Mar 292012

I have a confession to make. I missed many of the official SXSW events on March 17th because I was participating in GXGJ at Genuine Joe’s Coffee. Josh Brown’s unofficial, annual showcase is timed to coincide with SXSW and is a great showing for the newest, most up-and-coming acts in Austin. The coffee house setting makes for smaller, quieter gigs, but it’s a prime starting ground for many of Austin’s newer acts. My band, Motion Planet, was headlining this year’s GXGJ. Thus, I didn’t get downtown ’til well after 10 PM.

Spencer Davenport (R) and Michael Dieter (L), AKA Marfa Lights

Because I was on a deadline, I dropped $20 on parking and ran over to a nearby food trailer for a quick grub. I had to get to Haven on Colorado to see GZA at the Babygrande Records’ Showcase. The Wu-Tang legend was performing with Grupo Fantasma and Brownout (who share members) for an unprecedented hip-hop/Latin combo. This was my only backstage pass during the festival, but it more than made up for my late arrival to SXSW festivities.

GZA didn’t go on until Midnight, and I had gotten there early, so I got to enjoy the ramshackle performance by hip-hop newcomer Marz Lovejoy. Her music involved a lot of call-and-response melodies and the performance featured a contingent of dancing women who all sported large hairdos very much like the 20year old Ms. Lovejoy herself. Honestly, the performers seemed a little loose on the stage, and while it wasn’t a sloppy show there was definite a sense of stage partying going on.

The Haven stage was similarly filled for Jet Life, a rap collective that includes Curren$y, Trademark Da Skydiver, Young Roddy and several others. This was a much more aggressive and controlled show than the previous act. Multiple MCs replaced one another on the stage between songs and sometimes even between verses. You got the sense that Jet Life was trying to make as strong an impression as possible in their limited time; maybe they’re a new commodity to rap audiences and need to place their punches for maximum impact. While the stage presentation was forceful, the material was up-and-down based on whoever was onstage at the time. Some MCs had impressive flow, while others had more conventional set-ups that paled in comparison.

That's just three of Jet Life's members.

At some point in the middle of Jet Life’s performance, GZA arrived. The mass of people moving around him as he got to his place backstage impossible to miss. People adore him. However, it was clear that he had to prepare for the upcoming show, so by the time he sat down he was largely left alone. This series of events led to the telling sight of Babygrande founder Chuck Wilson informing members of Jet Life of the time left in their set from the back entrance to the stage. He gave them one more song and then cut them off.

GZA’s performance was, of course, awesome. Maybe America’s most purely intellectual rapper (if not the world’s), GZA is an artist who doesn’t have to continue to push his art but does so anyway. The backing Grupo Fantasma was the first live band I had seen that night at Haven, and it changed the whole dynamic. To read a full-on account of this amazing concert (maybe the best I saw during the entire SXSW festival), go here.

Afterwards, the crowd moved out but I stayed behind as press swirled. GZA wasn’t giving any interviews, but I did manage a fist-pump or two and thanked him for coming to Austin. The guy is pretty quiet and unassuming in person, actually. “What are you doing now?” one backstage member asked. “Going home,” GZA said with exhaustion in his voice. According to Wilson, the rapper had to be traveling at 4 AM the next morning. Er, that morning.

Outside, the streets were still full despite the bars being closed. I searched in vain for an after party, but it just wasn’t happening. I got home at 4 in the morning (right around when GZA was boarding his plane). And I’ll make another confession: I was a little burnt out, so I didn’t attend anything on Sunday. I figured it wasn’t going to get better than what I was part of Saturday night/Sunday morning.

Ya’ll should share your personal SXSW memories with AME! Send a message to and we’ll put up your stories next week! It was a much easier-going SXSW than last year, and despite a few technical difficulties and the usual traveling complications (which are to be expected), it revealed as many pleasures and surprises as ever. See ya’ll on the streets next year?

Mar 202012

It’s obvious that GZA/The Genius would find an adoring crowd in Austin. After all, his heady, intellectual rhymes and complex subject matter make a good fit for Austin’s brainy, intellectual approach to pop culture. But when he performed at Haven on Saturday, March 17th for Babygrande Records’ SXSW showcase, he upped his Austin cultural ante by adding in Grammy-winning, Latin superstars Grupo Fantasma as his backing band.

The addition of Grupo’s intense, tightly-wound instrumentation (not to mention their hardcore funk incarnation Brownout, who were also credited on the bill) to GZA’s set list emboldened both his classic tracks and new material from the forthcoming Dark Matter (release date TBA through Babygrande Records). The new record is apparently steeped in GZA’s interest in quantum physics and astronomy (I think The Genius is probably Christopher Nolan’s favorite Wu-Tang member), and the white-hot earthiness of Fantasma blended with the iconic MC’s metaphysical flow. A pounding, svelte rendition of “Shadowboxing,” from GZAs’s classic Liquid Swords, was the apotheosis of GZA’s modern updating of his back catalog.

The collaboration is the brainchild of Babygrande founder Chuck Wilson and Nat Geo Music Vice President Jeff Clyburn. The two are lifelong friends, and both represent sides of the team-up (GZA is on Babygrande, while Grupo releases on Nat Geo). “We were brainstorming about how to stay on the cutting edge at SXSW 2012,” Wilson says. “SXSW means so many things to so many people now. I think for Jeff and I it really is about exposing people to different kinds of music and bringing people together in the spirit of great music. That is what this epic collaboration between GZA and Grupo Fantasma means to us.”

Throughout the performance, GZA stepped across the stage and seemed to be in conversation with each member of the intimate venue’s appreciative crowd. While he’s far from serene while spitting, Wu-Tang’s spiritual head carries an enlightened countenance onstage. He’s a magnanimous and inclusive hip-hop legend, and the formidable nature of his artistry is obvious.

The rap/Latin live combo really was something new to my ears. Like all great ideas, it seems like an obvious choice once you hear how well it works. I don’t know if this approach is reflective of Dark Matter‘s sound, but after a night of electronic loop-based hip-hop acts (who were all admittedly striking) it was a welcome revelation. It fit that an artist who has been at the forefront of the rap genre for so long would be at the head of its live act innovation.

GZA quietly exited Haven after his set ended at 2 AM. He had to get back on the lecture tour (GZA appears at the MIT Civic Media Lab, NYU’s EMP Pop Conference at the Clive Davis Institute and Cornell University in the next three weeks), so there was probably no crazy SXSW after-party in store. But if the new record is anywhere as explosive as Saturday’s performance, get ready for the best GZA album since Grandmasters. This was the SXSW show of Saturday night.

Get more info on GZA, Dark Matter and fellow progressive artists at

Check out Grupo Fantasma, Brownout (who have a new album, Oozy, dropping on April 24th) and other great artists at