Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: email@example.com
After writing this column for two months now, it’s about time I finally got around to profiling an artist from the city where I now live, the city where Hip-Hop originated, the city that never sleeps and should never be slept on: New York City. No underground NYC rapper is more deserving than Rugged N Raw, whose name says it all. RNR is an amazingly versatile and accessible emcee and producer whose music exemplifies the gritty edge of his native city, while also retaining a surprising wittiness and sense of humor. His sound punches you in the face, then cracks a joke or two and makes you feel welcome while you’re still reeling.
RNR’s first full-length album, Another Level, set the tone for the hard-hitting but simultaneously laid-back music he’s been making ever since. As he says on that album’s “Let the Ugly Out,” “[I’m] more chill than the average dude you know / But when my music’s dope, I get stupid, though.” He also gets crazy smart; witness the creativity of his “Advice Column,” in which he humorously breaks life down on an urban Dear Abby tip. Another Level also features “Kick You Down,” a banging track with frequent collaborator Hasan Salaam, a New Jersey emcee with whom RNR formed the wonderfully named group Mohammad Dangerfield (Mo Danger for short). Together, the duo released the free download EP $FREE.99 and subsequent self-titled full-length album, which features the excellent party jam “The BBQ Joint” alongside hard-hitting tracks like “Unredeemed” and the Immortal Technique collaboration “Break of a Star,” produced by the excellent New Hampshire producer Remot.
RNR’s second full-length, Truth Serum, continues to showcase his inimitable skill and relatability. Check out the recession rap anthem “Broke and Proud,” featuring Hasan Salaam, in which he outlines his cheap date and vacation plans: “There’s not a lot I can make possible / Only cheap ideas in the arsenal / I take a chick to the museum / Looks nice and admission fee’s optional / When stress starts to weigh down heavy / Vacation is necessary / What do I do? I pack my bags / Weekend cruise on the Staten Island Ferry.” For those of you who don’t live in New York – yes, the S.I. Ferry is free. Be on the lookout for Rugged N Raw’s new album, Anomaly Book 1, dropping September 4th. Homeboy is the ultimate.
Welcome to Part II of our South by Southwest coverage, where our tireless concert goer braves five straight days of live rock ‘n roll. First we tackled the headliners. Here, it’s showcase time.
The Evening Showcases
Official SXSW showcases took place each night, in six hourly slots from 8 pm to 1 am. So much music, so little time, so many choices. Here’s some of the highlights.
Tristen, The Phoenix
Wednesday night featured an 8 pm set from Tristen at The Phoenix. The Nashville singer/songwriter/guitarist deals out an infectious brand of pop rock with a rootsy base and strong melodic hooks. She’s got a great voice that at times recalls Jenny Lewis from Rilo Kiley. But “The Ringer” had more of a retro pop vibe a la She and Him, while “New Punching Bag” had a gloriously bouncy guitar shimmer.
Fifth Nation, The Tap Room
One of the most unique aspects/perks of SXSW is the potential to discover a great new band you’ve never heard of when your ear just happens to catch a compelling sound from the street. So it was after Tristen’s set when a soaring voice from a nearby rooftop caught our ear. A quick scramble up the stairs at the Tap Room revealed Fifth Nation, out of Brooklyn. Singer/guitarist King Julia has a voice with some of the soul undertones of a Lauren Hill or Erykah Badu, but she puts it in more of a rock context. She and drummer/keyboardist Music Read are just a duo, but create a full sound. Just catching the last 10 minutes of the set revealed this pair as a talent to keep an eye on.
Immortal Technique, Mohawk Patio
Legendary underground hip-hop artist Immortal Technique played to a packed house at the Mohawk Patio at 11 pm. He certainly delivered a high-energy set, although it seemed a bit heavy on plain old anger and a bit short on the radical, left-wing political lyrics that he’s famous for, such as a tune about 9/11 being an inside job. His message would also probably come across stronger if he had a band instead of just a DJ and four hype men.
Nico’s Gun, Annie’s West
We spent the whole evening at the ACL Live venue on Thursday, but Widespread Panic’s set was over around 12:30 am, so there was still one more showcase to be caught in the 1 am slot. The perfect aftershow party was not far away as Nico’s Gun out of Philadelphia threw down a raucous set at Annie’s West on Sixth Street. The funky rock quartet got the party going immediately as girls were dancing onstage during the first song! The band sustained that high energy level throughout their set, mixing some psychedelic qualities in with the funk to keep the Spreadheads dancing the whole time.
