Playback: Rap Reigns at SXSW

Snoop Dogg crowns SXSW hip-hop as keynote, the Cherubs may have topped Heroin Man, and Sparkplug becomes part of musicians' shared economy

Snoop Dogg at SXSW 2014
Snoop Dogg at SXSW 2014 (Photo by John Leach)

You won't hear any hip-hop fans complaining about a dearth of headliners at South by Southwest. The Fest again resounds with rhythms and rhymes of rap's finest gamers, with giants including Wyclef Jean, Nas, Wiz Khalifa, T-Pain, J. Cole, and Big Sean recently added to a lineup already bulging with 2 Chainz, E-40, Run the Jewels, Big K.R.I.T., Joey Bada$$, Twista, Wale, Rae Sremmurd, Earl Sweatshirt, Trae tha Truth, Madlib, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killah.

And look who scored the ultimate SXSW gig: Snoop Dogg. The lanky Long Beach native has been tapped for the Music conference's keynote address. Like last year's Lady Gaga keynote, the event takes shape as a public interview rather than an oration. The Doggfather's "shizzles," "nizzles," et al. can be experienced live by badge holders next Friday morning at the Austin Convention Center.

He'll likely be the first to deliver the keynote while high (Willie Nelson canceled his SXSW '92 speaking engagement), but more important is the fact that Snoop's the first rapper to hold this honor. While he's not a genre philosopher per se, Mr. D-O-double-G retains maximum charisma, a multidimensional career encompassing film, fashion, and football, and, as a brand, he's been uniquely transformative. Recall that Snoop Dogg was once fingered by lawmakers and media as a promoter of sexism and violence, and charged by the state of California with first-degree murder. Two decades later, he's the cuddliest rapper on the planet.

SXSW's affiliation with hip-hop has been equally evolutionary – not that Festival co-founder Roland Swenson wasn't hip to the genre early on.

"I was lucky enough to be living in and visiting New York City a lot in the early Eighties, so I got to see acts like Run-DMC, Grandmaster Flash, Salt-N-Pepa, and Afrika Bambaataa when they first broke in the clubs," Swenson recalls. "When we started SXSW, that was still fresh in my mind."

SXSW didn't rock the bells right away. It was in the Nineties, Swenson remembers, that they broke the ice by bringing in Houston acts like the Geto Boys.

"It took a while to build up credibility in the hip-hop world, but we made steady progress," he says.

Brian Hobbs, the Conference's hip-hop booker, witnessed the continued progression of rap's presence at SXSW.

"Once well-known acts jumped on board, it made the rest of the hip-hop world look at South by Southwest and realize that they need to be here too," he affirms.

This year, the genre accounts for almost 15% of SXSW's showcases, estimates SXSW GM James Minor – though it clearly represents a greater share of the marquee talent.

"Our booking reflects what's happening in the current climate of the music industry, to a certain degree," he explains. "Right now, hip-hop is an enormous part of the music industry. Are we becoming a hip-hop festival? No. Part of the beauty of South by Southwest is that there's a place for just about every type of music."

While SXSW's hip-hop deck feels fully stacked, there's probably a wild card yet to be pulled. Let's hope for Kendrick Lamar. The SXSW regular's new album drops March 23.

Cherubs Bring (Back) the Noise

Their reunion was improbable, but the results are phenomenal.

Long-dormant noise terrorists Cherubs, a brutal trio who assaulted eardrums in Austin 1992-1994 and left behind a classic album and a cultish following, reconvened in the studio last August to record a new album. That platter, 2 Ynfynyty, emerged this month on Philly indie Brutal Panda Records.

Reunion albums can be dicey affairs (see the latest Pixies offering), but somehow three aging Ping-Pong enthusiasts – Kevin Whitley, Owen McMahon, and Brent Prager – preserved enough caustic chemistry for one last musical pipe-bomb. 2 Ynfynyty, produced by local studio guru Mike McCarthy, grinds gnarled riffs where scouring-pad guitars battle bulldozer bass alongside Whitley's sky-high wail. Whether conjuring disorienting dins ("Unhappyable") or gravitational grooves ("Monkey Chow Mein"), Cherubs' hard-buzzing action slays from alpha to omega.

"There's no denying it's a great record, really far better than it had to be," commented Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey, who issued Nineties releases by the band on his Trance Syndicate label. "I think it might even be a better record than Heroin Man, honestly."

