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Leah Manners, Adam Protextor, and Aaron Miller are trying to build something. They’ve been building it for over a decade, even if they didn’t always know it. It started as something intangible – a sense of togetherness, a fostering of mutual respect and appreciation, a “certain kind of community uplifting spirit,” in Manners’ words. It started as something they did on their own, but now they build together. In the larger picture, it’s a movement – or, less grandly, it’s just movement. It’s forward motion. In the more immediate sense, it’s a music festival. But it’s invariably been about one thing: hip-hop.

The three Texans come to the genre and culture from different walks of life. Manners is a radio personality who’s hosted the program “Hip Hop Hooray” on Austin’s KOOP for the past seven years, in addition to helping operate the station. Protextor has been making hip-hop for eleven years – an emcee who’s performed at shows across the spectrum, from “total indie no-show shows to bigger shows.” Miller, conversely, has operated in the back of the house, booking and running gigs at four of the city’s venues. “I would basically do any dirty work in clubs to get my hands on the stage,” he says. ‘Now I’m trying to monetize my lifestyle.”

Bringing them together is Weird City, a three-day hip-hop festival scheduled a month from now in Austin. Its line-up is a who’s who of underground rap (or whatever you want to call it): Dilated Peoples, Pharaohe Monch, Jean Grae, Black Milk, Guilty Simpson, Open Mike Eagle, Homeboy Sandman, and Jonwayne, among others. These acts are buttressed by a handful of Austin rappers and showcases, of course. Holding up local talent while also proving the sustainability of the city’s hip-hop fan base is essentially its dual mission.

The former goal is something that Manners and Protextor have worked towards over the past two years through Austin Mic Exchange (or “AMX”), a weekly open mic night. “I was working with a lot of different sub-genres of hip-hop and noticed that not a lot of them were aware of each other,” Protextor explains. “Along the idea of power in numbers, that if everyone was in the same place, it would be a spotlight saying, ‘Hip-hop here.’ That’s why Leah and I started AMX.”

“The point was to bring aspiring, young, and veteran hip-hoppers to the same stage and create a network of talent to unify the scene,” Manners adds, sounding very much like someone who’s spent seven years on the radio – smooth and confident, like she’s reading off a script, even when she’s not. [Full disclosure: I have known Manners for many years. She and Miller also contribute to BYT’s hip-hop roundtable, Rec-Room Therapy.]

Miller, meanwhile, was a regular at AMX before joining the Weird City team. “I’ve gone from customer to really interested customer to being recruited to help book some rap shows,” he tells me. “It’s like Hair Club for Men.”

BYT called the trio a few weeks ago to discuss their observations and opinions about the state of hip-hop at large, the role of localism, and how all of that relates to what they’re doing with Weird City Fest.  The specifics of their story may be one of Austin, Texas, but it holds true for much of the U.S. in 2014.  Plus, with decades on decades of hip-hop nerdom between them, they just know a lot about rap music and the industry around it.

“I listen to a lot of stuff that I would never play on the radio, “ Manners says, cracking up.

Miller can’t resist chiming in: “Oh I’ve seen her when a Gucci Mane song comes on.”

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What’s the state of hip-hop? Where are we now that we weren’t 15 years ago?

Protextor: I’ve noticed a trend back towards more lyrically driven hip-hop. It doesn’t have to be positive, but it is slightly more positive. I think that has something to do with the twenty-year cycle and people’s nostalgia for the golden age of the mid-90s.

We’re seeing an increase in the mainstream of the EDM party sound, but in the actual hip-hop world, we’re seeing the fading of that ‘80s throwback, dancey, party club rap, in favor of just being a good rapper again.

Miller: A novel idea.

Who best represents that?

Protextor: First of all, you have all of these old schoolers, and some of them aren’t that relevant anymore, but they’re coming out and saying a lot of stuff like that. And they’re meeting a mixed vibe of “Be quiet, Dad” on one hand, but on the other, people are actually listening to them. I think Kendrick being so huge has really helped drive that. I didn’t think his “Control” verse was even that amazing, except for the fact that it did demand more of a people. In the indie hip-hop circuit, lyricism is really becoming more and more valued.

