- By Deborah Sengupta Stith American-Statesman Staff
With Sunday’s announcement of Atlanta rapper Ludacris’ headline spot Saturday on the Doritos Stage, and Monday's news that Jay-Z and Kanye West will play a Samsung show and the fest will host a featured interview with Lil Wayne, the roster of high-profile hip-hop acts heading to the 2014 South by Southwest Music Festival just gets bigger.
Superstar rappers Wiz Khalifa, 50 Cent and last year’s breakout artist Kendrick Lamar were all added to the lineup in the past 10 days, while genre kingpins Nas and Mobb Deep have fallen into solid time slots. Underground lifers such as Oakland hip-hop crew Hieroglyphics are heading here, as are young upstarts NYC’s A$AP Mob, who stormed the scene a few years back and fought their way to the top. Brian Hobbs, the festival programmer who oversees the rap bookings, says roughly 500 hip-hop acts will be here, which is more than 20 percent of the 2,364 acts (as of Monday morning) coming to SXSW 2014.
For the past five years, hip-hop bookings and superstar drop-ins have had a dominant presence at SXSW both on the ground and in social media spheres, but the genre’s ascendance is relatively new.
“It’s a huge, huge debt of gratitude that I owe to Matt (Sonzala) for all he did for hip-hop at SXSW,” Hobbs said recently. “It blew up because Matt worked super hard at it to make that happen.”
Sonzala, a blogger and promoter largely credited with bringing national attention to the Houston rap scene in the early- to mid-aughts, helped out with a few hip-hop shows at SXSW in the mid-’90s. He began to formally handle some bookings in 2004, including a showcase of Houston heavyweights with Bun B., Chamillionaire and Paul Wall. The rappers had never heard of SXSW, but they trusted Sonzala, who insisted that it was one of the most important music events that happened in their home state.
“When they came, their eyes opened immediately,” Sonzala said. “They couldn’t believe it and they were super stoked. They were like, ‘How did we not know about this?’”
From that point Sonzala pushed to expand the presence of hip-hop at the fest. Initially he was met with resistance from all directions. One label exec dismissed SXSW as a “little hippie festival,” while venues and sponsors contended the event was at its heart a rock festival. Sonzala was undeterred.
In the pre-social media era, he pounded the pavement, pasting up fliers for his showcases, going above and beyond to ensure crowds would turn up. The festival directors were impressed enough to bring Sonzala on full time, and in 2007 he moved to Austin to take a job as a festival programmer, a position he held until 2012. But even as late as 2009, Sonzala said, SXSW bosses remained unconvinced of the genre’s strength at the festival. He said festival creative director Brent Grulke, who died in 2012, encouraged Sonzala to divert some of his focus away from hip-hop, saying “We don’t have the audience for it.”
But that year, festival dynamics underwent a seismic shift. That was when Kanye West, one of rap’s greatest celebrities, dropped in at the Fader Fort for a showcase that included appearances from Common, Erykah Badu and fledgling R&B singer Janelle Monae.
“It felt like a big momentum changer,” Fader executive editor Jessica Robertson said last week. West, already a Grammy-winning superstar, was coming into his own as an artist. At the same time the presence of huge brands at the fest was skyrocketing. Clothing companies, technology companies, snack food companies, you name it, were all competing to bring in big-name artists to capitalize on the intangible quality of cool that South by Southwest had to offer.
“It happens to be that some of the biggest pop stars today, interestingly enough, are hip-hop names,” Robertson said.
After West returned to Austin during the 2011 fest for an unofficial show with Jay-Z at the Seaholm Power Plant, everyone was paying attention. The next year, putting together a Shady Records showcase was an easy sell for Sonzala. “The guy from Shady said if Jay-Z and Kanye are doing it, Eminem needs to be there,” he said.
Beyond the parade of celebrity shows that arguably draw far too much of the limelight, Sonzala also worked to grow the overall presence of hip-hop at the festival, and Hobbs has followed his lead. The array of hip-hop shows at the 2014 festival is striking. It seems like every rap subgenre is represented. On Tuesday, a nerdcore showcase will have rappers such as MC Lars and MC Frontalot pontificating on science and technology at Flamingo Cantina. On Thursday, the Paid Dues: Independence Day showcase at the Scoot Inn celebrates underground artists such as California artists Murs and Nipsey Hussle, who have made waves in hip-hop with no major label support. On Friday, Avenue on Congress Rooftop celebrates New Orleans bounce music with a showcase headlined by Katey Red, who originated the “sissy bounce” subgenre.
Since SXSW was founded as a discovery festival, it’s important not to overlook the up-and-comers. Here are a few picks for this year’s breakout hip-hop artists from those in the know.
Isaiah Rashad: He’s gonna be a star next year. He’s lyrical and he’s got a really smooth flow. And I think he brings something completely different to (the Top Dawg Entertainment) crew and it stands out a lot.
Rittz: Ever since he signed with Strange Music he’s been shooting off like a rocket. His last album, “The Life and Times of Johnny Valiant,” was great. There’s nobody you can compare to Rittz. I think that’s the thing people like about him so much. He’s just completely in his own lane and he’s awesome.
Maxo Kream: As far as the new young guys, he’s got a crazy fan base, he’s got his own sound and he’s bringing gangsta music back for real. It’s nothing like anyone else out right now, real sinister sounding beats.
League of Extraordinary G’z: In my opinion they’re just one of the best groups in rap in Texas or anywhere. They’re some of the best rappers rapping. All of them are strong and they kind of have that harder edge that I like.
Worldwide: Lyrically and vibe-wise he’s just like a classic rapper, a golden era Southern rapper.
Young Thug: I think he’s probably one of the most exciting hip-hop artists right now. He’s just such an interesting character. He’s incredibly eclectic. Some people like to compare him to Lil Wayne, but he’s just doing these really interesting things with his music and even with his vocals and lyrics.
Vic Mensa: Out of Chicago, he’s a nice counterpart to Chance the Rapper. He also has that weird interesting eclectic thing happening, too. I love hip-hop that’s sort of on the fringe. Hip-hop that takes chances.
Speaking of celebrities …
The superstars are already here. On Sunday night Johnny Depp surprised audiences at Rodeo Austin by sitting in on guitar with Willie Nelson. Willie, in turn, surprised the crowd at Threadgill’s, showing up at a film party to play with Ray Benson. The big news from Sunday night, however, was teen sensation turned 20-year-old bad boy Justin Bieber turning up at Banger’s on Rainey Street for a pop-up concert. More on that in today’s SXSW pages in the Metro section.