Andy Bothwell wasn't supposed to lose. It was August 2002 when the SMU student, then 20 years old, drove all the way to Cincinnati to compete in the Scribble Jam, the Midwest's largest annual hip-hop event. The MC, going by his alias Astronautalis, was supposed to show and prove on the same stage that helped launch the careers of acclaimed rappers like Slug, Sage Francis and Eminem.
But Bothwell didn't just lose--he bombed. Before he even finished his first-round battle, 3,000 rap fans booed him off the stage. The next day, he started the day-long drive back to Dallas, but even more important, he started a journey that would change him from an unenthusiastic battle rapper to one of the most creative MCs in the country.
Two years earlier, it took Bothwell all of two months to establish himself as one of Dallas' elite rappers. His first taste of the scene came at Lower Greenville's Royal Rack when he entered a battle--a one-on-one rap competition in which MCs out-rhyme and out-dis each other--on a whim to impress a date. Though he had been battling in Jacksonville, Florida, since his early teens, his experience in official contests had soured his outlook on the battle scene.
Astronautalis performs at Hailey's on Friday, July 22, and Liquid Lounge on Saturday, July 23, with Dot Matrix at both shows.
"Every time I'd enter a battle, I'd do really well, and kids would get mad about it," he says from Olympia, Washington, while on the road with the Vans Warped Tour. "I had knives pulled on me. I had people try and beat me up. It was always this big fucking hassle and one of the reasons I didn't feel like battling [anymore]."
But holding his own that night at the Royal Rack against 97.9 The Beat's Headkrack, one of D-Town's most dominant battle MCs, and meeting other heads who appreciated his skills encouraged him to continue, even though his enthusiasm for the battle had already dissipated.
"I'd been rapping a long time, and all I had done was battle," Bothwell says. "I hadn't even recorded a song or anything, so I had grown tired of it."
Despite his reluctance, Bothwell was encouraged by other local artists and fans, including current manager Brock Cummings, who caught him that first night at Royal Rack. Soon enough, the SMU theater studies major was, albeit unwillingly, thrust back into the hyper-macho world of rap battling.
His prowess only grew. After hosting a weekly freestyle gig at Dallas' Palm Beach Club, Bothwell landed several opening-slot gigs for higher-profile artists rolling through town, including Atmosphere and Sage Francis. He developed a solo stage show that relied more on theatrics and improvisation than dissing other MCs. Word of his skills spread throughout indie hip-hop circles and reached Kevin Beachum, Scribble Jam's main impresario, who extended an invitation to compete in the 2002 battle.
Though his desire to enter rap battles was waning, Bothwell knew the opportunity was too good to pass up, so he and Cummings headed north. Besides, all he really needed was a good show to get his name on a bigger scale and jump-start a potential career. Rapping came easily to Bothwell, so how hard could some contest in Cincinnati really be?
In the end, the battle was a life-changer, though not in the way he'd hoped.
"It was something I'd never experienced," he says. "Normally, if you do just kind of mediocre, people let it slide and just go back to drinking their drinks or whatever, but that's not really how it goes [at Scribble Jam]. It's like Gladiator."
The humiliating first-round loss sent Bothwell back to Dallas with 19 hours to think about what went wrong. He thought he might still have a future in music, but the idea that he was some venom-spitting battle rapper was fool's gold, and he knew it.
Performing fell to the bottom of his list of priorities. With only one year left at SMU, Bothwell turned his attention to classes and lighting tech jobs at Kitchen Dog Theater and Dallas Theater Center. But he also figured out ways to make music in his spare time. With nothing to lose, he used home recording software and experimented with punk and shoegazer influences that accompanied his hip-hop tastes.
"The intention was to always do theater work, but just to do rap music [on the side] because it was fun," Bothwell says. "That changed once I got asked to do the Warped Tour."
Michigan's DJ Adverse saw Bothwell in concert while supporting on an Atmosphere concert in Dallas; his over-the-top theatrical approach left a huge impression. Bothwell may have hung up his battling gloves, but when Adverse got a job organizing the Warped Tour's hip-hop tent a year later, she didn't know that, nor did she care. The timing was perfect, as Bothwell leaped at the non-battle opportunity and began the Warped Tour only a month after graduating from SMU.
When the tour ended, his hunger for hip-hop had only grown, and three weeks later, he and high school friend Radical Face finished the home-recorded You and Yer Good Ideas. An ambitious collection of songs, Ideas fuses elements of electro, singer-songwriter folk, atmospheric indie-rock and, of course, hip-hop--but this isn't ironic, "look at the goofy white guy" material. Bothwell is serious as hell on Ideas, and his quiet, rapid-fire delivery embraces his outsider status in the rap world.
"I wanted to make sure I was telling stories that are unique to me, yet still had universal appeal," Bothwell says, and the result is a songwriting approach that sounds more like Van Morrison than Dose One.
After pooling all of their money to print 1,000 copies, Bothwell and friends spent the next two years on a nonstop tour. The guys booked gigs anywhere and everywhere they could, often without guarantees and on the fly, and eventually, the first batch of discs sold out.
Because of this success, upstart label Fighting Records signed Bothwell and fronted enough money to print more copies of Ideas. Though the deal was mostly a concession to get the rights to his next album, whose recording is expected to end this August, Ideas won't go away.
With the support of 2:30 Publicity (Dizzee Rascal, M.I.A.) and Hellfire Marketing (Sigur Ros, Flaming Lips, Aesop Rock), You and Yer Good Ideas will in short order go from its current Internet semi-availability on services like iTunes to full-blown, every-music-retailer-known-to-man availability in the fall with a full-bore push behind it.
That's quite a leap in credibility for a CD recorded in a bathroom and mixed on headphones, but it's also a testament to the amazing potential of an artist who's still trying to figure out what he sounds like. For now, at least, he knows what he doesn't sound like. The empty notions of battle rapping are in his rear-view mirror for good, and for Bothwell, 19-hour drives between gigs across the country are getting better and better.
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