Very, Very Crucial: Behind The Scenes At South By Southwest With Yung Nation
Rappers B. Reed and Fooley Faime aren't concerned with where they're headed.
The duo, better known as Yung Nation and one of Dallas' premier hip-hop acts, are wandering through downtown Austin before the group's Thursday night, official South By Southwest showcase, which is also set to include performances from some of hip-hop's most promising acts -- names including Ty Dolla $ign, Kevin Gates and Young Thug. They walk around as the centerpieces of an entourage of friends and street teamers, all of whom are attempting to convince strangers to come to the show, be it through the group's merch or the oversized signs they carry that feature hyperbolic slogans and Yung Nation's twitter handle.
With 7-Eleven cups in their hands and an unspecified beverage inside, the two 21-year-old rappers are themselves lost in their own world.
The tall and lean Reed, who's wearing his signature oversized prescription glasses, consistently falls to the back of the pack, preferring to be by himself. Faime, who's wearing his signature sunglasses at night, has his attention split between his headphones and his cell phone.
Even though the entourage is attempting to avoid the mayhem of the busy and chaotic 6th Street, Reed and Faime are still stopped by strangers who recognize them. Each encounter breaks up a moment of solitude the rappers are in.
Leading the wandering rappers and street team is Phillip Ward, better known as Digital Executive Merk to those who know him or Merk for short. Glancing at the group, it's apparent that he's not just the manager, but also the leader. Always at the front of the pack and with his cell phone in hand, Merk is constantly navigating the group's future and handling their business.
It's been this way since he began managing the group in 2010. At that time, Yung Nation had already begun to establish itself with bangers such as "Club Rock," which has earned hundreds of thousands of YouTube views, and the website where the group amassed its large, loyal online fan base. Now the task at hand is to get Yung Nation out in front of as many physical audiences as possible, which is why South By Southwest is a necessity for the group -- well, on top of a busy touring schedule of college campuses and private parties from Denver to Atlanta, which should keep the group plenty busy for the remainder of the year.
Coming into South By Southwest, the group had been touted by The New York Times (by way of Texas Monthly), as one of the Texas acts not to miss at the music festival. Last year at the festival, Spin featured the group in its "The 50 Best Things We Saw at SXSW," if only for the way the group was able to get its crowd dancing.
This attention is understandable. Yung Nation's music is a blend of rowdy club bangers swirled with the southern Texas charm of both the Dallas boogie scene and Houston's chopped and screwed movement. It's an alluring mix.
But, for all of its acclaim, Yung Nation remains but a youthful entity standing on its own.
"We just wanna take over, little by little, grow every time we out here," says B. Reed.
But getting here is sometimes a problem for Yung Nation. As the group's manager, Merk's number one priority is getting the duo to the stage. In a setting as wild as South by Southwest, that's no easy task.
"They have extreme ADHD," Merk says, poking fun at the duo. "Reed's always just walking off. Faime's on his phone all damn the time."
Just before heading into the venue where they'll be performing, Merk leads the rappers onto 6th Street and, within moments, the group has attracted a swarm of girls, a handful of fans and several onlookers. Finally, Reed and Faime break out of their solitude and show off their charm, posing for photos and chatting up the girls. It's a nice change of pace.
But once they're inside the venue and on Avenue on Congress' rooftop, the guys return to their old ways. Reed has wandered off on his lonesome, finding a couch to rest on. Faime is attached to his phone once more. Still: They're at the venue on time and patiently awaiting their turn to hit the stage.
This is how Merk wants it.
Now he just has to make sure the guys aren't smoking or drinking too much before the show -- something that has been a point of concern for Merk for some time now.
"Faime is that person that when my phone rings I'm like, 'Fuck!' what is he into now?," Merk says. "It's like Keenan & Kel, but on some hood shit."
The partying, the drugs and the alcohol -- it hasn't affected the group yet, but instances in the past have been cause for concern. Though he plays it off as no big deal and something he's not too interested in explaining in much detail, B. Reed was shot in the leg two months ago at one of Yung Nation's hometown shows in Dallas. Maybe it's because his life wasn't actually threatened by the gunshot wound that went in and out his calf muscle, but Reed remains adamant that the event hasn't affected him or Yung Nation.
The only thing Reed and Faime are concerned with is music. Their lives revolve around playing shows and recording their raps, which are usually freestyles that turn into legit verses, something that has become a signature characteristic of theirs. They're more than happy to fill the idle time between these moments with drinking and smoking.
"Managing these guys, I have to be chill," Merk says. "I have to be that way. If I wasn't, they'd probably be dead by now."
Merk recalls a recent time on tour when Faime excitedly proposed the idea of the three of them ingesting a large quantity of mushrooms before a show . Merk sarcastically played along with the idea before hitting Faime with an emphatic "Fuck no!" for his own good.