Liz Phair, IFC House
Friday night saw ’90s indie-alternative darling Liz Phair was in high demand rocking the intimate IFC House. Phair is 43 now, but she’s a testament to human evolution because she doesn’t look or sound a day over 28. She hit the stage rocking a short mini-skirt and her classic power pop jam “Supernova,” which elated the small but packed room. It’s a strange venue since the concert area is so tiny, yet there are also widescreens showing the performance in the lobby where free drinks and pretzels were being served. Phair ran through a crowd-pleasing greatest hits set, but also tossed in a great new song and then closed it out in triumphant style with her classic “Fuck and Run.”
It was tempting to try and catch the psychedelic rock of Austin’s own Black Angels in the midnight hour, but the Cedar Street Courtyard was a total crowd scene as Jeff Spicoli would say, so it became more appealing to check out Toubab Krewe at Copa. The Asheville jamband drew a festive audience and delivered the goods with some uplifting melodic jams that had the Copa crowd moving and grooving.
It was also tempting to catch Sharon Van Etten at the Central Presbyterian Church at 8:30 pm on Saturday, as her sweet voice would surely sound extra fine with those sensational acoustics. But the Bright Eyes set at Auditorium Shores was just too good to leave at that point. Afterward, it was over to the Belmont on West Sixth, a great little courtyard venue where Nico’s Gun were playing again. The funk quartet were worth seeing again, especially with the improved acoustics and great light show of the classy outdoor venue. It was another great set as the boys showed themselves as a band to watch on the jam rock and festival scene.
Dawes, Lustre Pearl
There were lots of attractive options in the midnight hour with Austin power trio Ume (above) at Skinny’s Ballroom, as well as Texican rockers Los Lonely Boys at the Phoenix. But with the Band’s Robbie Robertson having recently tabbed Dawes to be his new backing band, catching them at Lustre Pearl seemed like the way to go. It didn’t take long to see why Robertson fell in love with the band; They’ve got a compelling vintage folk rock sound coming out of LA’s Laurel Canyon scene. They also have great chemistry, thanks to bassist Wylie Gelber, who was just flat-out amazing. His warm liquid bass runs showed a total mastery of the instrument and boosted every tune higher.
Coming up next: the day party sets and conference panels
AUSTIN, TX – The 25th anniversary edition of the SXSW Music and Media Conference is upon us this week and it’s shaping up to be another gala event for live music junkies. The initial lineup may have looked a bit underwhelming, but that first announcement never shows the big picture. When you have around 2,000 bands from all over the world scheduled to play, there’s going to be more bands that you don’t recognize than you do. But the big name additions have been coming in over the past few weeks, as has the rising buzz on up and coming bands contending to be your new favorites.
Here’s my top 10 “name artists” I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing (even a badge doesn’t guarantee access if a venue has reached capacity, while a small handful of showcases are also private parties necessitating an invite.) Then I’ll list five “buzz bands” I’m eager to check out as well…
Widespread Panic – ACL Live at the Moody Theater – Thursday, March 17 – 11 pm
The southern jam rock titans from Georgia are celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2011. They’ll mark the occasion by playing the first ever SXSW showcase that will also serve as a taping for the Austin City Limits TV show. The brand new ACL Live venue – just opened last month – is a swank theater with a 2,700 seat capacity, although there have been rumors that ACL tapings will only take 800. Getting there early figures to be key, which is why Spreadheads may have to pass up the Strokes’ 8 pm set at Auditorium Shores (a park on Town Lake on the edge of downtown that offers free shows on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.) But Panic will also be preceded by some fine openers with the New Mastersounds at 8:15 pm and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at 9:30 pm.
The Foo Fighters – Austin Music Hall – Wednesday, March 16
The alt-rock icons will be in town for the premiere of the band’s new rockumentary “Back and Forth” on Tuesday at the Paramount Theater. It was also recently announced that they’ll play at “The 2011 mtvU Woodie Awards” on Wednesday along with Wiz Khalifa, Two Door Cinema Club, Sleigh Bells and more, which will air live on three MTV channels. But this is not listed as an official SXSW showcase, so badge holders apparently need to win one of 850 tickets MTV will be giving away. Fingers are crossed.
Men Without Hats – Club De Ville – Friday, March 18 – 1 am
Anyone who grew up with the dawn of MTV in the early-to-mid ’80s will remember this Canadian band and their iconic video for their infectious smash hit, “The Safety Dance.” There’s a lot of attractive showcases happening in this hour on Friday, but this Gen-Xer is not passing up his chance do the Safety Dance at one of Austin’s nicest outdoor clubs.