Manners: I see a lot of the stratification of hip-hop in terms of popularity and money and fame. Just like with the erosion of the middle class in the late 2000s, there’s been an erosion in the middle talent and cost area. Even as we’re booking this festival, we don’t find a lot of people in the middle in terms of price. They’re either super cheap or real expensive. You see that with talent as well. You see giant, huge Jay Zs, Nickis, and Kendricks, and then way far below that is this teaming indie roster of everyone across the country, which has been fueled by the increased dissemination of information across the internet. People will have small fan bases, but when they blow up, they really blow up. There aren’t the middle farms like you saw in the ‘90s. There’s some regional talent in Texas and the South, but there’s such a big gap between the big dogs and the indie artists now.

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A dozen years ago, there was more of a critical apparatus – particularly online – to support artists like DOOM, Madlib, Aesop Rock, Sage Francis, Blackalicious, etc. Nowadays, you go on a site like Pitchfork and 75% of the rap content is about Drake or Kanye. It’s not to say that they still need to be repping those old acts, but who’s pulling up the next generation?

Manners: In a certain way, loving popular artists has lost irony – or it’s gained irony? I can’t tell whether there’s an earnest love for people like Drake or whether there’s an ironic appreciation of “Oh, look what Drake is doing again!” It’s partly a situation of “I’m cool enough to love something that’s popular.” It’s so weird. But I agree that it’s the way things have headed. Blogs don’t cover the local indies anymore.

But someone like Drake is bringing up a person like Eric Dingus from Austin, Texas, to produce records for him. Maybe that’s how you do it. Maybe the only way to get attention on the smaller artists is to get the big dogs to notice them. Regional blogs like Brightest Young Things could put in an indie rap writer and cover their scene better, but they’ll never be as well trafficked without that Drake hash-tag.

Protextor: You’re totally right in that the blogs are trying to traffic more with big names, and I think that’s because hip-hop is so ubiquitous now. When it was more of a niche audience – a big audience, but certainly not the mainstream audience – it was going to tailor to its audience a bit more, but now that it’s held up on the same platform as indie rock and EDM and all the big stuff, the big names are going to float to the top, because it’s what’s easy for people to be a fan of.  But that also goes hand-in-hand with this bolstering indie rap community across the country growing. The dust is settling on hip-hop finding its new role in things. As that happens, the indie artists will have a firmer grasp on what they need to be doing to break out, because right now there’s just very confusing line between the two.

Miller: Rap’s visibility to the basic mainstream consumer is boosted so much with the internet, and with easier access to anything from promo to home recording, it’s just easier to get on. But by that same token, it sort of dilutes the effect of the co-sign and being put on by another rapper. You used to find out from other rappers as their records came out who was about to be the shit.

Protextor: You used to be able to look at the feature list and know who was going to have a record out soon.

Miller: Now there’s this Borg that’s churning out a lot of mid-rate talent. It’s marketable and sellable mid-rate talent, but it dilutes the genre as a whole. I’ve always been such a fan of rap, but I have a hard time acknowledging that it wasn’t super mainstream from the first moment that I heard about it.

Manners: Another problem is that everything is free. Everyone is putting out free mixtapes. No one is paying for anything. The accessibility of music is so open that it’s almost impossible to sift through it without recommendations. You need a curator, and there are only so curators  many out there that are willing to go through that bog and find the good stuff.

Miller: On the booking end, that often jacks up the prices. If artists can’t get paid off a record anymore, they’re going to have to squeeze the money out of somewhere. As rap gets better and better, it becomes less accessible to the fan base that’s supporting it.

Protextor: It goes hand-in-hand with the stratification that Leah was talking about. If you’re an artist and you get a lot of blog love and you start to blow up, and you’re still giving stuff away on the internet, then you do have to charge more for a show. So, you have those high prices, and then you have the low prices that are trying to get into that position and get that exposure to begin with. It does eat out that middle area.

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Do you think that the prevalence of the free mixtape – a format that wasn’t really around a decade ago – has hurt the relevance of the proper rap album?

Protextor: It’s artists adapting, because I don’t think anyone in any genre of music want to pay. They’re used to streaming and downloading for free. The whole concept of paying for an album in general is in danger. The rise of the mixtape is less of a cause and more of a symptom of people trying to hustle the system when they have to play by the rules of having to give shit away for free.

