What Prompted The Rise Of Hip Hop At The SXSW Music Fest?

Billy Johnson, Jr.

Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Eminem played Austin, Texas’s South by Southwest Music Festival last year, making it one of the event’s biggest years for hip-hop.

Yahoo! Music has taken notice. Though we have covered the festival for the last 15+ years, this year, we will have a stronger hip-hop presence. This writer, Yahoo! Music senior editor and Hip Hop Media Training blogger, will be on the scene from March 12 to 17.

In anticipation of the trek, Hip Hop Media Training interviewed Matt Sonzala, who was involved with booking SXSW hip hop acts for more than 10 years. He left his post as Hip Hop Music Fest Coordinator in 2012. In this Q&A, Sonzala offers an overview of his role in the evolution of rap music at the annual music celebration.

What is your earliest knowledge of hip-hop at the SXSW festival?

There was always at least a little hip-hop at SXSW. In 1989 or 1990, Ultra Magnetic MCs played on a showcase with some local artists. There were guys like Keir Worthy and Andre Walker who were booking some of the acts earlier on.

When is the first time you attended?

First time I went was I believe in 1991. We went in this place called Hip Hop City and they had an official South By showcase. The first guy I ever saw at SXSW was a white rapper named Jeff Romeo. He was a total nerd. He came out with a goofy outfit, a high-pitched voice. He actually got three black dudes backing him up who would go and change costumes every song. He came out, and he was like, ‘Y’all didn’t know a white boy like this who raps could also rock.’ And the black dudes came out from the backstage in Bon Jovi wigs with ukuleles. And that sorta set the tone for me for like what was going on in Austin.

When did you first get involved?

In 1994, we got the first show ever with Gravediggaz. Mad Flava from Dallas, the K-Otix from Houston. Willie D, Bushwick, they were there handing out. The Blac Monks on Rap-A-Lot were on that show.

I heard that Erykah Badu played SXSW before she got signed.

In 1995, I worked with Andre Harris to get Houston guys like E.S.G., Big Mello. We had Clever Jeff from out of the Bay, this group from Dallas called Heads and Dreads. This girl came out singing with them. She had these beautiful eyes and this super short hair and she had a big sweater. She came out and sang a hook for these guys. Her name was Erykah Free. Turned out to be Erykah Badu. In 1996, she came out and did her own show and still credits to this day that her performing at South By in 1996 is where she got her deal.

I know that 2004 was a breakthrough year for hip-hop at SXSW. What happened then?

In the summer of 2003, I sent an email to South By. I’m like, ‘Look. All this stuff is happening in Houston right now. These groups are able to blow up. If I could put together a showcase with Bun B, Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, the best of what’s happening in Houston right now, could we do it? The guy just wrote me back, ‘Do you think you could do that?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Well put it together. Let me know, and if you can do it, we’ll get you a venue.’ I got Chamillionaire, Paul Wall came out with Magno and Swisha House. Bun B and MDDL FNGZ cause Pimp C was locked up at the time.

Was Dizzee Rascal also on that show?

Yes. I heard that Dizzee Rascal from London was coming out. I said what about Dizzee playing on this show? Dizzee said one of his favorite groups was UGK. When he found out he was going to do a show with Bun B he was like, ‘Yeah man. I want to be on that show.’ So we put it together.

What did SXSW think of the show?

The next year, South By hit me up asking, ‘Do you want to try to do a couple more hip-hop shows?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and we got Slim Thug, Diplo and some other DJs, and every year it just grew. We went from two shows to six shows to 10 shows to like at least a quarter of the conference is hip-hop, if not more.

After years of booking shows, when did you officially become the Hip Hop Music Fest Coordinator?

For the 2008 season they said ‘We would love to offer you a job.’ They saw how much it was growing.

How difficult was it to get the record labels to start sending more artists?

I had a guy at a major ask me, ‘Why would I bring any of my groups to your little hippie conference?’ I was like, ‘Man. It ain’t a hippie conference, and it’s changing, and the groups really liked that they came to SXSW and performed for a different audience.’ It was an industry audience. They never performed at an industry event.

What helped make the process easier for you?

Bun B and UGK was a big thing for me when we had them in ’07. Bun has been there every year since 2004. Bun’s been the biggest hip-hop supporter of SXSW, hands down. He helps spread the gospel. His co-sign was the most valuable thing ever.

Were the other bookers at SXSW surprised at how many rap acts you got? You’ve had as many as 400 artists a year.

Up until last year, before I left, I was told almost every other day to stop booking so much hip-hop. ‘We don’t have the audience for all this. Why are you booking so many?’ I’m just stubborn and didn’t listen to them.

What made things change?

Money talks. Just a few years ago, no sponsor would even consider doing anything with hip-hop. Aside from Scion, who did unofficial shows, most of the sponsors were just like, ‘This is not the place for hip-hop.’ Now, every corporate sponsor is using hip-hop. It it’s a corporate party. Most of them will have some type of hip-hop incorporated.

What prompted this change?

Hip-hop is the music. Hip-hop is what’s up. Hip-hop has infiltrated every aspect of our culture. Hip-hop is not just a music culture anymore. Hip-hop culture is culture. It’s big, and it’s everywhere. It found its place at South By.

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