The Airborne Toxic Event – Stubbs BBQ – Friday, March 18 – 10:30 pm
These Los Angeles indie rockers with the heartfelt sound were one of my favorite random discoveries at SXSW in 2009. I was walking out of the convention center when a girl connected with the band in some way said I shouldn’t leave because a great band was about to play. She described them as having a Bowie-ish vibe with a female violinist. That drew me in to witness a scintillating afternoon set that was a triumph. They’re about to release their second album and playing at Stubbs – ground-zero for SXSW showcases – means they’re moving up to the big time.
Bright Eyes – Auditorium Shores Stage – Saturday, March 19 – 7:30 pm
Conor Oberst has put his Mystic Valley Band on hold to put out a new album with Bright Eyes and the band will headline the Saturday night show at Town Lake. You get an eclectic mix of people since it’s a free show and it’s a gorgeous location for a show with the Austin skyline looming in the background. The band got a lukewarm review on their Radio City Music Hall show from The New York Times, but hopefully they’ll be ready to deliver the goods here. Oberst starred with Monsters of Folk at last October’s ACL Festival.
Immortal Technique – Mohawk Patio – Wednesday, March 16 – 11 pm
One of the most militant and revolutionary MCs in the world, Immortal Technique is a role model for any artist that wants to do it their own way. He’s remained steadfastly independent, refusing to allow major label control of his music or brand. It’s hard to conceive of a major corporate entity that would let him do his thing though, due to his radical way he speaks truth to power. If you feel that 9/11 was an inside job, Immortal Technique is your man.
The Kills – Emo’s Main Room – Thursday, March 17 – 11 pm
Singer Alison Mosshart’s profile was raised to a higher level when Jack White teamed up with her in the Dead Weather. Now she returns to her previous band, where it should be interesting to see how charismatic dark angel incorporates her Dead Weather experience. I can’t catch this set since it conflicts with Widespread Panic, but I’m hoping to see them at the SPIN day party at Stubbs on Friday or their appearance at the IFC House.
TV on the Radio – Stubbs BBQ – Thurday, March 17 – 12:30 am
SXSW will be booming on Thursday night as these trendy indie-pop rockers will be headlining Stubbs BBQ. They’d flown a bit under my radar until Phish covered the band’s “Golden Age” at an Albany show in 2009, then played it again last fall in Colorado. The catchy tune and its uplifting message certainly caught the attention of the Phish Nation. Attendees of Widespread Panic won’t be able to get here for this either, but the band is also headlining that SPIN day party at Stubbs the next day.
Beats Antique – Frontgate Tickets Party – 1711 South Congress – Friday, March 18 – 4:20 PM
This trio out of Oakland has been blowing up on the festival and jam-rock scene over the past year with a groovy vibe that features an Eastern sound with mystical overtones. Their official showcase is Friday night at the Beauty Bar at 1 am, but that’s a conflict for anyone who wants to see Men Without Hats. But the band is also playing several day parties, as many younger bands do.
Liz Phair – IFC House – Friday, March 18 – 8 PM
The indie alt-rock princess of the ’90s has gone through various phases of experimentation and flirted with commercialism, but it seems like she just wants to rock now. She’s in her 40s, but she’s still a total hottie and her 2008 tour featured her classic Exile in Guyville album in its entirety. Now she has a new album where she says she’s letting it all hang out.
Most of these bands are playing multiple showcases and day parties, a common trend for younger bands looking to max out potential exposure…
This local Austin (by way of Houston) power trio features dynamic frontwoman Lauren Larson on guitar and her husband on bass. They were recently named one of the best unsigned bands in America by Rolling Stone. Larson’s petite size is a red herring for what a force to be reckoned with she is onstage.
The Joy Formidable
Another female-fronted power trio, of which there are still too few. This trio is from the UK and was also recently cited by Rolling Stone as a “Band to Watch”, with angelic vocals from Ritzy Bryan that bring Metric to mind, but with maybe a bigger guitar sound.
Jessica Lea Mayfield
This young singer/songwriter from Kent, Ohio was sort of discovered by the Black Keys. Her earliest stuff was way mellow and kind of depressing, but the single from her new album, “Our Hearts Are Wrong,” is so good that Dave Letterman had her on to play it for the national TV audience last month.
A funky and psychedelic quartet of rockers out of Philadelphia. They have a diverse sound from groovy dance numbers like “Dirty Girl” to sparkling pop gems such as “We Are Fluorescent.” They apparently fancy themselves as a “punk rock Michael Jackson,” but they sure rock more than the Gloved One did.
Stephanie Hatfield & Hot Mess
Bluesy rock out of Santa Fe, New Mexico from another husband and wife team. Singer Stephanie Hatfield has a captivating voice that can really rock or go sultry, and guitarist/husband Bill Palmer is an ace bandleader who sets her up to win every time. The band burned it down at the Continental Club on their visit to Austin last year and will be showcasing tunes from their forthcoming second album.