The Next Generation of Austin Hip-Hop
Young rappers reinvent the most streamed genre in America
You're not old enough to buy alcohol, and don't have enough Hawaiian shirts or blond streaks to attend UT frat parties. You listen to Kendrick and Killer Mike, and (think) you can pull off RompHims and man purses, Chinese topknots, and velvet dresses. You're too white for black kids and too black for Austin's vast majority, although you can be any color and hunger for beats.
One day, you click on a Facebook event from a fellow student's Twitter blast: "MUD DJ set. East or North Austin locale."
Ultimate democratizer, the internet leads you to a mostly black and brown party where everybody can quote the latest Kanye album and too many Supreme-clad bodies sweat it out to a vaguely personalized RapCaviar DJ set. The patchouli-and-Badu infrastructure names – MUD, Human Influence, Raw Paw – commingle with the lean-laced Gucci Mane ones for the MCs: Kenny Gee, Quin NFN, Teeta, etc.
Many clubs are wary of an underage crowd, especially those sporting chains and wife beaters. One hip-hop pop-up showcased recently at a dubious strip mall in what had almost certainly been a strip club before the roving party moved to an East Austin house. A greasy stand in the back sold 40s and fried chicken.
Renting a warehouse or makeshift art gallery is cheap, no liquor license necessary, but such a mixed crowd hyped on late-night testosterone and 808s often ends in bruises and sirens. House parties have the advantage of drawing a more diverse after-hours audience. Button-downs and grills alike flock to wherever has liquor and weed when the club closes.
For the better part of the last decade, Austin hip-hop has bred a raw potpourri of talent, a large pool both benefiting from the local scene's DIY accessibility and hamstrung by the lack of its larger industry infrastructure (revisit "Hip-Hop on the Verge," Jan. 16, 2015). From best to worst, one and all jumped through the same hoops (booking, management, radio) behind big-league intentions with the same few promoters and label reps working toward the same shared goal: A record deal no matter how small.
Now, for a whole new generation of truly homegrown ATX rappers, those hoops and hurdles are quickly vanishing.
Lone Wolf Pack
When Leon O'Neal, aka premier hip-hop DJ Hella Yella, hollered at shawties during Huston-Tillotson B-ball games, you the networker had to actually hand the man at the wheels your cassette. Stumbling on to the art of spinning in 2004 as a fill-in at a game and now mixing for 102.3 The Beat while also holding down a residency at Rio, the San Antonio-born O'Neal took home Club DJ of the Year honors in 2010 from both the Austin-American Statesman and the Chronicle. A fervent promoter of homegrown hip-hop via the nationally syndicated radio station, he hosts morning segment Austin Music Mondays wherein he interviews up-and-coming Austin rappers.
"Back then, you were able to network and cross-promote," says O'Neal. "Now it's the internet. The younger artists don't care about how things used to be done."
In the Nineties and early Aughts, Austin artists and management networked in the same small circles, bumping Saturday night gigs at historic East Austin institution the Victory Grill and buying promoters shots of Hennessy. Hip-hop emerged from the P. Diddy shiny suits era, and the Dirty South rode full-force into the mainstream out of New Orleans and Atlanta on the fledgling trap wheels of Lil Wayne and T.I. The Texas state capital, with its mostly syndicated radio and punk aesthetic, proved unprepared.
"We never had the infrastructure for hip-hop the way Houston or Dallas did," states O'Neal.
Eventually, Dirty Wormz and League of Extraordinary Gz cracked the I-35 wall between ironic cowboy boots and Wu-Tang logos (see "You Can't Bury Me," June 8, 2012), and current Austin institution Riders Against the Storm not only became the first hip-hop act voted Austin Band of the Year in the Chronicle's 2014 Austin Music Poll, they went on to three-peat. Nevertheless, the live music capital still reserves its boners for live percussion.
"People don't understand how hard it was for the people before us, for us, and even the younger people," notes RAS co-front MC Qi Dada, née Ghislaine Mahone. "That needs to be celebrated. A lot of the rappers who were doing it before us were showmen. They had bands, but doors were closed to them.
"Austin was, and is still a very segregated city when it comes to black art."
