SXSW 2011: Bootlegging, blog-rap, the Cool Kids and Black Hippies: The Nah Right/Smoking Section showcase

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When I interviewed Chuck D recently, he pinned rap’s ails on the demise of the group. And certainly with album sales declining and egos still ballooning, much of the last decade featured few legitimate new outfits.

But things started to change when the Cool Kids, who played the Nah Right/Smoking Section showcase on Thursday afternoon, emerged in 2007. Sporting a retro 808 fetish and a fashion aesthetic straight out of ’88, the duo of Chuck Inglish and Mikey Rocks were two of the first rappers to rise to fame in the blog era.


Though four years later they still haven’t sold an LP in stores, they’ve managed to be massively influential and cake off of live shows to the point where they can afford all the vintage Air Jordans they want. The stark minimalism of Inglish’s beats and Rock’s teenage swag raps established a template for the jerkin’ movement, but it also won them the respect of top-rung MCss (Freddie Gibbs and Inglish comprise 2/3 of new group ‘Pulled Over By The Cops’).

So the Cool Kids performance was part nod to the lane they helped build, part a chance to see their brand of Windy City cool freeze up humid Austin. And they didn’t disappoint, delivering a confident, hyper-smooth set of their best material culled from the last four years. In fact, if there was a problem, it was that nothing could chill the scorching, overcrowded room, still shocked by the set that preceded them.

If you don’t know Black Hippy yet, you will. At least if you pay attention to rap. Sometime in the last year, a quartet of heretofore solo artists -- Kendrick Lamar (formerly K. Dot), Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Warner Bros. refugee Jay Rock -- decided to consolidate and form like Voltron. The decision was the wisest one they could’ve made. Granted, Lamar has built a rep as one of Los Angeles’ best rappers, an honor confirmed by Dr. Dre’s decision to reportedly include him on the mythologically delayed ‘Detox.’ But his best work may come in union with his fellow hippies.

It’s difficult to explain exactly why the the set was so good. It could just be the energy only felt when the stage is swarmed by the raw and ravenous. Ab-Soul couldn’t make it, but no mind. Outside of Yelawolf, it’s tough to imagine another rap set at SXSW featuring the kind of four-alarm intensity let loose by the Hippies. They rapped like they had a gun to their head, or like Dennis Rodman chasing a rebound and leaping four rows into the stands to get it. They made the Cool Kids look like well, kids. Black Hippy makes 21st century West Coast gangsta rap, steeped in the influence of Dre and Quik, but beholden to only a few of the cliches. Admittedly, the lyrics flex a similar fascination with the South L.A. streets, but they’re a product of their environment. There are no soft-minded compromise tracks, merely adamantine riot rap. Schoolboy Q kicked things off, names tattooed onto his neck like a grocery list. If they were the names of dead homies, it wouldn’t be surprising. He rhymed like he carried the weight of 10n cemeteries.

He lit up ‘Druggy’s wit Hoes,’ he ran up into the crowd and made them form a circle around him. He chanted unpublishable profanities. He held up a sack of weed like a party favor, rapping with a surly rasp halfway between DMX and RBX. At the end of his 15 minute-set, he asked the crowd, ‘Does anyone know me.’ By now, the question was rhetorical.

Round two was Jay Rock, the 2011 winner of the man most likely to star in a remake of ‘Menace II Society.’ On record, the Watts rhymer can seem impressive but occasionally generic. In person, he’s vicious, snarling, with veins bulging out of his forehead. Most striking was his passion -- he acknowledged his limbo at Warner Bros, and repeatedly told the crowd how he just wanted to make ‘good music.’ Which was the difference: Most rappers talk about making good hip-hop. And that’s what’s unique about Black Hippy, they understand the power of group chemistry. They’re longtime friends and all affiliated with Jay Rock’s Top Dawg Entertainment. They aren’t a manufactured supergroup like Slaughterhouse, and the way they finish each other’s sentences, add ad-libs, and pass off the mic is almost reminiscent of a Tribe Called Quest.

And if there was a Q-Tip in the group, it’s Lamar, who at times even resembles a young Abstract. But Tip wasn’t raised in Compton. Lamar was, and his helium voice bears the imprint of West Coast lyrical icon Kurupt. Bristling with the sort of homicidal rage of his Compton forebears, Lamar went a cappella; he rapped like he was in a trance. It was eerie, technically flawless, and terrifyingly good. When he blasted into ‘Look Out for Detox,’ the entire room started moshing, the floor starting to warp and bend under the pressure.

-- Jeff Weiss in Austin, Texas