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Meet Isaiah Rashad, SXSW 2014’s hip-hop breakout artist

Deborah Sengupta

Editor’s note: This article was originally published March 5, 2014

Top Dawg Entertainment’s Black Hippy collective is preparing for a big showing at South By Southwest 2014. Rappers Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q are both on the roster for multiple gigs and Kendrick Lamar, who shot to superstar status after last year’s festival, has signed on to headline the iTunes Music Festival on March 12. But the artist who stands to pick up the biggest bump from this year’s festival is the label’s most recent signee.

“I’m just as surprised as everybody else,” Isaiah Rashad said recently from Toronto, where he was on tour with Schoolboy Q.

A year ago the 22-year-old rapper from Chattanooga, Tenn., was looking for a job, “any job that paid.” An unpaid 2012 stint opening for the Smoker’s Club Tour wiped him out financially, and he spent months afterward trying to get back on his feet. Balancing odd jobs in the day with studio time at night, things went from bad to worse when the engine in his car blew out.

Then everything changed. By chance he happened to meet Dave Free, close friend and manager to Kendrick Lamar, everything sped forward from there. He signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, shot a video for the track “I Shot You Down” and was introduced to the world in October when he joined the Black Hippy collective for a cypher at BET’s 2013 Hip-Hop Awards.

In February he dropped his Top Dawg Entertainment debut “Cilvia Demo,” named after the busted Honda Civic that died on him. It’s a standout release that spins vivid Southern meditations on street life. While he explores many of the standard hip-hop tropes — the ladies, the drugs — he displays a striking understanding of the consequences of excess, especially from such a young artist.

“I’m fully aware that whatever I do in those types of things, at the end of the day, if I continue it, I’m going to get in some kind of crazy trouble,” Rashad said. While he’s quick to admit he’s enjoying the hip-hop lifestyle, he seems incredibly grounded.

After the tour wraps, he says, he has some “crazy little plans up my sleeve” to stay entertained. He also wants to fix his car, but not to trick it out or anything.

“Nah, (to) get the engine fixed,” he said, “and I might do a road trip or something.”

Isaiah Rashad opens for Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q at the iTunes Festival on March 12 at ACL Live. He also plays Red 7 Patio at 12:50 a.m. March 15 and will be a the Fader Fort on Wednesday March 12.