picked up, people wanted to see videos of it.

Zingler: From a bookings perspective, the artists respect each other to an extent as well. So obviously when we’re booking our lineup eight months in advance -- although Post is planning on dropping an album at that point in time, when we built the festival, Future was a bigger act and more current and more relevant. But obviously as artists mature and release more music, things change. But Future’s planning on dropping something too, coming up, I’m sure. So you never really know what it’s gonna be like until they drop it. I don’t think anybody knew how big Post Malone’s album was gonna be and the response to it, so when it did come out, it kind of shocked everybody for his first week’s numbers. But he’s just killing it. He’s a superstar and we are planning on having him headline Rolling Loud in the future, for sure.

Last year you brought Rolling Loud to the West Coast and now you’re into working toward becoming a global brand and festival. How does that change the way that you plan and take care of logistics?

Cherif: Business ownership comes down to delegation of tasks and roles and being able to manage that, and hiring the right people to be able to trust them to do their jobs so you can more so oversee it. However, with that being said, Matt and I still dive into the thick of every single issue. And yes, while we’re executing the Miami show, we’re booking the Bay Area lineup and starting on those logistics. And now as we’re closing out the Miami show, we’re super intensely working on the Bay Area show. Different people on our team need to wear different hats from time to time, and it’s about delegating our people.

Zingler: I look at our brand now, and the way that it’s growing and the traction it’s getting, and it’s turning into a lifestyle brand. So a lot of the things that we do, along with booking other shows all around the world and picking the right places to take this event that can support it, we also like to build a lifestyle brand that comes along with it. So our merchandise is very important to us. We have a media company that we’re starting, we have a record label, compilation album, and we get our hands in all kinds of things that appeal to the culture. We have a liquor brand dropping. And all those things kind of coexist and help grow the brand and the relevance of the festival year-round. Our mothership’s always gonna be Miami, but as we’re growing into other markets, we’re figuring out what that market wants, not only from a merchandise perspective but from an artist perspective.

What I realized in business is that you don’t really need a ton of people. You just need to have the relationships with the right people and you can execute very fast. So for us it’s just our artist relationships, our agent relationships, our manager relationships. For us, it’s super easy to confirm talent and get everybody locked in that we want.

Cherif: We’re forever indebted to our relationship with these artists. We’re not God, we’re just two guys who had an idea. But these managers have worked with us since we were doing shows at 100-person venues or doing the first Rolling Loud in a warehouse that was—our organizational skills on the festival end were just not there, we didn’t have the knowledge. But they stuck with us, and now they see the growth, so the respect has been earned there. But like I said, we’re indebted to them for going on the journey with us and trusting us to grow.

What do you guys hope to improve or add to future Rolling Loud festivals?

Zingler: Every Rolling Loud you go to is going to be a different experience and will always have something that another one doesn’t have. But in Miami at least, we have what we think will be our future home, and we will be optimizing the space over time to bring a different experience every year. If it’s aesthetically, if it’s different style production, different staging, anything that we can touch on -- VIP, creating a larger Skyloft area for more clients, different eating options, bigger eateries, and just having more time to load in. And after being on the site, taking into consideration everything that anybody’s saying about the event that makes sense for us, we always kind of move forward and make it perfect, so that everybody leaves there with a smile on their face and is like, “Holy shit, I can’t wait to come back.”

That’s kind of where I see the future of the event, just tailoring it to our consumers, and as times change, we change with the times. I think that we’re one of the most proactive, fastest changing companies when it comes to trends. So we understand trends before they happen. So we’re booking guys that you don’t know are cool before they’re cool. And the same thing with our styles, our merchandise -- we know the designs, we know what’s in, we know what’s hot. Same thing from a production aspect. We know what you want to see onstage. So with that being said, that’s our goal: to just change with the times and always remain relevant and dominant in the festival world as the hip-hop festival.

Did you guys know Young Dolph was planning to bring two baristas onstage and give them each $20,000 after they got fired from their job?

Cherif: Yeah, we actually did know that. We were made aware, and we were like, “Yes, this is awesome, do that.” We know everybody that comes in our site, just from a security angle. You can’t really enter our festival without us knowing. So for us to coordinate getting those people backstage they had to talk to us, but they let us know and we thought it was super cool, and we’re glad they did it.