Tests of Mettle in Austin Hip-hop

Stop passive-aggressive and aggressively-passive mediocrity

Tests of Mettle in Austin Hip-hop
by Jerrad Griffith

Austin’s rap scene is one of immense growth and enthusiasm – as noted by this publication in January. In comparison, the product isn’t on the same level. I listen to the tapes I’m given, the SoundCloud and Bandcamp accounts, and recommendations of various Austin MCs – mostly with great disappointment. Something’s missing.

The issue isn’t talent, because there’s lots of it to burn and it’s diverse. We have people with messages, like Riders Against the Storm and the well-established Bavu Blakes. We have younger upstarts, like Magna Carda and Do Wrong. We have strong crews, like League of Extraordinary Gz . We have people who’ve mostly figured out how to effectively nail down themes, like Dat Boy Supa.

Friday before last, I witnessed a strong grouping of lyrical dexterity at Rap for a Stack at Bat Bar, for which I was paid as a judge. I didn’t know any of the artists competing, and I wanted to get myself in front of more MCs. Sixteen acts in one location seemed like an ideal situation.

Drastik came with succinct bars, over dope trap beats. The duo PotsNPans delivered something reminiscent of the Cool Kids and (even more so) CRU, a short-lived Nineties duo that released one ambitious near-classic, Da Dirty 30. Tahj Washington and D-dot Elles brought intricate bars with more thoughtful approaches. The winner, Tone Royal, could rap for days, and in circles around a lot of mainstream “rapper’s rappers.”

The formatting was a tournament style setting, two minutes of a song. They were to be judged on lyrics, originality, and presentation. It wasn’t a freestyle battle; we asked for complete performances. The most interesting parts of the competition were displayed in two areas: the 60-second tiebreakers and how people accepted winning and losing.

Oh, the losing.

The tension began with the first round. Fans and friends of two of the losers wasted no time voicing disappointment to myself and the other judges (Val Santos for 102.3 The Beat and Sam Sumpter from Study Breaks). The tiebreakers built up interesting mini-crescendos, adding to the excitement.

For myself, it told me a lot about one of the unwritten rules of rap: you need to be ready to rap at all times. You don’t run out of lyrics. You don’t freeze up when you’re up there alone.

The losing was the best part, not because I enjoy seeing people fail. Losing (and winning) reveals true character, and how people deal with adversity. What’s the saying? Pressure bursts pipes?

In each win and loss, I saw low-key elation or hurt feelings. There were no fights or shit-talking (at least not in each other’s faces.) People were not out to charge up other rappers, or spend negative energy.

In the broader context, what I saw was something I wish we had more of in Austin. Contests like these breed competition, something I think is missing here. I don’t mean people fistfight, or maintain this passive-aggressive and aggressively-passive approach I’ve seen here – in every genre of the Austin music scene.

What’s missing (and what I’m prescribing) is an undertone, the legitimate feeling that open and continual competition amongst peers is taking place. Austin now needs acts to stand out, attempting to (figuratively) annihilate every person in his or her wake. In fact, your friends (and anyone else) need to able to say, “This fucking sucks, do it over.”

Constructive criticism is in order, and should be welcomed.

Staring at the mirror isn’t going to extend a rapper’s reach outside of Austin. Looking for approval from reflections, or a group of friends, or the city of Austin, isn’t enough – unless that that’s the desired plan. The question and answer should now be: “Does this stand up against everything, in and outside of Austin?”

Hip-hop is art, and it should be treated as such. Painters and filmmakers may create shitty pieces, but they mean for it to be taken seriously. They don’t do throwaways, “filler” tracks, or “wait for the album.”

Hip-hop is one of the few mediums in which competition propagates strength and fortitude, iron sharpening iron. I hope that rappers will begin to draw swords. Tests of mettle are the next step in the evolution.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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Austin hip-hop, Drastik, PotsNPans, Da Dirty 30, Tahj Washington, D-dot Elles, Tone Royal, Cool Kids, CRU, Riders Against the Storm, Bavu Blakes, Magna Carda, Do Wrong, League of Extraordinary Gz, Dat Boy Supa

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