Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski
In 1977, a water skiing Henry Winkler wore a leather coat and life preserver and attempted to ‘jump the shark’ in a move that become synonymous with the beginning of the end of a good thing. In that regard it was the long-running “Happy Days” sitcom. Last week in Austin, Texas, it was the South by Southwest Music conference that took the leap from humble beginnings to corporate cash in it’s own rendition of ‘jumping the shark’. No one pointed it out better than TDE-signee and Oxymoron artist Schoolboy Q, who interrupted his set at the Complex House several times to address several SXSW sets he played for ‘yuppies’ while his real fans stood outside unable to get in. Alas, the 2014 edition of SXSW couldn’t have been described better. An armful of wristbands, garnered through careful planning and RSVPs was instantly trumped by a litany of barriers between them and the artists they had traveled to see. When it began in 1987, the festival was a place for new and unsigned artists to get recognized and for true fans to catch them before they hit the big time. Today, to put it the words of my Journalism professor, it is essentially ‘one big blow job’. Despite a lack of a real industry, or perhaps because of it, record labels funnel top-tier artists to the highest bidders, who more often than not come with long guest lists that leave fans sitting outside wondering where all the public transportation in this ‘city’ is. Even the Illmore, the exclusive house party that has become a staple of the fest, running late into the night with star-studded performance, seemed a bit too big this year in it’s new home at a sterile youth center.
For me, the best part of the week was living vicariously as if the SXSW Schoolboy Q encountered was somewhere else. I hustled interviews with true rising acts in Philadelphia-based Cheers Elephant, who’s onstage presence is obviously culled from years of performing together and who I’m sure saw a significant boost afterwards, The Tontons, a Houston indie/soul group with a personality to match that hit SXSW on the heels of their latest project, the well received Make Out King and Other Stories of Love. Then there was Radkey, the trio of young brothers, aged 16, 18 and 20 respectively who single-handedly got me back into punk rock with one of the wildest, most raw sets I have seen in a long time, and 17-year-old Bishop Nehru who very well may be the second coming of Nas, The Lonely Biscuits, a band of Belmont University students who stopped down to ATX between projects and mid-terms. They weren’t a sit down with Rick Ross, or an in-depth on Phantogram, but the stories I was able to dig up throughout my time at SXSW made me proud to be able to say I saw through the thick haze of bullshit and gerrymandering that descends on the city for a week and actually seek out acts that benefited from the experience.
To be sure, it was two Chicago artists who not only embodied all that SXSW should be, but capitalized on it to continue their independent, organic rises out of their hometown. A year ago, Chance The Rapper ran around SXSW playing sets in anticipation of his yet-to-be-released album, Acid Rap that turned 2013 into a roller coaster of experiences for the 20-year-old MC. At that time, Vic Mensa was still performing as part of the band Kids These Days, which broke up soon after Chance dropped his project on April 30. The two close friends arrived again in Austin at wildly different points in their careers. Chance, with just about every accolade possible under his belt is becoming the biggest independent artist in recent memory, while Mensa, fresh off a plane from Norway, put on a marathon of sets throughout the week that had crowds buzzing in the street about the kid from the Midwest with the funky, different flow to him. Chance’s only show was cut short by Fire Marshalls, an ode to his popularity and a crux of the festival at large while also picking up a Woodie award with Austin Vesely for the “Everybody’s Something” video. As independent, self-funded artists, Chance and Vic may have embodied the spirit of what SXSW is supposed to be better than anyone else in Austin this week.
In 1977, Fonzie made history by ruining a good thing while ten feet in the air on water skis, in 2014 Lady Gaga did the same by performing beneath a carefully-placed canopy of Doritos bags. Corporate money has always been prevalent (early 2000s ‘ringtone rap), and it’s just another chapter in the money making something so genuine so utterly unrecognizable.