The State of Austin's Hip-Hop Scene

"Jump On It" night at Rosewood Park on the Eastside

photograph by Kenny Braun

Austin's hip-hop scene just isn't the same as it was two years ago. And that's a good thing -- or so say local promoters, deejays, and artists who claim that our small hip-hop market is booming. Their evidence? A radio-friendly climate, a rise in credible local talent, and a healthy selection of hip-hop-themed club nights. It's these three components of the scene, contend the experts, that's finally made hip-hop in Austin less of a theory and more of a reality. "Things are certainly building," says local deejay Les Jacobs, who hosts KOOP's "Dolla Holla Hour" and shares his duties on KVRX's popular "House of Phat Beats" with Kari Orr. "When I first got here [in the Fall of 1993], there was nothing. We were starved for hip-hop. Now there's plenty of radio, local music to play on it, and club stuff almost every night... places to at least be exposed to hip-hop. And finally, more people seem to be communicating, getting out, meeting each other, and concluding that we can accomplish more together than apart."

The scenario that Jacobs describes sounds like a partial realization of the wishlist created by scene leaders in February 1995, when the Chronicle last assessed the local hip-hop community ("Riding the Rough Road of Rhyme"). At that time, those involved wanted more urban radio, more live opportunities for local and national artists, and more local recording and distribution. Additionally, scenesters called for a decrease in the backstabbing, infighting, and rivalry that they believed separated burgeoning scenes on each side of I-35.

Without question, Austin hip-hop is still immersed in the process of examining many of these issues. In fact, many of the scene's leaders are quick to point out that what may look like a boom might really just be a belated, delicate, and even volatile period of adolescence. And yet, despite the wide array of internal conflicts, the tangible signs of growth are no less impressive. Over the last year alone, Austin has seen a two-fold increase in hip-hop oriented radio shows, strong club draws for local acts like Relax, Disgruntled Seeds, and Big Game Hunter, and visits from national hip-hop heavyweights like the Roots, De La Soul, Camp Lo, Spearhead, the Jungle Brothers, and the Boot Camp Clik.

Two years ago, the scene also enjoyed a steady stream of house and block parties, plus affairs similar to the current run of Wednesday evening freestyle shows at Rosewood Park. Back then, however, nobody could have predicted the popularity of two Monday night club shows -- the "Blow Pop" series at Nasty's and the Electric Lounge -- while fewer still could have guessed the galvanizing effect they would have on the local scene despite the fact that the series eventually splintered into two separate shows with both factions claiming they had the "real" night. Funny, a couple of years ago, one such night would have looked like a godsend...

Yo! Bum Rush The Show

"I came here from New York, where every club or restaurant with a corner's worth of space would set up a turntable at least once a week," says Rachel Sorkin, the co-promoter and co-founder of the Blow Pop series at Nasty's. "When I moved here, I missed that."

Indeed, Sorkin came to Austin at a time when the scene lacked a regular evening of hip-hop entertainment. Until May of last year, when Sorkin and partner Tiffany Passmore launched Blow Pop at Nasty's -- then considered a hole-in-the-wall frat bar -- local hip-hop fans could only count on occasional showcases and Eastside park shows, many of which were marred by a lack of organization and even occasional outbursts of violence, factors clubowners said made them reluctant to try hip-hop oriented showcases again. In fact, neither Nasty's owner Jack Bloom nor Sorkin say they had any real reason to believe the Blow Pop series could work. "We thought it might be a cool thing to do for the summer, and were never really sure it could last into the Fall," says Sorkin, who found Blow Pop's original frontman, DJ Snoopy, and handled advertising in exchange for the receipts from the door.

Initially, the series began with intimate crowds of 20-30 people. By Labor Day weekend though, the show -- now featuring deejays Snotty and Mel -- was attracting in the vicinity of 200 people, a figure that tripled in March during the week of South by Southwest. "Apparently, a lot of other people were feeling the same void, or didn't realize there was that void to fill until they saw this," says Sorkin.

Mixing the sounds at Nasty's
photograph by Kenny Braun

By April, word-of-mouth buzz had created a monster. Regulars were upset with long bathroom lines, longer bar lines, overcrowding, and heat -- issues Bloom says he's since addressed, including a $15,000 upgrade of his air conditioning system. And while Sorkin says her promotional expenses and the rising costs of proper security cut into her take of the door, she claims the deejays were often leaving Blow Pop with between $250-300 a person -- in a town where the majority of working musicians are lucky to take home $100 for an evening's work. Better still, everyone involved says the crowds seem to legitimately care about the music, although Blow Pop's critics say the event has turned into a "scene" where "being seen" is half the story.

