SXSW 2014

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  • The line between hip-hop and dance music has been increasingly blurred in recent years, and nowhere was this more apparent than at the 2014 SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. The acts who worked best at the festival—at least out of the two-dozen or so I saw across the five days—were those occupying this middle space. Even when the DJs played house or techno, it was often delivered in the manner of a hip-hop selector. The ubiquity of trap—you were never more than a block away from a dive-bomb sub and ticking hi-hats it seemed—was at times too much, but SXSW 2014 mostly proved that this cross-scene dialogue is healthy and thriving. Warp and Boiler Room offered interesting case studies in this cross-pollination. The UK label staged a showcase with Glasgow's LuckyMe at Empire that noticeably eschewed artists from their roster in favour of hot hip-hop/R&B/electronic music crossover acts. Kelela, Jeremiah Jae and Lunice got the large, open-faced Garage jumping, but restrictions imposed by the local fire department meant space inside was limited, and movement between the two rooms was restricted. Future Brown's stoic four-way DJ performance, which drew upon styles as diverse as kuduro and footwork, subsequently fell a little flat as patrons grew frustrated with the barriers and one-in-one-out system and left the venue.
    The Empire Garage and Control Room
    Boiler Room took over Emo's East, an enormous concert space outside the city, on the Saturday, with a bill that mixed house and hip-hop in their pure forms. Gaslamp Killer and Just Blaze were lively performers in their early slot. The former dramatically started playing drums at one point during their back-to-back DJ set, and the later kept the crowd hyped by scratching and dropping tracks by TNGHT and Kaytranada. Conversely, Omar-S and Julio Bashmore's dual DJ performance didn't really work. The pair were evidently having technical difficulties, and their straight 4/4 beats felt out of place in a room that was obviously baying for hip-hop. YG collaborator DJ Mustard made this clear—his party-centric set, with hits from Crooklyn Clan, 2Pac, Sage The Gemini and ASAP Ferg, had people bouncing and singing in unison. Four Tet had the unenviable task of closing the event after Future (the act that lots of the crowd had evidently come to see) had walked off stage due to technical issues. It took the UK DJ some time to find a comfortable groove, but the swung grime and garage he dropped around the set's midpoint rescued the party.
    Jessy Lanza at the Resident Advisor showcase
    Obviously it's difficult for me to objectively discuss RA's showcase, which took place at Elysium for the second year running, but I will say that everyone seemed to have a great time. The Range and Lee Bannon, playing back-to-back, and Jacques Greene both approached their sets with a hip-hop swagger, even if their beats fell outside of the style. Jessy Lanza and Machinedrum really distinguished themselves with their live shows. Lanza's exquisite control of her voice made her performance exceptionally close to the sound of Pull My Hair Back, her R&B-heavy debut album. Machinedrum, meanwhile, made that rarely successful translation from concept album to live show. Vapor City, his latest album, was a sonic tour of an imagined urban space, and each track in his thrilling show was accompanied by a visual that detailed a different zone of the city. Spinn and Rashad tore the place apart with their footwork repertoire and hip-hop MCing, which left Shlohmo to close on a more melodic and ethereal note. A Club Called Rhonda, the polysexual LA promoter, threw one of the few parties that exclusively offered house music. They took over Empire's Control Room for a colourful event that featured a giant on-stage spaceship and a playful closing set from Tensnake. Earlier that evening I'd seen Forest Swords perform in a wildly different environment—Austin's Central Presbyterian Church. The Pitchfork event was a welcome moment of calm (I saw a couple of people sleeping) and Matthew Barnes' contemplative style of guitar-heavy modern dub worked elegantly in the setting. On the opposite end of the scale again, one of Numbers artist SOPHIE's many appearances—and one of my personal highlights of the festival—was at an illegal afterparty on the east side. (Everything shuts at 2 AM in Austin.) Playing on the worst soundsystem I've heard in awhile, he dropped saccharine tracks from his catalogue, teetering excitedly on the cliff-edge of good taste.
    Connan Mockasin at the Fader Fort
    Out of all the styles of music that are presented at SXSW, it's maybe easiest to be an electronic music fan. The sound is on the rise at the festival, but the number of artists (see our guide) is still manageable. In truth, I was glad of the filter. Over 2000 acts perform as part of the official SXSW showcases, which mainly take place in the downtown area, and there's a further festival's worth of performances across the highway at the unofficial events. Fader Fort, an annual staple that's like a mini Sónar By Day, is almost a festival unto itself (with the queues to match). And I spent part of my time in Austin casually wondering the streets, dipping into a party that looked good from the street. The festival, of course, has its roots in indie rock, and is still an important shop window for A&Rs to sign new bands. But on a broad level it appeared that hip-hop is challenging its domination. It's through the lens of hip-hop and its related forms that people seemed to "get" electronic music at SXSW, but it's a space that's inhabited by plenty of exciting and innovative artists, so that's certainly not a complaint.