A Retrospective: The Year Hip-Hop Descended On SXSW


Technically, Hip-Hop has been at the massive South By Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, since the early 1990s, but in the early 2000s, something changed. Right around 2003, Hip-Hop smashed the festival, and it has been growing ever since. But, will the growth continue to explode, or will it crumple under its own weight? AllHipHop was there that fateful year that Hip-Hop truly impacted SXSW and interviewed three of the key players at the time: SXSW’s Hip-Hop director Matt Sonzala, label exec-turned-tech mogul Theda Sandiford, and activist Dave “Davey D” Cook.

AllHipHop.com: Matt, you are consider to the the person that brought Hip-Hop to SXSW.

Matt Sonzala: Well, there’s been Hip-Hop shows since like 1990, I think, at SXSW. They just didn’t have as many until recently. I came in in late 2003 wanting to make sure some of the Houston guys like Swisha House, Chamillionaire, Bun B, etc. all got on SXSW as I felt like things were really about to happen for Houston. So I sent an email to the general address at SXSW asking if I could possibly put together a showcase full of all these folks from Houston, and they wrote me back basically saying that if I could make it happen, they’d be down to do it. So I hit up all the artists, and explained to them what SXSW is, and we did the first shows in March of 2004 – with everyone from Zin and OG Style to Bun B and Chamillionaire. Paul Wall came with Magno, we had some Austin artists on there, Play N Skillz, and it just grew every year from there.

I also worked under Andre Walker from 1993-1996 helping him put together the Hip-Hop  shows in those years. There’d be just a couple each year, but sh*t, we had the first Gravediggaz show ever, Mad Flava, ESG. Man, I remember seeing Erykah Badu come out as Erika Free to sing just one song with this group Heads N Dreads. I remember it like it was yesterday. She had short hair and braces and was wearing a sweater and some jeans. She brought the whole place to their knees with just one song – it was incredible. Pretty sure that was 1995.

AllHipHop.com: Theda, can you explain why it was important for you, since you were at Def Jam Records?

Theda: I was the first urban label exec to recognize the importance of the festival and worked tirelessly to get my labels to attend the event just as the interactive festival was beginning to jump the shark in 2006. The intersection of Hip-Hop, interactive media, and emerging technologies is intoxicating mix of gumbo ya ya. Having grown from a regional music festival to include film and interactive media, SXSW attracts a very diverse audience looking for “what’s next.” Jumping in early ahead of the curve gave my artists a significant edge over those that ignored the festival and exposed them to a “crossover” audience.

AllHipHop.com: Davey, you are widely regarded as a political activist. What was so important about this that you were involved in it?

Davey D: It was important because SXSW has a huge audience, and far too often, Hip-Hop was treated as a stepchild. Matt was someone who was down to treat it as an equal with other genres. The panels I did were designed to further that mission.

AllHipHop.com: Now, Davey, Theda was on one side of the coin by bringing acts from major labels to SXSW. But what is your take?

Davey D: I seen this phenomena occur on several cases, where a good thing designed to give voice to a voiceless segment of the music industry blows up and them becomes a “marketing” tool for the majors. In each instance, something special gets lost.  As much as I like a Snoop Dogg or any number of artists of his caliber, the best part of SXSW was discovering an Anita Tijoux, or seeing a Rebel Diaz, or coming across a Toki Wright or meeting local indies from overseas. I hope that flava and spirit doesn’t get lost.

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Matt Sonzala, SXSW Director of Hip-Hop

Matt Sonzala, SXSW Director of Hip-Hop

AllHipHop.com: What was it like bringing Hip-Hop to this major festival that was mostly known by those outside of urbana? Do you remember the events that went on at that time.

Theda: The early Hip-Hop events at SXSW where Texas Hip-Hop showcases and some DJ sets. Swisha House and Rap-a-Lot were well represented. I remember Bun B’s first solo album had just come out, but was already a legend as one half of UGK in Texas. When Bun hit the stage, it was complete pandemonium. Anyone in the audience who was not from Texas recognized they better catch up quick. The conference has grown from there. Last year, there was an African Hip-Hop showcase, Kanye performed a free show, and there was a major DJ competition put on by Red Bull. SXSW has become a must for emerging artists and established artists alike.

