SXSW 2019: In ReviewWritten by Chi Chi Thalken on March 18, 2019
Monday, March 11th
Monday is something of a soft opening for the Music portion of SXSW, so the schedule wasn’t jam packed with choices, but that doesn’t mean that wasn’t anything to see. At the Empire Control Room, the Keep It Local showcase was going down. I got there in time to first see NickNack spin some records. NickNack has been an Austin-based DJ and producer for years. If you’re familiar with some of his albums, you might think of him as an artist who makes chilled out, jazzy downtempo records. Or at least that’s how I think of him. This is to say that I was just a little taken back at first when he started a much more heavier and livelier set of dance and hip hop records. Once the initial shock wore off, I was able to enjoy the set for what it was, which was incredibly fun and danceable, and it certainly got the crowd moving their feet. Another longtime Austin artist, Bavu Blakes, was there as sort of the host of the event, which meant that the emcee not only served as NickNack’s hype man, he actually jumped on and performed a few songs, including a freestyle with the sung hook, “You need me on the mic,” which served as a reminder of just how talented he is, and that he doesn’t get the shine that he deserves. After NickNack came another Austin institution, DJ Mel. Mel might be most famous for deejaying Obama’s inauguration, but if you talk to anybody who lived in Austin from the late ‘90s through the ‘00s, they can tell you how instrumental Mel was in creating a substantial deejay scene in Austin, especially through his sweaty dance parties at Nasty’s (RIP) and his rotating “Rock the Casbah” shows. His set at Empire Control room was like a Master class, mixing in just the right amount of obscure and familiar funk, disco, dance, and hip hop to make sure every single person in the venue was dancing to the beat.
Tuesday, March 12th
Sometimes during a festival like SXSW, you can feel overwhelmed with emails and social media when everyone is inviting you to their thing, which features the next big thing that can’t be missed. Every once in a while, though, you look at you phone at just the right time and notice an old friend is deejaying right during a window you had open in your schedule. In this case, DJ Dan Gentile of Flying Turns was spinning records at Whisler’s during the afternoon as part of the Localeur party happening there, so I was able to appreciate a great mix of soul, disco, R&B, and beyond while enjoying some delicious cocktails before grabbing dinner and heading out for the evening showcases.
Tuesday evening was all about one particularly awesome and odd bill, which took place at the Clive Bar, where Showtime was promoting Season 2 of The Chi. First up was Chicago-based duo, DRAMA. The group, consisting of vocalist Via Rosa and producer Na’el Shehade, delivered an enjoyable set of electro-R&B songs. They could use a little work on making their hooks stand out a little more and adding a little more variety to their set, but overall they were solid and gave a good performance. After that came the most blatant promotion of the evening, when Jacob Lattimore took the stage. If you’re not familiar with him, he plays the role of Emmett on The Chi, and apparently is also an aspiring R&B singer. If ever I stepped into industry showcase hell, this was it. Lattimore is young and good looking, and he can dance, but every time he pulled off a dance move, he would make a face at the audience like he couldn’t believe he just did that, or that he was just joking. It got old really fast. The only thing that got older faster was the music itself. The lyrics felt like someone was just playing R&B Mad Libs, with generic romantic sentiments with just a touch of sexism spread throughout. On top of that, he often couldn’t sing the hooks live, relying on vocal tracks to carry him through the tougher notes while he danced and acted a fool. It was so bad, the three songs he performed felt like an eternity. When I look back at my notes for the evening, next to his name I simply wrote, “NO.”
After that, the real treat of the evening came. Sometimes during SXSW, there will be “secret” shows, and people will stand in line for hours and jump through hoops just to see a big name act play a big stage like you could during their normal tour. Every once in a while, though, you might come across the opportunity to see a legendary performer play in a venue that’s about ten sizes smaller than their usual booking. On this particular evening, everyone at Clive Bar was privy to such a treat when the one and only Mavis Staples took the stage. Even at age 79, Staples is able to create and sing music that cuts through all the noise and speaks directly to you about issues like race and social justice. She didn’t play any classics like “I’ll Take You There,” but her run of releases this decade is so strong, when I heard her sing with soul and passion on a song like “Love and Trust,” I didn’t really care that she didn’t get to any of the hits of yesteryear. Her band was talented and tight as could be, and Mavis is one of the most singular talents to have emerged in pop music over the last century. In this moment, through her voice, I was confronted with the deepest pains of the oppressed, but also present with the love and hope that has helped her and others like her persevere and make this a better world in which to live.
Austin-based group Magna Carda was faced with the daunting task of following Mavis Staples on stage at Clive Bar, but after a song or two they were able to shake off any nerves they might have felt and just took advantage of the captive audience and just presented the best version of themselves, mixing in older songs along with songs from their new EP, Ladee. While the lineup has shifted a little over the years, they currently feature drums and guitar alongside the two mainstays, keyboardist/producer Dougie Do and emcee Meggz Kelli. The grooves and vibes were incredibly tight, the storytelling was right on, and they did a great job of drawing the audience in, even getting a little participation going at the end of the set.