"A lot of them are here to drink and dance, for sure," says DJ Mel. "But I've found a surprising number of people are genuinely interested in the deejay culture and scoping me out -- seeing how I do it. That's flattering, and anytime a crowd this large seems to be into the music is cool."

Perhaps just as important, say Bloom and Sorkin, was the make-up of the crowd itself -- as racially diverse as anyone in Austin's hip-hop community remembers seeing. For what seemed like the first time, UT frat members danced alongside Eastside hip-hop fans. And interestingly, Sorkin says that on a Monday night that Emo's was featuring L7, she saw a noticeable drop in attendance. Even better, short of a few fights early in Blow Pop's run, everyone seemed to be getting along.

Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said for the relationship between Bloom and his Blow Pop promoters. Although neither side will talk about their eventual split, both sides contend greed got in the way of a good thing. Either way, the Blow Pop promoters resurfaced at the Electric Lounge with DJ Snoopy, while Nasty's continued on with deejays Snotty and Mel. Beyond the ensuing mudslinging which both sides conclude was as an "ugly thing," the fact that the Electric Lounge shows started off strongly seemed to prove that hip-hop in Austin is commercially viable.

"I'm sure there were other clubs dabbling in hip-hop before us," says Bloom, who says his Monday night Blow Pop draw continues to build. "But it's kind of funny to look in the paper and see all these other similar approaches. It's spreading like wildfire. And it's interesting to see all these people jumping on a bandwagon, because when we started there wasn't much to jump on."

Last month, Sorkin and Passmore amicably withdrew from their association with the Electric Lounge, which now plans to move a revamped hip-hop night to Tuesday. And with a similarly popular Wednesday night series already in place at Spirits, the idea of an early-week hip-hop renaissance does indeed seem exciting. "I suppose we have actually shown that hip-hop can be both viable and profitable for the clubs," Sorkin says. "If that helps open things up for local talent and touring talent, then we've all accomplished far more than we ever intended."

Bigger and Deffer?

If a Blow Pop night seemed unimaginable two years ago, so did the idea of Austin as a viable touring stop for national talent. Not since 1992, when a series of shows at the Back Room brought Public Enemy, Ice-T, and Ice Cube all within a short span of time, has Austin seen as much touring activity as it did last April, when a single week featured shows from the Roots, De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, and the Sugarhill Gang.

All the shows, plus subsequent visits from Camp Lo and Boot Camp Clik, not only drew reasonably well, they also offered potentially valuable exposure to local openers like Relax and Disgruntled Seeds. And though some local clubowners still contend they're not offered as many hip-hop shows as they'd like from their contacts at national booking agencies, most, like the Mercury Lounge, Liberty Lunch, and Electric Lounge, say the recent string of shows (not to mention an unconfirmed local date for Wu Tang Clan in September) goes a long way towards proving there's a local market for national hip-hop.

"Lately, the clubs have been opening up a bit," says Tee Double, a local performer and promoter who also organizes the hip-hop showcases for South by Southwest. "But there's still very few that care about hip-hop. It all comes down to money, and if the clubowners continue to see that hip-hop can generate capitol, they'll be better motivated to doing shows."

Interestingly, as hip-hop has become more mainstream nationally, and as Austin has started playing host to the first generation of college students growing up exclusively on hip-hop, clubowner concerns over violence at these shows and their attracting a "bad element" seem to have subsided. Because Austin has been late in developing a scene of its own, local experts say the biggest club hurdle has been convincing clubowners that they aren't jeopardizing or alienating their regular clientele by booking hip-hop.

"Traditionally, the forms of music enveloped by hip-hop haven't gotten a lot of respect," says T-Bone, a local promoter who also acts as a consultant to major labels and booking agents waiting to break into the Austin market. "And to be honest, if I was a clubowner, you'd have to give me a damn good reason to jeopardize my base rock & roll crowd. Plus, this is a market of clubs that hasn't had a lot of exposure to hip-hop culture to begin with. They didn't grow up with it, so it's still perceived as a new thing. It's very important that we try to reach out and present ourselves fully, so they have a working knowledge of what they're working with. The bottom line is that if they can make money elsewhere and feel more comfortable, they will."

