Sunday, May 19, 2024

Tragedy at South by Southwest: This can’t be about hip hop and race

by Michael Corcoran

Before SXSW there was NMS, Manhattan’s New Music Seminar. It got so big in the ‘80s that the New Yorkers decided to do a little spinoff in Austin, Texas, yee-haw! But they got cold feet in January 1987 and gave their blessing to an Austin group headed by Roland Swenson, supported by the Austin Chronicle and seeded with $5,000 from the city.

Being the biggest music conference in the world, NMS was every bit as powerful as SXSW is now. I went a couple years before SXSW started and one year after and you could feel the energy when hip hop became the dominant indie music genre at a conference that originally catered to dance, new wave and punk music. Rap blew up when all the early Def Jam stuff appealed to rock fans and NMS was where it became legitimate. One of the NMS founders owned Tommy Boy Records, home of Naughty By Nature, De La Soul and House of Pain. NMS became central station for hip hop hopefuls. Every artist of note showed up.

Problem was that the hotel lobby turned into Grand Central Station for fans seeking autographs or rappers trying to slide their demo to Chuck D or Russell Simmons or, really, anyone with a badge. Like the SXSW fringe of today, they didn’t register for the conference or buy wristbands. They just hung out in the lobby and rode the elevators up and down all day, stopping at every floor to see where the party was. There were literally thousands of kids roaming the hotel and it was not unusual to have to wait 30-45 minutes for an elevator to your room. The last year I went was during that East Coast/ West Coast thing and there was a fist fight outside one of the panels and somebody pulled a gun. I was coming off the escalator to see hundreds of people running straight at me and was lucky to duck behind a post.

There were so many non-registrants hanging around that some of the music businessmen who never missed an NMS opted out because the hassle wasn’t worth it. After a few years of this, co-founder Tommy Silverman said something in an interview about how the rap presence was really hurting the conference, so they were going to de-emphasize it and I remember thinking two things: 1) he’s got a point and 2) is he out of his everlovin’ mind? That’s something you think, but never say. So, of course, NMS was hit with charges of racism and acts, both black and white, had to think about crossing that invisible picket line. There were other reasons the decline continued until the almighty international music conference was no more in 1995. The next years are when SXSW started becoming a formidable industry force.

Swenson of SXSW could teach a course on Why NMS Failed. There could be stabbings at Pusha T shows, riots for Lil Wayne, but there will never be a statement from SXSW about rap shows, specifically, getting out of hand. From what I know, there have been no major incidents at hip hop shows, even the one starring Kanye with guest Jay Z where 8,000 people were invited to a venue that held 3,000. The crowds are rowdy, let’s be honest, but those weren’t hundreds of hip hop fans stampeding a full-capacity Strokes three years ago.

But now we have the headlines about the musician who came to SXSW to play a rap concert and ended up driving into a crowd and killing two.

Wednesday afternoon I walked all through downtown, from Lavaca down Sixth to the Convention Center and I marveled at the harmony of the very diverse crowd. There weren’t just blacks and whites together, but folks from Croatia and Brazil mingling with Pflugerville tourists. Everybody seemed so happy out in the sunshine with music in the air. I was thinking that this is what the world will be like in 20 years, when everybody realizes we have more in common than previous generations thought.

We have to all understand one thing. Rashad Owens, if he did what irrefutable evidence said that he did, is a sociopath. A hollow man with no regard for the lives of strangers, so long as he doesn’t have to spend the night in jail. That he’s African-American means something to a lot of people, but let’s remember that most serial killers are white males. I don’t want people lumping me in with John Wayne Gacy.

Accused of killing two, seriously injuring 8 and sending 15 more to the hospital when he gunned a stolen car through a crowd of fans, Owens is being presented as an aspiring rap artist who came to SXSW to perform. This is solely based on an article in the Austin American-Statesman that quotes his brother as saying Owens had a 1 a.m. slot at Club 1808, a venue without ties to SXSW. But the club’s manager said they had booked only rock bands that night. No hip hop. Perhaps the brother got the venue wrong and the show was actually next door, at an annex put together for this week. That makeshift venue did have hip-hop. But neither the Facebook page nor the Twitter account of Owens or his “K.A.B. 254” rap du plume had any mention of shows at SXSW. A hip hop artist not hyping their shows on social media?! The Statesman based their report on the sketchiest of information and that’s the part that all the big media- from the Washington Post to Gawker- are putting way up top, even in the headlines. Suspect came to SXSW to perform.

We’ll see what the trial tells us, but there’s no evidence now that Owens came to SXSW for any reason but to party, run some game about being a big hip-hop “padoosa” and maybe crash a hip-hop open mic at some Eastside dive.

Rashad Charjuan Owens took over my SXSW at around 1 a.m. Thursday morning. When his name was released at around noon, I spent hours researching, not the SXSW music schedule, but the life of this man who created so much sadness and confusion. Owens deeply violated something I didn’t know I loved so dearly, the sanctity of being around music. SXSW always makes me proud to be from Austin, no matter how my own experiences go.

The truth about Owens, 21, who was born in West Texas, grew up in South Carolina, went to Shoemaker High in Killeen and spent a couple years partying and getting into trouble in Alaska, is that he’s barely a dabbler in the rap game. He’s loosely connected with the dirty south crew Strictly Mafioso, but there’s no evidence of him ever performing at more than a house party. He’s got a couple tracks on Soundcloud, but so does every high school ukulele player.

According to his Facebook page (“Road To Riches Owens”), he works at Subway and is the father of a month-old son. The brother who gave the phony Club 1808 info says Owens has six children, but he’s got photos of only two or three on fb. It kinda make me ill to see this ice-veined villain’s photo in the paper this morning with the headline “Suspect in crash a Killeen musician.” He’s no more a musician than Troy Aikman is an actor.

I need to remember to breathe. There’s just evil in the world, but there are many, many more angels.

We greet a new day at SXSW as one of challenges. Be the best person you can be. Love all that you can. The way we felt when we heard the news about the despicable actions of a lone psychopath told us nothing if not that we’re all in this together.

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