At SXSW, hip-hop’s future stars take a leaf from the Chuck Berry paybook
Before he duck-walked across any stage, Chuck Berry got paid in cash - a lesson that hip-hop clearly gets, and indie and rock bands could learn
Rock’n’roll founding father Chuck Berry, who died on Saturday, March 18, 2017, aged 90. A portrait of Berry in St. Louis, Mo., in 2003. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)
Chuck Berry always got paid. Before he duck-walked across any stage, he got paid in cash. Once he had that wad of notes, he’d do the show with whatever bunch of musicians had been drafted for the night. Afterwards, he bounced to another city or home to St Louis with that money in his pocket. He was a professional musician - he always got paid.
News of Berry’s death reached Austin, Texas as the last night of SXSW 2017 got underway. They were playing his tunes in Waterloo Records as people browsed the racks and some bands threw a blast of Berry into their sets as the evening went on.
But the real successors to Berry’s business nous are probably the hip-hop players out on the Austin streets. When it comes to getting paid, these boyos are in the premier league. Hip-hop has taken over SXSW in recent years, both in terms of the noise around official showcases and, especially, the unofficial street hustle. The crews arrive into town from Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans and various other centres and take over downtown. It’s loud, chaotic, entertaining – and hugely enlightening.
There’s a new hustle every year to stay ahead of the pack, and this was the year of the backpack billboards. Dozens of dudes paraded up and down Sixth Street with a banner on their back plugging some new mixtape or artist. It made the flyers and CDs look old, so you can sure a crew like the Promo Plug will be doing mad business for next year or will have come up with something new.
These newbies are here because, like all the acts who come to Texas, they want to be noticed. SXSW may be regarded as a festival for mumbling indie dudes and four-square alternative rock, but hip-hop also uses this week of March madness for networking and promotion. The festival is where emerging talent dominates, so new hip-hop acts from across the US know that Austin is the place to come to shine and get some attention beyond their hometown.
It works too. There were loads of acts, from St Louis youth Smino to Drip On My Walk queenpin Kodie Shane, who’ve probably set themselves up for a good year on the back of a trip to Texas. They’ll be the ones who’ll also cross over to earn bigger festival shows, more brand endorsements and bigger paydays.
The latter is important to note because, as Berry knew, it’s all about the money. There’s no point running up a bill with Earl down the print shop for all those posters and spending cash to get your crew to SXSW if you don’t get paid somewhere down the line. That’s what the shameless, in-your-face marketing is all about. The harder you hustle, the bigger the payoff when it does arrive. It’s a lesson that the indie and rock bands who are all over Austin’s shabby venues and grimey bars could learn. Actually, there’s probably a business model in imparting that knowledge.
It’s worth noting that not all these dudes are going to become the next Future or Migos. It’s just impossible for everyone to roll up to that level and new crews and rappers will have come up the ranks by the time SXSW 2018 rolls by.
But for those who stick around, you can be sure they’ll adhere to the Berry principle of getting paid for your work. Music may be a fun pursuit and a great hobby, but it’s a business and you need to get paid. Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky that news.