Presently, it appears that the clubs booking the most hip-hop, both national and local, are those that have the least to loose. Both Nasty's and the Electric Lounge were closed Mondays before they began their Blow Pop nights, and still, many of the clubs that book hip-hop road shows say they're often more trouble than they're worth.

"Disorganization seems to be a recurring theme with hip-hop," says the Electric Lounge's Mike Henry, who's nonetheless "thrilled" whenever he gets offered a touring act. "There's always technical nightmares with DATs and cordless microphones and too many people who haven't communicated. It's very spotty, and for the most part, a pain in the ass."

Adds Liberty Lunch's Mark Pratz, "I've definitely found a tendency for it to be less secure. Is the band even going to get here? It's a lot like the way reggae was in the Eighties, when it got so difficult. Without more education, and more professionally carried shows, it's always going to make the promoter nervous."

Part of the problem, say local promoters and clubowners, is now that Austin is a viable market which national acts aren't opposed to visiting, a new set of inexperienced promoters are approaching clubs. "The more local people involved, the better," says Henry, "but they need to remember the burden is on them to deliver the show, professionally."

According to T-bone, this is a burden that could make or break hip-hop's long-term chances in Austin clubs. "Because the scene's relatively small, there's still room for people to come off as if they know more than they do," he says. "That can be dangerous. People need to realize that if they go out and book or promote shows it has an impact on all of Austin."

Conversely, experts say the hope is that a continuing run of well-orchestrated shows -- like the Roots and De La Soul -- could go far in establishing a national reputation that not only delivers more road shows, but also trickles down to the local artists.

"The more groups coming down, the more people from out of state will go and tell others [about Austin]," says DJ Casanova, a veteran Austin performer who also records local artists for his Upperhand Productions. "If they see Austin, and find that it's nice, then perhaps more of the managers and A&R guys that come with the acts won't just leave their hotels to show up at the venue at 10 minutes to midnight; they'll come out earlier and catch the local openers. And if an opener can hold the crowd, there may finally be people there capable of taking them to the next level."

Get in Where You Fit in

Clearly, a scene is only as viable as its talent base, and the hopes of taking Austin to the next level hinge on the development of original, gigging, and recording artists. "The talent in Austin is overwhelming," states Tee Double. Two years ago, there was no such definitive assessment from any scene leaders, although some artists from that period, like DJ Casanova, MC Overlord, MC Truth, and Short Fuze are still enjoying the benefits of large fanbases. But according to Tee Double, the best evidence of a thriving local scene may lie in the emergence of Relax and Disgruntled Seeds, a pair of East Austin groups, as well as Big Game Hunter, a culturally mixed outfit with live instrumentation and a strong draw at both the Victory Grill and Sixth Street.

"It's real positive," says DJ Neutral, who spins for both Relax and the Disgruntled Seeds, each of which features a pair of emcees. "We've had opportunities like opening for the Roots, Jungle Brothers, and Camp Lo -- [opportunities] that wouldn't have been around a few years ago. But it hasn't been easy. It came down to having to promote a lot of our own shows, because it's not always easy to find venues. But within the scene, there's communication, and people will come out when they hear we're playing. And it had to happen, because this is supposed to be the `Live Music Capital of the World'."

That's a slogan members of the six-piece Big Game Hunter admit they've heard more than a few times, although they say it's only natural that local crowds so attuned to live instrumentation would be open to a two emcee, two drummer, two bassist approach. "We write and compose, but use the live instrumentation to keep it loose," says Estevanico X of his band's two-to-three hour sets. "That's something that this town can relate to, although any crowd of people is going to be more open to a stage full of musicians than just one or two emcees and a deejay running a DAT machine.... And in a sense, what we're doing transcends hip-hop, into culture, politics, and jazz. We're not going to grab our nuts and talk about bitches. We're here to push other things, positive things."

Indeed, X describes his band's first year as a "positive experience," although he's quick to admit that Big Game Hunter have gotten some important breaks thanks to the fact that all of his bandmates are in other projects and therefore have established relationships with clubowners. But while X says he's proud of the standing-room-only crowds at the Victory Grill, and healthy attendances at the Ritz, Mercury, and B-Side, he points out that those who fashion themselves as the true hip-hop gatekeepers, "the headz," have been less accepting, possibly because they're uncomfortable with Big Game Hunter's racial integration and/or the group's hip-hop/jazz amalgam.

