In an iLL Manner: How Jamal McKinney Sells Out Rap Shows at Antone’s
Inside the promoter’s euphoric, elegant vision for hip-hop booking
Jamal McKinney isn't one for war stories. As he recounts his personal history on the Cherrywood Coffeehouse patio, after staging 20 hip-hop shows at Antone's over two years of partnership with the historic blues venue, he seems optimistic and game for anything. Yet one brief anecdote slips out during our conversation that hammers home how rare of a position the booker is in, as 2023 comes to a close.
"I had a venue ask me, 'Is this a colored event?'" McKinney reveals. Not decades back, but earlier this summer.
"Some venues, they don't want hip-hop," the 33-year-old explains. "They don't want to produce hip-hop shows because they feel like hip-hop has a certain stigma to it ... people smoking, drinking."
McKinney had a vision to "bring in hip-hop on a classy level," to present rap shows in a polished package. He named the company after his business strategy. "Just dope manners, how you treat people," he explains. "I want to make sure everybody there at the event has a good time. I want to make sure the artist has a good time."
On Dec. 12, McKinney's efforts will culminate in A Fat Ass Rap Show, an end-of-year blowout highlighting Austin's best hip-hop talent. He planned the event with his best friend J Soulja, who he credits for its "retro" name. Deezie Brown and Malik Baptiste headline, while SHXWNFRESH, Free Hamze, Lynn, and McKinney's good friends D.Harmon and Blakchyl round out the bill. Tickets are $10 at the door, but those who bring cans or coats for a donation drive will receive $5 off their cover.
"[We] just wanted to do something for the community and the local hip-hop scene before the year is over," McKinney says of the show.
Music remained a hobby of McKinney's for years before he founded iLL Manner in 2016. An athlete first and foremost, he wore his football uniform while playing percussion in the middle school band's halftime show before landing at Huston-Tillotson University on a basketball scholarship in 2008. While in college, McKinney joined his roommate in planning house parties and working on promotional street teams. He advertised an appearance by Drake at Spiros, now Barbarella, in 2009.
He also made his own beats, which he'd shop around to artists via Twitter DM – a strategy which inspired iLL Manner's formation. "I had to find a different way for me to connect with artists rather than email[ing] beats," McKinney explains. "So I was like, 'Man, what if I started a production company where we can start throwing shows?' I can work with these artists; we can get them paid. I can get paid, and then I can also build that rapport with them."
The producer started booking shows with the shared goal of uplifting his musical friends and increasing chances of getting his own No. 1 record. He entered a challenging market, as Austin's established clubs rarely route up-and-coming touring hip-hop acts from their Houston and Dallas stops.
"I need to just find one venue that can believe in my vision," McKinney recalls thinking. After mutual friend (and house sound engineer) Michael Davis introduced the booker to talent buyer Zach Ernst, Antone's Nightclub became that venue. McKinney first helped organize a Trae tha Truth show at the club in June 2022.
"It was immediately evident that Jamal was incredibly knowledgeable about hip-hop and had a ton of connections both locally and abroad that could help us with booking and promotion," Ernst tells the Chronicle via email. "We have always had luck with old school hip-hop shows at this version of Antone's, particularly Houston artists like Bun B and Devin the Dude." McKinney augmented their repertoire with local acts, as well as big names like Boldy James and Maxo Kream.
"Jamal is the visionary who sees how that all fits into the club's history, and he's got a knack for the artist hospitality that we pride ourselves on at Antone's," Ernst says.
McKinney estimates that he's sold out 15 performances at the venue, including Griselda acts Boldy James and Jay Worthy, Swishahouse mainstay Paul Wall, and viral sex-positive goddess CupcakKe. Three 6 Mafia's DJ Paul played two nights at the space last December, and Slim Thug is slated to hit the stage in January. The partnership has opened the 400-capacity club – and Austin as a whole – up to artists untapped by larger Live Nation-owned venues like Stubb's and Emo's.
"It kind of feels euphoric," McKinney says. "There's no negative stigma; there's no fights or none of that going on. It's all love and support for the local artists there."
Pairing homegrown talent with touring headliners is essential to McKinney's curation process. He tapped sample-loving rising rapper Lynn and self-described "Ratchet Fairy Earth Goddess" Ladi Earth to open for CupcakKe. J Soulja, Austin MC and booker behind the Smoke Out, lends support on most of McKinney's bills – including a recent Hot Summer Nights event at Empire that also featured Mama Duke, Kydd Jones, and Moody Bank$. Not just blending compatible sounds, McKinney also focuses on delivering a captivating visual.
"I have a big imagination, so I really see the shows before it happens," the promoter says. "I see the name on the marquee. I see that artist performing on that stage." The sound and lighting professionals at Antone's help craft his "elegant" display as well. It's this type of thoughtful compassion, the organizer suggests, that's fueled his success in the industry.
"I'm not trying to cross anybody or do bad business," McKinney offers. "I'm willing to connect and take chances and work with different people. I'm not scared to go to a country club or a blues club and be like, 'Hey, I got some dope hip-hop I want to bring over here that could fit y'all's establishment.'"
The entrepreneur pauses. "And we're that guy! And iLL Manner's that brand!"
The receipts don't lie.