Surprisingly enough, the current environment of SXSW isn’t too friendly to the world of rock music. The pervasive corporate sponsorship and twenty minute sets seem to take their toll on a lot of artists and consequently their sets often suffer from bad attitudes and disappointingly short run times that lead to awkward ego clashing between event organizers and the musicians they hired to play. With this in mind, a lot of the hip-hop sets (which required less set up and are already generally more open to corporate environments) seemed to play a lot better to more enthusiastic and satisfied crowds. SXSW has become a breeding ground for up-and-coming rappers to truly make a name for themselves. Here’s some of the more exciting up-and-comers who made waves in Austin this year, for better or worse.
Antwon played a fun but relatively low-key Wednesday afternoon set at Hype Machine’s Taco Bell sponsored “Hype Hotel.” The Greedhead MC is notable for his slick wordplay and pop-culture references, most of which was drowned out by the heavy bass of his DJ’s thumping beats. Antwon seemed a little bit worn down and not as energetic as one would expect based off popular bangers like “Helicopter” (which was curiously absent from his setlist). Still, he got the still relatively sparse early afternoon crowd excited with good vibes and some hilarious quips. Antwon (who, to be honest, is sort of a big dude) was quick to complement Taco Bell and express his seemingly genuine excitement for the new Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco. He also talked about how much he appreciated regional fast food chain Whataburger before dissing his California’s own In-N-Out burger chain with a forceful chant of “Fuck In-N-Out!” Antwon could have brought a more impressive set of songs and a little more showmanship to his Hype Hotel performance but his charisma and humor helped him shine through just as well.
One of the lesser known acts playing Thrasher’s Death Match party on Wednesday night, World’s Fair hip-hop collective showed off an impressive amount of energy, style and confidence. Powerful beats, varied on-stage personalities and awesome chemistry between members all combined into a set that got the crowd really hyped up. Their sound is reminiscent of recent output from the TDE crew but is still unique enough that they should pretty easily make a name for themselves as their star grows brighter. They might not be quite ready for prime-time but don’t be surprised if you see their name ranked a little bit higher on the party lineups at SXSW 2014.
Easily the most anticipated hip-hop act playing Thrasher’s Death Match Party on Wednesday was Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt. Acts like Mac DeMarco and DIIV were unannounced addition’s to the night’s lineup and while they played great sets it was clear that a lot of people were getting frustrated by how much longer they had to wait for Earl. When he finally emerged from backstage (with his temporary house DJ Flying Lotus and Odd Future friend Domo Genesis in two) the crowd went absolutely nuts. He ran through his recently released singles “Chum” and “Whoa” as well as some great sounding new material (one Pharrell produced track was a particular standout) before closing things out with a performance of his signature track “Earl.” Earl showed newfound on-stage confidence that wasn’t present in his earlier, understandably timid live appearances last year. Earl was, for lack of a better word, cool and the crowd loved him. Despite a much delayed and all too short set, Earl Sweatshirt was the clear MVP of the night and SXSW in general.
Decked out in a leather jacket covered in characters from the popular anime Bleach, Mykki Blanco took the stage to a decent sized crowd at Mad Decent’s Thursday night party. Less than halfway through the first song, Blanco was already completely shirtless and using the microphone stand as an impromptu performance prop. It was almost impossible to not crack a smile as he pranced around the stage, riding the mic stand like a horse and performing a variety of his more popular youtube hits. The sound mix had his vocals pretty low so it was more about atmosphere than rhymes outside of one particular moment where the beat cut out and Blanco went on a semi-freestyle rant that was very impressive. Blanco walks the line between awesome performer and legitimate mental patient with grace and poise, his performance was one of the hip-hop highlights of the festival.
Later in the night at the Mad Decent party, Riff-Raff performed to a large and anxious crowd. The sound was terrible (sometimes it seemed like the mic wasn’t even on), the DJ couldn’t keep up with Riff’s stage cues and he only performed for maybe 15 minutes before walking off the stage unceremoniously but none of this seemed to matter as the crowd shrieked with excitement at every little move he made. Judging by how many people knew all of the words to songs like “Panomera 911” and “Cuz My Gear” there were clearly a lot of hardcore fans in the audience that night and their energy along with Riff-Raff’s generally bizarre appearance/demeanor (he took a minute during a particularly rowdy song to hand off his purple diamond-encrusted Cheshire Cat chain to his massive security guard) made this one of the more memorable performances of the week.
Kitty Pryde (but maybe just known as Kitty now…sometimes)
It’s a struggle to label Kitty s performance at Hype Hotel’s day party on Friday as anything other than a complete disaster. It wasn’t really Kitty’s fault; she was bubbly, energetic and appropriately self-deprecating. For someone who is commonly mislabeled as a joke rapper, her rhymes were varied and often impressive. Unfortunately, the crowd wasn’t feeling it at all. She could barely muster up any applause and things only got more and more awkward as the set went along. As the songs got more hype, the crowd only grew more and more unreceptive. It seemed like by the time the set wrapped up, Kitty had lost faith in her own material and it was hard not to feel bad as she apologized to the crowd and literally ran off the stage. Oof.
The Viceland Friday night party was full of great up and coming hip-hop acts but one of the clear standout performances came from New York weirdo rap trio Flatbush Zombies. Performing songs from their “D.R.U.G.S.” mixtape as well as new songs like “MRAZ,” the boys vocals were clearly wrecked from a week full of sets but they still managed to get the crowd to go absolutely crazy for their unique brand of hip-hop. When they took time midway through their set to jam out to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before jumping out into the crowd to start a brutal mosh pit, it was easy to feel sort of inspired. One guy in the front of the crowd was amazed by what he had just seen, giddy with excitement as he and a friend ran through their favorite moments of the set. It was only a short moment later that the same kid was screaming “what the fuck!?” as he got beaned right in the nose with a hot waffle wrapped in foil. “Who the fuck threw that?” he shouted before he looked up and realized that Flatbush Zombies had returned to the stage to throw out free waffles into the crowd. As the kid realized what had happened, he and the rest of the crowd descended onto the breakfast treats with the ferociousness of lions going in for the kill. As the dough and foil sprayed out of their mouths, it was clear a new age of hip-hop had arrived.
By Nathan Kerce
(Antwon photo credit: Nathan Kerce)