In 2009, SXSW found itself at the center of converge culture. Learn how an NYC magazine, an American denim company, and a chart-topping artist threaded the needle for the perfect party.
Last week, South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, wrapped its first festival following 2020’s COVID cancellation.
Founded in 1987, SXSW acts as an international culmination of concerts and conferences deep in the heart of Texas. Since its start, SXSW has transformed from discovering unknown artists in dusty dive bars to Billboard bringing out Shawn Mendes to sing and snap selfies with the Samsung Galaxy S22.
In 2009, Austin’s music-meets-tech-meets-film festival was gaining traction yet still sneakily underground. Attending SXSW since the early aughts, FADER co-founder Rob Stone sought to make a splash by throwing a party of epic proportions with palpable juxtaposition.
His vision? Bring Kanye West, who has since legally changed his name to Ye, to Texas — and back down to Earth — following the astronomical success of his 2008 Glow in the Dark Tour.
Leveraging Levi’s as a sponsor and the unexpected excitement tied to the magazine’s famous Fader Fort, Stone pitched a performance that was as business savvy as it was culturally cool. All he had to do was convince the biggest artist in the world to play a one-off show in an Austin parking lot after selling out stadiums across the globe.
Thankfully, Stone and Ye go way back.
“Rob, can I play you a song?”
In 2022, Netflix subscribers saw just how hard Ye had to sell himself to get recognized as a rapper.
Archival footage from the documentary jeen-yuhs recalls Roc-a-Fella employees ignoring his attempts to rip rhymes despite the fact that he already resided as an in-house hitmaker thanks to his production on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint.
For Rob Stone, Kanye’s talent was always obvious.
“Chris Atlas and Al Branch brought him up to the FADER office,” Stone recalled to Boardroom. “We were all talking when Kanye just kind of blurted out, ‘Rob, can I play you a song?’ I said, ‘Of course.'”
What happened next was trademark Ye.
Refusing to just give Stone a copy of his demo tape — after all, Kanye knew how much it would one day be worth — the artist grabbed a CD player and threw on the instrumentals for “Through the Wire” and “Jesus Walks.”
Not the finished tracks, just simply the beats.
“He started performing like it was Madison Square Garden,” Stone reflected. “He got up on my coffee table, and before you knew it, there were like 20 to 30 people in my doorway watching him. That’s literally how he got the cover of The FADER. That was the first time I’d met him.”
Stone was no stranger to spotting talent. He had helped start the career of a promising Brooklyn MC born Christopher Wallace just a decade prior. Famously, his friend Sean Combs played him an early copy of what would be Notorious B.I.G.’s debut album Ready to Die. Off one listen, Stone was quick to call it one of the five best albums he’d ever heard. Not just in rap, but in any genre.
Just as Stone saw Biggie belonging in the same breath as Michael Jackson and The Beatles, he was sold on the kid named Kanye before Roc-a-Fellla really wanted to back him as a rapper. Thanks to the impromptu table performance at The FADER office, West had his first magazine cover, immediately introducing him to the world as a standalone artist.
The 2003 cover story, written by future Theophilus London manager Knox Robinson and eventual GQ global editorial director Will Welch, hit newsstands months before The College Dropout hit stores. By co-signing Kanye upon arrival, Stone had earned West’s trust.
Even then, it was clear to Stone that the Roc’s first backpack rapper wasn’t too cool for school. In fact, he was absolutely the opposite: appearing so embedded in emotion that only a great could relate.
“You could tell it was different,” said Stone. “I was in the studio and saw Talib and Kanye freestyling. He was built differently than anyone; he really was. The energy and his love? It was reminiscent of when Jordan wins the championship. You see him cry and hugging the trophy. His emotion was so strong even when he was just freestyling with his buds.”
While West won over the world, Stone stayed busy building his media outlet into an empire.
Though the two mostly saw each other in passing, their established bond was strong enough for The FADER to phone in a favor when it came to their 2009 showcase at SXSW.
The timing couldn’t have been better for Ye.
Between breaking out a backpack on his first magazine cover and becoming the biggest artist in the world, life changed dramatically and quickly for Ye.
In 2007, Kanye reached his highest heights in popularity yet his lowest lows personally.
That September, West released Graduation, an album that outsold rival rapper 50 Cent and totally changed the trajectory of hip-hop. It was as impressive commercially and critically as anything the genre had ever seen — effectively occupying all lanes of appeal without sacrificing sound.
