South by Southwest has become a Hip Hop Mecca in recent years, with seemingly everyone from big names to rising artists coming to Austin every year for the pub and the party. But that wasn’t always the case. “We’d hear the same thing every time we called New York,” says former SXSW booker Matt Sonzala. “’Why should I send my act to your hippie music festival down in Texas?’ But things started changing about five years ago.”
With the likes of Eminem, Jay Z, Kanye West, M.I.A., Public Enemy, Wiz Khalifa, Lil’ Wayne, Nas and on and on, perfoming at SXSW in recent years, Austin has become THE place to be in mid-March.
You have to credit Kool Keith’s Ultramagnetic MC’s, who came down from the Bronx in 1990 to play Raven’s (a country music club that would evolve into punk haven Emo’s), with paving the way. Then, Homer Hill’s Catfish Station on Sixth Street fostered an adventurous breed of hip hop artists, such as Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Atmosphere and Hieroglyphics, who played SXSW at the beginning of their careers. The Fugees were the first platinum-selling hip hop act to play SXSW in 1996, the year Stubb’s opened, when their album The Score was #3 in the country..
Sonzala recalls one SXSW 1995 show at Catfish Station as an especially vivid turning point. “We all know her as Erykah Badu, but back then she went by Erykah Free,” he says. “She got up and did a couple songs with (Dallas collective) Heads-N-Dreads that caused people to just lose their shit!” Kwasar from the Heads did a duet with Erykah on “Stay Away,” then yielded center stage to the then-unsigned singer, who performed “On and On,” which would turn the music biz on its ear two years later.
By 2000, rap had arrived with showcases (presented in conjunction with Hip Hop Mecca) featuring such rhymesmiths as Chuck D, Doug E. Fresh, Blackalicious, South Park Mexican, Dead Prez, Big Daddy Kane and Jungle Brothers.
If you’re looking for one entire show that started the rapfire, Sonzala says it was the 2004 showcase at Aussie’s featuring Bun B, Dizzie Rascal, Paul Wall, Chamillionaire, Michael 5000 Watts and more. “I pitched SXSW on a Murder Dog (magazine) showcase, with all the big Southern rappers,” recalls Sonzala, and I got back a email from Craig Stewart (of SXSW) that included only the subject line, ‘Do you really think you could do this?’” Although “Dirty South” hip hop, with its “screwed and chopped” remixes had exploded all over the world, there was no live tradition of the form. “These guys from Houston never played on a real stage before,” says Sonzala. “They might do a set at a car show or some shitty disco, but a music festival? What’s that?” The crowd at Aussie’s was about 50% white and about 20% badges- and the response was emphatic.
Sonzala says the late addition of London “grime” pioneer Dizzee Rascal to the bill added a lot of heat and solidified hip hop’s international status. “Dizzee’s people didn’t want him on a showcase with rock bands, so when they saw that there was a bill with Southern rappers, especially Bun B of UGK, that’s where he wanted to be.” Rascal met Bun B at a party Houston label owner Randall Jamail threw for Slim Thug that afternoon and the pair became instant brothers. “Imagine” was the name of the two-minute spitfire recital that ended Rascal’s set that night and ended up on the B-side of his next single “Dream.”
The show at Aussie’s spiked Houston hip hop’s imagination. “It was, basically, on a beach volleyball court at a bar way off the beaten track,” says Sonzala, “but Bun B has said that show opened up the whole world for him. I think it was the first time they saw what kind of impact their music was having.”