On Thursday night at SXSW, Taiwanese rapper Dwagie performed "Refuse to Listen" to a few dozen people in a mostly empty room. It’s probably Dwagie’s most well-known song, despite the fact that only a handful of people seemed to recognize it, because it features a verse from Nas. When Dwagie hit the point in the song where Nas appears, he paused and let a backing track take over — the irony being that the New York rapper was in Austin that night, too. Later that night, Nas himself performed just a few blocks away, to a crowd that was there to see him, unlike Dwagie’s audience, many of whom seemed to stumble in from 6th Street just for the air conditioning.
Hip-hop at SXSW is a crowded, scattershot field. While more straightforward festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo usually opt for big names like J Cole, Macklemore, and ASAP Rocky to fill out their rap offerings, SXSW has the time and real estate to go deeper and weirder. This week, festival-goers could have posted up at Fader Fort to see a who’s who of hype rap, taken a (slightly dated) Top 40 route with sets by Flo Rida, French Montana, and Twista, or sought-out cool kid up-and-comers like Lil Yachty and Lil Durk. Or you could skip all those lines, and go to a bunch no-name events where even the headliners are unrecognizable. I aimed for the third option, because what is life if not a series of slightly uncomfortable new experiences?
First, I headed to a freestyle rap battle meet-up in the Austin Convention Center (a very cool place to host a rap battle, by the way, if you’re into the acoustics of wall-to-wall carpeting). The event was technically a giant, interactive commercial for the app Rhymeo, which claims it can teach you how to freestyle. Thankfully though, not a lot of amateurs showed up hoping they’d learn to spit bars in half an hour. Three or four of the participants were surprisingly good at rapping, which made me think maybe I’m surprised too easily. The atmosphere at the rap battle wasn’t exactly battle-like; the lines that got the biggest reaction from the crowd often included pop culture references (like one nod to Jack Kevorkian) and puns, like this one by a rapper from Houston: "I’m Bill and Ted, that’s excellent." If there’s one thing SXSW can teach you it’s that the size of the stage (or total lack of one) is not an indicator of how good the show will be.
But SXSW isn’t all surprise performances in unconventional venues. The straight-edge little brother to the day parties and shows are panels, which often feel educational only in the sense that you’re stuck in a chair listening to someone else talk. I accompanied myself to a panel called "The Business of Christian Hip-Hop," which was almost exactly what it sounds like. The surprise was that it was way more religious than I expected it to be, though I don’t know why I didn’t expect there to be much talk about God at a Christian hip-hop panel. The question posed at the start of the panel was, "How do you do business under the glory of God?" Though the question was philosophical, the answer seemed to indicate that God is a pretty standard CEO. All you need is a good Twitter presence, "firm character and fortitude," and "someone to help you write hooks, amen."
I don’t know why I didn’t expect there to be much talk about God at a Christian hip-hop panel
And then there was the aforementioned Asian hip-hop showcase. Korean rapper Deepflow, who said he took a 20-hour flight to get to Austin, played bass-heavy boom-bap to a crowd of maybe 40 people. "I can’t speak English," he said at one point, "But I don’t give a fuck." There was the quick-tongued Taiwanese rapper PoeTeK. ("I’m from Taiwan and I don’t know who he is," said the woman next to me.) Both Deepflow and PoeTek were stylistically impressive rappers — Deepflow sounded gruff and aggressive, PoeTek was more nimble— but Aristophanes was the most fun to watch. The Taiwanese rapper (who was featured on Grimes’ recent album, and whose day job is teaching creative writing) channeled Bjork and Lil Kim throughout her set, shifting from childish coos to fierce shrieks. At times, she rapped like she was talking on the phone with a crush, giggling and whispering. Over the course of the night, not a single performer rapped in English (often the go-to move for artists trying to attract US audiences). These left-of-center artists weren’t in the SXSW world — we were in theirs.
I will admit that taking this alternate route at SXSW is not the best way to regale your friends with stories of all the big artists you saw. I missed Drake’s surprise appearance at the Fort. My biggest celebrity sighting of the week was Adrian Grenier, who was on my flight home. Then again, Aubrey will certainly go on another tour, and Young Thug will likely play hundreds more shows. But maybe Deepflow won’t take that 20-hour plane ride again, and maybe the Houston rapper at the convention hall will never make it to a big stage. Of course, if I’m wrong, and they do, then my story is even better.