Talking about hip hop in Austin is talking about an essential paradox: There are countless hip hop fans in Austin, but not that many fans of Austin hip hop.
And while there are a number of factors that contribute to that, from a lack of steady venues to the fact that our proximity to Houston makes us easy to overlook, the other fundamental disconnect is that the number of people who aren’t deeply involved in the scene who are still somewhat paying attention to it — that is to say, fans — is disproportionate to the amount of talent in the town.
In other words: Kydd’s mixtape sounds great, but if you asked the crowds at the 2 Chainz, Atmosphere or Ghostface shows last month if they heard it, you’d see more blank stares than nodding heads.
But that’s not a condition unique to hip hop. Ask the crowd at Hatebreed’s show at Emo’s on Wednesday what they think of the new Prey For Sleep album, and you’ll get a similar reaction. Fact is, it’s not easy to be a local musician in any scene, in any city. That’s nothing new.
Kydd’s mixtape sounds great, but if you asked the crowds at the 2 Chainz, Atmosphere or Ghostface shows last month if they heard it, you’d see more blank stares than nodding heads.
What is new is that Austin’s got more eyes on it than ever. And while that’s often used by the people who want to put Snoop in a Doritos machine to rap at random crowds during SXSW, there are opportunities here that didn’t exist a few years ago.
But don’t take my word for it
Rapper/producer Tee-Double has been at work in Austin for a long time. He’s got a staggering 18 albums under his belt, he was a co-founder of the much-missed Hip Hop Humpday of the early 00s, and he’s done as much as anyone to help legitimize Austin hip hop over the years. That’s an endeavor he’s undertaken as both an artist and as an advocate: Today, in addition to working on his own music, he heads the Urban Artist Alliance, providing education and support for local artists, and serves on the Board of Governors for the Texas chapter of the Grammys.
“My whole thing is, I’m from Austin. I started selling demo tapes on the drag. Now — Grammys,” Tee-Double says. “I started the Urban Artist Alliance to help artists find their way. I own my masters, I license to movies — I do all the other things that Austin has. We’ve got the film scene, a fashion scene here — those people are everywhere, if you get outside your comfort zone and go to a show you wouldn’t normally go to.”
“Kydd was on the blog-rap thing for a while, and I was telling him, ‘Don’t get caught up on that.’ Because the blogs love you and hate you like that." - Tee-Double
Tee-Double’s not famous, but that’s not necessarily the key to a sustainable rap career. (Kitty Pryde’s the talk of Bloggertown, but she’s yet to make a dime from her recordings.) He hasn’t been with a label since the late 90s, when he put out a record on Interscope’s short-lived conscious rap imprint GoodVibes. But the licensing money he makes from his back catalog pays dividends. (Tee-Double says his songs have appeared in episodes of Breaking Bad and Mad Men, among others.)
Not everybody is after the sort of career that Tee-Double has, but he’s right that there’s more to making music than working the same shows to the same people, or trying to blow up on blogs.
“Kydd was on the blog-rap thing for a while, and I was telling him, ‘Don’t get caught up on that.’ Because the blogs love you and hate you like that,” Tee-Double says. “A lot of artists get on a few blogs, and are like, ‘I’m good now.’”
In the last edition of this column, the comments section raised the specter of a divide between Austin blog-rap and the people who are actively performing locally; between artists who’ve paid dues for 10 years, like Da’Shade Moonbeam and those who’ve blown up on blogs seemingly out of nowhere, like Western Tink.
But talking to Tee-Double, that divide seems especially false: In a lot of ways, the blog game isn’t much different from gigging. One hot blog or one good show — it’s just a launching point.
“I’ve always looked at Austin as a place where, if you succeed, everybody knows. If you fail, nobody knows.” - Tee-Double
All eyes on me
With the attention on Austin come opportunities for artists, whether you’re playing a dozen shows a month or landing on Nah Right. Audiences might be distracted by the sight of Snoop in the vending machine or Jay-Z picking up a million bucks to entertain some AmEx cardholders, but there’s potential here, provided you don’t confuse the things that get shipped into Austin a few times a year with the city itself.
“People are like, ‘Lil Wayne is here! Hip hop’s in Austin!’ No, it’s not – that’s Mountain Dew,” Tee-Double says.
Tee-Double’s got ideas of what it might take to make that more authentic (“If Lil Wayne said, ‘I’m gonna get the League of Extraordinary G’z to open my Austin Music Hall show,’ I could dig it more…”) but maybe the opportunity that comes with all of that attention isn’t just to try to launch somebody on the coattails of the famous rappers who drop in during SXSW or on tour.
Those shows grow the appetite for hip hop among people in Austin, and they keep the city’s name in a lot of people’s mouths. And maybe that’s the real opportunity: A lot of eyes are on Austin, and a lot of local ears want to be filled with hip hop.
Right now, it’s hard for people who aren’t already invested in the scene to know where to do that, so they gravitate to the roadshows. But if a venue emerges, or an artist takes off, or the people who go see RZA at Beauty Ballroom can find out where hip hop lives in Austin, then the rest of the country will start paying attention.
What happens here matters. Look what happened two years ago when a handful of local bands who play at Beerland a lot landed a 7.5 on Pitchfork and international acclaim. And, now, more people are watching Austin than ever.
Here’s Tee-Double again to sum up what makes Austin uniquely situated as a place for artists to succeed. “Austin is the type of place where you can learn from your mistakes,” he says. “I’ve always looked at Austin as a place where, if you succeed, everybody knows. If you fail, nobody knows.”