Following Magna Carda was the one and only Spinderella, who came out to do a deejay set. As one of the most prominent female deejays in hip hop, it was great to see her after all these years still on top of her game, having a great time mixing and scratching, playing everything new and old, obscure and classic, and certainly not afraid to play some Salt-N-Pepa to get the crowd worked up into a frenzy. It was a great way to end Tuesday.
Wednesday, March 13th
During the day, there were a couple of good hip hop book presentations to be found, first with Roy Christopher discussing his new book, Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines The Future, and then with Vikki Tobak, who was there to discuss her 2018 book, Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop. Christopher led a discussion that focused on the topics covered in his book, which meant covering such subject material as transient memory, hacking, and talking to the dead. With Tobak, the discussion obviously shifted to photography, with Tobak making the case for professional photographers versus the Instragram/Camera phone era we are in now, and how important it is for photographers to fully integrate themselves into a scene before they can accurately shoot and portray artists with their photos.
Wednesday evening meant that there was only one place to be, which was Bangers on Rainey St. The evening began with Leikeli47, who came out in her trademark bandana mask and started in on a high energy set. After her first song, she remarked to the crowd that she didn’t like the barrier between the stage and the audience. Just a couple of songs later, and she came off stage and started rapping in the middle of the audience. The whole set was just bursting with energy, and she continued her audience interaction, pulling up some audience members to show us their fiercest moves for “Look.” It was a great way to start the night. After that was Black Puma, the Austin-based soul project from Eric Burton and Grupo Fantasma’s Adrian Queasada. While not quite up there with some of Quesada’s other projects, it’s hard to argue with some solid throwback soul, and Black Puma delivered that quite nicely. Next on the bill for the evening was Open Mike Eagle, who delivered a great set of unapologetic art rap, hitting on material from Brickbody Kids Still Daydream, Dark Comedy, Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes, and even a song from his upcoming Comedy Central project, The New Negroes, which is set to debut on April 19th. Finally, the headliners for the evening were the one and only De La Soul. The trio of Posdnous, Trugoy, and DJ Maseo came out and gave the audience a hip hop master class, performing songs from just about every release of their thirty year career, although noticeably missing songs from their most recent album, and the Anonymous Nobody. As to be expected, they thanked the audience numerous times in between songs for supporting them in their ongoing fight with Tommy Boy as they try to reach a fair agreement to re-release their back catalogue to take them into the digital age. Or, as Trugoy and Posdnous put it, they were trying to preserve their legacy and provide for the children’s future, and all Tommy Boy was offering was a baloney sandwich. Also promising was a pledge from Maseo that new music was around the corner, including a collaboration with Pete Rock and Prince Paul, and a third AOI album. As their set came to a close, Trugoy reminded the audience that their claim to the title of greatest hip hop of all time came not only from the quality of their music, but from the fact that they’ve been doing this for thirty years straight, and that before you talk about any other groups in terms of being the greatest, such as “The Migos,” they need to be around for 31 years first.
Thursday, March 14th
Thursday was of course the day of our unofficial showcase, Scratched Vinyl & Hip Hop Hooray Presents…7! Everything went off without a hitch, every single act brought it, and the audience was as amazing as ever. With that said, big thanks go to the entire staff at Dive Bar, Miss Manner and Hip Hop Hooray, Alex Moran for running sound, DJ Yoshi Fuerte for helping with equipment needs, and an extra thanks to all the acts that graced the stage: Schaffer the Darklord, Backburner, Lex the Lexicon Artist, Protextor, Flobama, Kadesh Flow, Krudas Cubensi, Nick Cruz, scuare x no1mportant, MexStep, Turtle, Myk Mansun, and Acid Reign.
That evening was spent at Cheer Up Charlie’s, where the Nylon/She Shreds showcase was happening. On the outside stage was Megan Thee Stallion from Houston, who is certainly picking up a lot of hype, and she absolutely has stage presence, charisma, and fashion sense for days. Following her was Leikeli47, who I now got to see in a slightly more intimate setting with better sound, which just made her set pop even more than the night before. After that was Sneaks, who delivered a solid set comprised of mostly new material from her album, Highway Hypnosis. However, outside of a couple of songs on that album, the minimal and experimental dub nature of the album didn’t translate that well to an outside stage following such energetic acts. After that, it was across the street to Stubb’s for Lizzo. Longtime readers will know that we at Scratched Vinyl have been down with Lizzo for a long time and watching her transition into a major pop star has been fascinating. While she’s not rapping as much as she did on Lizzobangers, she’s managed to stay truer to herself than most artists making this transition – she’s traveling with the same crew she always has, working with an all-women team, hiring plus-sied dancers, preaching self-love, calling out the patriarchy, playing the flute, and just being entertaining as hell. I mean, she got the entire audience at Stubb’s to cheer her back fat. That’s awesome.
