Heart of the City: Riders Against the Storm

by Morgan Davis

Photo Portrait by Carlos J. Matos

Riders Against the Storm

Ovrld and the SIMS Foundation recently partned for a Cultural Arts Division-funded portait project titled Heart of the City (which you can donate to here and can view in person at SIMS’ December 3rd Heart of the City event). Spearheaded by our own Carlos J. Matos, the project aims to put faces to the struggle of music industry professionals in Austin with beautiful portaits of 12 of those professionals, ranging from performers to sound technicians to radio personalities. We also interviewed each of the subjects and will be releasing the full interviews throughout the year. We previously shared our conversation with veteran singer-songwriter Gina Chavez and KUTX personality KUTX DJ Laurie Gallardo, and now we continue with Riders Against the Storm, the groundbreaking Austin hip hop duo who made history as the first hip hop act to win the Band of the Year at the Austin Music Awards, and then topped that by winning the award three consecutive times. 

Morgan Davis for Ovrld: What was your journey to Austin like? I know you had an especially interesting journey, coming from the east coast and settling here. What brought you out? Why did you choose Austin?

Qi Dada of Riders Against the Storm: We were in Providence, Rhode Island doing a whole lot of different kinds of art. Chaka might agree that we kind of see ourselves as artists first and the medium is second. I think that’s a quote from MIA from a couple years back. It got to a point where we had to decide what we were going to focus on. What we were actually going to use as our platform to bring about the ideas we had for the world. So music was it.

We were looking for a new place and we knew one person here. His name was Martin Perna, and he was one of the founders of Antibalas’ Afrobeat group and was partnered with [Grupo Fantasma’s] Adrian Quesada, who is a friend of his. They formed Ocote Soul Sounds down here. He gave us the key to his house to come visit and we did and we stayed. There’s more to it, but y’all don’t got time for all that [laughs].

Ovrld: I know both of you also come from a long line of academic and community activism before you came out here and you’ve integrated that into your work here in the scene. A lot of your music events have been community oriented with a big focus on bringing together a lot of different schools of thought. Do you feel Austin has been especially receptive to that approach?

Chaka Mandla Mhambi Mpeanaji of Riders Against the Storm: I mean, I think everywhere is receptive to that type of approach. People need community now especially with all the technology and stuff. People feel isolated. They need spaces where they can come and feel a sense of connectivity. That’s something that has always been important to us. When we were doing a lot of the community change type of work we noticed that people would connect on that level but when that was done, people were exhausted, they were depleted. So energetically, we felt like art and music is a great way to revive, revitalize, reenergize, refresh folks.

Like she was saying we just started to focus more on that aspect and its role in the larger community. You need people on the frontlines, and you need people who are up on the politics but you also need people that are more tuned into the spirit of people and how people are doing and how they’re feeling. That’s what we tapped into, that’s what we started getting into. Same thing that we applied to ourselves we tried to apply to the larger community.

We’ve been transitioning out of so much of that, though. We’re trying to find the right combination, the right formula, to continue to push our music further and continue to also have…

QD: Engagement.

CM: Yeah, engagement. Even with RAS Day, it’s taking too much of our time away from the actual creativity aspect, you need a lot of space for that. There’s always that balance. We’re always questioning ourselves, and asking ourselves “How do we strike that balance?”

Ovrld: You’ve also been big about carving out your own spaces and doing your own events. You’ve told me before that whenever you felt you weren’t getting enough attention in a space, you’ve just done your own event to get yourselves out there. Is that something you feel is especially difficult in Austin? People aren’t working hard enough to get into a scene?

QD: I feel like in general, especially as an artist of color, you have to push boundaries. So I think in general, for us, we’re just the kind of people naturally, because we’re super creative, that are never going to wait for something to either accept us or to be carved out for us. We just carve it out ourselves, we create it ourselves. If there’s something we want to attend and it doesn’t exist, we create it. I think there has also been some receptivity on the ground levels of the people of Austin and what kind of mood and landscape they wanted to see— something new, something fresh— that represented the change that was happening in the city, the change and influx of people coming in from other places that had certain expectations culturally. I think that got reflected in the kind of support we got. I think it was changing and it was right for what we were bringing to the city.

I think for artists in general, that is kind of your creative mastery, to create your own platform, your own space, because then you have more control over it. You don’t have to have anything dictated to you. And the people that flock to you are the ones that can catapult you into the desired thing because it’s their vision too. Our hashtag is #RunRASRun because there are a lot of people who are on board. They want to run along the train too. They are the engine that is making it happen. So we never had to look for specifically any kind of establishment to elevate our vision, it was the visions of the people compiled with our own that created it. So create your own thing.

CM: Yeah, I think that’s the heart and soul of hip hop. Hip hop wasn’t given a space, it created a space. It started in rec centers and gyms in the Bronx. That’s the energy of hip hop. We’re going to do it any way. We’re going to express ourselves no matter what. We’re hip hop.

