By Jacob Katel
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Chastened, I commiserated with Jessica Weber, radio promotions director for Spectre Entertainment Group, over lunch at the Avenue Cafe. "Don't take it personally," she advised. "He hasn't returned my calls, either," even though she was working his new single, "3:16." Ostensibly the Living Legend was on the grind, promoting his new album to the tens of thousands of music fans wandering around the quaint midsize city last week. It was an ill sight to see when they all streamed out of the dozens of bars that dotted E Sixth Street at 2:00 a.m. -- hanging around on the pavement, congealing into long lines in front of after-hours pizza joints, or simply wandering out into the middle of the road, dazed and drunk.
Indeed the boulevard's high-octane atmosphere, where most of the SXSW action took place, seemed to make it impossible to get wasted (and believe me, I tried). But on Saturday, March 20, I decided to escape the madness and walk several blocks south to the Austin Music Hall, where Handsome Boy Modeling School was opening up for N.E.R.D. To put it kindly, the show was a mess, with the Automator and Prince Paul presiding over a disorganized revue that included an ad-hoc competition for a new "model" (won by a bespectacled freak in a cashmere sweater) and a performance from Encore, who tore through his 1999 underground hit, "Waterworld," and a new, untitled track. "There was no rehearsal. Everything was off the cuff," laughed Encore after the show.
He then drifted to another hot topic: the underground hip-hop scene's championing of white rappers over equally talented people of color. Over the past several years, the indie rap audience has shifted from mostly black and Latino to a solid majority of white fans, as Chicano rap veteran 2Mex put it during a van ride to the University of Texas's student-run station, KVRX-FM 91.7, for a live performance. Riding in the van with him was Busdriver; both drove twenty hours from their hometown of Los Angeles to hang out and network at SXSW, even though they hadn't registered for the conference. "It was a long twenty hours," said 2Mex. "We knew we'd hook stuff up once we got here."
2Mex and Busdriver are road dogs, but they aren't herbs looking to get put on. 2Mex, who just released a self-titled CD on Image Entertainment, has been rocking microphones since the early Nineties, while Busdriver recently appeared in a Spin magazine story on a phenomenon they called "emo-rap." Incidentally that piece is causing considerable debate for its attempts to segregate many of the scene's melanin-deficient MCs such as Sage Francis and Sole under a safe, market-friendly rubric, with the exception of the African-American Busdriver.
The central player, of course, is Slug, one-half of Atmosphere and leader of the Rhymesayers collective. Although Slug is of mixed race, both the African-American Encore and 2Mex asserted that his light complexion (indeed, one person I spoke to at SXSW adamantly denied that "Slug is black") is more appealing to white fans. No one questions that Atmosphere, which has been touring the country for several years, playing shows in small Midwestern cities and slowly building an audience, is deserving of its success. But for 2Mex (a devout fan of the Cure and the Smiths) and Encore, whose lyrics can get as metaphysical and emotional as anything Slug has written, it's painful to see the recording industry ignore them in favor of so-called white "emo-rappers," celebrating the latter's supposed affinity with "emo" bands such as Desaparecidos and At the Drive-In. It gives the impression that those artists are being championed because of the color of their skin.
Incidentally Murs, whose honesty and forthrightness usually keeps him from mincing words, addresses the issue on 3:16's "And This Is For...". "I don't care, don't support me, get mad/Why wouldn't you abort me, my own people have," he raps, noting how black listeners seemingly shun independent hip-hop. Although he says, "I should have the scans that white rappers have," he feels that white fans relate better to white artists. "The only reason it took so long to take place/Was up until now you only had 3rd Bass," he continues. "Question is, why would you listen to Murs's black ass?"
It is a complex issue. Encore points out that major-label, underground-friendly, African-American MCs such as Talib Kweli and Common have huge white followings. So why isn't the underground scene taking the same color-blind approach? Better yet, why aren't hip-hop fans of color learning to appreciate the unorthodox artistry of indie rappers such as Murs, as they recently have with Kanye West's debut album? There aren't any right answers, but Murs vows to soldier on: "Yes, it is the same way that they did rock/But I refuse to watch the same thing happen to hip-hop."