Be that as it may, Austin remains a city of youth, and hip-hop maintains as the young people's soundtrack. Rap rules as the most streamed genre in America. Everything bounces on a boom bap.
Quick to form loosely knit Wu-Tang-style collectives, the League of Extraordinary Gz, founded in 2009, rap/rock blend Dirty Wormz, and more recently Team Next dispersed into solo and small-band acts. Even the Southern battle rap scene, which used to be headquartered in Austin, is now disbanded. In their stead rises a lone wolf mentality.
Why? Partly because fanbases have become not purely physical. Groups used to coalesce out of necessity; the more rappers, the more tickets they combined to sell. Personal branding now readily available on the internet, tickets can be clicked on far beyond what a lone rapper once had at their disposal.
As such, middlemen can now be cut out, a crucial step in smaller scenes like Austin. Younger rappers don't need venues, bookers, promoters, and they no longer hold down day jobs while waiting on agents. They have SoundCloud and Instagram to sell tickets, after all.
"Kids these days can do their own thing thanks to the internet," says Easy Lee of Third Root (re-read "Trill Pedagogy," Feb. 2). "They don't have to wait."
RAS's Qi Dada is dubious, though supportive, of the longevity of this trend.
"An online following doesn't necessarily translate to having a career or supporting yourself as an artist," she shrugs.
Beyond SoundCloud Rap
Over a decade after O'Neal began spinning, Kenneth Jackson threw his first paid house party and quit his day job at a summer camp. Known by his alias Kenny Gee, he grew up in a concrete duplex on the Eastside. The self-styled fashion killa, who unofficially reps local vintage store Monkies, has transcended SoundCloud rap as a premier millennial word syndicate.
"I'm a trendsetter, a leader," boasts Jackson, who plays mostly a solo game other than teaming up with his half-brother and using Facebook as a press agent. "I've been able to live off my music."
Behind crucial endorsements from local concert promotions biggie ScoreMore, now of Clear Channel conglomerate LiveNation, Jackson capitalized on teenage lust for club environs and grew his warehouse events to a full-blown fanbase. Paying tribute to his native roots in music videos and lyrics, and rapping about his come-up over gyrating behinds at Austin skating rink Playland, he even wields a social media catchphrase frequented in his music: "Ya Feel Me?" SoundCloud tracks from the homegrown spitter vary from 3,000 to 137,000 streams, so he recently ventured to L.A. to take meetings.
This streamlined pace finds even younger Austin rappers accelerating in their own lane.
Seventeen-year-old Quinlan McAfee, who raps as Quin NFN, grew up listening to Jackson and put his career on the fast track with a string of rapid-fire trap singles that regularly garner tens of thousands of streams. The high school dropout rhymes with a vicious, foaming-at-the-mouth swagger that slams harder than Bobby Shmurda's jail bars and blew SoundCloud plays through the roof. Born and raised in East Austin, McAfee says he was weaned on Amy's Ice Creams and Lil Wayne.
"Kenny Gee inspired me to do my own thing and pursue music full-time," murmurs McAfee sheepishly, underlining the fact that his tough-talking rap persona pivots 180 degrees from an otherwise shy teenager. "I just like how he plays with words." As a viral rapper paired with responsible management – young enough to still get an "X" on his hand at the club but with a voice that carries weight in many senses – McAfee supports himself through performance fees and features. That's admittedly easier as a young adult with no mortgage. Former manager Donny "Ca$h" Shorts, who saw beyond the chain link fence of "Game Plan Pt 2" into a voice so raw it almost hurts, helped steer McAfee's almost 200,000 YouTube views into sold-out parties and South by Southwest showcases.
Perhaps no artist embodies the evolution of Austin rap more than Teeta, né Terell Anthony Jackson (no relation to Kenny Gee). Part of A$AP Mob-like collective Team Next, Teeta's friendly, gold-decked smile remains as recognizable as his eclectic entourage. His first trap beats and Southern cliches were brushed aside by mainstream media, but the 28-year-old continues to hone his craft and polish his strand of "new age pretty boy trap."
"We came straight from the ground level up," he says. "We didn't have a whole bunch of money, just consistency. After you hammer at it for so long, people have to pay attention."
