Why SXSW Music Still Matters to Texas Rappers

Houston's Trae Tha Truth with Sirius/XM DJ and former MTV VJ Sway at SXSW 2015
Houston's Trae Tha Truth with Sirius/XM DJ and former MTV VJ Sway at SXSW 2015
Photo by Marco Torres

The year hip-hop came to South By Southwest was 1990. It was considered a milestone event for the burgeoning Austin-based festival, which at the time was in its fourth year. A few months prior, the Grammys had begun nominating rap acts for newly minted awards. In the years following, hip-hop has become not only one of the major focuses of the festival, but a watermark for the festival as a whole. Corporate sponsorships have rolled in, and the President delivered a keynote address during Friday’s interactive portion moments after J. Cole performed during a Democratic National Committee fundraiser. SXSW always had a healthy mixture of new fans flocking to Austin every March. It’s become noticeably younger and more party-hungry as social media, word of mouth and the desire for a “big break” have grown.

Artists, namely rap acts, head to SXSW looking like miners, the same sort of individuals who dabbled in transforming their dreams into reality by seeking out gold in the 1840s. They run to Austin with a backpack full of promotional items; flair to bring awareness to their own fledgling talents. CDs will line the pavement of Sixth Street, people will grumble about paying for performances, and only a very select few will end up on this or that website’s post-SXSW Artists to Watch  hit list.

We see it every year, as a gaggle of Houston rappers hits Austin in various caravans of cars looking to score. To them, Austin is still technically home turf, the best proving ground they have to convince strangers and names from Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta. Hip-hop won’t ever die at SXSW, even as the festival continues to move further and further from an incubator for indie artists. Hip-hop will just keep on growing, fostering the dreamers as they pack into venues and post set lists and flyers all over Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

As the hopefuls venture out, and names like Trill Sammy & Dice Soho take their already noticeable buzz beyond Houston and into a week of questions and answers, the feeling remains. Houston rap, despite numerous publications stating the contrary, is still the needle-pusher in the state. Dallas, its closest competitor, is as healthy as it's been in quite some time.

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While Houston and Dallas both share a flair for viral success and capitalizing on constantly shifting human emotions, Houston maintains an advantage that Dallas’s radio circuit has yet to fully tap into — breaking artists nationally. Dallas loves mixing its creativity, enjoying a position as one of the country's more untapped markets. Rappers there still maintain an aura of not necessarily having a sound and operate within themselves to craft something different. Houston puts on for its forefathers and its future. Our acts can be weirdos, but not in the traditional sense. They can be super-gangsters, though more animated than icy. It’s a victory lap for the city, in all honesty. J. Prince is delivering the keynote address this year — the king of the South’s longest-operating independent label, Rap-A-Lot Records, still ticking strong.

In a way, SXSW 2016 proves to be another year when rap, regardless of region or affiliation, should pull in all the headlines. Let’s not be mistaken, though. The homegrown kids who have grown to become neighborhood superstars thanks to Soundcloud, Vine and other spaces are looking for more. They’re hungry and if anything, they’re weary of screwing up in favor of partying and just torching the city with their own color of joy.

Lenny Chao$, Peace & Chaos
What Lenny Chao$ has done in the three years since his last tape was grow. Personally, he understood his nature as a father and solidified the fact that he was the leader of a crew. The Authentic line doesn’t move too far without Chao$, and Peace & Chaos is proof. It’s Lenny’s best work, a bubble-eyed Dodge Charger of spaced-out raps and ideas and assertions of power. “Foreign” with T. Guy, Chao$’s solid single from a year back, is here along with 14 other records, one of them even sampling Streetwise. The best part about the time spent between projects? Lenny Chao$ learned how to master making near-radio records.

Rascal F. Kennedy, Diary of a Kool Kid
Long-overdue rap tapes coming right before SXSW make perfect sense. Rascal F. Kennedy has been making the rounds with a string of singles from Diary of a Kool Kid; now, with the full project out, he’s shifted the conversation a bit. His second-delay rhyme pattern is littered all over DKK, from “Gold Spokes” to "Herbitual Healing,” and it manifests in a press-go-when-you-really-need-to approach.  The occasional bar for bar display makes appearances whenever Yung Knight’s on the boards, but for everyone else? Rascal’s about as chill as you can be, dropping his idea of cool-kid wisdom while the beat stays just ahead of him.

Bobby Earth, Tope Raps Vol. 1
Counting the many hats Bobby Earth wears would be a fun exercise. He’s one of the many voices of The Milky Wayv, a funk-love exercise of modern romance. He’s also one of the few producers in Houston who can pull chameleon-like moves with sparse production and swallowed-up bass and hi-hats (see his “Smoke Me Up” collaboration with LOE). Tope Raps Vol. 1 mixes both light and dark. He works with proto-revolutionaries in the always opinionated Brice Blanco, plus good friends Chase of Nazareth and Calenta, for three of the tape’s four tracks. Blanco’s “Potholes” runs through programmed drums and the rapper acting more like a boogeyman of the future than a modern-day man in the middle. Earth’s highlight on Tope Raps Vol. 1 belongs to Tim Woods’s “Birds & Bees," a weed song that could double as the theme for High Times or any show about marijuana on VICELAND.


SONGS OF THE WEEK

Paul Wall feat. Slim Thug, J-Dawg, Lil Keke, Z-Ro & Chamillionaire, “Swangin’ In The Rain (Remix)”
There are multiple ways to spin Paul Wall’s “Swangin In The Rain (Remix)." One way? Commission another one where Scoop Deville takes a '70s soul record and gives runway clearance for any of Houston’s younger acts to take off. The other? To enjoy the fact that we got Wall and Chamillionaire on a track together over a sample of The Dramatics’ “In the Rain,” plus Slim Thug, Z-Ro, Lil Keke and J-Dawg talking car culture and cash-money shit as only they can.

Rayface feat. Master P, “Bout It”
Some Houston rap cuts take a while before they take off. For example, Lil’ O’s “Hi Side” is currently one of the city's stronger tracks, and it's been hovering around the club scene for a minute. Rayface’s “Bout It” appeared last September, on the rapper’s Chronic Ambition tape hosted by DJ Mr. Rogers and Bigga Rankin. Now a supersized remix from Master P himself has pushed the record, a straightforward song about being the boss and not taking shit from anybody, back into rotation.

Tim Woods, “Bak N Town”
Label rumors may be swirling around Tim Woods, but he’s pretty aloof at letting the public know any of them. “Bak N Town” feels like Can’t Hardly Wait, except he's not looking for love and just wants to turn up with his friends. It takes every party aesthetic you’d want (old white people dancing, women in bikinis in the pool) and makes Tim Woods the center of it all. He knows a good time and as he ventures down the road, he’s going to share that joy with everybody.


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