Moments before the SXSW show, Dallas' most well-known current hip-hop artist, Dorrough Music, joins the group along with fellow Dallas rapper Ace Boogie. Dorrough and Ace Boogie have had a longstanding relationship with Yung Nation for several years now. All together, they're known as the Prime Time Click. Dorrough has also been a longtime, public supporter of Yung Nation.
"They some characters," Dorrough says of his younger counterparts. "Music supports characters, so once word gets out about them, they're gonna be on."
Merk is the link between Dorrough and Yung Nation. While students at Prairie View A&M University, Merk was making a name for himself as the campus' go-to DJ and Dorrough was making a name for himself as the best rapper on campus. Together, they formed a duo that took over the school's hip-hop scene. Eventually, they took their model to Dallas in order to keep the momentum rolling.
"He broke me as an artist and I broke him as a DJ," Dorrough says of Merk. "He helped take me to another level."
As Dorrough's rap career began to take off with singles that hit mainstream success -- songs like "Walk That Walk" and "Ice Cream Paint Job" -- Dorrough began splitting his time between Dallas and Los Angeles. Between all that travel and his own DJing club shows at night, Merk before long decided it wasn't a lifestyle he wanted to wanted to pursue.
"I didn't want to be this guy past 30," Merk says. "It just wasn't for me."
At the age of 28, though, he remains fully invested in music. Yung Nation, specifically, is his investment.
It's been a risky investment, of course. In the time that Merk's managed the group, he's had to pass on life decisions that would've led him to a simpler, more stable life -- one that included moving back home to Houston with his long-time girlfriend to help his father continue the family business. Instead, Yung Nation prevailed. At the cost of financial security and while risking a five-year relationship with his college sweetheart, Merk has decided to stay with Reed and Faime.
But he does have plans for the duo. Yung Nation is set to soon follow in Dorrough's footsteps and begin splitting their time between Dallas and L.A. so they can continue to record new music, network with a new market and better build a bridge between North Texas and a California hip-hop scene that has been accepting of this region's output. Together with DJ Amen of California, Merk has co-created the Young California x Young Texas movement in hopes of creating a platform for both markets to be easily accessed by one another.
Back on 6th Street, the venue has been at capacity. It has been for some time now -- since before Yung Nation arrived, even. The small rooftop holds an estimated 300 people, a crowd that begrudgingly makes way for Merk as he tries to navigate Reed, Faime and Dorrough to the stage. Once the hit it and have been introduced to the crowd by DJ Amen, the group finally takes the torch Merk has been carrying.
Now, Merk can relax. His only responsibility at this point? Snapping a few Instagram photos and videos showing off his artists. Here, Reed and Faime need little hand-holding. The crowd on hand may not have necessarily been fully aware of who Yung Nation were before the set started, but, soon as the first track dropped, they were sold.
On stage, Faime is the conductor. He jumps around on stage, yells his lyrics just as loudly as they were recorded and gets everybody rocking. He controls the banter between tracks, making sure everyone knows they're "the new Texas Trill," and letting his affinity for lean, weed and anything else worth partying with known. Reed does his part to get the crowd going, too, but it pales in comparison to Faime's efforts.
Reed shines in the studio and photos. His performance is still a work in progress.
"Reed is almost an introvert," Merk says after the fact. "He's really affected by the crowd. If it's big and they're into it, that helps him. But if it's small, he'll fall back."
This Yung Nation goes well, though. Its full of antics and surprises -- even as it becomes increasingly obvious that Yung Nation doesn't need these ploys. Bangers such as "Very Crucial" and new single "Money Blower" are strong enough to stand on their own with just Reed and Faime on stage carrying the load. Nonetheless, during "Circle," a new track from Yung Nation's latest mixtape, iYess2, the duo bring out a pair of dancers who happen to be little people and, as Faime puts it, "thicker than a Snickers." As the song's "throw that ass in a circle" chorus chimes in and the little dancers follow suit, the crowd is fully engaged with the set and several women from the audience decide to join the group on stage.
Also in attendance with Yung Nation is an internet sensation spawned from their own music videos and other recent North Texas classics: It had been a while since he joined them on stage but White Boy Boogie joined the duo during "Pimp" and once again showed off his South Dallas Swag dance moves that have garnered him millions of views on YouTube, working the crowd into a roar.
Closing out the performance, Ace Boogie and Dorrough joined Yung Nation on stage performing "WTH."
That effort, too, is well received.
On the whole, the performance only served as evidence that Reed and Faime are ready for bigger things in hip-hop. As the duo attempted to leave the stage, they were mobbed with greetings and photo ops.
"I just wanna see them get on TV," Merk says about the group's potential for success. "It'll be smooth sailing from there."
Once off the stage, Yung Nation wanders about the venue. The duo mingles some with fans. They stare at their phones whenever they get the chance.
Merk, meanwhile, networks.
B. Reed and Fooley Faime might not be concerned with where they're headed. But Merk is.