Friday, March 15th
Just about every year at SXSW, you can bet that one night of the festival just won’’t work for you. For me, in 2019, that day came on Friday. I don’t need to waste your time explaining miscommunications, traffic jams, and technology failures, though. Let’s just focus on the handful of highlights from the day. First was Earoh and Rhys Langston at Scratchouse Backyard. Earoh had a short and solid beat set, but not nearly enough time and space to relay the strength of his debut album from last year, Ambien Moon. Rhys Langston had a little more room to breath with his set, and he was able to win over a lot of potential fans over the course of his set, which drew from his 2017 release, Aggressively Ethnically Ambiguous, with some good production, accessible hooks, and lyrical depth. From there, it was off to far east Austin to the Doris Miller Auditorium for Dynasty. If it wasn’t for Google Maps, I might have missed the location all together, since it wasn’t well lit from the outside and it wasn’t near anything else that was participating in the festival. However, once I got inside, Dynasty was on stage with a six piece band absolutely radiating with charisma as she gave a short but soulful set of hip hop and R&B that felt like it was over just as it was getting started. Hopefully she will tour in the near future, because not nearly enough people got to see her, and she needed a set that was about five times as long to show us all that she was capable of.
Saturday, March 16th
Saturday afternoon began at Native Hostel, which was an overwhelming place with a million rooms with different things going on, including a backyard with a halfpipe, food trucks, and pop up shops, but once I found the stage, it was time for Vapor Caves. The Austin duo, consisting of Yadira Brown from Keeper on vocals and BoomBaptist on the beats, delivered a solid set of funk, hip hop, and R&B from their upcoming album, along with a couple of covers including Rick James’ “Mary Jane.” It was their original material, though, that really stood out, including “Bitch to the Boys.” After Vapor Caves was Magna Carda, who once again delivered on stage, this time with much less pressure on them.
Saturday evening began at Lucille on Rainey Street with Brazilian artists Luedji Luna & DJ Nyack. Luna is a deceptive artist, in that her music sounds like a pleasant and laidback style of R&B, which might lead you to believe that she’s writing simple or generic love songs. This couldn’t be further from what was actually happening on stage, however, as Luna challenged her audience with politically charged songs about people like Marielle Franco, a politician and activist in Rio de Janeiro murdered by the police in 2018. She took time in between songs to educate the audience, letting them know that her album for the Black diaspora, connecting the dots between the struggle in Brazil and the U.S. and beyond. Furthering this connection, she was joined on stage by Detroit artist Illa J for several songs.
From there, it was down to Flamingo Cantina for the Nerdcore showcase. Things started with Lex the Lexicon Artist, who rolled through songs like “Peep Game” and “Artist Anthem” with a ton of energy, the perfect artist to get the audience hyped for the rest of the evening. After her was Shubzilla & Bill Beats, who brought a full horn section along with them. It should be noted that Shubzilla was visibly pregnant while she performed, but it didn’t slow her down for one second, even jumping into the audience during “Necklace.” She also challenged the mostly white audience as a woman of color, at one point reminding all the white people in the venue who might be uncomfortable with listening to a song about oppression, “You have a shit ton of comfort vs. two minutes of oppression!”
After Shubzilla, it was a quick trot around the corner to The Main (fka Emo’s) for New Fame. The Texas/Vietnam-based duo came at the audience with unrelenting energy over the course of their set, singing and rhyming with great chemistry, and working the audience into a frenzy. It quickly became apparent why this group has earned their reputation around their live shows.
After that, it was back to Flamingo Cantina for Schaffer the Darklord, who performed a lot of his classic material, including “Yes,” a song written about consent, ending with a message to the audience to “Believe women, don’t be a dick.” That paved the way for MC Frontalot, who performed with his band, mixing in a lot of his classics with some material from his new album, Net Split. After that was Toronto’s More or Les, who experimented with performing with a projector providing visuals behind him while he delivered songs from his recent release, Nerdlove. This led to his fellow Back Burner artist Jesse Dangerously’s new group with producer Liz Grove, Danger Grove, who performed songs from their brilliant album, Want, For Nothing. The evening ended on a little bit of an odd note, as Vancouver’s Psybo took the stage. I understand the booking from the point of view that there is a Back Burner affiliation, and their comeback release of Wherewithal in 2018 was very much in line with what More or Les and Danger Grove where putting down. However, when they took the stage, they started in on a very low energy dub/reggae/hip hop set that just completely shifted the vibe of the entire night. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t all that fun or exciting, either. More than anything, it was just a weird choice and an odd note to end the festival on.