Bombs Not Bullets
Austin Hip-Hop Mushrooms
Summer '98 may well go down in Austin's musical history books as the moment when local hip-hop artists and artisans finally, grudgingly, got their due. Then again, maybe not. The Austin hip-hop scene has been short of performance venues for as long as anyone in the local scene can remember. Blips on local hip-hop radar such as Catfish Station and the much-lamented Hip-Hop Coffee Shop outings that briefly took up residence at Ruta Maya were good starts that, in the end, went nowhere. As a rule, every time a new club promised a spate of hip-hop bookings, you could be sure the situation was at best transitive, this despite the fact that the capital city is bookended by two cities - Dallas and Houston - that have had thriving, vibrant hip-hop communities for years.
The situation has been exactly the opposite of what many would expect from a burgeoning, wildly laid-back yet heavily politicized town like Austin; hip-hop music and the culture it carries with it - the inescapable baggage of race and politics - are two topics Austinites love to sink their teeth into. Still, the homefront, such as it is, has been disturbingly quiet for years, with only the occasional larger roadshow act like De La Soul or Spearhead coming through Liberty Lunch or Stubb's to tide over the growing numbers of local fans, DJs, MCs and hangers-on. Almost everyone agrees that it's been a sorry state of affairs, or lack thereof.
But don't cry for us Big Baby Jesus, things may just be changing faster than Hammer's quick-jump from rapper to reverend. A trio of loosely affiliated local groups, booking collective Hip Hop Mecca, nascent record label Five Finger Records, and the street-style art and clothing umbrella organization Mad Gods, are pumping new life into a moribund scene, bringing in wave after wave of fresh talent to local venues and finally starting a groundswell that may just put Austin's hip-hop community squarely on the map. And it's about time.
Spearheading Austin's rejuvenation is Hip Hop Mecca, a booking collective overseen by longtime Electric Lounge booking agent and poetry slammer Mike Henry and partner David Crump, a Seguin native back in town by way of Boston, where he helped run the popular Diggity Productions and Rap Explosion. The production team's weekly residency at the Lounge, Hip Hop Mecca Thursdays, has in the past several months imported more out-of-town freestyling rappers and hip-hop artists than anywhere else in recent, local memory, and the pair are gearing up for more large acts such as the recent Big Punisher/Xzibit outing held at Liberty Lunch. Big Daddy Kane, KRS-ONE, and other major acts are scheduled for the fall, alongside a host of smaller but no less impressive underground bills such as their recently sold-out Aceyalone show. Clearly the audience is here. Now the shows are, too.
"The way hip-hop works as far as booking," says Henry, "is completely different from rock & roll. Rock is generally very organized into booking agencies, management, and labels and you have easy access to them when they tour - they just come to you. With hip-hop artists, you have to go find them. You have to find their label or their manager and then bring them in to do the show. Even the larger acts don't really tour as you would think of touring traditionally. They'll do the East Coast because it's so well-established and it's an easy run from city to city, but in general, they won't make that big run far enough that it's going to get to [Austin]. And with the smaller underground acts, that never happens.
Crump, the more philosophical of the pair, is quick to point out that having come from the oft-embattled streets of the Bean Town scene, Hip Hop Mecca's local setup is a far quieter affair, thankfully bereft of the bullets and bravado that have caused so much of the national backlash against hip-hop in general. He outlines his collective's mission as bringing shows to Austin that might not otherwise be seen here.
"What I want to see out of our collective group is a true representation of hip-hop," says Crump. "From how we share the money, the workings, and how we get paid to how we work with the people, the brothers and sisters that come to the shows."
Henry notes that Austin's laconic heartbeat favors a more toned-down vibe. There's been no violence, the scourge of hip-hop culture, at any of the Mecca shows, although he notes that other clubowners and bookers were vocal in their concern when the idea of Hip Hop Mecca was first floated.
