They say travel broadens the mind – but sometimes it just scrambles it. It’s my first time in South by Southwest, my first time in Austin, my first time in Texas – my first time anywhere non-coastal in the US, in fact – and my first time on location with a full Boiler Room team. I’m beset on all sides by ribs, tacos, brisket, humidity, jugglers, strangely formal bonhomie, relentless networking, people of all creeds and colours out to party in the street, CD hawkers, tequila, craft beer, several thousand rock bands playing at once, sirens, peanut butter-filled pretzels, Englishmen in cowboy hats, stories of rappers’ sexual quirks, omnipresent guns and comedy armadillos. From the very moment we’re welcomed at the airport by an official with a thick Jamaican-Texan accent – the drawliest drawl you’ll ever hear, right there – it’s relentless sensory discombobulation on so many levels, and there’s still two days to go til one of the most ambitious and frankly mental BR shows to date.
There are a couple of false starts trying to watch the kind of indie-rock bands that are as omnipresent as beer-farts here
I am, I should explain, the oldest person at BR by a fair margin, so I have to keep a constant watch on myself to avoid ending up battered and ridiculous (or more so than usual, anyway) by trying to keep pace with the young guns. They put me to shame from the start – before we even fly out, half the music and production team have been on a non-stop schedule for the best part of a week, going straight from the Numbers show in Glasgow to Bloc Weekend in Somerset and on to Austin without so much as stopping to take a breather. And they‘re the ones texting to say “we’re at a house party with A$AP Mob” long after I’ve turned in at 1am (6am as far as my body clock is concerned) on the first night.
Still, I get stuck in to the best of my abilities, and the first couple of days are packed solid with sweat-stimulating quantities of BBQ, margaritas, music and meetings. Every single building in the centre of the city down to the smallest shack has showcases going on, and after a couple of false starts trying to watch the kind of indie-rock bands that are as omnipresent as beer-farts here, in the hope of some originality, I catch some serious sets from Suicideyear and an actual Texan in the form of Rabit. He is a real revelation, as it seems has taken his abstract grime several steps further into the cosmos since the last time I saw him yet – 15 minute ambient voyages and all – manages to keep a dancefloor with him, even though a good proportion of it is made up of bamboozled St Patrick’s Day drunkards.
Even a quick duck into a side-street bar mid afternoon – while I wait for a friend to sign me into a venue to see Skepta pulling out all the stops to win over a few hundred wristband-laden bros – reaps dividends. Apart from getting the best Old Fashioned I’ve ever drunk, I hear music from the backyard, and head out to find one Canadian in normcore getup and rainbow socks (above) playing impassioned alt.R&B with a couple of electronic boxes. There are about twelve people watching, but he gives it loads, and I quickly bookmark SEX//TAPE’s BandCamp (and on listening back later discover that thankfully it sounds almost as good without an Old Fashioned as with).
It’s a vast undertaking, and the sheer volume of information flowing around on the person-to-person level makes it compelling
Received wisdom on music industry blogs is that SXSW is a faded force, because fewer major labels are throwing money at it and fewer global superstars are headlining shows. And, no, there’s no Prince or Outkast this year – though Miley Cyrus does turn up for a set with Mike Will Made It at one point – but on the ground it doesn’t feel like there’s any lack of energy or commitment from anyone involved. Bands and labels of all sizes bar the hyperstars are still spending money to be here, and while for many this is with the forlorn optimism of a gambling addict heading to Vegas, for just as many it seems to be about participation as much as anything. Or at least – as one band’s stickers around venues put it – it’s “an excuse for a ten-day bender”.
The music conference itself is quite something to behold too. Delegates are swarming around the Austin Conference Centre in their thousands, with what feels like hundreds of mini lecture theatres – as well as the vast main halls – consistently full of people joining panel discussions and seminars on every conceivable micro-aspect of music, music culture and the music industry. Sometimes it’s silly, frequently it’s dry, but at no point does it feel like an industry on its knees. It’s a vast undertaking, far bigger than any equivalent I’ve seen in UK or Europe, and the sheer volume of information flowing around on the person-to-person level makes it compelling. The appetite to be involved with music, when you see it so illustrated across quite so many individual examples, is an astonishing thing to witness.
