The Austin festival ends in the wee hours of the night and on a hip hop high.
The last weekend of SXSW hit like a haymaker in the 12th round. There was no discernable loss of steam as the Austin weather got sunnier and the crowds got more heated and, in some cases, baked. On Friday we swung back over to Fader Fort to catch Odd Future in a more natural habitat – away from MTV cameras. Underneath the tent roofing, the audience was coiled and at capacity— a soufflé of well-simmered, casual and diehard hip-hop fans bolstered by free booze and word-of-mouth promises. Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All are anything but slight, and when Tyler, Hodgy Beats, Left Brain, Domo Genesis and the crew came on stage, things got almost immediately violent. Tyler, the Creator leapt into the crowd before the first song was through, the stripes of his knee-high socks floating unevenly above the audience. He made specific threats to photographers in the photo pit, whom he promised to hit as hard as he could upon his next stage dive. It was a promise kept – we spoke to one photographer afterward who suffered a split-open forehead and a smashed camera lens. “I’m sending them the bill,” he said.
The relatively brief set maintained that manic energy and included the usual OF favorites, including “Sandwiches,” “Yonkers” and “Double Cheeseburger.” On top of the assault on photographers, the crew got into the habit of hurling full, sealed water bottles into the crowd at top speed. A kid standing next to us got popped in the face. Tyler boasted that there was a nose broken at a show earlier in the day. Some in the audience retaliated by throwing the water bottles back toward the stage, converting the concert into what at times looked more like a turf war. A group of bemused-looking Californians nearby were unmoved by the spectacle. “Do you honestly think there’s anything to this?” one guy asked. “These guys were just skate kids back where we’re from, and now there’s all this hype. I don’t get it.”
On Saturday, the biggest South By audience of the week was forced to be more creative with its energy. All day, the plotting of diabolical schemes could be heard from drink lines and in hotel lobbies – all for the purpose of gaining entry into the much-hyped Kanye West show that night. The concert was being put on by VEVO as a G.O.O.D Music showcase in an abandoned power plant downtown. To be admitted, you had to have received a text message confirmation from VEVO, a golden ticket given out only to those who were the first to reply with a special code word. In a bit of poor logistical planning on VEVO’s part, many who were initially confirmed to be on the guest list were later informed that they had lost their spots due to capacity concerns. The atmosphere at SXSW turned hostile toward the company, and “F*** Vevo” quickly became a trending topic on Twitter.
Doors weren’t scheduled to open until midnight, but by 3pm, some were already camped out in line. The patient Kanye fans formed strong bonds as the hours passed, cheering the arrival of specially-ordered pizzas and cases of beer while heckling cutters with curses and thinly veiled threats of violence. Those who had either lost or never received a coveted spot on the guest list resorted to various tactics, including modifying forwarded confirmation texts to make them look like they came from Vevo, and old-fashioned bribery. Inside the power plant, the atmosphere was surreal. The building was dark and utterly cavernous, with hundred foot ceilings and various stairwells and crawl spaces at either side. An elevated platform at the front of the building served as the stage, and was adorned with massive block letter sculptures lit from within and spelling out “Good Music.” At show time, the members of Kanye’s crew filed on to the stage and stood in front of the letters wearing nearly all black leather and obscured by face masks. After a few moments, the fashionably militant crew dispersed leaving only one man on stage. Even through the mask, it was clear that it was Mos Def.
Mighty Mos kicked things off with a spirited melody of his most buoyant songs and “Boogie Man!” chants. After he left the stage, Big Sean, Pusha T, Cyhi Da Prynce, Fonzworth Bentley, Mr. Hudson and Kid Cudi each performed one by one. All were competent and more-or-less distinct (poor Bentley only got one song, but he supplemented it with an impressively limber dance routine), but only Pusha and Cudi succeeded in transcending the circumstances to make the crowd their own.
West himself finally made his entrance accompanied by the prologue to “Dark Fantasy,” sung by Teyana Taylor and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. He strutted on top of the big letters that spelled “MUSIC,” which had been lit red to match his latest preferred color palette. Kanye was in a focused mood and his perfectionism was both a gift and a curse. On occasion, when a record would cut out or a beat would drop prematurely, he signaled to stage hands to start over, before walking off stage and making a re-entrance. The set was heavy on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy tracks, with only a few cuts from earlier albums like “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’” and “Say You Will” sprinkled in. Ye vibed off the crowd’s energy and at one point during “Runaway” solicited cheers from the audience before continuing the song – he was like a hip-hop Tinkerbell.
For set-closer “All of the Lights,” a full marching band engulfed the stage with Ye standing out in front. As if to stay out of the way of the extravagance of both the song and band, he stood unmoving during his verses, screaming them with a penned up passion. At the end, he left the stage, but the crowd stayed put, cheering for an encore. After a few minutes, they got what they wanted and more, as Kanye came back out with his big brother in tow—Jay-Z.
The two were clearly affected by the magic of the moment, with Jay unable to hide a grin at the audience throwing up the Roc-a-fella sign. The duo dove in and went “H.A.M.” with their latest single from the much-anticipated “Watch the Throne” collaboration. From there, they performed “Monster,” “PSA,” “Swagger Like Us” and “So Appalled.” Kanye forgot the words during “SLU,” but with Jay there, he was much more relaxed and the two just laughed it off. The last song they did together was “Big Pimpin’,” which, of course, originally featured Houston’s own UGK. Hov ended the set by rapping Pimp C’s verse at full volume directly facing the crowd. “What you know about them Texas boys?!” he shouted.
After Jay left the stage, the full G.O.O.D. music entourage came back out and performed the appropriate anthem “Good life.” Kanye thanked the audience and promised that the show was really over this time. The 2,000 plus audience seemed both euphoric and exhausted as they ambled out of the power plant and poured into the streets.
(Photo: Roger Kisby/Getty Images)