Philly's music scene in the midst of a renaissance
Austin, Texas, 1987. What started as a seed in the minds of two Austin Chronicle employees as a way to keep butts on barstools during spring break when the University of Texas—and by extension, the city—took off for the sandy beaches of Cancun or South Padre, is now a giant, sturdy Texas oak in full bloom: South By Southwest, the largest music conference of its kind.
This year was the biggest yet, with 13,000 badge-wearing registrants (and countless others not registered) descending on Austin to watch 1,900 bands from 55 different countries playing 89 venues over four days.
According to SXSW.com, the festival’s original goal was “to create an event that would act as a tool for creative people and the companies they work with to develop their careers, to bring together people from a wide area to meet and share ideas.” It’s safe to say that goal has been accomplished. The music business still matters at SXSW. And as it matters in fewer and fewer places, the importance of the conference grows. While music sales spiral ever downward, SXSW adds more venues, bands and registrants (up 11 percent from last year).
John Nova Lomax of the Houston Press put it best in an article about SXSW a couple weeks ago: “Today,” he writes, “for music lovers, SXSW is something like MLB’s Opening Day, Mardi Gras, Fashion Week and the Super Bowl all rolled into one … And if you throw in the Film and Interactive portions of the schmoozathon, it’s safe to say that for much of March, Austin is the creative nexus of Planet Earth, version 2.0.”
And everyone wants a piece—to tie their brand to SXSW’s “creative nexus” in the hope that some of the hill-country cool happening there that week will rub off on their band, their shirt company, their label, their radio station, their marketing firm or their energy drink. Maybe they’ll get discovered. Maybe they’ll sign a modest record deal. Or maybe, at the very least, they’ll get very drunk.
Philly bands are no exception. And, just as in previous years, many of our finest made the trek down to swim the caramel oceans of Shiner Bock, catch a wicked case of the meat sweats and represent our city’s vast aural array.
“It was great!” says Joe Baldacci of Philly rock outfit Elevator Fight. “The experience overall was, as always, fucking amazing. Really, is there a band that would describe a place where they close down streets and every place that could possibly have live music in it does from noon until 2 a.m. as anything but? Austin [during SXSW] is like a checklist of cliched perfection. Great food, tons of booze, clear warm weather, beautiful women and tons of decent music of almost any kind.”
Like our restaurant scene, Philadelphia’s music community is in the midst of a renaissance. The regeneration was on abundant display during SXSW, where, no matter where you went, a band from Philly—Freeway, Free Energy, Dr. Dog, Man Man, Circa Survive, the Movement, Drink Up Buttercup, Tigersapien, Chiddy Bang, Bahamadia, Grandchildren, Reading Rainbow—was on the tip of someone’s tongue, in front of their eyes or ringing in their ears. Even Bill Murray’s. In total, 17 Philly bands made the trip down South. Some busted their asses. Some relaxed at a ranch. Some inked deals. All made an impression.
Walking down Sixth Street with Philly rapper Freeway in anything resembling a timely fashion is impossible. Sixth is Austin’s main party artery—think Two Street, New Year’s Day; Broad Street, Philly’s World Series Victory; fifteen South Street flash mobs piled on top of one another. Hundreds of bars and live music venues sit tightly packed together in fewer than a dozen blocks. On the weekend, traffic is diverted around Sixth and drunks are allowed to clog the roadway by foot. It’s a gauntlet. Lots of bobbing, tons of weaving, turn sideways, speed up, slow down. Watch that puke! There’s a distinct rhythm to it. The more you walk it (or the drunker you get), the easier it becomes.
But when one-time Roc-A-Fella millionaire Freeway and his notorious beard are in tow, that rhythm gets disrupted considerably, and mastering the drunken slalom becomes futile.
Take eight steps, pose for picture. Take five steps, pose for another. Take three steps, listen to a video director pitch an idea. Take four steps, get handed a demo. Take another picture. And another. Before you know it you’ve walked exactly one block in 20 minutes.
Freeway, of course, is famous. He was Jay Z’s pitbull. His self-titled Roc-A-Fella debut is a hip-hop classic. He murdered his verse on “Two Words,” a track off Kanye’s College Dropout, which also featured Mos Def. He killed it again when performing the song on Chappelle’s Show atop a bus. He’s unquestionably one of Philly’s most recognizable rap stars. So it’s no small surprise people want their two seconds with him. What is surprising, though, is how familiar the strangers approaching him are. They want hugs. Daps. Pounds. You’d think many are old friends or family he hasn’t seen in awhile. They’re not.
“They feel a connection to me through my music,” he says, unfazed by the frequency at which a crowd gathers to meet (and film) his every step. Of course, he’s probably relieved.
It’s been a weird few years for Freeway, who has seen his career shift from shiny jewel in Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella crown to workhorse at an independent hip-hop label out of Minneapolis, Rhymesayers. Given how seriously fragmented the music business has become, that’s not exactly a bad thing—major label stars Bun B and Birdman also make cameos on the album. The hip-hop universe has shrunk considerably these last few years.
“I’m always gonna rep Roc-A-Fella,” the hirsute MC told PW in February just before his indie release, The Stimulus Package, hit the streets. “That’s where I started and I definitely appreciate everything they did for me. But, as far as everything else, I don’t think it’s a functioning label right now.”
What Freeway may have lost in the transition from a star on one of hip-hop’s biggest labels to a big fish in a small indie pond is quickly forgotten the second you listen to his new album. Stimulus Package is white-hot, and contains, arguably, some of his best work to date. Produced entirely by Seattle’s Jake One, it’s at points rugged, fluid, obnoxious, sentimental, grown up and introspective.
At Rhymesayers, Freeway has more say and responsibility than ever, and is more involved with his art than while enjoying his Roc heyday. This is a good thing, a freeing thing.
“I’m more hands-on with the projects,” he says. “It’s a more personal feeling. I feel like I’m working. I’m with them on every aspect, not just the music—the marketing, everything.”
Putting in work is something he learned from Jay-Z, still a close friend and mentor to Free. “He taught me it’s more than music,” says Freeway. “You gotta be about your business. You gotta be on top of every aspect of it. You can’t leave nothing in nobody’s hands.”