And then there’s Austin itself. The city is historically a beacon of nonconformity in the middle of intensely conservative Texas – I’m reminded of this when I meet one of our US contractors who throws parties in a geodesic dome a little way out of town – but it is still Texas, and to a bleary, jetlagged, discombobulated Englishman, the sharp lines that delineate parts of American society leap out all too vividly. The famed southern hospitality is very real and often delightful: everyone is keen to talk, happy to be of service, interested in you – but it’s frequently a strangely formal, ritualised kind of politeness.
Even the pedestrian crossings seem to be a deliberate and ubiquitous reminder that deviation or dawdling can result in speeding metal reducing your body to pulpy wreckage
It’s impossible, too, not to notice cops’ hands resting on their guns on every other corner, their presence emphasised by the tendency to leave their emergency lights flashing whenever they’re parked up, making laybys and parking lots like some kind of red-and-blue totalitarian disco. Likewise clusters of nonchalantly vigilant guys on other corners are covered in tattoos and other sartorial signage that carry warnings about codes of behaviour that are just as stern and severe as those which the police lights and uniform signify.
And all those constant reminders of firepower throw the Texan politeness, and the sharp lines that separate cops, crims, suburbanites and underclass, into sharp relief. Unlike jumbled, scrappy Britain, these signs tell you in no uncertain terms that any kind of altercation or stepping out of your lane can be potentially, and rapidly, terminal. Even the pedestrian crossings – where a huge red hand and angry countdown begin flashing at you within seconds of stepping into the (very wide, very fast-moving) highway – seem to be a deliberate and ubiquitous reminder that deviation or dawdling can result in speeding metal reducing your body to pulpy wreckage. It’s not exactly scary as such – more… sobering.
I like to walk a lot when I’m abroad for work: it prevents the complacency that too much cab use can cause, and here it helps in working off a little of the beer-and-BBQ sluggishness. In the warmth of Austin nights, it’s an easy 25 minute stroll from the downtown SXSW chaos to my hotel on the edge of Texas University campus. One night I take a route that takes me across a city centre block where every sidewalk is laid out with rough sleepers – some 95% of them black – from end to end, still with the cacophony of music and sirens blasting, before entering block after block of eerily quiet administrative districts then the immaculate gardens of the imposing State Capitol building (above) before reaching my big, silent, air-conditioned hotel room.
Earwigging on the phonecalls that secure not just J Rocc but Diplomats, Funkmaster Flex AND Just Blaze is enough to make anyone’s head spin
Lying back, my head already over-full, I pick up the book I brought along – an anthology of Mark Dery’s articles on the American unconscious – and find him quoting Mark Twain: “that we [America] have lost our ancient sympathy with oppressed peoples struggling for life and liberty; that when we are not coldly indifferent to such things we sneer at them, and that the sneer is about the only expression the newspapers and the nation deal in with regard to such things.” That quote being from 110 years ago… and then I put on the Kendrick album for the first time. Told you travel scrambles the mind.
All of this spectacle and weirdness adds a certain intensity as we go into the day of the Boiler Room x Ray-Ban show itself. I don’t want this to look like a party political broadcast on behalf of Team BR or anything, but watching the whole thing fall together is quite something to behold. Madlib pulls out at the last minute due to a family crisis, and earwigging on the phonecalls that ensue, eventually securing not just J Rocc as a replacement but Diplomats, Funkmaster Flex AND Just Blaze as a show finale, is enough to make anyone’s head spin. Likewise seeing the alchemical moment of transformation from a room full of stressed people shouting for missing cables to a fully-fledged, slickly operating, vibed-up party – at 9pm, almost to the second, just as the doors open to the punters queuing down the block – is a boggling testament to what a serious machine BR actually is these days.
My role in all this – when not just getting drawn into the middle of the crowd to shout along to Ghostface Killah – was to scurry around with a cameraman grabbing vox pops with the various performers. Some hip-hop specialist journalist friends of mine have semi-joked in the past about writing a book called Waiting for Rappers – not in a snickering “rappers are always late lol” sense, but with a genuine fascination for the rituals that surround hip hop – and this is the day I start to understand their world.