But come November, Kanye’s mother, Donda West, tragically passed away under puzzling circumstances. The whirlwind of events plummeted the producer painted as Picasso in his own Blue Period.
For most of 2008, West was promoting Graduation through the already routed Glow in the Dark Tour — grieving on stage alone with the world to watch. Around that same time, he passionately poured the pain of his mother’s death and a failed engagement into the industry shifting album 808s and Heartbreak.
By the time 2009 rolled around, Kanye was ready to rap again. But he wasn’t ready to smile.
The grind of success and loss of love crushed him. A new relationship with Amber Rose and appearances at fashion shows kept Kanye in the headlines, as did budding design deals with Louis Vuitton and Nike.
Despite the partnerships, the cocky kid in the pink Polo seemed to have lost his joy.
Rob Stone was busy in his own right. For FADER, the event space was always intriguing as it brought consumers closer than they’d ever been to new artists — introducing talent in real time. That year’s SXSW festival was the time to take FADER to new heights.
“We were looking for something to shock and disrupt Austin,” Stone said. “I called Al Branch and said, ‘It’s crazy Kanye hasn’t been to SXSW. He needs to be here.'”
Having had Amy Winehouse perform at SXSW’s Fader Fort in 2007, a precedent for predicting who’s next was absolutely on-brand for FADER. However, surprising Austin attendees with the biggest star in music could catch everyone off guard.
After months of performing on a set with puppets produced by Jim Henson, laser lights, and giant robots, could Kanye West really be convinced to take the stage in an abandoned lot just blocks off a Texas highway?
Yes, but Ye wouldn’t go it alone.
“It was the Big Bang for SXSW”
Historically, SXSW was a space of discovery for locals and industry insiders alike.
For Jason Jermaine, an Austin native who’d been attending the festival since 2006, rising rock acts ruled the space.
“At that time, it was about new bands,” Jermaine told Boardroom.
In 2009, most assumed that standard to still be true.
That March, Pitchfork put together a comprehensive guide to that year’s SXSW festival, complete with performances by indie artists such as The Cold War Kids and St. Vincent. Rock, folk, and country had long been totems of Austin’s spring fling, with international icons or hip-hop artists rarely attending.
While rappers of the rising variety such as Charles Hamilton made the lineup as did the then-underground Killer Mike, hip-hop’s answer to Michael Jackson was no where to be found on flyers or festival intel.
“I heard rumors that Kanye was coming,” Jermaine recalled. “I started seeing G.O.O.D. Music artists like Kid Cudi, Big Sean, and GLC around town. It was like a storm coming. Kanye couldn’t be too far behind.”
As that year’s Fader Fort kicked off, Little Boots brought her A-game as a black car with tinted windows pulled up out back.
Stepping out was Fonzworth Bentley, a famous affiliate to P. Diddy and an artist on Kanye’s imprint, G.O.O.D. Music. Catching a vibe, Bentley reported back to West, who soon started planning his surprise set.
“He pre-gamed like it was an NFL game,” said Stone. “He had the whiteboard, writing up the show and the songs he thought they should do. He was sitting with his whole team the day before. He’d sent Fonzworth over to check the stage just to make sure the sound was right.”
Becoming the rap game’s Bill Belichick, West approached his set strategically. He stripped down the stadium setlist from the Glow in the Dark Tour in favor of rarely performed posse tracks and deep cuts from his first two albums. Not only would the audience be caught off guard by his arrival, they’d salivate over his song choices.
Huddled up, Kanye assembled a crew of colleagues and famous friends for a B-side spectacular that was once thought to only be an appearance.
“He was on stage with Kid Cudi, Mr. Hudson, GLC, Erykah Badu, Common, Consequence — all his artists on G.O.O.D. Music,” Stone recalled, smiling. “We didn’t even know if he was going to do songs! But he was just happy and smiling, it wasn’t like Glow in the Dark. It was him just jamming with his friends.”
The crowd of surprised, sweaty music lovers ate it up in Austin.
Throwing up the Roc only when their canned beer was finished, the free party put on by FADER streamed live on Kanye’s blooming blog for the world to see. The small show in the big state of Texas allowed Kanye to reconnect to engaged fans in real time while introducing the FADER‘s den of discovery to new artists such as Cudi, Big Sean, and Mr. Hudson.
