My sneakers are streaked with mud, the flavor of tender carnitas tacos is all but a memory, and the last in a succession of VIP wristbands — which had been piling up on my forearms like a garish rainbow all week — has been cut off. SXSW is officially done.
The annual music fest in Austin, Texas, brought what has become its modern milieu: emerging artists vying for exposure amid big-name acts (usually backed by even bigger-name corporations) in a veritable battle of the bands. The perpetual whispers of whether Jay-Z, Drake, or Kendrick would show up didn’t quit, either. From superstars to one-hit neophytes, here’s how New York rappers repped at SXSW 2015.
One of the highest-profile hip-hop figures at SXSW was Wyclef Jean as a featured speaker. The animated Brooklyn producer/artist discussed his nearly two-decade career with Nick Huff Barili of Hard Knock TV. Highlights included Clef talking about his start as an electronic artist on Big Beat Records (he was credited as “Afrikali” for “Out of the Jungle” because the label didn’t know his real name), former lover and bandmate Lauryn Hill (“A lot of stuff I wouldn’t have known [artistically] without that woman”), and the chance of a Fugees reunion (“50 people are trying to put a Fugees reunion together….At this point, I think the only motherfucker who can make it happen is Dave Chappelle!”) During the Q&A afterwards (which is usually the dregs), Wyclef was surprised by Queens rapper Jin, who worked with Wyclef after winning BET’s 106 & Park Freestyle Friday battle show. “Clef produced my first single and only single to date,” gushed Jin, before the two broke out into an impromptu back-and-forth rap freestyle. Only at SXSW.
9. Funkmaster Flex
Funkmaster Flex took a sabbatical from his tenure as NYC’s biggest rap DJ, but took a detour to become SXSW’s biggest rap DJ. The Hot 97 personality was hired to back nearly every rap show worth attending, including ones featuring Action Bronson, Fetty Wap, and Dipset. “I’ve been hot since ’88!” he yelled during one set, amid his trademark bomb sound effects. In one night, I saw the chest-thumping personality at three successive shows (which begs me to wonder if he’s mastered the art of teleportation as much as he’s mastered the art of trash-talking).
SXSW makes for strange bedfellows, and nowhere was this more apparent than at Rachael Ray’s Feedback showcase. The food and lifestyle personality took over famed BBQ joint Stubb’s for a lineup that included rapper Raekwon, Scott Weiland, and Green Day’s Mike Dirnt. Fans piled up around the block, weathering rain and chilly temperatures, to see Wu-Tang Clan’s resident “chef” while devouring sliders and other finger-lickin’ munchies.
7. Joey Bada$$
Come rain or shine, Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era will perform. The Brooklyn rapper and his friends took over the Spotify stage on a very dreary and chilly afternoon for a group of wet but loyal fans, including producer-god DJ Premier. Joey performed tracks from B4.DA.$$ such as “Big Dusty” and “Christ Conscious,” and from the crowd’s word-for-word response, it’s clear that the album became a quiet commercial hit this year. The strain of SXSW was heard in Joey’s throaty and hoarse voice. A trooper, he plowed through the pain and closed his set with a group performance of the “Pro Era Freestyle” and a brief but entertaining crowd-surf.
6. Ghostface Killah
Remixing classic tracks can be a risky gamble, but Ghostface Killah pulled it off during his set at Boiler Room. Boom-bap met jazz when the rapper joined forces with BadBadNotGood to flip Wu-Tang’s catalog into a fresh, live performance. Anthems like “CREAM” and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Brooklyn Zoo” and “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” sounded incredible with the adept drumwork of Alexander Sowinski. If you haven’t heard Ghostface and BadBadNotGood’s collaborative album Sour Soul, do it now.
I love God, I love my family, and I love Dipset. Although the beloved Harlem collective tends to perform the same setlist every time, and has become so enmeshed that it’s hard to tell when they’re together or broken up, I don’t care. When Dipset closed out Boiler Room’s showcase as the surprise guests (with DJ Funkmaster Flex at the helm and a gaggle of goons onstage) at 3 a.m., it felt like we were back in the city in 2003. Even Action Bronson was fanning out in the audience. The group performed “Dipset Anthem,” “Salute,” and tracks from individual members Cam’ron, Juelz Santana, and Jim Jones like “Hey Ma” and “Santana’s Town,” but the pièce de résistance was “I Really Mean It.” When Cam spouted his famous line, “I got lofts in Boston, Austin, flossin’ of course Miami” (accompanied by a cameo from the track’s producer, Just Blaze), it was good to be an NYC rap head at SXSW.
4. Fetty Wap
It’s hard for newcomers to get their due at a crowded festival, but when you have the biggest rap song in the city, they will come. Fetty Wap’s breakout “Trap Queen” has been the sleeper hit of the year, only now garnering mainstream attention. Is the track gimmicky? Yes. Could the New Jersey native be a one-hit-wonder? Maybe. Still, I’ll admit it: I trekked a good half-mile to the 300 showcase to live out my inner trap queen for three minutes and forty-two seconds.
3. A$AP Ferg
A$AP Rocky may have the charm, but A$AP Ferg brings the energy. The next-in-line rapper of the A$AP Mob showed out as a fucking awesome performer. Tracks like “Work” and “Shabba Ranks” have stood up to rap fans’ A.D.D. and go just as hard as they did when they came out. “I hate that song!” Ferg complained after performing the anthemic “Work,” only to dive in to the “Work” remix. Now, that’s a good sport.
2. A$AP Rocky
A$AP Rocky at SXSW? Given his penchant for fashion over music and the recent death of his manager, A$AP Yams, seeing the rapper’s name on the festival bill at Samsung’s Milk Music Lounge was a surprise. Corporate gigs can be hit or miss, given the requisite product plugs and censorship, but Rocky and the A$AP Mob delivered a downright fun set that didn’t reek of shilling. “I didn’t come over here to give you a commercial show. Some Samsung shit. I’m high as fuck right now. I’m drunk as fuck right now. I don’t give a fuck right now!” Rocky laughed. He performed favorites like “Peso” and “Goldie” along with newer cuts like “Multiply.” Harlem’s “Pretty Motherfucker” debuted “M’s,” from his forthcoming album, and promised that this go-around, he was going for everyman: “I just want to have the connection with the crowd. I want a new connection with you motherfuckers.”
1. Action Bronson
Action Bronson was undoubtedly the most ubiquitous rapper at SXSW. With his major-label debut, Mr. Wonderful, around the corner, the Queens native gave several performances, manned his own food truck (which served a tasty smoked-brisket poutine), and hosted a bus tour for media. The crowning moment of Bam Bam’s blitz was his headlining show at Scoot Inn. For an at-capacity crowd that included DJ/producer Statik Selektah and Heems, the rapper performed several tracks from Mr. Wonderful interspersed with his signature humor and showmanship. Van Halen’s monster rock anthem “Runnin’ With the Devil” led into “Baby Blue,” while “Easy Rider” was accompanied by Party Supplies on guitar. The rapper showed off his pipes, ironically in between respites for weed, including a hilarious sampling of Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason.”