Hip Hop at SXSW: From Kool Keith to Kanye
South by Southwest has become a Hip Hop Mecca in recent years, with seemingly everyone from the big names to the 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 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), for 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.
Sonzala recalls one SXSW 1995 show at Catfish Station as a turning point for the force of nature on display. “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.
Also in 2000: six rap showcases presented in conjunction with Hip Hop Mecca and featuring such rhymesayers as Chuck D, Doug E. Fresh, Blackalicious, South Park Mexican, Dead Prez, Big Daddy Kane and Jungle Brothers.
If you’re looking for an entire showcase 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 fired up 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.”
– Michael Corcoran
2010 THE SHOWCASE THAT TURNED INTO A TRIBUTE
On the first day of SXSW Music 2010, Jody Stephens of Big Star was in the registration line at the Convention Center when his cell phone rang and he received some devastating news. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” Stephens told Julia Ervin of SXSW, “but Alex Chilton just died.” The Big Star leader had a heart attack in New Orleans, where he’d lived since the ‘80s. He was 59.
Bob Mehr of the Memphis Commercial Appeal heard the news in his hotel room, took a few minutes to gather himself, then went to work writing the obituary of a Memphis man with a profound influence on the alternative rock that SXSW stood on in its formative years. Big Star, on the heels of a retrospective boxed set release, was going to have a big presence at SXSW 2010, with a panel in its honor in addition to a big showcase. But with Chilton’s shocking passing, the band was even more in the minds of conference-goers.
Chilton’s relationship with SXSW went back to the first year, though he wouldn’t perform until the third. “Alex Chilton” was the name of the best song on the Replacements 1987 album Pleased To Meet Me, whose producer Jim Dickinson was one of the few prominent out-of-towners to make the maiden conference. Dickinson produced Big Star’s 1974 LP Third/Sister, which Rolling Stone called “Chilton’s untidy masterpiece,” as well as the first True Believers album, which brought him to SXSW87’s producer panel.
“Jim was really part of the family,” says SXSW co-founder Louis Jay Meyers. “He had breakfast with our staff at the hotel every morning at 7:30.”
Dickinson died eight months before Chilton, at age 67, so SXSW already had a heavy heart. The news that Chilton had passed, on the first day of SXSW Music no less, put the conference into a dark spin. But staffers, led by Big Star fanatic Brent Grulke, rebounded by putting together an Alex Chilton tribute concert at Antone’s in the slot that had been reserved for Big Star. “We told Jody (Stephens) that we’d follow his lead,” says Andy Flynn of SXSW, “and I think by the end of the day
we had the tribute concert pretty much booked.” Chilton could be opinionated, hard-headed, those who knew him agreed, but the yearning beauty of his music became the focus.
After Chicago publicist Heather West read a moving message from Chilton’s widow Laura, more than a dozen guests, including John Doe of X, Curt Kirkwood of Meat Puppets and and M. Ward joined the remaining Big Star members in a reflection of what Alex Chilton left the world. Original Big Star bassist Andy Hummel, in the final stages of cancer, joined drummer Stephens onstage for the first time in 36 years. This love fest was wet with tears.
“It was a pretty heavy week,” recalls Mehr, “but you couldn’t help but be moved by the outpouring.” Throughout the music festival bands dedicated songs to Alex and testified to his massive influence. A highlight was Cheap Trick performing “Out In the Street,” the Chilton song they covered for the theme of That ‘70s Show, to a crowd of nearly 10,000 at Auditorium Shores.
Mehr hosted Saturday’s “I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star” panel, “which ended up being a bit like a wake,” and closed it by reciting a tribute penned by Chilton’s former bandmate Tav Falco. It read, in part:
“What matters is that those whom he touched, were touched immutably. His legacy is of the mind, of the soul, of earthly pleasure, and of just and lost causes. He left us that redeeming spark of wit and flame to keep us going when we’re hovering down in the foxhole of doubt and uncertainty and dodging the adverse missives of Lady Luck…” – Tav Falco, Memphis
SXSW was invented for bands like Big Star, great artists who deserve a greater audience. It’s a celebration of music, which always provides a measure of relief.