Story by Quinton Boudwin Photos by Paul Ramirez
Vibes are incredibly important. When I go to events, I like to take everything in and base my assessment off of the entire experience. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend Weird City Hip-Hop Festival, Austin’s first-ever hip-hop fest, for one night. Still, that one night showed me what Austin hip-hop is all about.
Stepping through the gates at the Empire Control Room and Garage on Saturday Sept. 27, I couldn’t help but think, “this is a weird city.” African-Americans are leaving Austin at alarming rates. Gentrification of the East Side is rampant. SXSW has slowly morphed into a hip-hop cash cow. And yet, here in the middle of it all, there seemed to be a home for hip-hop tucked away in the shadows of the high rises.
Talent can be found in every nook and cranny, from originators like The League of Extraordinary G’z to the budding Kydd Jones. Austin hip-hop’s burgeoning talent bed has grown, but mainly independent of each other. Their following is scattered, and finding a place to feel at home and in-tune with true hip-hop fans is rare. The long overdue festival comes at a good time for a community that continues to be on the rise. The LNS Crew, Magna Carda, Phranchyze and Riders Against the Storm are among the multitude of hip-hop artists who have been gaining ground locally and nationally. With promotional platforms like Pushermania and Red Bull Soundselect providing opportunities for these talents to shine, the stars seem ready to align for a breakthrough.
Friends and family trickled into Empire, greeting one another with hugs and photos. Everyone was there for the music, but more importantly they were there for a community that still goes largely overlooked in this city. This festival wasn’t about brand-name sponsors or high-profile artists, despite the presence of Austin hip-hop heavyweights like Dilated Peoples and Jean Grae on the bill.
The crowd mixed and mingled over live drums and turn tables. Cameras rolled and flashed — one on set for a local documentary currently in production. Riders Against the Storm could be spotted in the crowd. LNS and Slim Gravy were off in a corner freestyling. Megz Kelli of Magna Carda could be found hanging out at Phranchyze’s set, and organizer Matt Sonzala snapped dozens of photos for Instagram all the while. The crowd floated between the Garage, Control Room and Button-Down Arcade, jolly and buzzing. Weird City merch and wall art rounded out the festival’s low-key atmosphere. Eager listeners stuck around for midday sets and headliners. The whole atmosphere struck a pleasant chord. There was something encouraging here, for both artist and fan.
Early acts had to pull teeth to get a crowd reaction, but as the night advanced, the excitement slowly grew. Crew 54’s MOS and G-christ tore down the garage in the presence of a healthy local audience. Magna Carda got the crowd moving, bringing out young faces and filling the Control Room with funky vibes. Dilated Peoples summoned a number of classic underground hip-hop fans out from their hiding place. The accomplished Riders Against the Storm provided a full-spectacle song and dance, herding fans into the Control Room even as Dilated Peoples were still closing their set at the Garage. Jean Grae’s phenomenal stage presence exceeded expectations and left the crowd elated.
A time crunch forced me to step out a bit early, even after arriving a bit late. Thankfully, I realized there is no time limit or expiration date on the love Austin’s hip-hop community shares. It doesn’t rise and fall with the coming and going of SXSW. It doesn’t tremble with giddiness at the arrival of monstrous ACL names. Instead, it stays low and continues to work from the ground up, cultivating a grassroots following of devout fans that made Austin’s first hip-hop festival possible. It almost seems weird that something so logical could work in a city like this.
But it shouldn’t.