Ovrld: You’ve been very successful at building up a dedicated fan base. Last time I talked to you, you made history by getting Band of the Year back to back at the Austin Music Awards, and then this year you once again made history by making it back to back to back. What has that been like to see the ball rolling with a larger industry acceptance in Austin? Or do you think there are still a lot of challenges you’re facing there?

CM: I mean, I think people probably think we have a lot of industry support…but it’s still a balance. I feel like that’s not something we focus on, but I think there could be more. We’re helping to push open those doors but I still feel like the industry is still culturally homogenous. Know what I mean? So we enter into those scenarios as much as we can. It has helped elevate us. We’ve gotten shows that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I don’t know what else to say on that.

QD: Yeah, I think that’s about right [laughs].

CM: I think a lot of people see us and go “Yo, man! You got three Band of the Year awards!” and we’ve even had conversations, like, on Twitter where people say “yo, you’ve won three times but you’re still not getting recognized by certain institutions?” And I’m like “Yeah, that’s right.”

QD: [laughs]

CM: You know what I mean? I’m not gonna cry about it, I’m just gonna keep it moving. Because our goal is not to be recognized in Austin, our goal is to be recognized around the world for what we do. So you’ve just gotta keep it stepping, keep it moving.

QD: Yeah, and again, the three years in a row, that was the people who put us there…

CM: Right, it wasn’t the industry.

QD: It wasn’t the industry. It’s because people trust us and know that we actually care and that’s what motivates people, like “Oh, you’re not full of shit. I can actually get on board with this.” It takes time to build that kind of trust with the volume of people we’ve been able to reach. It takes work.

CM: They want to see us succeed. They want to see us get that recognition. And that’s special. It will expand out into larger audiences, and more notoriety will come from that.

Ovrld: How do you feel the hip hop community has changed since you got here? 

CM: I think there’s more stuff happening. When we got here I think it was a kind of lull, from like 2006 to 2007 to 2010 there was a little bit of a drop off. That’s how it seemed to me. We came in and there was some other young energy that was popping. I’m seeing like a building stage right now, know what I’m saying? You got Cap’n Kirk over here doing Wave Party, which is really doing well with the younger demographic. You got Austin Mic Exchange happening. You got a lot of stuff happening. And I felt like there wasn’t as much stuff visible when we first got here. That’s why we started our thing. When I was hitting up the venues downtown, it was like crickets. So we started doing parties on the east side on our own. I feel like now artists don’t have to do that as much. I feel like there’s more of an acceptance or readiness to book hip hop. I’d like to hear from the younger artists and hear what they think, but I definitely think there’s more doors open than when we got here.

QD: There’s definitely just more of a platform. I think there was more people feeling like the industry was separate from what they were doing and now I feel like there’s more of an attitude of “We belong everywhere in Austin.” Part of that is yes, the clubs are opening up, and part of that is folks breaking down a few barriers in the industry, so when new artists are walking into it they don’t have any concept of limitations that were there before.

CM: Right, right, and I think that’s dope for the new artists. They don’t really know what was knocked down but I feel like they can make a lot more things happen. And it’s happened pretty rapidly since we’ve been here. Because the people that are doing stuff are putting out quality work and having an impact.

Ovrld: Yeah, we were really surprised last year to see just how many hip hop releases there were. Adam Protextor put together a list of all of them that came out for us. It was amazing, because we try to stay on top of all of that but there were so many that I hadn’t heard that I was pleased to discover. 

CM: Yeah, for sure. Exactly.

Ovrld: What are some of the new challenges and obstacles you feel have developed in Austin? Not just in the music scene but just as an artist living in Austin.

QD: I think that’s always a difficult question for me to answer. Honestly I feel like I walk with a different spiritual gravity so things come to us differently than they would some other artists that are trying to make their way through the industry. I know housing is definitely an issue, people can’t be in the same scenarios that they once were and really have space to make art and be artists. Actually, even for us that’s an issue, but I think that’s part of our balance of being producers and being event creators and being artists. For sure, I think the space issue is always major for most artists. It’s not a luxury, it’s not like you’re aloof or lazy or a generally entitled feeling, you genuinely need space in order to create art. You need some space in some capacity, some support, to create art. I think the city, being that there’s so much riding on artists being able to produce out of this city, that I’m sure it’s quite an export for the city, there needs to be more support from the city for artists. I don’t feel that artists feel there is space enough for them to just focus on art.

