As a kid I was shy. Painfully so. I distinctly remember having a friend in pre-school who didn’t talk. It was by choice, not by some lack of ability, that she didn’t say one word. I enjoyed our time together. Complete silence and yet there was a comfortable communication between us.
And so to me, walking into a room of strangers is absolutely terrifying. A faceless crowd of unknowns. Frightening. So, by all transitive properties a visit to SXSW should be awful, right?
To contradict all reason, 2014 is my third year to the lovely city of Austin and the overwhelmingly impressive music portion of SXSW. In taking the trip again this year, I had many discussions with my friend on what to expect, what to get excited about, and what to hopefully avoid. I spent weeks prior reading copious amounts of information and the days following discussing with my friend about what we saw and anything I might have missed.
The reviews and photos and have been many, almost too many to count. All impressive and all wonderful. I enjoyed everything I saw and heard and yet all I can think of is one song. Strange, one might think, that only one song would remain as the strand out, singular moment after seeing 30+ bands, and, countless songs as a result.
Because it was billed as “and special guests”, we decided to spend time waiting for Damon Albarn and his yet-to-be-determined pals at The Fader Fort on Friday. Deep down in my heart and not so secretly, I had hoped the special guest would include Del the Funky Homosapien. I heard Deltron was performing during the week and it would be a logical step to have a Gorillaz performance with all the key people in the same city at the same time.
Being from the Bay Area, I have seen Del perform many times. I’ve been obsessed with his work since “No Need for Alarm” and “Both Sides of the Brain”, which consequently blew my mind completely. For years I kept “Deltron 3030” on repeat, which even after the release of “Event 2”, I still continue to do.
That day, Damon Albarn performed much of his solo work to the sardine-packed crowd. Getting the crowd amped, Damon introduced De La Soul. Together De La Soul and Damon performed “Feel Good, Inc”. It was a fiery, hot performance. I haven’t seen De La Soul perform in a very, long time, but they haven’t aged a bit, in looks or ability. Thinking that De La Soul was the only special guest, part of the crowd thinned. Standing up against the barricade, I knew that this couldn’t be the end of the “special guest” highlight. Slyly, I had spotted a guy backstage rocking a Hieroglyphics sweatshirt. It was a good sign. As Damon continued with his new solo work, even the backstage crowd became sparse. I began to wonder, could this be a Blur reunion? Would Graham Coxon and Alex James come out to perform “Blue Jeans” or “The Universal”? For this, I would have been more excited for my friend who would have loved if this happened. In all honestly, I would have been slightly disappointed.
After quite a few more solo songs, Damon told the crowd that he would reward us for our patience. I stopped breathing in anticipation and could, unfortunately, no longer see the backstage stairs to the right of the sound board where I had previously spotted Del La Soul. In saying that the following song “had never before been performed in its entire natural state”, Damon introduced Dan the Automator. And, then, Damon introduced none other than Del himself.
(As a side note: I have an immense amount of respect for Dan the Automator. All of his projects, solo and collaborative, exceed expectations. And I believe that he and Del have a unique dynamic that produce work that can be closely imitated but not ever replicated. De La Soul also deserve the utmost respect for their musical legacy and immortal talent.)
It’s been a long time since I was this excited about a performance. At the sight of Dan the Automator and Del, the crowd went insane. I had seen Del perform part of “Clint Eastwood” solo before. There is just something I like about that Gorillaz song. It’s not because it came from a chart-topping album or is a popular, well-played hit. Maybe, for me, it’s about a Bay Area artist getting his due, based on masterful talent and lyrical superiority not gimmick-laden performances or one-time popularity. Del is an artist who was one of the first to rap about crashing hard drives, stealthy hackers, enhanced DOS, and viruses mastered to perfection. This was before there was an insurgence of Nerdcore and well before I became acquainted to anything like Nintendocore. To me, Del represents someone vastly before his time. A rapper who can devise a funny line about agoraphobia and can weave lyrics around poignant thoughts of users unifying against global controls – all long before anyone thought about inviting Edward Snowden to give a speech that emphasized the importance of encryption.
Before a performance, I’ve seen Del come to the stage shy, almost apprehensively and begrudgingly, each time wearing sunglasses and holding a skateboard and carrying a quiet confidence. During a break or between a verse, he may leave the stage completely or sliently move to the side of the stage to sit on his skateboard. Nodding his hoody-covered head to the beat, Del will say nothing until he’s ready to rap again. His interaction with the crowd is minimal. And for someone like me who can’t enough of the big show, I love this about Del. He doesn’t need to call the ladies in the crowd names nor does he need to remind us constantly of what city we’re in.I like this quiet, unique connection, probably because it’s become more of a rarity in hip-hop.
To The Fader Fort stage he quietly sauntered. Smiling. Wearing a red jacket, and, this time not sunglasses and not a hoody, but glasses. And smiling, seemingly content, he dug his hands into his pockets. He produced his phone a few times, once even to take a picture. The crowd welcomed him – each person screaming to their lung’s capacity and Del appeared to love it. I couldn’t get enough. I clamored at the barrier to get a few shots of Del over a videographer at the foot of the stage. Watching him rap and the entire Gorillaz crew perform together (along with Damon Albarn’s band) was electrifying and inspiring. It remains the best thing I saw in Austin all week. The performance of “Clint Eastwood” is at the #1 spot of all that I saw with only a few close seconds.
The quiet energy from Del reminds me of how music can be so unique to one person. Amplifying that musical moment onto a stage so that one song resonates with each person in the crowd is not something that happens at every show. It’s the moment when something special is happening yet you can’t really describe it completely in words. Del is a breed of MC that you don’t see often. Even when you do see him, you’re not quite sure what happened but you definitely know you want more of it.
There is a part of me that hopes this Gorillaz performance will lead to something more. Will Damon and Del both be at Hiero Day in Oakland this year? I doubt it. And yet part of me hopes this was a one-time deal. Like a shooting star that you witness accidently late in the night. I’m glad I made it through the standing, waiting, and too-close-for-comfort crowd of strangers. Seeing the Gorillaz with Del the Funky Homosapien perform one song was the highlight of my SXSW tour, maybe even my 2014. But, I think that’s why so many visit Austin for South By, to witness that one shinning music moment through an unspoken, yet powerful, connection.