Since 2012, the dreadlocked Austinite has hosted warehouse parties and dive bar gigs such as the aforementioned strip club showcase, pursuing music full-time since 2016 and graduating to larger shows at Empire. He's seen the scene grow up and his music with it, evolving from smaller shows of drunk college students, day-one townies, and off-duty strippers, to opening for established artists such as Smokepurpp. His transition from a collaborative music scene, networking within a small orbit of Austin events, to focusing on a solo career and more concentrated self-development is a hallmark of recent artists.
"Austin hip-hop is changing. The reason you wanted to write this article is because you feel it changing. We're establishing a blueprint," he states unequivocally.
Paradoxically to the scene's lone wolf trend, its nascent master plan currently trends toward infrastructure development and managerial guidance for next-gen MCs.
Public relations specialist Reno Dudley, who manages local R&B soulstress Alesia Lani (see "Meet the Women of Austin R&B," Sept. 22, 2017), views Teeta's popularity as symptomatic of a rising urban center. The Southeast Austin native, who snagged a business degree in Chicago, notes "the scene is growing up." Homegrown artists such as Teeta and Kydd Jones are networking up a storm, and the genre's growth in popularity (and gentrification) means a metropolis of hungry yuppies waits for their live music capital experience to be translated over trap snares.
"When a lot of the older cats were first starting out, we didn't have people who could take us to certain circles like Kenny Gee could," says Dudley. "There's more people that you can reach out to now."
Along with the talent, the business end is maturing too.
"I'm starting to see more actual managers, not just rappers that are like, 'Hey, I'm gonna be a manager just because my homeboy's part of a clique," adds Dudley.
The PR maven is perhaps the symbol of professionalism in beat world, instantly recognizable as a tall, late-20s gentleman who wears an impeccably tailored suit to every event even if most of the audience is swilling beers in tank tops. For Dudley, whose suit is apparently heat proof, he and other Cap City managers are inclined toward professionalism because the internet affords their clients plenty of opportunity to screw up.
"You're not just managing your artists for interviews and stuff," he offers. "You're managing them day-to-day, because with social media and the internet it's a 24/7 job. It's like having really grown children."
Despite growing tangles of professional connections, such as the Bishops' former manager being an intern for ScoreMore (but ScoreMore not managing them), Teeta's manager Anthony Lindsay of one-man Wane Management describes Austin hip-hop as nuclear units.
"There's a big divide that's going on," he proclaims in a slight Midwestern accent. "These last few years, who's poppin' in the city? Magna Carda, the Bishops, Quin – but they're all in different circles with their own management."
Rather than working with larger rap collectives of 10 people or more such as the League of Extraordinary Gz or chasing record deals, managers now focus on fewer, more exclusive clients. Lindsay is one of the new school, moving to Austin from Wisconsin in 2014 after studying graphic design and getting his foot in the water throwing musical events at the UT co-op. Like Dudley, Lindsay's in his late-20s, harbors an outside point of view, and is eager to see Austin hip-hop grow up.
"It's the transition between Austin being a giant art class, where there's so much talent but little viable economic infrastructure, to becoming an actual industry."
In 2028, Austin traffic will snarl with self-driving cars. More thirtysomethings will have roommates thanks to high rents. Perhaps Oprah Winfrey will be president.
By then, Kenny Gee will own his own club, YaFeelMe, maybe a string of them, and Quin's mixtapes will have ushered in a new wave of viral rappers on HipHopDX. Austin rap will sound like further ATX climbers like Harry Edohoukwa, with his melodic rhythms, or Tank Washington's updated street boom bap, and the Bishops' ethereal LSD hymns.
According to KUTX The Breaks co-host Confucius Jones (see "Playback" Aug. 31), a third-generation River City native, Austin rap might still not have achieved a definitive sound.
"Austin's a city that's weird," he says. "So our music is just going to be weird. There's no one sound. I hope we never get a sound."
But we will get a system. Art class is over, galleries are closing in, and agents are starting to wear suits. Record label gatekeepers can't beat Instagram branding and SoundCloud fame, and trying to slide mixtapes to DJs will just garner a confused look since none will own CD players.
"In 10 years we'll have big-league infrastructure," says Dudley. "There's a whole movement going on and it's beautiful."