Playback: SXSW Again Pivots on Rap

Hip-hop sustains the Festival's star power

Princess Nokia (photos by David Brendan Hall)

South by Southwest remains the only time of the year you'll see a rapper perform on the yuppie enclave of Rainey Street.

For the Festival's opening weekend, dedicated primarily to the SXSW Film and SXSW Interactive conferences, classic hip-hop artists proved an especially popular choice for brands. Besides Paul Wall, Slim Thug, and Too Short, who performed at Cedar Street, the latter SX track saw the almighty Snoop Dogg DJ'ing Ashton Kutcher's Sound Ventures party (opened by St. Vincent solo on an acoustic guitar), Ludacris warming up for his Rodeo Austin appearance on Monday with a Vevo House set, and Grandmaster Flash spinning records at Alibi.

Saturday at Rainey Street's Bungalow bar, Academy Award-winning lyricist Common entertained techies with a lengthy, freestyle-laced performance and astonishingly corny Austin references, specifically "Rainey Street," "Sixth Street," "Longhorns," and the dreaded "Keep Austin Weird." While "Playback" cringed, the largely tourist audience howled excitedly with each proper noun. At least he left out a potential rhyme about "Waiting in line at Franklin Barbecue."

That facepalm-worthy cypher notwithstanding, and despite the fact that this year's rap lineup isn't as superstar as the last three years, hip-hop persists as the most interesting genre and deepest source of big names at SXSW 2018.

Besides burgeoning Atlanta rapper/singer 6lack having already materialized at Under Armour's geodesic dome on Friday, Action Bronson, YFN Lucci, and Joey Purp add contemporary oomph to a lineup stacked with venerated OGs like the Roots, Wyclef Jean, DMC, RZA, Bun B, and Talib Kweli. Barred-out wunderkind Lil Xan represents the impossibly popular ignorant-trap set, while Lone Star talent emerges with Houston heavy-hitter Maxo Kream and an ATX crop that includes Abhi the Nomad, Kydd Jones, Magna Carda, Riders Against the Storm, Quin NFN, and Blastfamous USA.

Of particular interest is the MC pairing of locals Zeale and Phranchyze with native guitar hero Gary Clark Jr., collectively known as Blackillac, who are scheduled to throw down at the Chronicle's Hair of the 3-Legged Dog day party Friday at Hotel Vegas.

"Playback" is particularly pumped to revisit Rae Sremmurd and see Princess Nokia, the remarkably individualistic NYC rapper with a tomboy aesthetic and irresistible left-field anthems. There's also the rare union of Dr. Octagon squad Kool Keith, Dan the Automator, and DJ Qbert, previewed by a ticketed show at Empire Control Room last Sunday. I'll be interested to see the response to B-boy turned K-pop star turned Roc Nation-inked Asian-American rapper Jay Park, who joins the SXSW hip-hop contingent.

"When I was growing up, there was always one genre of hip-hop that was popular at a time," explains Jared "Confucius Jones" Williams, co-host of KUTX 98.9 hip-hop specialty show The Breaks, which hosts a homegrown SX showcase on Friday at Karma Lounge. "Now it's all popular. You have trap, you have intellectual rap, you have grunge rap – all different aspects of rap popular at one time. On my show, I can play Lil Uzi Vert, then 21 Savage, then Meek Mill, then Kanye, then Abhi the Nomad. And it works!

"South by Southwest reflects that, how prevalent all the genres are. I think that's why hip-hop is so dominant."

Rae Sremmurd guesting with the Roots at SXSW 2017

Indeed, SXSW acts as a mirror to a modern music industry, where rap commands the charts. Hip-hop-oriented discs accounted for over half of the Top 100 entries on last week's Billboard albums chart. By comparison, rock only notched a dozen and several were reissues of classics. Migos is the new Tom Petty, Atlanta is the new Seattle, Rae Sremmurd are the "Black Beatles."

"Its definitely a reflection of music industry and consumer trends," attests SXSW hip-hop booker Brian Hobbs as to why the genre, which represents roughly 20% of the Festival's overall bookings, generates such outsize intrigue. "You can listen to Top 40 radio and hear hip-hop influencing almost every song."

Rap's continued ascendancy at SXSW, which began in the Nineties as onetime conference liaison Matt Sonzala documented in a piece for Medium last week, comes at a moment when black messages are crossing over to white audiences like never before. Jordan Peele's box office hit Get Out, a manifesto on contemporary racism disguised as a horror flick, made history at this month's Oscars as the first Best Original Screenplay written by an African-American. Meanwhile, Black Panther is shattering box office records as we speak.

Speaking of Black Panther, young Cali rappers SOB X RBE are coming into SXSW hot off the placement of their track "Paramedic!" on the film's landmark soundtrack.

Not to be confused with Black Panther, Austin's Black Pumas should be breakouts this week. The quintet, owning a refreshingly modern and musically dense take on psychedelic soul, proved nothing short of stunning in headlining a 50-act All the Friends Ball at Spider House on Sunday. Since debuting live at C-Boy's Heart & Soul six weeks ago, singer Eric Burton has transformed into a highly impassioned and entertaining frontman.

Even the most relevant artist of SXSW's onetime archetype, the sensitive singer-songwriter – distinctly Caucasian historically – is African-American. Twenty-year-old El Pasoan Khalid earned five Grammy nominations for his 2017 album American Teen. That record holds at No. 15 on Billboard more than a year after its release, positioning him as a major draw at SXSW this week.

Also arriving here with major interest is Willow Smith, daughter of Will and Jada, who makes a particularly artsy and free-floating brand of R&B. She'll be at the Belmont on Thursday headlining the Women Represent showcase, featuring 14 acts including Rapsody, Kamaiyah, and Kodie Shane. SXSW bookers revealed to "Playback" that an all-female artist showcase was something that had a lot of interest among participants this year.

Believe it or not, this isn't all to say there's no room for white dudes with guitars at SXSW.

As a matter of fact, a couple of told Austin heroes are set to have big years. Roky Erickson, beloved godfather of psychedelic and horror rock, gets a much-deserved headlining slot on the free outdoor stage at Auditorium Shores on Saturday. He appears as part of a new Austin Music Awards showcase that also features recent honorees Shinyribs (Band of the Year and Album of the Year), A Giant Dog (Best Rock), Night Drive (Best Electronic), and Selena celebrants Bidi Bidi Banda (Best Cover Band). If an AMA night at SXSW becomes annual, that raises the stakes for the Chronicle's annual Austin Music Poll.

Blaze Foley, the staggering miscreant/genius singer-songwriter whose incredible tunes only became world famous decades after his murder in 1989, carries improbable momentum going into SXSW. The Sundance Award-winning biopic that Austin native Ethan Hawke directed, Blaze, screens Friday at the Paramount Theatre followed by an all-star tribute that includes Nikki Lane, Hurray for the Riff Raff singer Alynda Segarra, the Texas Gentlemen, Gurf Morlix, lead actor Ben Dickey, and Charlie Sexton, who plays Townes Van Zandt in the film.

One more thing regarding hip-hop at SXSW 2018. Early on, Florida rap heavyweight Rick Ross seemed a likely candidate to appear at the Festival to generate hype for his forthcoming 10th album, Port of Miami 2. Then, on the first of the month, he was hospitalized after being found unconscious and TMZ reported he was on life support.

He's now out, so if he surprised the world with a triumphant appearance at SXSW, that would be a boss-level PR move.

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SXSW Music 2018, Austin Music Awards, Roky Erickson, Blaze Foley

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