South by So Real 09
Rapping with Matt Sonzala about SXSW hip-hop
By Thomas Fawcett,
11:58AM, Tue. Mar. 10, 2009
Welcome to the second annual edition of South by So Real, where we rap with South by Southwest booker and hustler extraordinaire Matt Sonzala about all things hip-hop. If an MC is performing at the festival, Sonzala made it happen. Also, rappers beware: If you see him in the house and you’re rhyming over your CD with vocals, he will throw a bottle at you. After all, “This ain’t fucking Star Search, this is real life!”
Bump & Hustle: This is your first full year on the job. Did that make it any easier?
Matt Sonzala: Definitely not any easier because my responsibilities quadrupled. I deal with a lot of the bands coming from Europe, not just urban music now. It’s easier logistically in terms of convincing rappers to come down. Last year when we talked I said it was getting better as far as the industry recognizing and wanting to come down but this year everyone wants to come down. I’m really happy with what we have this year. A lot of rappers actually applied on time this year!
B&H: What about the festival has changed that makes hip-hop artists want to be a part of it?
MS: I really don’t think it’s changed that much. South by Southwest has done hip-hop forever, even early on when I came back in 1990. I saw artists like Decadent Dub Team and MC Overlord. I saw Sociopath Left and groups like that way back then. My role in Texas hip-hop has always been sort of a P.R. guy to an extent. We’re not a media center like New York or L.A., and we’ve suffered from that for a long time. SXSW is our outlet. You can get a lot done in those four days. Now people know that it’s the place to be.
B&H: Given that, do you feel an obligation to book a certain number of local acts?
MS: Across the board, we all do. We know that this is Austin, man. We have to bring in some local acts but we can’t book every single local act. Rap-wise, if I see them working and they’re doing some things, yeah, I do feel kind of obligated to bring them in. That said, a lot of the clubs don’t want rap and they don’t want local rap. I had an issue with a couple of acts that I had to take off shows because the clubs said, “No, we’ve had issues with them.” It’s hard because we can’t take every single rapper, there’s no way. But I think we have a good selection of local hip-hop. Could we do more? Yes and no. The clubs don’t want it. It’s not an easy sell. A lot of these guys are hustling and doing good work and I recognize that and I’m down for the dudes who really work. I think Bavu Blakes is amazing. I think Set 4 Life, what Dok Holliday and Will Hustle and them do in the streets, is fantastic. Southbound is an incredible group. Dred Scott is an incredible group. I like to see guys like Dubb Sicks, who go on the road and do little tours. But most of the groups get on because I want them to be a part of the conference. I want them to come learn something. I don’t want them to feel excluded. Back in the day, people felt if they were left off they were being excluded but not one of those people filled out the application. The people who got in this year got their applications in on time. That being said, you don’t have to necessarily do your 20-minute performance to get a benefit out of South by Southwest. The industry is here and whether you are wearing that badge or not you better be out there working.
B&H: What are a few Texas acts you think everyone should know about?
MS: I actually do wish that I had more Texas acts this year. I’m not doing a big Houston show because we’ve done it many times. Right now out of Texas I really love Question? from San Antonio. I like Fat Pimp out of Dallas, actually. I’m not big on club rap but he has more than just club raps – he has some really smart stuff too. From Houston, Rob Quest from the Coughee Brothaz is coming this year. He has always performed with Devin [the Dude] but he’s got a solo album coming out. I’m excited about the Memphis guys, legends like 8Ball & MJG. It’s diverse this year. There’s everything, from the biggest backpackers ever to club stuff to gangsta stuff, and it’s all mixed together.
B&H: I was really feeling H.I.S.D. What do you know about those guys?
MS: H.I.S.D. is a collective of guys from Houston’s indie scene. EQuality is one of the most incredible poets and Savvi is one of the most business savvy guys in that scene. They pooled their resources as opposed to trying to all be solo artists. They all came together and it’s obvious they’re making an impact. That whole scene has been going on for a long time but now they have strength in numbers and I think they’ll see big benefits from that this year. They’re releasing a record on the Wax Poetics label.
B&H: There is a massive contingent of Canadian rappers coming this year. How did that come about?
