SXSW Day 2: Bootlegging and Blog-Rap at the Nah Right And Smoking Section Showcase
Once largely catering to the beards, blazers and glasses indie set, South by Southwest in the last several years has expanded its parameters to become one of the preeminent testing grounds for emerging hip-hop talent. Out of the myriad showcases at SXSW in Austin, Texas, this week, the second annual Grand Ole Party thrown by two hip-hop blogs, Nah Right and Smoking Section, has become one the most prestigious gigs for the rap set. Enlisting some of XXL magazine’s top 10 freshmen for 2010 (J. Cole, Pill, Freddie Gibbs, Wiz Khalifa, Fashawn) and another (Yelawolf) widely considered to be the best young rapper left off the list, this year’s lineup provided a comprehensive sweep of blog-buzzed rappers in six hours or less. Plus, there was free iced tea. Well played, bloggers.
Here were some of the afternoon’s more notable performances.
Yelawolf (2:40 p.m.)
Following Yelawolf’s performance, both John Gotty of Smoking Section and Eskay of Nah Right admitted that they’d mistakenly slotted him far too early in the afternoon. Indeed, the Gadsden, Ala., native illustrated exactly why many regard him as the best white rapper since Eminem. Unfortunately, a last-minute schedule switch meant that most missed one of the most kinetic performances of the day. A blur of nervous energy and double-timed verbal acrobatics, Yelawolf could be very famous very soon. The redneck rapper, sporting floppy jet-black hair with a long rat tail, a nose ring and a loose black tank top that revealed his intricate architecture of tattoos, boasted the energy of a crunk star and the lyrical dexterity of a microphone fiend.
Pausing mid-hook for a dramatic sip of Bud Light, grinding against a girl from the audience while unleashing Tasmanian fast raps, and pantomiming sex with an inflatable bottle of Southern Comfort, Yelawolf was a consummate showman. He rapped with the abandon of the truly un-hinged, with eyes revealing the challenges he’s endured throughout his career — a performance by someone with nothing to lose. But Yelawolf only stood to gain, touting his impressive mix tape “Trunk Muzik” and asking the crowd to “download it — it’s free.” It might well have been a mantra for the assembled performers. With songs about rural Alabama life (box Chevrolets, shotguns, racism and rampant drug use), Yelawolf kept the scant crowd transfixed. When he finished, he let off a massive Ric Flair “whoo,” which was fitting for a champ’s performance.
Fashawn (4 p.m.)
Fashawn is the chosen one among veterans of the West Coast underground looking for the next to anoint, and you could do far worse than the Fresno, Calif.-based rapper. He rhymes with the precision of a chemist, which is fitting for the man who recently collaborated with the venerable Alchemist. Blessed with a natural and fluid style, Fashawn came off like a blend of a young Ras Kass and his mentor, fellow Fresno native Planet Asia. Fashawn is intensely serious onstage, and this demeanor matched lyrics cataloging his Dickensian childhood, born to a drug-addicted mother and an incarcerated father. Or, as he stated, “I’m just trying to survive in these days and time… I’m from where brothers die, every day in CA.” He rapped like a soldier fortified on higher ground, picking off rivals trying to scale the walls — less risky than other forms of combat, but ruthlessly effective.
Pill (4:25 p.m.)
Pill recently signed to Asylum records off the strength of two stellar mix tapes and the poignant video for “Trap Going Ham,” which provided an unflinching window into Atlanta’s impoverished Pink City district. In his furious 25-minute set, Pill, who was introduced by Memphis, Tenn., rap legends 8Ball & MJG, validated the deluge of attention he’s received in the last year. He’s a coiled frenetic whirl of flying dreadlocks and searing intensity; no rapper in recent memory has more fury. Each bar is delivered with the force of someone who remembers every time they’ve been wronged, and with the sublimated pain of one who has turned to rage rather than wallowing. When he delivered “Trap Going Ham,” the backpacks and ball cap-heavy crowd went nuts as though he were the new Onyx. But rather than throw their guns in the air, everyone just lowered their heads and balled up their fists.
Freddie Gibbs (5 p.m.)
It all started one year ago at the Nah Right/Smoking Section party. One of Gibb’s managers met a Smoking Section writer and told him the story of the Gary, Ind.-raised Gibbs, a tale that involves incarceration, addiction and an infinite amount of twists and turns during the journey from the block to the bigs. The Smoking Section became the first to champion Gibbs’ raw reality rap, starting a maelstrom of attention that culminated with him appearing in the pages of the New Yorker as “rap’s one to watch,” and on the XXL Freshmen list as “The Most Slept-On.”
But describing Gibbs as slept-on no longer suffices, as the now L.A.-based MC displayed how far he’s come in the last year. Where his live shows even a few months ago were tentative and chaotic, Gibbs has become a ferocious performer, learning to put the full brunt of his blunt-burned baritone into his delivery. It’s the rap equivalent of a pitcher learning to use his legs and gaining significant mileage on his fastball. And like a pitcher wild enough to instill fear but with enough control to never falter, Gibbs alternated between perfect cadence and pacing, and breaks to ask the audience for blunts. He was wearing a shirt with a picture of a microphone that read: “rap is the only element of hip-hop.” Which is the sort of thing you can get away with only if you’re as good at rapping as Freddie Gibbs.
J. Cole (6:40 p.m.)
A Jay-Z protégé signed to Roc Nation, J. Cole has been generating steady heat within the blogosphere and even prompted Drake to call him this generation’s Nas. Needless to say, the rookie has a long way to go before the comparisons don’t seem like hyperbolic gibberish. Onstage, the clean-cut and boyishly charming rapper offered a likable enough temperament and impressive rhyme ability, but the whole often seemed less than the individual parts. Prone to ungainly and nebulous metaphors about “light,” “clouds,” “sunshine” and “dreams” that sound straight out of a bad freshman year poetry seminar, Cole epitomized the gap between potential and actual greatness. Sorting a letterman’s jacket, he played the part of the slick college freshman all too well — until you looked closely and realized his jacket didn’t have any letters.
Freeway & Jake One (7 p.m.)
Following J. Cole, Jay-Z’s old protégé Freeway outshone his much-touted successor with a blazing, impassioned performance of old tracks such as “1-900 Hustler” and new material from “The Stimulus Package,” his excellent collaboration with Jake One. Rap has always been about intangibles, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Freeway is so exceptional. His lyrics rarely rise above boiler-plate hustler tropes, and his voice is an unorthodox, winded wheeze; but the Philadelphia rapper remains one of the genre’s best. Onstage, the Amish-bearded MC burned with the swagger of a once and future king, wrist glowing, eyes round and hard as marbles, totally focused on transmitting every ounce of every into his raps.
His performance provided a fitting capstone for an impressive showcase that again proved that hip-hop was never dead, just dormant.
— Jeff Weiss