AUSTIN, Texas — “I’m a firm believer of speaking things into reality.”
This is what Frederick hip-hop artist Lorenzo Nichols says as he walks up East Sixth Street under the hot Austin sun, adding instantly that he knows you can’t achieve as much unless you put in the work to accompany the belief. You can talk all you want, he advocates, but without any effort, all you get is words.
Nichols, more commonly known by his stage name Stitch Early, is playful as he readies himself for his one and only 15-minute showcase at this year’s South By Southwest music conference and festival.
His time in the spotlight comes tonight. It could happen at any point between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m., and it’s part of something called the Dope Dealer Tour. The venue will be the Bat Bar, in the heart of all the Sixth Street action. Nichols was hoping to land something — anything — else to help justify spending the hundreds upon hundreds of dollars it takes to get here as an independent solo artist, but no such luck has occurred.
Instead, this is all he’s got. One thousand, five hundred and seventeen miles. Fifteen minutes.
His is one of 20 names on the party poster, and that number keeps fluctuating by the text message. Chances are, a best-case scenario means that he’ll get the callback to do it again next year. Worst-case scenario … well, Lorenzo Nichols doesn’t deal in those.
“Last year, I told everybody, ‘Next year, I will be going to South By Southwest,’” he explains, with his near-perfect smile making the glare from the sun that much more blinding. “Then, in January, I got the message, and here I am. This is just one opportunity, but I want it to turn into more down the line. Next year, I want every show to be with my band.’”
It might be easy to confuse the rapper’s conviction with arrogance, but that would be a disservice to both the performer and the man. You see, Nichols is a faith-based artist.
Ask him about it and he’ll be somewhat evasive.
“It’s like when people say I’m an African-American hip-hop artist,” he has explained. “That’s true. I’m black and I’m a hip-hop artist. So, when people say I’m a Christian hip-hop artist, I say, yeah, that’s true, too. I am a Christian and I am a hip-hop artist.”
Nichols also holds strong enough to his beliefs that you can find an ample number of religious references in his work, most notably in the lyrical fabric of his upcoming EP, “The Great Compromise.”
Naturally, then, whenever you bring up the fact that he came all this way, ostensibly for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot at only marginal exposure, and he shakes off the implicit negativity with overt positivity.
It’s hard to feel like he’s not coming by it honestly. Even on a day like today, when the temperatures approach 90 degrees, and he’s scouring the streets of Austin in brown pants and a denim blue button-up, sweating through almost all of it, he laughs off the observation of torture.
“It’s all right,” Nichols says. “The breeze feels good.”
That doesn’t mean he’s not tired, though.
Arriving in Texas on Sunday with a protége of sorts, 19-year-old Brian Closs, the pair left Frederick by car at about 6 a.m. Saturday to set up shop at the Brooklyn, New York, stop of the Southern Lights tour, selling items from Nichols’ clothing line, The Natn, and helping spread the word about both the guy’s music and his message.
They left New York at about 11 p.m. that night to arrive at Reagan National Airport for a 6:45 a.m. flight on Sunday. Upon arriving in the Lone Star State that afternoon, they raced to their hotel room and crashed.
Monday, though? Monday is all about business. After some ice cream at Amy’s Ice Creams, Nichols and Closs foot-patrol the heart of South By Southwest, wandering through the Austin Convention Center, marching up and down Sixth Street, handing out everything from business cards to ball caps. No matter the response, both guys walk away from each interaction with their heads high, as though “I’m not interested” stands on the same social shelf as “Thanks, I’ll check it out.”
Optimism isn’t just a word in the pair’s vocabulary; it’s a virtue through which they see the world.
So much so, in fact, that now they’re now heading back to their room at the Marriott in North Austin in the rental car they picked up at the airport.
Nichols is traveling there to rehearse for his singular shining moment and on his way, through a bevy of highway traffic, he blasts the songs from his upcoming EP through the speakers. It’s so loud that conversation is impossible. He’s in the zone. He’s memorizing the memorizations.
Arriving in their home away from home, neither bed is made: Turns out someone left the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the room’s doorknob and forgot to take it off before setting out for the day. No matter. Closs sprawls out on his unmade mattress while Nichols turns on a portable speaker. Before you know it, music fills the room with nary a word spoken. The song “Free,” from his only previous release, “All Rise,” bubbles up and overtakes the walls.
He changes shirts. Faces the door. And eases himself into the umpteenth time he’s practiced this set with an apprehensive mumble of his first two or three lines. By the time line four comes around, however, Stitch Early has arrived. Stitch Early is working.
Working, hard as ever, toward once again making his words a reality.