MS: I’m a music geek so I know about all this stuff. I’m a little nervous because I don’t know who else cares but Canada is right across the border and there are a lot of great MCs there. People like Josh Martinez, he tours so people know him. There are guys like Classified, who is a legend. This guy Shad, he’s an up-and-comer and he’s brilliant. Keys N Crates kill it and Moka Only had a great run with Swollen Members. A bunch of these guys applied and I could have put them all on random shows but I put it all together and hopefully they’ll benefit. To be honest, I was nervous they would come back and say they didn’t want to be on a Canadian hip-hop show. Everyone says, “Put us on with Bun B” or “Put us on the big stage.” But every one of them was with it.
B&H: Do you think Shad has the biggest chance to break out?
MS: Shad has the biggest buzz right now and he’s working really hard. He falls in line with what’s happening when you see the buzz around people like Charles Hamilton, Blu, Finale, B.o.B., even Asher Roth. Those guys are all pretty true-school hip-hop and it’s been a while since any true-school hip-hop has broken through.
B&H: Speaking of Asher Roth, could you beat him at beer pong?
MS: I could beat him in any drinking game. That’s something that’s plagued my family for a long time. Asher is definitely one of the next MCs to come up. He represents something real with the whole college scene and coming from the Philly suburbs. He’s from Middle America and doesn’t run from that.
B&H: He definitely has a late Nineties Eminem thing going on though, right?
MS: They are always complaining about the Eminem comparisons and I don’t think he’s like Eminem in theory. They have totally different backgrounds and topics but you can’t deny he’s got the inflection and the voice. I interviewed Eminem when he first started and he got the same ass white-boy questions. He went through all that shit too. But I think Asher is going to have a good run.
B&H: Speaking of white people, what’s up with the whole Providence contingent? Are they part of Sage Francis’ poetry club?
MS: Well, yeah. Sage Francis has his Strange Famous record label now and he’s bringing a lot of people from his label down and that includes 2Mex and Sleep from the Chicharones, who I love a lot. Cecil Otter from Doomtree will also be on that showcase [Saturday, March 21, Scoot Inn] and DJ Jester will be DJing.
B&H: The three acts from the Netherlands are all really cool. I had never heard of Pete Philly & Perquisite but they are legit.
MS: Pete Philly & Perquisite are legends and they rap in English, which is amazing. Dutch rappers are on par with anybody here. They are great rappers, great musically, and they’ve got a very soulful feel to them. If they could tour in the States I think they would do really well. I tried to get them here the last three years and I’m glad it finally worked out. Arts the Beatdoctor and In Stereo [perCeptie & Kapabel], the dope thing about them is that this local label, Beats Broke from here in Austin, puts out their albums. There is some record label in Austin putting out Dutch rap on CD and vinyl. I think that’s amazing.
B&H: What do you do with groups like that? You know they have tons of talent but in reality nobody here has ever heard of them.
MS: You try to position them with someone else that will bring in a crowd. Since Pete Philly & Perquisite are more soulful and they have a band, I didn’t want to just put them on some rap show, so I put them on with Solange, Beyoncé's little sister, who's hitting a lot of different sides of R&B with what she’s doing. I thought it would be dope to have her on with Black Joe Lewis & the Honey Bears. Zaki Ibrahim from Toronto is also on that show and the Shitsez, two Norwegian girls singing bouncy soulful rock. That’s a pretty diverse show with a lot of talent, Saturday at Buffalo Billiards.
B&H: Let’s touch on Rye Rye. I see her as this year’s Santogold in terms of getting lots of buzz and popping up at parties everywhere.
MS: Yeah, and Baltimore in general. That sound has been around for a long time and it’s finally getting some notoriety outside its borders, just like Houston did a few years ago. That girl is 17 or 18 years old and she grew up with it and now she’s the next wave. I think she’s gonna have a big year.
B&H: I know the Saturday showcase at Austin Music Hall is one you’re excited for.
MS: What’s really dope about that show is it represents East, West, South, and Midwest. From legends to newcomers, some of the best artists I can name are on that show. Dead Prez, Bun B, B.o.B., Kidz in the Hall, Rick Ross, Mistah FAB and Balance from out West, Al Kapone from Memphis, and Dam D and Free Sol from Memphis open that show. Ghetto Metal is a movement in New York that Dead Prez is a part of with this guy Bazaar Royale. Bazaar Royale and his band are going to do some songs and then Dead Prez is going to come out with that band. Originally the concept was that all those groups were going to have bands but it wasn’t coming together so I just decided to do a big blowout. You can see Al Kapone and 8Ball & MJG both with bands on Thursday night at the Dirty Dog.
B&H: You’ve talked before about pairing MCs with live bands and it sounds like they’ll be some of that.