“Oh my God it was nuts,” Jermaine reminisced. “It wasn’t officially announced, but we knew Kanye was going to come out. It was electric. Plain Pat is on stage, all this smoke comes out, and here’s Kanye in denim with Nike Air Yeezy 1s on. That Fader Fort performance will always be in my heart. It was the Big Bang for SXSW.”
808s singles “Love Lockdown” and “Amazing” bookended the performance, but the setlist was loaded with Freshman Adjustment favorites, catalog cuts like “Crack Music,” and appetizers from forthcoming G.O.O.D. Music releases.
“That made the show so magical and special because it wasn’t just about his hits,” Stone shared. “We weren’t strict. We wanted them to have fun. The intention was to break that barrier down and make it an experience you couldn’t have anywhere else. Months before, he was doing arenas. Then to go to a thousand-person packed Fader Fort? The fans were loving him.”
FADER fans were beneficiaries of Ye gracing SXSW, but so was Levi’s, the Fort’s lead partner,
As big brands compete to sponsor showcases and seed influencers, the American denim fixture hit a homer in 2009 by being at the right place at the right time.
More importantly, Levi’s aligned their red tag with the most powerful man in menswear.
When Stone and Jon Cohen started The Fader Fort in 2001, the idea was to give artists a space to soundcheck during the day as all performances were typically held at night. Quickly, they courted Levi’s as a sponsor — providing indie acts with free jeans and laundry while they tuned up their instruments.
As The Fader Fort grew, Levi’s remained tied. For the 2009 showcase, Levi’s laced performers with custom cut-and-sew gear — giving Kanye and his crew plenty of free product.
“If you were VIP, you were able to get jeans or a jacket,” Jermaine said. “They were giving out swag bags.”
While West performed on stage in an all denim look, the vintage vest he had on was actually made by competitor brand Lee. Though no one was able to tell Kanye to change his outfit — then or ever — not all was lost. Behind the scenes, the spot-on seeding from Levi’s then-brand marketing director Sheri Timmons placed West in a brown Levi’s jacket he’d soon rock regularly.
Later that night at the Perez Hilton Party, and throughout the year in paparazzi shots, you could catch Ye and his colleagues in Levi’s looks tied back to The Fader Fort.
As Stone remembered it, the introduction of Levi’s to Kanye at The Fader Fort was meant to culminate in a meeting about a bigger deal. However, Kanye left Austin to start working on his next album in Hawaii. The team at Levi’s wanted Kanye to come meet in San Francisco, but schedules never aligned, and a collaboration or collection never happened.
“At the very end of the show Kanye was like, ‘Yo, Levi’s, cut the check!'” relayed Jermaine.
A check was never cut, but the business of SXSW was forever changed.
The New Standard
The fact that a sponsored showcase still resonates with current SXSW attendees traces back to Ye.
In the years that followed 2009, everyone from Spotify to Doritos aligned with artists in an effort to win SXSW and pump product. At first, fans won with the biggest names in music converging at the conference. Eventually, the long lines and corporate overtones created market fatigue.
“Everybody got spoiled after that,” Jermaine said. “That started the era of the surprise performances. After that, every year everyone expected so much.”
Still, FADER kept its course.
In 2016, The Fader Fort famously closed the lot Kanye came to with a surprise performance by Drake. Famously, Apple asked the Toronto titan to play their SXSW showcase. However, Aubrey instead showed love to his familiar friends at FADER and announced his Summer Sixteen Tour.
Over the course of the 2010s, The Fader Fort introduced SXSW attendees to budding stars such as Billie Eilish, Travis Scott, and Megan the Stallion. Due to COVID-19 and the onset of Omicron, FADER has pulled out of music showcases at recent SXSW festivals — instead, leveraging the film portion to premier their upcoming doc Look at Me about the late emo rapper XXXTentacion.
Moving forward, companies will continue to leverage festivals such as SXSW as a means to connect to consumers authentically while selling the support of sponsors. Despite the big budget of tech giants or the allure of top-40 fixtures, no brands have been able to gel and deliver quite like FADER, Kanye, and Levi’s did 13 years ago.
“There’s nothing like The Fader Fort for energy and discovery,” Stone said, hinting that the marquee music event could come back to SXSW in 2023. “FADER has been a platform for emerging talent, so when you give Kanye his first cover, there’s a trust and an appreciation for the brand.”