SXSW Meets Its Odd Future
A funny thing happened on the way to the South by Southwest's becoming the insanely corporate-sponsored event that it is today: With major corporation upon major corporation descending upon Austin for the five-day music festival each year (not to mention the interactive and film portions that start earlier in the week and, in many cases, overlap with the music part), it's become less necessary to attend anything actually deemed an official South by Southwest event.
Consider the biggest names who played Austin last week: Kanye West, Jay-Z, Diddy, Jack White, LL Cool J and Snoop Dogg. Not one of them performed at a SXSW-sanctioned event. Instead, they opted to go the sideshow route, performing at events sponsored by the likes of Vevo, Fiat, Red Bull and Pepsi, all aimed at pulling in the ancillary crowds. Then there were acts like The Strokes, who very much indeed performed as part of SXSW's festivities, but did so at Austin's Auditorium Shores stage as part of a free event aimed at placating the angry Austinites whose city had been overtaken by more hipsters than even Austin is used to hosting.
As for the rest of the big-name acts that played official showcases? Well, you could have seen the indie kid-adored TV on the Radio or Gayngs at unofficial day parties, if you knew where to find them. And you could have seen iconic rap outfit Wu-Tang Clan if you RSVP'd in advance to attend their night-time official showcase, sponsored, in this case, by the Dallas Observer's parent company, Village Voice Media.
Pretty much the only acts you needed an official SXSW badge or wristband to see were Foo Fighters, Death From Above 1979 and Queens of the Stone Age. Even then, those first two acts' performances were "secret" offerings, and QOTSA's offering came as part of a Rolling Stone industry party.
I guess what I'm saying is this: The best things seen at SXSW 2011, with only one exception that I can think of (more on that later), could be seen without spending the $139 the festival charged attendees for a wristband. Which has always, really, been the secret weapon up SXSW's sleeve, even before the sponsors got a hold of the sucker. Fact is, if you really want to see a particular act at SXSW, and you're willing to wait in a line and forgo seeing pretty much anything else that night except for that one act, you can. It's SXSW's dirty not-quite-a-secret since anyone who cares to know as much already does. Has been forever.
This year, though, with more unofficial events than ever, and more big names playing these events than ever before as well, there really wasn't much need for even that amount of effort on the fans' parts as pertained to the official festival.
Case in point? A group of young Los Angeles-based rappers who go by the name of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Three times, I caught this group of performers, none of whom is old enough to legally purchase alcohol—twice at unofficial day parties and, lastly, at their soon-to-be-legendary (for some wrong, and maybe a few right, reasons) official showcase.
Heading into this year's festival, it's safe to say that the group, prominently led by a 20-year-old rapper-producer named Tyler, The Creator, was among the most hyped up-and-coming outfits slated to perform, right up there with British electronic crooner James Blake, retro Chicago power-poppers Smith Westerns and British '90s revivalists Yuck. Rightfully so: OFWGKTA's is a fiery brand of new-school hip-hop, one that nods at its grimy, controversial and often misogynistic past, then shatters it with further gross-out and violent imagery. It's boundary-pushing stuff, and Tyler's current single, "Yonkers," the first off his upcoming album for XL Recordings, Goblin, provides a fine example as to why. "Yonkers" boasts borderline crazy, tortured-soul lyrics and, in its paired music video, the rapper eats a cockroach, then subsequently vomits it up and hangs himself in spite. Whether it's tasteful is one thing; the fact that it's thought-provoking, decidedly aggressive and unquestionably progressive is another. Fact is, Odd Future—as Tyler and his cohorts of Hodgy Beats and Left Brain (who together perform as MellowHype) and about six or so others are so often called—are the most exciting thing hip-hop has seen in some time.
And, if only by brute force, OFWGKTA outshone the other buzzing outfits of SXSW 2011—by a long shot. On Thursday, during a scheduled free MellowHype performance at a Brooklyn Vegan-sponsored day party, the whole crew showed as much—to the delight of the packed audience that patiently awaited the showcase. The crowd responded in kind like unchaperoned prison inmates, jumping about with glee and slamming onto one another as the band crowd-surfed over top. On Friday, at a show booked as a full-on Odd Future performance at the Fiat-sponsored Fader Fort, it was more of the same—to the point of borderline danger, as fairly violent crowd reaction and moshing caused at least one audience member to collapse.
Both were reactions—equal parts visceral and gleeful—I'd never before seen from crowds at SXSW. Odd Future, it could be said, quite literally swept me off my feet this week. I, simply wanting a good view of the offerings, was caught right in the midst of all this madness, moshing by default at these shows—although, if I'm being completely honest, it was more like pingponging back and forth defensively between the crowds around me as I tried to scribble down notes.
Turns out that my note-taking efforts were fairly feeble attempts—just as they would've have been had I even bothered to do as much at the band's official SXSW on Saturday night, during a Billboard-sponsored showcase at Buffalo Billiards, to which the collective showed some 10 minutes late and left a good half an hour early. There, the group, calculated or not, offered up only 10 or so minutes of performance before they left the stage in a huff, disgusted that this crowd wasn't as "hype" as were the audiences at their other performances (one of which reportedly even included Diddy making an on-stage cameo and proclaiming them the future of the genre). Before leaving, though, they made sure to curse out much of the crowd, save for the "real" fans up front. The audience, consisting mostly of industry types looking to finally see the much-talked-about group for themselves, responded with shock—even some anger—at the fact that they'd been so disrespected.
But, really: Had they been? In the eyes of the performers, it was quite the opposite—the crowd had disrespected their own hard-working ways.
It was a stunning clash of perspectives: One camp, the band, having never before attended SXSW, believed it to be quite the rock 'n' roll experience; the other, the industry types watching on, believed SXSW to be their chance to see the band in a convenient setting, wherein they were given first watching rights, and those without proper credentials were left out.
More than that, though, it was a vital moment. Kanye West's own hyped unofficial party aside, OFWGKTA's 10-minute performance threw the whole SXSW system into a loop, either through ignorance or flat-out indignation. The why, though, doesn't matter as much as the what—which, in this case, stands as the moment in which official SXSW events fully lost the power they held over the unofficial ones.
SXSW had been trending this way for years. In 2011, it finally happened—officially or unofficially. Turns out the distinction doesn't really matter.
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