South by Southwest has always been known as a music festival that flourishes with indie-rock bands, singer-songwriter types, classic blues players, metal acts and even some country artists. But hip-hop? Not so much.
That’s been changing thanks to SXSW music programmer Matt Sonzala, who has worked steadily to increase the profile of rap at the festival, which hosts hundreds and hundreds of acts each year. Among the 150 hip-hop performers at this year’s event include Ice Cube, Bun B, The Clipse, Dizzee Rascal, 2 Live Crew, Talib Kweli, and the Cool Kids.
“Honestly I didn’t know too much about this, and people would say, ’What — you don’t know what that is? ... If you don’t go, you trippin’!”’ said Del the Funky Homosapien, playing SXSW for the first time this year. “That’s when I started realizing.”
While the genres at SXSW have always been varied, it is more known for its rock. But with the growth of Southern rap, especially Houston’s burgeoning rap scene, Sonzala felt something needed to be done about the dearth of hip-hop at the festival.
“Early on, I was trying to get artists to come down,” Sonzala, who has been working for SXSW for five years, told The Associated Press on Saturday. “Most of the people I brought were from Houston.”
“When I would talk to the labels,” he said, “people would tell me things like, ’Why would I send my artists to that hippie festival? Why would I send them to this rock festival?”
But once labels started seeing the benefit of playing the SXSW — including garnering key publicity and making key industry contacts — Sonzala doesn’t have that much of a problem anymore.
“I guess word of mouth, they see what it is, it’s really the world’s biggest music festival,” he said. “Word has just spread.”
Groundbreaking Houston rapper Bun B, who along with the late Pimp C was part of the group U.G.K., said he reached out to acts like Kweli and Banner to appear this year. He said for many rappers, SXSW wasn’t on their radar: “(But) I think it absolutely should be.”
Besides increasing rap’s profile on the key music festival circuit, Bun B said SXSW has helped him understand how broad his fan base is.
“You don’t even know where you register on that scale sometimes,” he said.