Back when albums could still sell big and labels had actual A&R budgets, South by Southwest had a pretty clear purpose: to put unsigned, unknown bands in front of people who could, at least in theory, offer them record deals and media exposure. But more and more the festival showcases performers who are already firmly established or at least thoroughly hyped, and corporate and media entities with little connection to music have populated it in increasing numbers as well—it's hard to see why SXSW still exists, other than to perpetuate itself.
That's not to say that nothing good comes out of SXSW. During last year's festival, Chicago-based hip-hop and culture blog Ruby Hornet rented a mansion in Austin, set up a studio in it, and invited a squad of rappers to come in and record. Four days of nearly around-the-clock work produced the album-length compilation Closed Sessions: ATX, which came out March 15 on New York hip-hop label Decon.
ATX brought together Chicago rappers like GLC, Rhymefest, Hollywood Holt, and Naledge with out-of-town talent like Fashawn, Freddie Gibbs, and Dilated Peoples producer DJ Babu. Michael Kolar, who runs a Chicago studio called Soundscape—a professional and social hub for the Chicago hip-hop community—engineered the sessions. British studio-hardware company Solid State Logic loaned the project some gear, and a crew of videographers documented the action. As much of a group effort as the comp turned out to be, though, the vision for it came largely from one man: Ruby Hornet editor in chief Alex Fruchter, also known as DJ RTC.
Fruchter, 28, was born in Hyde Park and grew up surrounded by hip-hop. In high school in the late 90s and early 00s, he got into underground acts like Mos Def and Dilated Peoples, whose traditionalist styles and DIY philosophies ran counter to the blinged-out second-wave gangsta rap then dominating the marketplace. While attending Indiana University Bloomington, where his classmates included Andrew Barber of Chicago hip-hop blog Fake Shore Drive and Cool Kids DJ VIPJ, Fruchter decided to get more hands-on with hip-hop. "My parents were going to get me a car," he says. "And I was like, 'For the same price I can get turntables,' and they were like, 'You're going to have to walk everywhere.' I was like, fuck it, and I walked everywhere."
After graduating in 2004, Fruchter taught in Englewood as part of Teach for America and moonlighted in music journalism, contributing to online hip-hop magazine SoundSlam. "I'd teach second grade," he says, "and then go home and interview the Beastie Boys."
He ran in the same circles as Virgil Solis—cofounder, media manager, and main photographer for Ruby Hornet—and in late 2007 the two met. Solis had built and launched the site with his brother, but its content still needed direction. In short order they started collaborating. "The goal was to write it from the inside looking out," Fruchter says, "me being a DJ and him being a photographer. During this time the whole blog world and online music world just exploded. That was when Lupe's album leaked and it was the biggest thing in the world, 'cause that wasn't happening."
The site slowly built an audience, and in December 2008 Fruchter and Solis started promoting a regular Ruby Hornet night at defunct Wicker Park club Lava Lounge, bringing in blog-buzzy rappers to perform. Inevitably the imported talent would want to be shown around the Chicago scene, and the group would often end up at Soundscape. Eventually the Ruby Hornet crew started offering the rappers the opportunity to record over a locally produced beat. The idea, according to Fruchter, was simple: "Let's just see what happens and videotape it."
Ruby Hornet christened the multimedia feature that arose from these invitations Closed Sessions. It began in July 2009 with a visit from New Orleans rapper Curren$y. "We just did it as an experiment," Fruchter says. But Curren$y set up a live online feed for the video from the session and quickly proved its potential. "He turned on Ustream and immediately had 500 people there," says Fruchter. "This was at like one in the morning on a Saturday. The song took off and we were like, let's try this again." Since then they've featured the likes of Chip the Ripper, Cyhi da Prynce, and Raekwon, and these days they're up to an average of one session per month.
Last winter, after a Closed Session with Houston-based rapper Bun B, someone suggested that Ruby Hornet do a Closed Session in Austin during South by Southwest. Through an agency that specializes in renting properties to SXSW visitors, they found what Fruchter describes as "this huge mansion made of limestone with a full view of downtown Austin," supposedly built by the city's first supermarket magnate. Once the arrangements were solidified, he says, "We just called all of these artists that we knew we couldn't get together in a room in Chicago."
With an impromptu control room set up in the house's dining room and a vocal booth in a former maid's quarters, the crew ran two sessions a day, one in the afternoon and one at night. Established artists friendly with the project, among them GLC and Babu, worked like centers of gravity to attract other rappers. "After a while word got out and people would just show up," Fruchter says. "Paul Wall showed up. J. Cole came by. Killer Mike came by. Chip tha Ripper. People I didn't even know."
The recording schedule might have been pretty packed, but the vibe was mostly relaxed. "We were just smoking and chilling," says Freddie Gibbs, who appears on one ATX track, "Heads of the Heads." "It was a cool vibe. You know, no velvet ropes or red carpets and bullshit. No prima donna attitude."
"It was like brotherhood," says GLC, who contributed verses to four of the ten songs, including "Heads of the Heads." "There was no negative energy, everybody was at peace, and there was mutual respect for everybody." He says there was an element of competition—as you might expect whenever you get a bunch of MCs together—but it wasn't like a battle rap. "Everybody got in the booth and the light went on it was time to make your song."
Because the Ruby Hornet folks were working with a core group of artists known for their work ethics, they didn't have much trouble with rappers showing up too fucked-up to record and wasting everyone's time. "All these guys are different in their geography and styles," Fruchter says, "but all of these guys share an attitude and an approach to music where taking part in the music was number one to them. We couldn't afford to pay anybody. All of these guys really respect their craft and see themselves as participants in a culture." Naledge, who stayed at the mansion full-time, recorded one track fresh out of bed at 11 AM, cutting his vocals in boxer shorts and socks.
Over the past few years, hip-hop acts pushing the genre's boundaries have attracted an awful lot of attention, especially at SXSW, but the artists on ATX tend to be more mindful of tradition. "It's definitely a really straight hip-hop album," says Fruchter. Produced by Babu, Kidz in the Hall's Double-0, and Chicago beat maker Tony Baines, the songs rarely stray from tried-and-true boom-bap—there's an occasional synth flourish, but no house beats or dubstep drops or chopped-up indie-rock samples. And the MCs, even the newcomers, are gruff, cocky, and riled up, true to the same classic sound—nobody tries to sound smooth like Drake, and nobody tries to teach you how to dougie. It's capital-H hip-hop, coming out at a time when capital-H hip-hop is clearly untrendy.
All that said, ATX isn't exactly dropping straight into the memory hole. The week it came out, it shared the front page of the iTunes Store's hip-hop section with releases by Lupe Fiasco and Raekwon. Fruchter and the Ruby Hornet crew were back in Austin when the album dropped on March 15, and they celebrated with a nonfestival showcase March 17 at Peckerheads, a bar on the perpetually thronged 6th Street strip. Rappers from ATX, including Mic Terror, Hollywood Holt, Rakaa, and Curt@!n$, performed alongside hip-hop eccentric Fonzworth Bentley, who showed up unannounced and jumped on the bill, and much-talked-about newcomer Yelawolf. Fruchter considers his promo push a success. "It was packed," he says.