Miller: It has a profound effect on the marketing of music, because, again, nobody wants Tha Carter 36. A lot of times, it’s not a rappers’ best matrial and they’re just cranking them out. You end up just wanting one good quality album experience. It speaks a lot to the way that all music is consumed, because you go back to the CD era in the late 90s, and you’d have an allegiance to an artist, and then under that an album, and under that a song on that album. Now it’s totally reversed. People have an allegiance to a single song.

There’s a gray area. No one can distinguish what makes a mixtape the record of the year or just another fucking mixtape. It’s unquantifiable. It just depends on how famous you are and quality and sellability. There’s a lot of good shit floating around that’s just not getting a lot of traction, because it doesn’t quite get over the hump.

Manners: There’s a lot of hype about Yeezus or Doris coming out, but then Run the Jewels comes and everyone is astonished that it’s free. They’re expecting the bigger artists to charge, and sometimes they’re not. There’s a whole seres of confusion around it. Run the Jewels are paying into a free economy, essentially. They know their fans are going to get the leaks, so they’re cutting around it and getting money on toruing and merch.

Miller: Yeah, that shirt was 30 bucks. They’re getting paid.

Manners: You can buy grinders. I bought the vinyl.

Protextor: I did too. We all gave Run the Jewels money.

Miller: Just a bunch of honest rap fans over here.

Manners: They’re basically charging their core fans instead of everyone a little.

Protextor: The whole paradigm is shifting. Nobody knows what’s going on with the whole album / mixtape thing. I feel like in three years, we’ll have a new model for distribution, but right now it’s so in the air, and people just don’t want to pay for anything.

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Where do you see “underground, conscious, and global” rap on a national level? Where has it moved since its 90s heyday?

Manners: People don’t give a shit about conscious rap anymore. I think it’s done. It sounds cheesy and too earnest. People are over it. They just want good rap, and whether that comes with a positive message or a negative message is irrelevant. There’s still a gentrified white fixation on the glorification of crime and misogyny and drugs and money. That still exists. The gangster rapper and the generation therein will always be popular. But I don’t think that anyone cares if a rapper is bringing a message to the mainstream, unless they do it well with their lyrics.

Miller: You could see the abrupt shift in the late 90s. You had groups that were associated with a conscious label – and it meant a very specific thing in the middle of boom-bap ‘90s – but once you got to the ass end of that, all of these groups that had been happy and shiny got rougher and meaner. Rap was getting darker. Look at De La Soul. It reflected the industry. Now you have to sneak it into your street rap. You hgave to sneak it into your party song.

It settled in this place where I would consider the bulk of that whole Detroit scene – J Dilla and Guilty Simpson – conscious on a scale of conscious rap.  It’s definitely smart shit. It’s more street smart. I didn’t see the division back in the day. “Conscious rap” sort of meant “good rap” – there was conscious rap and gangster rap, and not a lot of subdivision in between. There was no trap rap. There was definitely no sad rap.

You can the see effect of people caring less and less about message. The message got buried. Conscious rap used to be a strident, “wake the fuck up” kind of rap. Now it’s: “If you notice a message in the background, that’s cool, but we gotta stay relevant and keep up with the young kids.”

Who does that well?

Miller: Like, old dudes that sort of seamlessly integrate into new shit happening around them? Pusha T, definitely. Did that dude get old? Did he ever at any time fall off? He and Cam’ron have that thing where they’re always just slightly marketable, whether it’s all the way street or this weird, chic, Hollywood rap thing.

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Do you think that the possibility of overnight YouTube success in hip-hop – something that doesn’t really happen in any other genre of music – has had a negative effect on rap as a live art form?

Protextor: Definitely. The strength of your live act is a huge tool for any indie rap artist in general, but there has been a trend of people who are staying in their houses and just trying to use the internet. They’re definitely sleeping on their live performance because of it. That’s a very real trend.

Manners: That’s part of why Austin Mic Exchange exists.

Protextor: Yeah, it gets people out of the house and gives them a platform to practice their performance, so that they understand what goes over well with their peers and what doesn’t. If you’re at that event and you’re just an internet rapper without that strong of a live performance, and you see another guy who’s basically in your class success-wise and he’s just killing it and getting the whole crowd riled up, it really encourages everyone to step up their game.