MS: There’s going to be a lot. Even some local groups are coming with bands. I know KJ Hines has a band. I think it’s important. I’m a true-school hip-hop dude and I love great DJs but I can’t watch a rapper rap over his CD anymore. I don’t see the point, especially if the CD has vocals on it. I will not stay in the club if you rap over your vocals. I’ll fucking go home. I think everyone in the crowd should leave. They should throw bottles at you. I think it’s fucking ridiculous that you would fucking rip off your audience that bad and rap over your own vocals on a fucking CD. You can’t even get a goddamn DJ? You can’t even get a goddamn instrumental of your song? Fuck you.
Seriously, I’m sick of that shit. I’m old. I can be like that now. It’s a rip-off and it’s the most worthless thing in the world. That said, they don’t necessarily have to have a band. The essence is the DJ with the turntables. Make it happen. You can see a band that you’ve never heard of before and be blown away but if you go see a rapper that you’ve never heard before ever, if he doesn’t have more charisma than you can imagine, you’re not gonna watch him for very long. You’re not gonna watch some dude with a shitty mic and pay attention to every word he says. Once a song is on a CD how do you change it? What’s live about that? This ain’t fucking Star Search, this is real life. Right now, if you want to make money as a musician, you have to tour, and if you’re gonna tour people have to want to come see you. A lot of these rappers are seeing that and making their shows more compelling.
B&H: Do you care that Rick Ross lied about being a corrections officer?
MS: I guess I care that he lied about it but people do what they have to do. I commend him for going out and getting a job. A big part of his career is talking about selling cocaine. Whether or not he did that, I don’t care. The fact of the matter is during those formative years, you had a job, bro. You need to inspire these kids to go get a job and not aspire to be what you portray on record. A lot of the kids think that’s what they’re supposed to be, some big coke dealer. It’s stupid. So I commend him for having a job. I don’t care. Fuck it.
B&H: Anybody we haven’t touched on yet you’re excited for?
MS: This R&B girl Wayna is really cool, she’s gonna have a nice show. I’m a big fan of Money Waters from Dallas. Wednesday at Fuze he's playing with Fat Pimp, Tum Tum, and Blofly from Dallas. Combine that with Magno from Houston and Gerald G from Austin and that’s gonna be a badass show. If you want to see up-and-coming real talent from Texas, that’s a good mix of folks. P.O.S. from Doomtree is gonna kill it this year. Rock-wise I'm excited to see the band Complete from Ft. Worth. They're an Internet sensation. Locally, I like this girl Eyeris a lot. I'd like to see more female rappers, like we got KB the Boo Bonic. After South by Southwest, I'm gonna book a lot more shows and I'm gonna focus on bringing more females to the front. I go to all these shows and there are no females. They exist, but where are they?
AwkQwarius is two of the dudes from PPT from Dallas and they’re amazing. Locally, Da C.O.D. and Ryno and Lowkey from SouthBound are on the level of anybody, they’re good. Last year I know you were excited for Camp Lo but they are coming this year for sure. I love Amanda Blank. I really like Yarah Bravo and am excited to see her live. I think Crew 54 from Killeen are a big part of the local scene right now as far as documenting the scene and being talented. DJ Tommy Tee from Norway, that dude is a legend. I used to trade tapes with him and get his graffiti and hip-hop magazine that he used to put out over there in the early Nineties. He is the dude in Scandinavia and I'm excited he's coming down. You know who I'm really excited to see actually and who is a lot of fun is the Biscuit Brothers. They're a children's act and they've got a PBS show on every Saturday morning in like 40 markets across the country. But the way they speak directly to the kids and teach them about different instruments is great. I really like what they do and their passion for music surpasses half the people on this bill. B.o.B is gonna kick ass this year. Invincible has become one of my favorite MCs right now. Her album ShapeShifters is just amazing. It’s politically brilliant and lyrical. It's a white girl from Detroit and I hate to say it but I never expected one of my favorite rap records to be made by a white girl, but she’s killer and a great performer, too. Poetic Pilgrimage from London, very smart. We also have a holy hip-hop thing with all the Christian rappers doing a show at the Carver [Museum] on Saturday afternoon. Lecrae is an incredible MC and those guys have a whole movement that people don't know anything about. I’m also excited about Thursday night with Big Boi from OutKast with K’Naan and Dallas Austin. I’m curious to see what Dallas Austin is gonna do. He’s produced for everyone from Madonna and Michael Jackson down to the early Dungeon Family so I want to see what he’s gonna do.