Rap shows at SXSW are always clusterfucky, but I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a clusterfuck quite as clusterfucked as Southern Hospitality’s showcase last night. The show was on the roof of Avenue On Congress, a thoroughly undistinguished bar a few blocks away from the 6th Street bacchanal. The roof itself was so packed that you could barely stand in one place, and I lived in constant fear of stepping on shoes or of getting sucked into conversation with the various people attempting to push business cards on each other. The lineup was an absolute bounty of Mixtape Of The Week alums — Young Thug, Ty Dolla $ign, IamSu!, Problem — almost none of whom actually showed up. Instead, we got a few hours of somebody playing records (Gorilla Zoe’s verse on “Bottle Poppin'”: still pretty popular in Texas!) and Three 6 Mafia’s DJ Paul spending his entire grim-but-hilarious headlining set sexually harassing every woman in the audience. (His way to flirt with an English woman on the side of the stage was to just yell “England pussy!” directly in her face between every song.) So in that context, it was a pleasant surprise to see one of the actual currently-relevant rappers on the bill show up to perform, and to perform amazingly well, especially given the setting. But I’m actually glad that I ended up at that show, and the reason I’m glad is Kevin Gates.
Gates is a Baton Rouge, Louisiana rapper — and apparently a star in his home region, though not really in Texas — and he released two of last year’s best rap full-lengths in The Luca Brasi Story and Stranger Than Fiction. A few isolated people in the crowd sang along with his hooks, but he didn’t exactly get a star’s reaction when he appeared on the stage. And he didn’t carry himself like a star either — staring heavy-lidded into the middle distance, rapping into two microphones at the same time, barely moving. And yet he was mesmerizing.
Gates seemed to deliver his songs in a kind of trance, going to some inner place while spitting twisty double-time verses or crooning craggy, almost bluesy hooks. His are intricate and tricky songs, but he burned right through them with no hypeman’s assistance and actually pulled people in the audience in rather than demanding their attention. Whenever he’d finish a song, strangers in the crowd would exchange holy-shit looks with each other. And between songs, Gates would remain in that same trance, sounding deeply emotional no matter what he was saying. (“If your man don’t eat your booty, he don’t love you,” he told the ladies in the audience, with zero context, sounding deeply offended by the idea that your man would not eat your booty.) And then, he disappeared, just as quickly as he showed up, telling everyone listening that he loved them and allowing the show to descend back into its natural, chaotic state. If he can pull off a performance like that in a circumstance as absurd as that, imagine what he can do when he’s not tasked with rescuing a shitshow.
[Photo by Nina Corcoran]