Holy Mountain // SXSW
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
At midnight in Austin, Antwon is onstage performing his third show of the day -- and it is not going well.
The microphone in the hands of one of the Bay Area's most promising new rappers is crackling and cutting out intermittently. The sound guy in this smallish club won't turn up his DJ loud enough, so it sounds for a while like Antwon is bellowing over a boombox. Someone in the smallish crowd throws a can of beer at the stage: it grazes the rapper and hits DJ Sex Play, falling on a turntable. Sex Play promptly chucks it right back into the crowd where it came from. Both the rapper and the DJ implore the sound guy to turn up the mix.
On top of this, Antwon is clearly exhausted. "I'm dying. I'm dead -- I'm sorry," he says at one point, quickly adding an unconvincing, "I'm just kidding."
About halfway through this set, though, after the mic is replaced and the DJ is turned up, it becomes clear that Antwon deserves the praise heaped on his recent mixtapes. His delivery is forceful, even brutish. A broad figure in a black T-shirt, he struts around a stage hellishly illuminated only by a single red spotlight. His lyrics are obsessed with sex -- "pussy juice," especially -- but they convey an unmistakable vulnerability that makes Antwon, a former punk rocker, a very different kind of rapper.
Also, his songs are vivid, memorable, and powerful. "3rd World Grrl," off his latest In Dark Denim mixtape, instantly drives the crowd into a dance party: "You're my Third World girl/ I want you in my world/ I'll touch you wherever just to make your toes curl," Antwon refains, over a slappy '80s sample and an involuntarily funky beat. It has our vote for the best Bay Area rap song so far this year.
Tonight, though, it's the closing track, 2012's "Helicopter," that really kills. This doom anthem, darkly celebrating a self-destructive lifestyle, is the one the boys in front have been waiting for. The crowd instantly becomes a mosh pit as Antwon gets into it: "All my niggas say 'Twon, you ain't livin' right/ I just shrug it off/ Just tryin' live my life/ Tomorrow ain't promised." Antwon gets compared to Notorious B.I.G. a lot -- both are large and have deep voices, after all -- but this stands on its own. No references or outside justifications needed.
The set ends, unexpectedly, in a moment of triumph, with the beat finally blasting through the speakers at proper volume and the crowd enthralled with the dark figure onstage. Antwon's look of irritation at the technical problems has gone away. After it's over, he sits on the steps at the front of the stage as people come up to shake hands and take pictures with him. He's quiet and polite, although clearly over it. Soon he and his crew take off. With the hints of brilliance in a difficult set like this, though, Antwon shouldn't have to put up with crappy venues and three-shows-per-day at SXSW much longer.