Miller: Sometimes it just generates pure talent. If we just started shooting off the names of rappers under the age of 23, we’d all come up with the Earl Sweatshirts and Joey Bada$$’s. And all of those dudes who are the hottest, hottest, hottest right now all just stepped from the internet to almost instant fame. Same thing goes for Mac Miller. I thought I had found some new shit with him. I was like, “Who’s this kid? He can rap!” And then boom, he’s playing stadiums.

Protextor: That internet stuff is a little bit of a myth. For instance, Earl and Tyler were already managed for a couple of years before they had any of those breakout videos. It’s not just the internet or the YouTube lotto. A lot of those artists have management that they’ve been working with for years ahead of time. They want to craft that image. They want it to look like they just blew up from the internet.

Miller: Odd Future was managed by Eminem’s manager when they were giving away music on the internet. It looked really organic, but there was a machine behind it. Your average fan doesn’t really know that.

Protextor: You’re selling them the rags-to-riches narrative, which is of course extremely attached to the ethos of hip-hop.

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How would you describe the Texas hip-hop landscape?  Obviously, Houston is the scene that has a distinct sound that’s permeated nationally.

Protextor: Houston definitely has a well-defined sound. Dallas is way on the come-up. I’ve always thought of Austin as the place that doesn’t have a defined sound, and that eclectic nature and pure variety of talent is our strength. People are bringing all sorts of influences to Austin. It’s a town of immigrants. Everyone here is from somewhere else and bringing their own influences. That swirling chaos of style is the Austin sound. The big challenge is finding a way to market that and make it digestible idea nationally, so we can sustain a scene that’s as recognized as Houston and its very unified aesthetic.

Miller: Everything about Austin is organized into little boutiques –these  little factories that turn out bits and pieces of the scene. We have such over-stimulation. Even outside of SXSW, between any Wednesday and Saturday, there are probably thirty or forty shows a night that you can go see. Some of them are mind-blowing, some of them are bullshit. The competitive nature of the town creates a farm-to-table equivalent of marketing music: What’s the most authentic? And it results in a lot of good music across the board. At any given time over the past twenty years, there are a couple of Austin bands that are actually really famous, and a couple ore poised to rotate when their fame dies down. But we never quite get there with the rap scene. Or if we do, it’s in this quick bursts. It’s like a dude graduating and going off to school.

Manners: Houston has had a strong youth and black community for many, many decades. Austin has consistently segregated and pushed out its black community, even geographically in addition to economically. It’s a place of transience. It’s got the University of Texas, but those kids are out in five or six years. There’s no strong base of support for hip-hop music. It has a predetermined audience, because of the way that the city is built and the way it’s run. It’s kind of a racist town! That’s not to say it can’t be fixed. That’s not to say it can’t be worked on. That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of amazing talent in the city. But it does mean that there haven’t been clubs that have consistently put on hip-hop shows. There hasn’t been a culture of unity or support among the different sub-genres of hip-hop. But it doesn’t mean that it can’t happen now.

Miller: The weird thing is that in spite of Austin’s history of literally pushing away minority audiences, the quality floats to the top. The sheer number of super quality rap shows that I’ve seen from the age of fourteen or fifteen is staggering, and they just keep coming and coming. They were coming fifteen years before SXSW noticed that it was marketable. SXSW had a dicey history. It was obviously the premier, world class music festival in the world, but it was slacking on the rap bills up until painfully recently – literally three years ago. Now it’s Rap by Rap West. All of the biggest acts are now rap stars. You have Jay Z and Kanye and literally anyone they can get their hands on. And it makes this beautiful presence, and then it goes away.

It’s an either/or thing. You have these weeklies and monthlies that are just holding their corner of the scene, and then you have these giant one-offs. There’s a big gulf in between. There’s a lack of accessibility. What we’re trying to do with Weird City Fest is close that gap and allowing a scene that’s hard at work to get a taste of that exposure. In my mind, there’s a sense of defiance: Let’s remind people what hip-hop is about, and how it is the most accessible, cross-generational thing. It defies datedness and keeps getting bigger and bigger and more popular. But it’s up to us to throw rap shows.

Protextor: Hip-hop is coming to Austin whether anyone wants it to or not, because hip-hop is coming to everywhere. We’re just trying to be responsible curators of its arrival here.

Miller: We’re not saying that there’s not a strong hip-hop scene here. It’s just small. Our people have been diligently holding it down since the late ’80s.