Comparisons to that cherished 1994 release are inevitable. Whitley perceives the two works as separate but equal creative offspring.

"There's no way some of these songs could have existed on Heroin Man, and vice versa," says the frontman. "They're our children and we love 'em the same, except 2 Ynfynyty is the new child and gets more attention, so Heroin Man is jealous and lashes out."

The album's March 3 street date had Austinites salivating for a SXSW appearance. That won't happen, confirms Whitley, as unspecified health issues are keeping the band from performing. Lucky for Asian Cherubs fans the group's trying to book dates in China.

"We probably wouldn't do anything resembling a national tour," he admits. "We have lives, people, and responsibilities that need to be attended to, so we'll be considering festivals, short runs, and one-offs. Frankly, touring sounds miserable in the most interesting way, but still miserable – unless we had a Ping-Pong table 24/7."

A Sharing Economy for Musicians

For all the cash flying around Austin during SXSW, sometimes precious little lands in the pockets of local musicians. While your friends working as bartenders, pedicab drivers, and cocaine dealers have $800 nights, you play three gigs and net a whopping $250 – split five ways.

New revenue streams for musicians are thus heaven-sent. Sparkplug, a website facilitating person-to-person rental of instruments, equipment, and practice spaces, recently launched in Austin, and its owners expect it to flourish during SXSW. This represents the musical extension of the increasingly popular "sharing economy." What Airbnb is to houses, and Lyft is to transportation, Sparkplug hopes to be for music gear.

Musicians can create listings for their instruments on that include descriptions, photos, and user-determined daily, weekly, monthly, or even hourly rates. Renters can browse those listings by category or area to find what they need. Sparkplug takes care of the dirty work, linking payment via bank accounts, and handling the insurance aspects of the rental (users set their own replacement prices). In turn, Sparkplug collects a 9% fee from the renter side.

"Musicians are naturally collaborative," reasons Sparkplug CEO Julia Wilde. "We take care of the finances and protection so they can just be human with each other."

Browsing the several hundred Austin listings already on Sparkplug, you'll find the staples: an Ampeg SVT bass rig for $65/day or a Gibson SG for $45/day. The prices won't beat newly Austin Music Poll-anointed Equipment Rental winners Rock N Roll Rentals, but the selection has a potential to be great because it reflects Austin's exquisite tastes. Wilde notes that Austin's Sparkplug listings already boast more impressive pro audio gear than New York's, where it launched in July.

Half Notes

My former employer, McDonald's (1999-2001), has agreed, after continued controversy, to pay the bands performing at its SXSW activation. The hubbub began last week when outraged Brooklyn synth-poppers Ex Cops detailed a non-paying McShowcase offer on Facebook. Based on their music, I wouldn't pay Ex Cops to play either, but I agree in principle: Never accept "exposure" as payment – it won't pay the rent. Happy Meal ending: Local McDonald's franchises have committed to making a donation of at least $10,000 to the SIMS Foundation.

Doug Sahm's "Groover's Paradise" doubles as the Paramount Theatre on Sat., March 21, for a musical celebration of Central Texas' greatest genre blender (1941-1999). The concert, spurred by Joe Nick Patoski's documentary Sir Doug & the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove, which premieres at SXSW Film on Thu., March 19, includes a full reunion of Marcia Ball's Freda & the Firedogs, Steve Earle, Terry Allen, Hole in the Wall gang the Bizarros, Patricia Vonne, Roy Head, Robert Rodriguez's Chingon, the Texas Tornados, and many more.

Ryan Bingham headlines next Friday's free SXSW concert at Auditorium Shores. The Oscar-winning roughneck songwriter, currently touring in support of his new album Fear and Saturday Night – a noted improvement from 2012's rudderless Tomorrowland – joins Memphis scion Luther Dickinson, Deadhead-approved folkie Jackie Greene, and local outlaw songstress Carson McHone.

Austin City Limits announced a triptych of superlative tapings for season 41: reunited punk trio Sleater-Kinney (April 15), reigning jazz diva Cassandra Wilson (April 28), and local crypto-bard Shakey Graves (May 6). A free ticket lottery for each show begins a week before the performance at

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Snoop Dogg, Roland Swenson, Sparkplug, Cherubs, Doug Sahm, Ryan Bingham, Shakey Graves, King Coffey, Butthole Surfers, SXSW Music 2015

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