South By Southwest's Hip-Hop Takeover: Did Rap Trump Rock This Year? (Opinion)

Lil' Wayne, Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, T.I. and Wiz Khalifa were just some of the hip-hop heavies who turned big corporate bucks into headlining gigs at the 2012 music conference.
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In continuing conversations about last week's South by Southwest music conference in Austin, TX, many have noted a heavier hip-hop presence than in years past. Indeed, it's a quantifiable difference as a bevy of big names including Lil' Wayne, Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, T.I. and Timbaland flew out for performances at the weeklong festival, while even more up-and-comers ground it out all week long in hopes of introducing a broader audience to their music and gaining some traction.

All that happened -- marquee acts who can sell out arenas drew thousands to club gigs, while upstarts rode their coattails squeezing every ounce of promotion possible -- but is there deeper meaning to be found in it? I started asking around.

After catching a late-night set by Juicy J, the Academy Award-winning member of the rap duo Three 6 Mafia, I grabbed the ear of a Los Angeles-based writer and blogger who’s well versed with hip-hop, and asked him in plain terms what this all meant in the broader context of SXSW. Yards away, newly minted star Wiz Khalifa and a crew (the "Taylor Gang") of about a dozen more, rapped, crowd surfed and just generally raved with cocksure intensity, while offstage, the energy was echoed tenfold by the audience, desperately pining for more.

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The success of particular genres comes in waves, the writer told me, and it just so happens that rap and hip-hop are good again -- not necessarily in the mainstream but on the street level. In turn, rock music has taken a hit and is suffering from a loss of identity. No kidding -- today, even in the live music capital of Austin, it would be hard to imagine any rock band getting the sort of reaction those MCs mustered.

I'd heard this rock-versus-rap argument the previous night, in fact, from a friend from the U.K. who works at a large independent publishing company there. Watching Brooklyn rapper Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire getting lively, moshing in the audience and just generally tearing it up in the best of ways, she said to me, "You'd never see a guitar rock band do that," adding the sentiment, "This is just way more fun."

It's true. With all the rock shows I saw in Austin and in Los Angeles lately, only a select few compare to the sort of energy hip-hop acts bring when they play live. At rock shows, you’ll see people mostly nodding their heads with their arms crossed, watching the stage pensively or critically, it's never clear which. At rap shows, people are moving, feeling it, wanting to be a part of the show, rushing to the front of the stage because they yearn to feel the music and bathe in the glow of greatness. Surely, these are not unconditional truths, and there are exceptions, but generally speaking it seems that rap music is -- plain and simple -- more fun. (Not so coincidentally, the day after Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire’s gig, he announced he was signing with Universal Music Group.)

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But does all this amount to a changing culture of SXSW? Or is it what attendees are demanding? I asked Heathcliff Berru who runs Life or Death PR, the publicity company that works Odd Future, Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire, the Wu Tang Clan's GZA and a slew of punky rock bands, including Wavves, for his thoughts on the matter. Berru first pointed out that the perception of hip-hop's presence this year at SXSW is skewed by the big names that came to town. Although it's become ritual for mainstream acts to headline nighttime shows, someone like Snoop Dogg will also overshadow the conference's younger acts who are performing for attention rather than a Doritos-sponsored paycheck. "They get big names to support their brand and their shows get plugged," said Berru. "These big rap dudes… heard it was a good time, and South by Southwest just has so much money behind it, or the sponsored 'unofficial' parties do at least."

Beyond the corporate-backed shows, Berru also noted hip-hop's rise in popularity and said SXSW is a good chance for these rappers and fans to be introduced without feeling out of place. This SXSW community, he said, is mostly young and white, but they probably have still grown up listening to hip-hop and have a base-level appreciation, even if they don't feel comfortable going out and seeing shows. "Now rap is street rap but it's not mainstream," said Berru, likening its authenticity to indie rock. "It's more real; you feel like it's not reaching."

Berru continued to point to punk bands Black Lips, Wavves and Trash Talk (the latter two of which he represents) as rockers that have been heavily influenced by rap music and gladly share bills with rappers. "The lines aren't as heavily drawn in the sand anymore," he said. "And what these bands embrace, their fans embrace too… People are able to attach themselves to these rappers like they couldn't before."

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When asked whether Odd Future's success has helped hip-hop cross over into the indie scene, Berru answered with reluctance. For media, he said, maybe -- as it's shown proof people are actually interested in the genre. For the fans, probably not -- that has more to do with the quality of music that's coming out and they way they're introduced to it. "It's like old school story-telling, but it's new school with the messages."

Walking around SXSW this year, Berru added that he was struck by the sense of community among rappers. Where the genre used to be plagued by rivalries (sometimes violent) and beefs, he says that's mostly gone now and instead he sees rappers genuinely excited to meet one another in person. "There's less room for that sort of thing nowadays," he said. It's heartwarming to think about, too, because that sort of camaraderie is what Bruce Springsteen spoke of in his keynote speech, saying that is SXSW is all about.”

My last thoughts on the subject come courtesy of 50 Cent's ill-fated revisit to his 2003 multi-platinum debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin'. His concert at Austin Music Hall celebrated the album’s 10-year anniversary, but never did a decade feel so long -- and stale -- as it did that night. Before 50 took the stage, the DJ warmed up the crowd with classic hits by Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, Dr. Dre and Big Pun -- perennials, sure, but not the sounds of today. And when the main event did finally start, feeling the intoxicated crowd’s lackluster response and seeing 50 Cent's apparent disappointment at the failure of his attempt to capitalize off mainstream nostalgia, it struck me as nothing short of sad and pathetic.

"I guess it's not what I have done for you, it's what have I done for you lately," 50 said to the audience at one point, bitterly. To which I respond, yes that's right. And further more, it's what others are doing better that really makes the difference.

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