"Everybody around town - all the different club booking people - were like, `Watch out. Look out for the hip-hop crowds.' And I haven't had that experience at all. It's been just the opposite. The crowd that comes to these shows is an actual culture, and they're all here for a reason. They're not just showing up to get drunk and hang and whatever, they all believe in this. There's a tremendous sense of community that goes along with this. I think another reason that we haven't had any problems is that we produce the shows well.
"A lot of times people get in trouble with the hip-hop crowd if they produce a fucked-up show, because that crowd will let you know in no uncertain terms if you're fucking up - a lot more so than the traditional rock audience that will tend to shuffle their feet and say, `Dude, this sucks,' and then just wander off to Emo's or wherever. The hip-hop audience will get right in your face about it. And I think that's where people get in trouble. We try to take care of people when they're here. We try to use a lot of local talent so that they have a real sense that their community is also represented on stage. So, no, we haven't had any problems yet."
Financially speaking, Hip Hop Mecca's Thursday night shows have had a tremendous impact on the Lounge (although last week's show featuring San Antonio's DJ Sista Stroke was all but ignored), a club that until recently kept up a roster of alternative rock and some more outre samplings, as well as its eclectic forays into poetry slams, plays, and a stint as the local AIVF headquarters. Hip-hop is hardly new to Henry and Crump, but the venue itself is virgin territory.
"It's been great," says Henry. "It's had a tremendous impact, because there's a huge, very vibrant live hip-hop audience that hasn't had anywhere to go and there hasn't been anybody really doing these shows. A lot of time, the shows would not be produced well, so these people have just been dying for somewhere to go. The turnout has been great for all these shows, with a great crowd, and it's made a great impact on the Lounge financially - just a big influx of a new audience, which is exactly as it should be.
"I think for some clubs there's been some stigma, because the crowd is a very interracial crowd, very mixed, and I think a lot of people here in Austin have thought that people just wouldn't come over here, from the Eastside to the Westside. In the beginning, I had a lot of people tell me things like, `You're never going to get the Eastside to come to the Electric Lounge.' But they do. They'll come to see these artists, but only if they feel they're coming to a place that respects them and that is welcoming to them and that belongs to them, too."
One of the most encouraging aspects of Austin's currently burgeoning hip-hop scene is the obvious sense of community between the fans, performers, and artists. The word itself is tossed off in conversation and bandied about with what at first strikes newcomers as grave naiveté, but it's more than that: Henry and Crump reference X-Man and Nick Nack from Five Finger Records ("They're my brothers," says Crump) almost as much as they talk about their own work. This ongoing mutual appreciation society, far from being of the bullshit variety so often found in back-slapping asides in, say, the alternative rock genre, is the real deal. There's so much love on the floor your shoes get sticky.
Over at Five Finger, the story is much the same. Founded just over four months ago by local DJs X-Man, Nick Nack, and X-Man's pal David Zapata from Victoria, the trio has already released their first 12-inch, "Long Distance," by Prince Poetry and Beaumont's QB. Ostensibly a Texcentric hip-hop outfit, Five Fingers signifies the birth of Austin's first and (thus far) only hip-hop label, bringing in out-of-state talent only to hook them up with locals - as in the case of the "Long Distance" single.
X-Man and Zapata both hold down full-time jobs to support the fledgling label and have poured much of their savings into getting things up and running. Meanwhile, Nick Nack pursues the somewhat saner option of a degree from UT. Hard work, yeah, but a recent deal with Cali distributor TRC has gotten the fruit of their labors entrenched in stalwart hip-hop retailers such as Tower, resulting in 1,200 units being moved during the first four days of release. Nice numbers if you can get 'em.
"This is something that David and I had been talking about for a long time," says X-Man, "but it didn't manifest until last April after Nick Nack and I came back from the Gavin Music Festival in San Diego in March. We figured that it was something we could put together and that's pretty much what we've done.
