Hip-Hop has had a presence at South By Southwest for a long time, but my how things done changed. Here's a look at how rap has evolved at the festival over the last 14 years.
I moved to Austin in the late summer of 1998 to go to the University of Texas. At that time Austin was very much on its underground hip-hop shit, in large part because of the student population and its more left-leaning tendencies. I remember some the big shows that fall were being thrown by the Hip Hop Mecca crew. Some of my favorite memories of that time were overcrowded shows at the Electric Lounge (302 Bowie); it’s now a block of condos, but at the time, it was where we went to see M.O.P., Mixmaster Mike, Blackalicious, Latyrx, DJ Quest, A.T.U., Medusa, Rifleman, Busdriver, and more. We’d cop a case of tall boys off East Riverside, smash that shit like only 19-year-olds could, and then hit the show—maybe losing a friend in the process. The point is that as far as rap shows went, Austin was definitely a lot more “real hip-hop” friendly. Yeah, there was some street stuff too, but people thought you were crazy to go east of I-35 at the time.
In the spring of 2000, I decided to make it to my first SXSW. I mobbed down and stayed on my homie's couch in west campus. Hip-Hop Mecca was doing the rap lineups. There was some stuff happening outside of that—maybe Botany Boyz way out on East Riverside—but that was too deep for drunk college kids. The focus of SXSW was indie rock, mostly, none of the SXSW Interactive wait-in-line-to-talk-about-being-a-nerd-with-nerds-type shit. At that time, the focus was going to shit like this:
This shit was super on that "Four Elements" shit. Remember, this was the year 2000; underground hip-hop was how you picked your friends. You judged everyone you met based on what kind of tapes they were rocking. No one gave a shit about what CD you had, and CD burners were still expensive. Napster was barely a year old. So the easiest way to get some rap shit was still on cassettes.
After that year I moved out of Texas and wasn’t really hitting SXSW for a few years, unless it was a one-off when I was passing through town during that week. Around 2005, rap blogger and radio DJ Matt Sonzala was in Houston (he now lives in Austin) and decided to start working with SXSW to do some shows that showcased more Texas rap. It was during the rise of Houston rap on the national level, so it seemed like an ideal place to present it to all the carpetbaggers from NYC. This was the beginning of SXSW attempting to really showcase a broader range of rap than the college radio-friendly type shit. A lot of artists in Texas had no idea that this conference was happening just a couple hours away from Houston; Austin was a whole world away.
After 2005, Hip-Hop at SXSW continued to grow with the conference. Sonzala got hired full time by the festival, and worked with them to really expand the genre's presence as an integral part of the event. After that year, I went consistently until about 2012. It was the best place to see a grip of rappers that most likely would never make it to my part of the country. It would be crazy: running from venue to venue, partying all day and night, losing the shit out of your voice. Fader Fort was happening in a mud-soaked backyard then. We had no idea it would turn into its own mini-festival on the east side.
But it did seem that SXSW would just grow exponentially after 2008. Venues would come and go as they somtimes do, but every year, more people would come, and more rappers would show. Major label artists began to attend a lot more, which brought more corporate money. The labels were always there trying to flash on new artists. But there was no fucking Doritos Stage. Mountain Dew wasn’t filming a Lil Wayne X-games commercial.
As SXSW grew, so did other aspects of it. The SXSW Interactive nerds blew up, and slowly started drifting over into the music week. There seemed to be an influx of people who went to drink at a party that happened to have music, more than to actually give a fuck about the music. You had a sea of people staring at a hardcore band in terror, all for some free Budweiser.
As much as I might have issues with the softness of some of the audiences, it was still a place to see a lot of rap over a few days. I saw the whole TDE camp perform in a back yard, Killer Mike & El-P, and Mobb Deep all on the same block, but running over to another club, hoping to catch a Juvenile show in-between sets. Juve never showed, but I did get to take a photo with 8Ball and see underground Memphis rappers I never thought I’d get to see perform live. Texas is still repping at the festival, but now you have Atlanta artists like Young Thug and Future. Chicago hip-hop is attending in full force. Fucking Gunplay went last year, which was a heartbreaker for me to miss out on.
SXSW has now become an integral cog in the hip-hop hype machine. From the humble beginnings of independent rap to getting Diddy on stage with Lil B for your twitpic. When it comes to rap shows at SXSW, some of the best took place when real people were in attendance, not some industry-ass bullshit. I don’t want to see 2 Live Crew on stage with pancake booty from New York. I want to see Big Tuck and Tum Tum with people who know the words and actually have some passion for them. My wife told me during her first trip to SXSW, “this is Disneyland for people who love music,” and somewhere in the mega-festival that it’s become, I think that’s still true. Maybe the SXSW organizers should take a page from Disney's playbook and remember, "It's a small world after all."
Sergio Ornelas (@SergDun) is a writer/hater born in Mexico, bred in Texas and currently hating in San Francisco. When he's not doing his rap podcast, Stay Hatin, or contributing to Complex's Deep Cuts, he enjoys agitating people with obscenities, rejecting religious values, and sour beers.