Matt Sonzala: Yeah, man, it was incredible. I loved bringing folks to SXSW for the first time because it’s such an incredible event. Besides all the fun you can have, you can always find work and meet like minded folks to work with. It’s still one of my favorite things about the conference, opening young artists eyes and minds to the bigger picture of the music business. But when I was starting it was hard, I literally had to explain every aspect of SXSW to every single person I dealt with. And I got a lot of doors closed in my face, especially from the major labels in those days. But I will tell you this, Bun B was always supportive, and he really understood it once he came down for it, and his voice was a major factor in the success of SXSW Hip-Hop for sure. He was always so positive about it.

AllHipHop.com: Davey?

Davey D: The first time I went to SXSW was to do a panel on bringing healthcare to artists. It was with Rock Rap Confidential and Rock-A Mole. When there it was crazy, because there was thousands of people and no Hip-Hop. I think there was like one rap act performing with a rock band, and it was really big deal that a Hip-Hop act was there. When Matt started bringing acts, I believe he brought Dizzee Rascal from London, and it was huge deal. By the time I was doing panels…the line up for Hip-Hop had grown dramatically. It was still a lot of underground acts alongside local/Texas artists. That was pretty good, as it was nice to see  the underground scenes from different regions link up.

AllHipHop.com: Theda and Matt, you have both moved to Austin for good from New York and Houston respectively. Can you speak on the changes that have occurred in the city over all since this awareness has been made?

Matt Sonzala: Man, its gotten pretty crazy Hip-Hop wise. Just the sheer numbers have increased artist and fan wise. It’s crazy. Austin has always had a lot of concerts of all kinds throughout the year, but I will say for sure that in these past few years, those numbers have grown. It’s like every Hip-Hop artist comes through Austin now, at some point in the year. And everyone is here for SXSW. Austin is the type of city that most people want to return to once they have experienced it, that is for sure.

Theda: Austin during SXSW is not at all like Austin not during SXSW. The city is one massive gridlock alert day meets Madri Gras for 10 days straight. SXSW is one of the largest drivers in the local economy. I believe South By infused more than $100 million into the economy last year. With all the major brands that are participating this year, that number will only grow. Since the SXSW hotels always sell out, probably the biggest change in recent years is the number of locals leaving town to rent out their homes to SXSW goers via HomeAway or AirBnB.

Matt Sonzala: What do you think of the present state of Hip-Hop in general and how it has evolved at SXSW?

Theda: I think a lot of these guys were raised eating way too many soy products to be real with you, but in the end, Hip-Hop is in a great place right now. There’s so many different styles coming down the pipeline and regional sounds are becoming more mainstream. Not that that hasn’t happened before, but I am saying as a whole. When I sit back and look at who is really doing it right now from indie to major, it really spans a pretty wide diaspora of music. I personally would like to hear more rappers attempt to lyrically overthrow the government, but whatever. There’s some great music happening right now.

AllHipHop.com: Have you ever feared it will get too big, like say Freaknik? [laughter]

Davey D: My one concern was seeing a lot of mainstream acts show up and do these side parties and events. I don’t think they are concerned about nurturing the underground scenes. They just wanna piece of the large audience showing up SXSW on many levels was designed to set up infracsture for indie artists, not be a farm team for the majors. This means when an artists comes to SXSW, he/she is interacting with folks. They are part of the makeup, not flying in to do a show, have 50 bodyguards  and do a VIP tent keeping them at arms length from everyone. I recall the year before last, when there was a couple of showcases for artists from overseas, that got lost by huge side parties being thrown by majors who flew in major artists who saw this as a pit stop and not a building block.

Matt Sonzala: I am very, very extremely afraid of that to be honest with you. I mean, we have a small city here for real, and more and more people come every year. I think we attract some real cool music fans, and SXSW is generally a lot of fun. I am not tripping. But space wise? Sh*t, try to get a hotel for SXSW 2013 right now. You will probably already have issues. It’s nuts.