South by So Real

Hustling SXSW hip-hop with Matt Sonzala.

Journalist, blogger, promoter, radio host, and all-around hustler Matt Sonzala was reppin' the Houston hip-hop scene way before anyone outside the 281 area code knew the names Paul Wall and Mike Jones. Sonzala has been booking hip-hop artists for South by Southwest for several years but was recently hired on full-time. More than 150 hip-hop acts take the stage in Austin from March 12 to 16, and whether they are living legends or local unknowns, Sonzala is the man responsible for getting them on schedule. Bump & Hustle caught up with him last week to talk about the fest's hip-hop lineup.

Bump & Hustle: What are you most excited about this year?
Matt Sonzala: David Banner and Killer Mike doing a panel together at the Carver Center on Saturday [March 15]. Before they go on, I’m showing a film called Slingshot Hip Hop, a documentary about hip-hop in Palestine, and another movie called I Love Hip Hop in Morocco. After that there’s going to be a performance by World Trade, which is Bavu Blakes and Element 7D. Also, having Bun B and the whole UGK family is very exciting.

B&H: You’re screening those two international documentaries, and it looks like there are quite a few international hip-hop artists this year. I’m looking forward to seeing Marcelo D2 from Brazil.
MS: It sucks a little for me because those guys are all coming in as part of world-music shows. I want to see Tumi from South Africa and Marcelo D2. I saw Marcelo perform in Amsterdam with Planet Hemp in ’96, and I’ve followed his music for a long time. He’s a Brazilian hip-hop legend and Tumi is a South African hip-hop legend. I used to play both of them on my international show on KPFT in Houston. Honestly, I wanted to make a whole international hip-hop showcase, but a lot of people wouldn’t go.

B&H: Do you get to see all the artists you want to see?
MS: Almost none. I usually get stuck in a venue wherever the biggest rappers are, and I have to make sure everything goes on time. I’m usually running back and forth between venues.

B&H: Tell me a little bit about the Pimp C tribute. What’s going to go down for that?
MS: Basically, Pimp C had his UGK Records, a loose collective of artists from Port Arthur and the South: Vicious from the X-Mob, Hezeleo, Big Bubb, XVII, Bido, T.O.E, Bankroll Jonez, MDDL FNGZ. These were all people who were down with Pimp C, and I mean genuinely down with him. They’re all going to come together in one place at one time and really give it up for Pimp C.

B&H: And what about the rest of the Houston scene? Are they going to be represented?
MS: Not so much this year. Chingo Bling is coming as well as Rob G. We’ve got newcomers coming through like Karina Nistal; she mixes Latin hip-hop beats with reggaeton. She’s wild. Also: Z-Ro, Devin the Dude, and Lil J Da Mex Connect. I’m focusing on the next generation and some new shit. If Slim Thug, Chamillionaire, or Paul Wall wants to come, I want them and love them, but to me, South by Southwest is still about new music and promoting what’s coming up, not just about riding the wave of what’s already there. There’s no denying that when we first brought Bun B, Chamillionaire, and Paul Wall on a show with Dizzee Rascal five years ago [at SXSW], every writer in the house was there. They actually got to touch these dudes and meet these dudes. When all the media started coming down on Houston that’s where they all met. They got to see this next wave of stuff and that’s my goal, to keep it fresh. We need big names to get people to actually come out, but I’m trying to mix it up.

B&H: So what do you think South by Southwest can do for young local artists, somebody like a Zeale 32?
MS: Zeale needs to hustle up some press people to come out and see him, hustle up the industry to make sure they actually come to the show. That goes for anybody – the whole music industry is here, and it’s how you work it. Most of these rappers don’t work it at all. They come out and get onstage thinking they’re going to blow up and get a record deal, but they didn’t make one phone call before the show. They didn’t send one e-mail, they didn’t make a flyer, they didn’t go to the Convention Center. You need to get out there, because everybody is here, and what if you make 10 good contacts in those four days? You could make 100 contacts and make a whole new path for yourself because the music business is 100 percent about who you know. And that’s the beauty of South by Southwest – everybody can meet right here.

B&H: Is Ice Cube going to be performing, or is he just doing a panel?
MS: Ice Cube is actually doing the main stage on Lady Bird Lake with Talib Kweli, Jean Grae, Idle Warship, and Strong Arm Steady. He’s also doing an interview at the Convention Center.

B&H: The name that jumped out at me is Camp Lo. Uptown Saturday Night is one of my favorite hip-hop albums of all time, but I haven’t heard anything from them in almost 10 years. Did you reach out to them, or did they reach out to you.
MS: They reached out to me through a friend of mine. They were talking about how they wanted to play South by Southwest because they’re revamping their thing for next year. They were one of the first groups to come into the fold. I was like, "Hell yeah, let’s do it." They’ve got a new album coming out next year.

B&H: I'm from the Kansas City area - Lawrence, actually - so I was pleased to see KC is well represented with Mac Lethal, Tech N9ne, Kutt Calhoun, and some others.
MS: Yeah, all those dudes. Tech N9ne's coming down because he's got new stuff coming out this year, and he's got a tour with Paul Wall right after South by Southwest. I told him, "Bring your artists; bring your label." If they're gonna come to see you, we'll put those other artists on right before you and get them some exposure, too. So he's bringing his whole Strange Music family, and I put Mac Lethal on that same show because he requested to be on there with them. Kansas City's got a crazy rap scene that's underexposed.

B&H: Any other artists flying under the radar that you’re particularly excited about?
MS: I’m a friend and fan of Gerald G and Chalie Boy, so I love seeing them. Locally, I think Ryno, Slim Gutta, and Southbound are awesome. Also, Drojo from Corpus Christi. This dude Lars Vaular from Norway; he takes a down South sound and approach to the music and raps in Norwegian. It’s really dope. Dizzee Rascal is bringing the Newham Generals and Jammer. I’ve been wanting to do a grime showcase for the last four years, but it never happens. We’ve had Lady Sovereign, Lethal Bizzle, Plan B, and Dizzee Rascal before, but Newham Generals and Jammer are on some real deep shit, so I’m really excited for that.

Some notable hip-hop artists at SXSW 2008: Ice Cube, Talib Kweli, El-P, Jean Grae, Grayskul, Lifesavas, Saul Williams, David Banner, Pigeon John, Devin the Dude, Chingo Bling, Zeale 32, Murs, Phranchyze, Bavu Blakes, Tech N9ne, Mac Lethal, Bun B, Ohmega Watts, Aloe Blacc, Lyrics Born, Camp Lo, Gerald G, Living Legends, Marcelo D2, Kutt Calhoun, Public Offenders, J-Rocc, A-Alikes, Tee Double, Cunninlynguists, DJ Rapid Ric, King Britt, N.E.R.D, PPT, DJ Chicken George, C-Rayz Walz, and Kosha Dillz.

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