"We've got about three other projects in the works right now; we're putting them together at the same time. I can't really say too much about them right now, except that two of the crews are from Dallas and the other is a longtime crew from Austin."
In what little off-time they have, the trio co-host KVRX's Saturday night hip-hop mainstay program, the B-Side, breaking new artists from Texas and beyond and pushing for - what else? - community. Like that of Hip Hop Mecca, Five Finger's bottom line is about working to bring the Texas hip-hop scene the recognition it deserves. Granted, Houston has all the notoriety it needs right now, but the landscape of the Lone Star State is dotted with smaller scenes (Victoria, Beaumont, Midland) that are producing high-calibre DJs and essential tracks that need to be heard.
"I feel like our hip-hop, Texas hip-hop, has its own feel to it," posits X-Man. "It's clearly not East Coast or West Coast. I'm living in Texas, I'm proud to be a Texan, and I'm proud to support the Texas scene, and that's what it's all about. Supporting the scene."
Adds Zapata, "I don't think people really expect hip-hop labels to come out of Texas, outside of say the Houston gangster trip."
Keeping in mind that recent and ceaseless move toward global domination by Baton Rouge native Master P., Five Finger's owners are reticent about discussing the possibility of striking it rich. Stranger things have happened, of course, and happen with alarming frequency in Texas, but X-Man points to a self-imposed deadline the trio have settled upon by way of comparison.
"If we're at a stagnant point two years from now then we're either really doing something wrong or it's just not meant to be," he says. "If we're not progressing, we'll call it a day, but I can say for myself that we're putting all of our finances and all of our time into this. Everything we make is going right back into the label. It's kind of hard, working 60 hours a week at Dell and then coming home and getting on the phone for another three hours a day to do label work. Maybe Michael Dell should give me a paid leave of absence for a year so I can spend more time on the label."
Loosely affiliated with both the Hip Hop Mecca crew and Five Finger Records is Mad Gods, a "creations, clothing, and design" conclave overseen by 21-year-old artist and CEO Chris Martin. If you've been to a hip-hop show in the last six months, or for that matter if you've been on the Drag anytime lately, then chances are good you've seen some of Mad Gods' designs splashed across the chests of the cognesenti. Beginning with a street-elegant graffiti design, the Mad Gods' logo is cropping up at almost every venue in town in one form or another, regardless of genre specificity.
Essentially a hip-hop cabal of graphic designers (not all of whom are based in Austin), Martin says his company's goal is to do hip-hop and do it right.
"Any fool can shoot a gun," states Martin. "We're here to create. We're keeping it fucking real, basically. And Austin is a real good place for artists to come and do that, because there's an industry here that's really kind of subversive on all levels - from fine arts to film, computer art, music, just every single medium. You come here and there's no pressure to compete, just to create. You don't have people trying to get over on someone else, and that's why there's so many people creating here on every level of the game."
Although Martin stresses that Mad Gods is, for the moment, focusing on their T-Shirt and fashion designs in order to generate some scratch for future projects, he also riffs on another, more ambitious, goal; that of shooting a local hip-hop video and film.
While Martin's enthusiasm is infectious - if maybe a little worrisome - longtime scensters and cynics alike (often the same people) are wondering if a reality check is going to come down the pike and whomp Austin's growing scene flat on its back. Things are going gangbusters now, but how long can it last? Long enough for a thriving hip-hop community to finally take root in the Austin's previously arid soil? Time will tell.
Back at the Electric Lounge, Mike Henry is waxing poetic on the science of hip-hop, proselytizing to the choir but proselytizing nonetheless.
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"These people are doing poetry. And they're so creative. The science of it and the precision of the way they speak and the message that they communicate is so rare. I don't think you'll find any other musical genre that does anything like this. This stuff is amazing, and I'm just so glad that there's someone out there doing it. It just really struck a chord in me that these people are poets. And I think it's the most creative force out there right now."