Things fall apart

Hip-hop finds room to move at South-By.
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  March 25, 2009


VIDEO: 88 Keys does his Kanye West imitation at South by Southwest

Rogue wave: The allure of the music industry may be long gone, but SXSW can still attract the underground to its edges. By Michael Brodeur.

The Phoenix's full coverage of South by Southwest.

AUSTIN, TEXAS — At the Frank 151 showcase on the last day of SXSW, New York renaissance MC 88-Keys told his hyperactive crowd that Kanye West was in the building. It was believable; music's premier prima donna was in town to play the nearby Fader Fort a few hours later, and he did recently executive produce the excellent Keys debut, The Death of Adam. So halfway through their set — when the DJ dropped his needle on "Stay Up (Viagra)" (which features two Kanye verses), and Keys walked backstage to allegedly retrieve his mentor — the crowd transformed into a camera-clicking paparazzi mob.

The joke was on; 30 seconds later, Keys emerged in a makeshift Kanye costume, pulled on some leather driving gloves, and lip-synched West's rhymes while flexing the appropriate corresponding knee bends, back jerks, and dramatic hand gestures. The performance wasn't just hilarious; Keys's spot-on impersonation was also refreshingly original — even for a rapper who framed his show as a funeral for an imaginary friend named Adam who perished in the pursuit of prime poonanny.

It's no secret that most live hip-hop can be less fun to watch than interpretive dance. But as hipster, electronic, indie-rock, and rap cultures converge — like they do in Austin every March — MCs are taking cues from their other-genre contemporaries who rely on everything from stage props and antics to self-mutilation in the quest to entertain by all means possible. Looking back on this past week, I assume that SXSW organizers have consciously allowed hip-hop to grow here because of the increasing number of cats who do more than just spit raps and soak fans with bottled water.

On Friday, I saw Rhymesayers punk rapper P.O.S. strangle himself silly with the microphone cord at Buffalo Billiards. Minutes later — down the block at the Speakeasy — cross-coastal production duo Keelay & Zaire animated cuts with the backing of a full band and a dozen guest MCs; at the Saturday Strange Famous showcase, Los Angeles underground veteran 2Mex took a similar approach by bringing out the Mars Volta spin-off Free Moral Agents.

While Brother Ali, Homeboy Sandman, Reef the Lost Cauze, and a host of other ringers murdered on the merit of rhymes and energy alone, some compelling lyricists boldly innovated. Detroit eclecticist Dante broke out his harmonica, Boston's own Mr. Lif complemented new cuts with a characteristically political slide show, and Dubb Sicks — who was recently rated a top local rap act by the Austin Chronicle — double-fisted twin blow-up dolls.

As someone who's always been snubbed by indie-rocker snots for my musical tastes, it's nice to see authentic hip-hop gaining more acceptance in the greater alternative universe. On that note: thanks for having us, Austin, and all our stinky blunt smoke, relentless mixtape passing-out, short tempers, and proclivity to ogle oversize asses. We'll keep coming back as long as you'll have us — and probably even if you won't.

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