CM: I think Austin has been floating on the “Live Music Capital” thing for a minute. There was a time where you could work part time, and it be easy, and you could make music full time. You could do it. I think that time is over with. Now you’ve gotta have a couple jobs or you’ve gotta live with 25 people in a one bedroom. That’s how it is. Austin is becoming more like a New York. I mean, it’s not that close, but you know what I’m saying. It’s becoming more like the cities all these folks are moving from. I think the city is late on the reaction time. I think they were kind of coasting, like “Oh, yeah, it’s all good” and now we’ve hit this wall and some drastic changes need to happen. And one of them is definitely housing. It’s good they’re reacting to it but the city tends to react late. This is something that’s been going on for a while.

Artists will create. We’ll figure out how to do it. If they do it in New York, they’re gonna damn sure do it in Austin. Because New York is a whole other level. LA is a a whole other level. It’s a whole other grind and hustle. People are going to figure it out. I’m glad the city is now trying to be a part of that.

Ovrld: Do you think there is going to be more of a departure of artists first? Will there be a lot of artists leaving the city as a result of that late reaction? Because from my perspective, I feel like we’re already seeing that with hip hop especially, a lot of artists in this community have gone elsewhere now trying to make it…

CM: Well, I don’t think that has anything to do with the larger artist thing. It’s not just hip hop, it’s everybody. Look at Max Frost, look at Gary Clark, look at Shakey Graves, Wild Child. Look at whoever you want to look at who has in the last five or six years “blown up” or gotten more notoriety, they left. There’s just no industry here. There’s no huge music infrastructure here. So you have to go out and make those impressions outside of here. Period. No matter what genre you are.

Ovrld: RAS have been very good about finding other ways to get income from music, you’ve done a lot of partnerships, like you even had JuiceLand sponsor a video. Do you see that as something more artists need to do, forge relationships with businesses to help finance the art they’re making?

QD: Yeah, I was just thinking about this the other day. I think Beyonce is a great example of what the trend actually should be for the moment, in the sense that, sure, she’s making more money than most from her actual music, but she’s really making money from just being Beyonce. I think that’s something we found works for us, also. I think we make more of an impact and can do more business as an identity, as Riders Against the Storm, more so than just as music. Our music is great and people support it, but the lifestyle we promote or the quality we promote in general is what people tend to be attracted to, even if they don’t know us. Like we have a partnership with a company that is coming up and they were enjoying the fact that we have a particular community impression. One of the women from their marketing team loved our music and wanted to partner with us but said “The truth of it is, your community impression is a great fit for our brand.” So I think that’s a great idea for artists to start to pick up is the awareness that you as an identity can do a lot more for you than just your music right now.

Ovrld: Right, and personality and building up a following and all that.

QD: Yeah, encompass all that you are. You make music but I’m sure you dress a certain way and people will be interested in that. Or maybe you just love fast food. I man, we were on tour with a couple cats and Taco Bell was funding their whole thing. You know what I mean? [laughs] There’s so many ways to go about it. Like what’s your lifestyle? There are so many ways to support it now.

CM: You’ve gotta be creative. We just did a telethon, we did a crowdfunding campaign, and we did this online, Facebook Live telethon thing. On the last day, we raised over $2,000. Just being online with our fans and folks. We have a Patreon, a website where people support us every month. TipCow is another thing that has helped while we’ve been on tour. We do every freaking thing we can to keep this moving. I think artists have to think outside of the box, beyond “I’m gonna create a CD and I’m gonna put it out there and I’m gonna put it up on my website and I’m gonna put it up on iTunes.” You’ve got to have multiple streams. Merch, all that. It all adds up.

Ovrld: The final question I have is what is some advice you would give to people moving to Austin now that you wish you had gotten when you first moved out here?

QD and CM together: HELP! HELP! [laughs]

CM: Don’t come! But for real, what kind of person?

Ovrld: Another artist.

CM: Another artist? I would say stay open. Be aware of who you are and what you’re really trying to do. Have an idea of who you are as an artist. Just be open and get out and network. Get to know everybody from the artists to the venue owners, get to know what they’re looking for. Just try to keep it moving. It’s pretty simple.

QD: Comments I have for artists in general is love your fans. Like really love your fans. Especially in Austin. People here really do love live music. People in this city love live music. People love their musicians, they really do. Honor your fans. Don’t just be excited that they want to know who you are, ask them what their name is, and how did they find out about you, honor the fact that they are taking their time out for you. It’s great, it’s important.

CM: Also people should find out about HAAM. When we came out here, HAAM was huge for us. There are a lot of organizations— Austin Music Foundation, SIMS— find out about those places because if you’re coming out here without a lot of resources, or without a job, those places come in handy. That was one of the first things we did when we got out here, sign up for HAAM. Austin is unique in that sense, there are a lot of resources on that level. You just have to look for them.

Carlos J. Matos’ portrait of Riders Against the Storm will be on display alongside eleven other portraits SIMS’ Heart of the City gala event at Emo’s on Saturday, December 3rd. You can also donate to the project here. Heart of the City is funded in part by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Development Department.

Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes here at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.