At some point during Friday’s barrage of parties, showcases, cheap beer, and top-shelf veggie dogs, the EW collective at South By Southwest came to the realization that we had seen very few guitar bands in our first 48 hours on the ground. It seemed impossible, but it was true. (That was rectified on Friday night, which included visits to see raucous six-string maestros Jack White and Dinosaur, Jr.)
A common complaint among the more boring people here in Austin is that there is way too much hip-hop at SXSW 2012. There was a time when the streets were full of nothing but lanky dudes hauling their kick drums, waiting to play their jangly rock tunes amongst a sea of thousands of similar bands. Part of SXSW was about the hustle: Young bands trying to get signed, indie groups looking for opportunities at majors, larger bands in search of a definitive statement.
As the music industry continues to evolve, those rock dudes have been replaced by hip-hop crews.
It used to be you couldn’t walk a block without having four different demos shoved into your face, but the only music being given away to passers-by this year are mixtapes. Though many of best MCs present here at the festival (including Big K.R.I.T., A$AP Rocky, 2 Chainz, Chip Tha Ripper, and Action Bronson) already have plenty of Internet heat among those in the know, SXSW provided for them what it stopped doing for rock bands a long time ago: A chance to graduate to the next level with a solid set and a meaningful presence.
One of the best shows I’ve seen all weekend was a set by rapper Paypa (pictured). Though the Fader Fort was relatively dead on Friday afternoon, Paypa managed to not only attract a crowd but also convert them. His Tunnel Vision and Henny on the Rocks tapes both received a little bit of attention, though not on the level of some of the above-mentioned names, and his natural onstage charisma turned tracks like “I’m Turned Up” into instant bangers. He was easy with the crowd, talking about his roots in both Chicago and Los Angeles, and handed out sips from a bottle of Hennessey he was also nursing. “Hennessey should pay me for this,” he said. “They do, but they still should you know?”
And that’s where the differences between the rap and rock worlds crop up. For all his mixtape cred, Paypa has been signed to Universal for a year, and he does in fact have a Hennessey sponsorship. In that context, there isn’t much “indie” about him. The rock bands banging away in bar after scuzzy bar, desperately hoping to get noticed by anybody who could possibly advance their career, would probably kill for either of those things.
Paypa, on the other hand, came into SXSW with a plan, he (or at least his label and management) knew exactly what it would mean to play in Austin. When people complain about SXSW, they’re usually bemoaning the fact that little of it is organic anymore: The bands put on the bills are designed to already be at least “Oh I think I’ve heard of them” recognizable. The buzz of SXSW is pre-determined, which is why it has become easier for already bankrolled stars to manipulate it.
But there’s a good chance that breakout performances at SXSW were never actually organic in the first place. Since the record industry continues to change shape on a cellular level seemingly every nine seconds, the purpose of SXSW will continue to shift with it. That means going deeper into different genres (this year went deeper into both rap and electronic music than ever before) and bringing in huge stars (this time around, it was Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen, and Lil Wayne, among others).
In the meantime, Paypa got the attention of at least one writer, plugged the upcoming sequel to his Henny on the Rocks tape, and sent several dozen people away from the Fader Fort with his remix to this filthy song stuck in their heads. It’s not the way Pavement did it, but it worked.