The delays, the bluffs and double bluffs, the surprise arrivals, the layers of entourage, the enormous minders giving you the once over with quiet amusement, the managers allowing you to stand next to the talent and even engage in small talk with the talent but not to actually ask them any questions until some barely perceptible set of nods and winks has rippled through their crew and they tell you your time starts NOW: it all adds up to a brilliantly Byzantine set of codes straight out of a renaissance court. I couldn’t begin to understand it, but when you’re in the middle of it, watching the micro and macro flows of status, money and deference, you really start to appreciate what an intricate and finely-tuned machine hip hop can really be.
It’s an elemental expression of the living derangement and daily pressure cooker life that is the USA
And when that machine is as finely-tuned as it is tonight, it results in all of the rivalry, all of the veiled stares, all of the waiting around and nonchalantly edging around one another all work together to focus energies and produce an explosive reaction on stage. At so many UK shows, where American rappers are out of their element, don’t quite know what they’re kicking against, aren’t with their full teams, aren’t corralled properly, the tendency to hang around just results in delayed and lacklustre performances. But here, it works. Somehow it corrals all the weird energy and mixture of threat and good manners that has so boggled me not just at this show but throughout the trip into something terrible and perfect: an elemental expression of the living derangement and daily pressure cooker life that is the USA.
Ghostface’s monstrous vaudeville, Rae Sremmud‘s turbocharged cyborg Kid’n’Play party-starting, Freddie Gibbs yelling “fuck tha police!”, FunkFlex’s guttural roar as he takes over the decks from Kaytranada, the climactic moment of Diplomats bellowing “SEX! MONEY! MURDER!” along with Jim Jones… seen live and direct, these are all as perfect as illustrations of this weird world as are Kendrick’s finely-tuned poetics. The whole thing starts to feel like an hallucinatory expression of a not-quite-human subterranean consciousness, a carnival of collectively repressed impulses exploding out like fireworks, and not just because of the tendrils of smoke curling around the place, either. As the place is finally cleared out, the last of the entourages gather their stragglers and leave, the elation among the Boiler Room team is truly ridiculous.
It feels like nothing should be able to follow that, and I’m resigned to a final couple of days of nothing but ribs, beer and industry schmoozing, but then the perfect curveball comes in the form of a last minute invite to PC Music‘s showcase the next night in the same venue as our Ray-Ban show. After their rather kooky cabaret-type Boiler Room broadcast on the Sunday – the day before most of us arrived in Austin – I felt like I’d had my fill of their schtick, but I’m persuaded to go and good god I’m glad of it. This is where all the pieces of the PC Music puzzle fall into place… because it’s a rave. For all that it can look conceptual, it becomes clear that this isn’t music of the intellect but of the urges.
I see a little circle of rave-bros fist-pumping to an ambient section full of trilling robot angel voices
As we watch a huge, buzzing crowd absorb and finally go wild to the warped noises, ultra-kawaii warbling and hard house shrillness, I finally realise just why this crew are capable of this kind of detournement of populist dance music: because they are British and have grown up with trance and hard house as background sound, as a kind of folk culture. And the jarring stylistic leaps, the archness, the refusal to delineate what’s pisstake and what’s not: this is jumbled, scrappy Britain all over. Just as much as the previous night, this is an expression of something deep and weird in the collective unconscious – but this time it’s a whizzing, fizzing, dizzy expression of uptight delight and tangled disturbance, and for all its awkward Britishness it’s perfectly pitched to hit international Generation EDM where it hurts most pleasurably.
The lasers zap, the crowd wig out fully, and after a couple of hours I see a little circle of rave-bros fist-pumping to an ambient section full of trilling robot angel voices that sounds ripped from an anime dream-scene. Of course I do. Isn’t this what 21st century raves were always going to be about? I don’t even know any more: finally the scrambling is complete and I give up trying to understand. After four days solid of cops, crims, hip hop politics and music industry overload, this giddy non-sense is a blessed relief. In theory I should have learned a lot on this trip, but it seems that all I know is that I like flashing lights, funny noises and dancing crowds. Thankyou Austin, it’s been unreal.