First things first: No disrespect intended to any of Austin’s MCs or beatmakers who toil away at their craft, work hard and make music that they believe in. No insult here toward anybody who picks a mic up and says what they have to say, and gives everything they’ve got to a scene that barely notices them.
This isn’t about you — not exactly. This is about a question whose answer doesn’t make any sense in 2012, in a city whose music community is seen from the outside as one of the most vibrant in the world.
Why hasn’t Austin produced a single notable figure that it can claim in hip hop?
You can run down the list, if you’ve been paying attention, and go from MC Overlord to Bavu Blakes to the League of Extraordinary G’z to G-Baby to Marvelous Mike D to, I dunno, some freshman in a dorm at Jester making beats on an iPad and uploading videos onto YouTube.
But what you won’t find is somebody who’s got many blogs chattering, or who’s drawing a crowd to a live show on any sort of regular basis. What you won’t find — with the possible exception of Western Tink, who we’ll get to in a minute — is somebody people are actually paying attention to.
And that’s weird. Hip hop is a dominant force in music. Austin is a dominant force in music. Put the two together and you get... crickets.
Rap game Bob Schneiders
“The hip hop scene is nothing but other rappers. A good portion of the MC’s in Austin kill it — but it’s too bad that it’s just rappers at those shows. Nobody’s waving their hands in the air like they just don’t care.”
It’s easy to attribute this to the ethnic demographics of Austin. Hip hop is black music, and Austin is only 8% African American. And while that’s relevant, it’s also true that the sort of success that Austin rappers have continuously failed to achieve isn’t about ethnicity.
Houston’s most talked-about new rapper is walking viral video white dude Riff Raff, the Internet can’t get enough of teenage white rapper Kitty Pryde and Action Bronson’s appearances at SXSW were almost as buzzed about as A$AP Rocky’s and Kendrick Lamar’s.
All of which is to say that looking to the East Side and suggesting that the lack of dedicated hip hop venues is the reason why Austin has yet to produce a rapper people are listening to ignores the reality of the rap game in 2012. You can become a megastar off of one clever YouTube video, and you can produce a pro-quality mixtape in your dorm room. It just hasn’t happened here yet.
It’s not that Austin’s not into hip hop. The next few weeks will see Atmosphere, Ghostface Killah, Yelawolf, Brother Ali, Slick Rick and Big Freedia all take to our stages, and every one of those shows is going to be packed. At SXSW this year, the hip hop acts in town would have made for a legendary lineup at Rock The Bells — Jay-Z, Nas, 50 Cent, Eminem, Lil Wayne, B.o.B., A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, Big KRIT, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Danny Brown, etc. — but the list of locals anybody was talking about was non-existent.
Even our best talent is largely unknown except by a narrow group of people in town who pay close attention to things. It’s like the hip hop equivalent to Bob Schneider.
It’s not because Austin rappers aren’t any good (check out those links above, y’all), and it’s not a demographics thing. A rising rap star could come out of Pflugerville, or East Austin, or the UT dorms. It could be an Odd Future-esque collective that storms out of nowhere, a novel solo rapping into a computer or someone who’s sweated through freestyle battles and paid dues for five years.
There are more avenues to get attention for your music as a rapper now than ever, and there are a lot of eyes on Austin. But it hasn’t happened yet. And that’s something that musicians in Austin — rappers, rockers, singer-songwriters and everybody else — should be paying attention to.
It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop
The fact that a viral rap star hasn’t come out of Austin may just be a matter of luck and timing — that sort of success is a lot like winning the lottery — but the fact that even our best talents struggle to gain fans has a lot to do with the fact that so few people are actually looking at what’s happening here.
Last year, when I wrote about Texas Battle League promoter Japanese Jesus, he explained, “The hip hop scene is nothing but other rappers. A good portion of the MC’s in Austin kill it — but it’s too bad that it’s just rappers at those shows. Nobody’s waving their hands in the air like they just don’t care.”
Probably the most promising Austin rapper, at least from the perspective of getting some national attention for his work, is Western Tink. The Beautiful Lou-produced emcee got a fair amount of press for his recent mixtapes from outlets including The Fader, NahRight.com and Spin's No Trivia blog. But Matt Sonzala of the indispensable local hip hop blog Austin Surreal put it well when he acknowledged that “it seems like the whole world knows Western Tink is from Austin, but I don’t know if Austin knows Western Tink is from Austin.”
Right now, Tink's a relatively minor attraction on the national scene — barely a thousand Twitter followers, maybe three times as many plays for his most popular track on Soundcloud — but in a few months, if Tink’s next mixtape is an Internet sensation, Austin will be paying attention and eager to claim him.
But that speaks to a challenge that musicians in Austin face right now: Because we get so much national attention so often, our audiences run the risk of becoming deaf to what’s happening here unless it’s validated by somebody from outside of the city.
Hip hop in Austin has had challenges for a long time, but those are challenges that every scene in Austin could end up facing. When we spend so much time getting excited about the things that don’t come from here, we lost track of the things that do.
It’ll happen, eventually, that Austin will produce a rapper people care about, who puts Austin hip hop on the map. Maybe it’ll be Tink, maybe it’ll be somebody else. The biggest question might be whether we build that person ourselves, or if we get it told to us by some blogger out of Brooklyn.
And if you want a music career, you should hope that it’s the former, because if it’s the latter, you’re really just hoping for a lotto winner.