Keith Ape / Photos by Paul Ramirez
For an under-the-radar rap act, going to SXSW can be frustrating at best. The last few years have seen the event get flooded by high-profile talent like Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa, and Nas. This year, the scramble for attention put young rappers up against the likes of J. Cole, Big Sean, Miley Cyrus, Future, and Snoop Dogg—not to mention a roster of newer acts with massive hits such as Migos, Rae Sremmurd, Dej Loaf, and OG Maco, who seemed to be on the bill for practically every rap showcase. Standing out to fans and critics who head into the event with preconceived notions about what they want to see is harder than ever, but the way to do so pretty much boils down to engineering the craziest turn up possible and hoping someone notices. SXSW is essentially the Turn Uplympics.
I saw some admirable entries in the field this week: Seattle's Key Nyata and Mackned were wildly enthusiastic, Miami's Denzel Curry prompted the biggest mosh pit I saw, and Atlanta's EarthGang packed out a tiny bar of people who all seemed to know their lyrics. The big acts were predictable crowd pleasers. But, like any competition that ends in -lympics, the Turn Uplympics were an international affair. I saw a medal-worthy performance from the UK's Little Simz, for instance, and the gold, not-that-surprisingly, was reserved for Team South Korea.
I'd been expecting big things from Keith Ape, who was first introduced to me as the “Korean OG Maco” a couple months ago. I knew that his single “It G Ma” had not only been engineered to be an international hit but that it had found an audience stateside. Still, there was no guarantee Keith Ape would live up to the hype, those rocks upon which so many artists' hopes have been dashed at SXSW. He did.
I'd wandered into the other room of the venue where he was performing for a spell, and I came back to a rendition of “It G Ma” that was already in full swing. That may have been preferable because it meant that there was no slow buildup to watch: The crowd was already in a complete frenzy, there were already about a dozen people onstage, and everything seemed to be in midair, including Keith Ape himself. When the key lines—“UNDERWATER SQUAD” and “IT G MA”—arrived, the crowd of a couple hundred yelled along, and it felt like a stadium was chanting.
The set only lasted about 15 minutes, which mercifully included a repeat rendition of “It G Ma” for those of us who had wandered in late to the first one. Keith Ape crowd-surfed, as did a couple members of his onstage posse. He brought out an American rapper whose name I didn't catch to do a song they'd made together, and a few people onstage said some inspiring things about bringing together different cultures. Denzel Curry joined in the frenzy, bouncing along onstage and shouting at the appropriate times. It was a fucking mob scene in the best way. It lived up to the rock star, hardcore aesthetic Keith Ape's denim-clad cohort projected, and it blew the crowd away.
Korean hip-hop is, at this point, an established phenomenon, and Korean music in general already has an enormous audience in America. Still, it's cool to see the ways that the two countries are continuing to embrace each other. One of the longest lines I saw all week in Austin was for a K-Pop showcase; at one point, that showcase's penultimate act Crayon Pop was walking down Sixth Street in matching patent leather suits and attracting stares of curiosity from onlookers who seemed impressed if not quite certain what they were witnessing—a reaction not wholly different from the one Chance the Rapper and his Save Money crew got walking down Sixth Street later that same day. And Keith Ape slotted in nicely to a showcase that included Denzel Curry, Lil Debbie, Father, and the OG OG Maco. During Maco's set, Awful's KeithCharlesSpacebar hinted to me that an Awful/Keith Ape collab is on the way.
The internet may flatten out the world to the point where bothering to go see a hyped act in a hype crucible like SXSW seems almost redundant, but it also has accomplished something cool in allowing said hype to be more diffuse and global. It was also in escaping the obvious internet-worthy moments and finding the ones that only could happen through the beauty of different people from different places coming together in the same place that made for the most exciting times in Austin. Keith Ape's show didn't just do that, it excelled at it, and that is, indeed, pretty g, ma.
Kyle Kramer is about to celebrate the fusion of Texas and Korea by eating so many kimchi tacos. Follow him on Twitter.
Paul Ramirez is a photographer based in Austin. Check out more of his work here.