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Z-Ro a no show at new counter culture hub Project Infest

Staff Writer
Austin 360

By Ramon Ramirez

Editor’s note: This article was originally published July 22, 2013

UPDATE: We checked with Ben Riseman from Infest, who says Z-Ro did in fact go on – at 2:45 a.m. Our writer left about 2:20 a.m., when it seemed like the show was over; the house lights were on, the bar had closed and people were leaving.

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Saturday morning at 2:05 a.m., Project Infest’s house lights came up and the DJ spun Texas rap standard “25 Lighters.” At this moment there was no doubt about it — Houston icon Z-Ro failed to make the drive across I-10, no showing his performance atop a deep card of local hip-hop talent.

At 1:42 a.m., a cautiously optimistic crowd danced to Kendrick Lamar’s “(Expletive), Don’t Kill My Vibe” as Z-Ro associates from the Screwed Up Click gathered on the stage. At 1:48 a.m., we were treated to a pleasant and nostalgic impromptu performance from S.U.C. veteran, Big Pokie. At 1:53 a.m., the DJ interjected and told us that we needed to finish all drinks by 2:10 a.m. — I read that as maybe Z-Ro is coming, he’s just comically tardy, and we’re going to try to squeeze in a set. At 2:03 a.m., a doughy man in the V.I.P. section waved a gray T-shirt that read “Dove Springs,” revealing a “44” tattoo on his chest (as in South Austin area code, 78744). It felt like a white flag.

Z-Ro, the man who names rap albums after drugs — “Angel Dust,” “Meth,” “Crack,” “Heroin” — is a spellbinding talent known for his enigmatic nature anyway. Save for the poor photographer hired to set up shop in a prom-like corner and presumably make money off “take your picture with Z-Ro” wristbands, Z-Ro’s absence didn’t matter. This was a speedbump for a nascent club that’s quickly becoming a leading ally for local hip-hop.

Project Infest opened this year in the West Fifth Street space that from 1997 to March harbored Antone’s. Before heading to Texas, Project Infest worked as an art and community movement that ran out of a Los Angeles warehouse. They aim to make their new brick and mortar joint an aggressively countercultural club that runs on punk rock philosophies. They’ve made inroads in landing big performances, too: The first Black Flag concert on American soil since the mid-‘80s was held at the club in May.

Among their tenets is a pledge to keep it local. Ceding the floor to trunk and jewel case promotions outfit Steak and Eggs Entertainment — and over 15 Austin rappers — on a Friday night is a vote of confidence in the hip-hop scene’s ability to turn out numbers. Saturday was another hip-hop bill, though this time with Slum Village, a touring act from Detroit, Mich.

For the Z-Ro show, physical tickets were sold at Zeus Barbershop, King Berd’s Mob Store, and Treasures Jewelry. This wasn’t a skinny jeans and college student hip-hop crowd out for a night of Wiz Khalifa sing-alongs. This was a strong-armed landing spot for chopped and screwed, Third Coast rap troupes from South and East Austin.

A horn-rimmed, goateed soundman rocking a baseball shirt stood out in a sea of “R.I.P. Screw” tees, fitted Astros caps, gold grills and Vince Young jerseys. Performances started just before 11 p.m., after a heavy dose of Rick Ross songs like “Stay Schemin’” that offered danceable fluidity to a crowd running on no air conditioning. It had reportedly given out around 9 p.m. Highs included Casino — an Austin veteran that began his career as fellow Austinite Nook’s hype man in 1995 — attacking the crowd with manic cadences and anti-Rick Perry chants.

Despite another South Austin act called the Kriminals — in matching black shirts with City of Austin seals and “Keep Austin Kriminal” written on the back — the music was more interesting because of the boilerplate drug and gun themes that it didn’t delve into. Austin, at best, is a small time hustler’s town and not a nuanced network of bawses that flood streets with bricks of cocaine and lord over a criminal playground. So we got raps about Xanax and pot — authentic, lived in stuff.

As someone who grew up attending South Austin public schools, it was also strangely familiar to see Latino hip-hoppers using the n-word in their music without a second thought. This was always the case during Porter Middle School Coke machine freestyles, and it was interesting to see this language and performance art manifested on a proper stage. The word is still jarring but, here, strangely communal — especially when it’s coupled with “Trayvon Martin we love you” shout outs.

In terms of organization, the concert was a chaotic mess. Repeatedly, the DJ would have to say things like “If you aren’t performing tonight, please get off the stage.” The in and out shuffling of rappers recalled the county fair circuits of the 1960s, when rock bands would plug into a backline, play three songs, and then another cluster of kids with guitars would do the same. There was a “by any means necessary” brand of vitality to the hustle and the music. The mess was endearing like when the Kriminals got onstage and realized their buddy Mike was central to their performance, “Yo Mike got the CD … We need Mike to the stage.”