At this year's South by Southwest music conference, I unexpectedly witnessed the invention of a brand new musical genre -- honkycrunk.
I didn't discover the honkycrunk at any officially sanctioned event, or even onstage, but rather at an impromptu "showcase" I threw in my room at the Austin Hilton 48 hours into the four day music conference. South by Southwest is billed as the premiere music business gathering; over 1,200 bands performed at nearly 60 venues, with countless other acts popping up around town.
The showcase in my hotel room was one of the least organized events of the weekend, but the music still rocked. Andy Hersey, a country singer/songwriter from Sonoita, Arizona, who'd come to Austin, Texas, without a show booked, brought his guitar to the hotel room and threw down some tunes after drinking beer and tequila shots laced with Tabasco sauce all day, and honkycrunk was born.
My reason for throwing the hotel room showcase was simple -- I had come to Austin looking for the crunk, and decided to conjure up my own.
Crunk refers to either the ultimate level of being cranked -- a superlative -- or it's a contraction of "crazy" and "drunk." Bottom line, crunk is what happens in that moment when everything flies off the handle and you hit that rapturous state of either excitement or volatile intoxication. I still have flashbacks of seeing Sonic Youth performing its as-yet-unreleased album A Thousand Leaves at La Zona Rosa in Austin for the 1998 South by Southwest. That was crunk.
From the second I stepped off the airplane into the humid southern air, I was on the prowl for the intangible crunk, in either of its manifestations. I found a little of the former, performances that were simply mind-blowing, and plenty of the latter, straight up crazy drunkenness.
My first step in the hunt for crunk was a call to Chris Simpson, of the Austin based indie-pop group The Gloria Record, to get a handle on where to start looking for some crunk. I met him at Emo's, Austin's most infamous and prestigious punk rock venue, where an afternoon party with free Keystone Light had just run out of said beer.
An Austin band called SoundTeam, that had just pulled into town from a Tucson gig at two that morning, was getting a Modest Mouse-style highwayman-stomp on at Emo's large outdoor stage. The afternoon show was free to locals as well as those who'd paid for admission, so the crowd was mostly Austinites, except for some overweight middle-aged guys with cords on their sunglasses and badges prominently displayed. I tucked my badge into my shirt.
In the hot afternoon sun the porta-potties were ripe, and ashes from a hundred cigarettes blew around, catching sunlight. Shaded bleachers out of the sight line of the stage were packed with people trying to escape the sun's glare. Directly in front of the outdoor stage there was a gaggle of locals dancing to SoundTeam -- one kid was doing some crazy wiggle, eyes closed, sweating through a white tee shirt with a hole under the arm. That was the sort of crunk I wanted -- you don't see many rock kids here in the 'Nix cutting loose like that.
Later that night, after the "official" SXSW shows began, I headed back to Emo's, as good a place to hunt crunk as any in downtown Austin. With its wall paintings of pornographic Flintstones by legendary poster artist Frank Kozik, peeling black paint, and peerless punk rock pedigree, Emo's is the venue of choice for any indie artist worth their crunk.
As I came in, supervillain MC MF Doom was onstage, crouching and lunging while rapping from behind his metal mask, spitting his nihilist rhymes to a packed outdoor crowd that undulated and spilt beer on itself. MF Doom was there as part of the Rhymesayers showcase, one of the Minneapolis-based label's biggest artists' line-ups ever.
The Rhymesayers showcase reached its peak when Atmosphere hit the stage. Slug, Atmosphere's primary MC and owner of Rhymesayers, had PSC/LuckyIAm from Living Legends spitting with him, and the bald, tattooed hardcore turntablist Mr. Dibbs behind him. They kicked off with "Trying to Find a Balance," the unlikely MTV2 hit off of Seven's Travels where Slug bares his tortured soul. Wait . . . That's every Atmosphere track, hence the idiotic "emo-rap" label he gets slapped with.
In a white tee shirt and jeans, Slug pumped his fist and traded raps from tracks like "God Loves Ugly," "Shrapnel," and "Reflections" with PSC/LuckyIAm, while Mr. Dibbs spun stoically in the background. It was crunk as fuck. Girls were screaming "Seannnn" (Slug's real name is Sean Daley) in between songs like he was Tom Jones. At the end of the set Slug made an emotional plea for all the kids to stay the hell away from cocaine, which was sweet of him but I really didn't see many crackhead types there.
I spent Thursday night watching the Definitive Jux triumvirate of El-P, Aesop Rock, and DJ RJD2 bust their experimental indie hip-hop for another packed crowd at Emo's. Vanilla Ice was somewhere at the South by Southwest, but El-P and Aesop Rock were the sickest white rappers in Texas, spitting their lightning fast angry rhymes over RJD2's schizophrenic beats. South by Southwest has never been known for exposing fresh new underground hip-hop, but this year it was in full effect, from DefJux to the Rhymesayers to Anticon and Buck 65.
When we awoke around three Friday afternoon, my hotel roommate and fellow crunk hunter, David Herrera, music editor of the Denver Westword, and I decided we'd crunk down with our own showcase in our room late that night. We wanted to convene a small party of friends to get drunk and rock out, and I wanted my cowboy friend Andy Hersey to have at least a brief experience playing at the South by Southwest.
Out on Sixth Street I grabbed an Italian sausage from the Best Wurst cart and was strolling past the head shops when I heard my name called. I spun around to see a grizzled, white-haired old man with one foot wrapped in a bag and a cane in his hand leaning on his car and grinning at me. He looked just like Blue, the old man fraternity brother in the movie Old School.
"Who the hell is this guy?" I thought, and then remembered -- the conference name badges . . . dude was just randomly calling people's names he saw walking down the street and either scaring them or making friends. His name was Rick. He'd driven up from Key West with his golden cocker spaniel, Bud. Rick told me he was on workman's comp because of a work-related foot injury for a few weeks, so he decided to hit up the South by Southwest.
Rick looked all crunked up, eyes gleaming, introducing strangers to each other on the street. I spotted a near-full liter bottle of Pepsi on his hood and asked what up. He handed it to me and said conspiratorially, "Lord Calvert, it don't get better than Canadian whisky." I wanted to holler, "Blue, you're my boy!" like Will Ferrell's character in Old School does during rush. Instead I took a long swig of the Calvert blend and told Rick the hotel room number. "Showcase starts at 2:30 a.m."
After scoping out the rock en Espanol showcase for a few hours, I headed back to my room, where the festivities had started without me.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Rick/Blue never showed, but the room ended up packed with young label reps, journalists, a white rapper, and a bunch of musicians -- among them Brandin Lea, singer and songwriter for the Dallas band Flickerstick, the winner of VH1's silly Bands on the Run rock 'n' roll reality show. Lea brought a bottle of Tuaca, an Italian liqueur, right after we ran out of beer in the room, so I couldn't bring myself to make fun of him. He wasn't there long anyway -- hotel security escorted our guests out of the building sometime near dawn.
When I flew back to the 'Nix on Sunday I was glad to leave South by Southwest and the crunk behind, it had taken its toll. I had no voice left, no money left, and no desire to hear a hundred decibels in my eardrum for a good long while.
Still, I couldn't help but think, "God bless Texas."