"Self-interest is naturally involved with hip-hop," says X, "but we're trying to advance a conscious, positive, cultural element. Perhaps that's why the real hip-hop headz won't acknowledge us -- because we're pushing positivity. Only we're ready to talk and want a dialogue, because jealousy divides the tribes. There's a lot of potential here, but also a lot of ego, `this is real and you're not,' talk. That's basically bullshit, and yet very few have approached us on a very honest level."

This perceived lack of respect is not that different from the situation MC Overlord described two years ago. At that time, Overlord was the first local hip-hop act to break through to westside clubs and Sixth Street -- at least since the late Eighties, when Project Crew (featuring DJ Casanova and Cassius Claymoe) found success at venues like Mercado Caribe and Liberty Lunch. But Overlord, who says he feels a far more positive vibe today than two years ago, maintains that the hurdles associated with maintaining a westside crowd are two-fold. First, one must introduce hip-hop to rock-based crowds that had never seen a hip-hop show. Second, there's the task of convincing other hip-hop artists that your art is no less real just because you're utilizing a live band and finding success with primarily white college audiences.

"I think we're at a point where we all know we're doing different things and respect each other for it," says Overlord. "Sure, there was a point where I was definitely aware that I wasn't respected. I do something different, and don't follow what everybody else might be doing. I want to be the first MC Overlord, not the next Biggie Smalls or Heavy D, and I'm sure Big Game Hunter wants to be the first Big Game Hunter, not the next Fugees or Roots. But by doing that, you're gonna get mad criticism. By sticking to our guns, we can build respect for just that -- sticking to our guns. And more and more, I'm finding rappers from the `underground' approaching me and telling me they respect what I'm doing, even though it's not their thing. To me, that's worth a million bucks."

Beyond the credibility issues, the experts say that unless more Austin hip-hop acts follow Overlord's lead and regularly release product, there won't be opportunities for Austin artists to see a million bucks of their own. "Without product, having great hip-hop artists won't take us that far," says Tee Double, who's considering producing a compilation of local talent. "We could be having shows every night, but without product, there's no tangible receipts and no dollars, which is what it's going to take to make Austin viable in the long run."

Yet, DJ Casanova says he believes more and more local acts are beginning to invest in their own recording equipment, which is bad for his own studio, but good for the scene. "I think a lot of acts are realizing it's sink or swim time and buying their own equipment," says Casanova. "This way, they can put the tapes out themselves, because the labels aren't here to help. You have to be doing it for the love, but if you're hungry enough, it could pay off."

DJ Neutral says he's given away nearly 300 demo cassettes he produced for Relax and Disgruntled Seeds, and asserts that the greatest value of having a recording is that it can air on "House of Phat Beat's" local segment, "Texas Tape Showdown," a weekly dose of radio exposure that can translate into sizable club draws. Better yet, Jacobs says the local hip-hop radio shows are getting better about reporting their playlists to the trade magazines, which he hopes can translate into not only more road shows, but also more A&R interest for local talent with hot local singles.

"Reporting is key, because that's how the industry works... it shows there's a market," says Jacobs. "And when you report and handle things on a professional business level they're accustomed to, they respect that and are more likely to go out of their way to make things happen for you."

Additionally, local radio has also been the source of some of the scene's best networking and communicating -- in that local deejays, performers, and promoters generally hang out at the station during the shows. "The radio studios are a great place for people to hook up with people they don't normally get to see," says Jacobs. "Without a real center, there's not a lot of places for folks to gather and network for free."

Ultimately, say the scene's leaders, that type of networking is shaping up to be the local hip-hop community's biggest goal for 1997. The progress they've seen over the last year could translate into zilch if they're not united enough to capitalize on it together. And although insiders cite KVRX's recently instituted "no-hanging" policy in their studios as a setback, T-Bone says he's been working on establishing a networking collective with KOOP that would meet regularly to discuss opportunities within local radio, retail, and venues. More immediately, Tee Double has organized a Unity Fest for July 3 at the Electric Lounge, where nearly a dozen local artists including Relax, Disgruntled Seeds, and Short Fuze will be featured.

"If we're going to be viable, we're going to have to be united," concludes Tee Double. "We need to open lines of communication that are going to lead to more shows and a better track record of success. And I'm not sure we've yet tapped into the entire hip-hop crowd, because a lot of headz at the Camp Lo show have probably never heard of Big Game Hunter. Everyone needs to get together, open up their minds, and let Austin hip-hop saturate their brains."

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