I was so obsessed with New York rap when I was young that I missed a lot of the early Texas scene. I was aware of it, but it didn’t have my ear as much as stuff that was a couple thousand miles away. In retrospect, that’s weird. I remember hearing DJ Screw and thinking, “Man, that shit is scary! I gotta check that shit out someday!” That’s about as far as it went when I was sixteen.

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I know AMX has been involved in trying to stop pay-to-play practices.  Can you talk about what they are, how prevalent they are, and what you consider to be their negative impact?

Protextor: Pay-to-play is the system of a promoter asking an artist to give them money in exchange for guaranteed set time at a show. There are a couple of problems with that. One is that you’re no longer booking shows based on talent or draw – you’re booking based on money. So, you’re going to end up with a shitty show, because anyone can buy their way into it. The other problem is that it’s just an unfair practice from a financial standpoint. To build an economy, people have to be paid to do their job. The promoter’s job is to promote the show and put it on, and if they don’t have the start-up capital, that’s too bad – they need to raise it. They can’t fund that from artists. Artists are the people they’re supposed to be paying. AMX has consistently been against it in pretty much all of its forms.

And it is a national thing. There’s the Afton ticketing scam, which is a company that trolls Reverb Nation and Soundcloud websites, get e-mails, and send out offers for any show that it’s doing nationally. It’s an endemic problem. In Austin, we were mainly coming up against it with a few specific owners and clubs. What we eventually did was band together with Tee-Double, who has been a huge presence in Austin hip-hop since the ‘80s, and Austin Music People, which is a foundation that looks out for Austin musicians. We went to City Hall and spoke to the Music Commission on this issue. We got them to basically wag they’re finger at it. They can’t pass any legislation against for legal reasons, but we definitely shed some light on it.

The more important part of the battle is winning hearts and minds – getting artists to see their own worth. I do think that we’ve seen a huge success in that. Now if you post a show online and are selling slots, you will just get torn up. You will get chewed up and booed out of the room.

Miller: If people even smell it on you, they’ll react.

Adam: We’ve done our part in terms of making people aware of it, and I think the awareness changed the game. The clubs that were responsible for it stopped getting people to pay them or shut down.

What’s your rational in selecting acts for Weird City?

Miller: As you know, I have this Jekyll and Hyde thin, where every time that I’m not talking about really cool, smart rap that I like, I’m probably listening to M.O.P. and Papoose. I feel a responsibility to put across an average slice of what makes rap cool. It doesn’t mean avoid the negative. That’s really impossible.

Protextor: We’re trying to book 1/3 local, 1/3 national old school, and 1/3 national new school. We’re booking in terms of quality. We’re not booking in terms of sub-genre or niche. We’re booking across the board the entirety of hip-hop. Like Leah said, people don’t care if it’s positive or negative – they just want you to rap it well. They want you to be clever about it. We’re not setting up any rules for ourselves other than an act having to be good.

Miller: Some of these bills are unorthodox for a rap show. That’s what might jump out at hip-hip fans before festival fans. Festival fans are used to seeing a crazy ping-pong line-up of everyone you’ve ever liked, but within the context of hip-hop, there are styles that don’t intersect. It’s a small victory to have Open Mike Eagle and Black Milk on the same bill, with a local band that’s five or six people deep. There’s something to be said for booking towards creative presentation.

The Guilty Simpson show is sort of a convergence of homies. There’s a guy named Butch Webster here in town that runs Insect Records. Insect Records put out a 45 for Guilty Simpson. He also did some track work with a local producer Boom Baptist. Those guys are supporting each other at the same show, and they’ve only had the chance to hang out together a few times in real life. It’ll be cool to see that live.

Farming it out to clubs in a mini-SXSW model is also the way to go. Nobody wants to pay for everything, and the clubs already have bars and stages and sound and insurance. It really helps starting out, grass roots, from the bottom up.

Protextor: They’re also all next door to each other and they’ve all demonstrated a solid history of hip-hop booking over the last few years.

What have been your biggest challenges in organizing this?

Protextor: Our biggest challenge is that we are a grassroots, community-based organization and we’re trying to go into real business. We’ve proven ourselves building something with AMX, but we’re still the new kids on the block.

Miller: We’re the new kids on the block in terms of an organization, but we’ve been around for a long time, focused on a select few angles of our scene, where our hobbies and jobs intersect.

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