AUSTIN, Texas — 10:25 to 10:41 p.m. at South by Southwest 2016.
It’s Tuesday night, and it’s late. A small crowd formulates. Then it disperses. Formulates. Disperses. The room is dark. A disco ball swirls as it hangs from the ceiling. A mini light show that best resembles a Coldplay concert (if the Coldplay concert had no budget) flashes periodically. Specs of smoke creek out through an elevated smoke machine to the right of the stage.
At its best, the Bat Bar lays claim to about 60 people on this night. At its worst, the number sinks below 20.
Frederick hip-hop artist Lorenzo Nichols, better known as Stitch Early, is anticipating his turn to take the spotlight. The clog at the door pushes him outside to wait his turn as the act before him finishes up. He’s a towering individual, though, and from afar, you can see his head swivel with each passing second. He wants that microphone. He wants that stage.
“Yo, I don’t know what the hell is going to happen when he goes up there, but man,” Brennon Lee, a fellow Fredericktonian in Austin to work for the magazine The Fader, says minutes before Nichols’ set. “It’s not gonna be like anything that’s up there all night.”
He’s right. Nichols, who identifies as a Christian hip-hop artist, is surrounded by a plethora of perverse passages. At one point, the room erupts into a “f— Donald Trump” chant.
The artist onstage a handful of slots before Nichols cuts through with lines like “smoking weed like it’s Earth Day.” When each performer notes the city or state from which they came, the proclamation is flanked by countless expletives. “Jersey in this motherf—— building,” seems to be a particularly popular phrase.
When his time comes, he trips up the backing house DJ by asking him to stop the music just as his first song, “Free,” kicks off. Instead, Nichols opts for about 45 seconds of a cappella rhymes. The move doesn’t play like he might want it to, and instead of capturing onlookers’ attention, the “crowd disperses” part of the evening’s equation begins to take hold.
“Make some noise if you’re feeling good,” he proclaims. Then he requests a favor.
“Can you fill up the front right here?” he asks with little success before eventually suggesting that listeners move their hands from side to side if they were born free. A smattering of arms raise like flags hung at three-quarter staff. He’s trying. Hard.
Things get better through the next 14 minutes. More people wander in through the doors, slowly but surely. Better yet, they don’t leave.
About midway through his time, Nichols ditches the stage to stand in the crowd gathered directly in front of it. This works better than anything else he’ll do all night. When he launches into “Feel Good,” which appeared on his debut set, “All Rise,” people passing by on the street stop to take it in. It’s a minor victory.
He ends the performance the way he began it: with an a cappella flow. He then notes that he’s brought promotional materials he hopes to give away at a table in the middle of the room. “It’s Stitch Early on everything,” he tells the crowd, referring to all social media platforms.
The night’s emcee backs him up, repeating the information as Nichols steps back outside to get off the stage. A few people come to the table.
Within a half-hour, Nichols, along with his friend and co-worker Brian Closs, are walking down Sixth Street to return to their rental car. It’s 11:11 when the Kia’s motor turns.
They’re excited, even if the night wasn’t perfect. Nichols’ voice is scratchy, almost gone, but he’s eager to reflect on his moment.
“It’s like a basketball game — 10 to 15 seconds can feel like two to three minutes,” the rapper explains as he drives through the Austin night. “I felt like I was up there for a while. It wasn’t a rush, but it was a feeling, an indescribable feeling.”
His voice is coming back, sounding less like cellphone service gone awry and more like a man with a cold.
“I really am drained, though.”
It’s a quarter after 9 the next morning when Nichols finds himself back in that rental car. He didn’t get to sleep until about 3 a.m. The adrenaline was too much to dismiss and he received various messages and well-wishes from friends and family late into the night. Plus, he needed to keep working on the cover design of his upcoming EP, “The Great Compromise.” Gloss passed out soon after they returned to their hotel room.
Nichols, on the other hand, doesn’t have time for passing out, let alone sleep.
For the night ahead of him, he plans to head to the Fader Fort to catch a showcase called the Kingdom Experience at 7 p.m. From there, he’ll drive to Waco with Gloss to stay at a friend’s place.
Rest won’t be much of an option, however, because the duo flies out at 5:30 a.m. on Friday. And because they didn’t want to spring for another night in a hotel room, the hope is to get to the Austin airport late Thursday night/Friday morning. Nichols is then booked for another quick 15-minute set that night in Silver Spring.
“But I’m off Saturday,” he concludes lightheartedly.
Nichols wants to come back next year. He’s hoping he’ll be able to land more showcases by then and, if he starts saving up now, his plan is to accumulate enough money to purchase a VIP badge, which ran as high as $1,745 in 2016. He wants to bring a band with him the next time around, and while it might be easy to leave South By Southwest discouraged, the Icon Natn entrepreneur refuses to stoop to self-pity.
“It was a fun experience, it was a learning experience,” he said. “I tried to come with no expectations because I didn’t want to throw expectations too high. We wanted to take what we had and make the most of the opportunity. Next year, I’m coming with all the stops pulled out.
“It would be easy to grab negatives,” Nichols continues, eyes focused on the road in front of him. “I could make up a lot of negatives, but it’s like, for what? What’s that going to do at the end of the day? What I can say is that more people know about me now than before I came to South by Southwest, and I’m cool with that. I had people come up to me and say they really, really like my music. There’s nothing negative.”
As the Texas scenery passes and Nichols weaves his way through highway traffic, a silence falls upon the car. The only soundtrack is visual. Hotels. Dirt. Dying grass. Run-down shops. Raggedy convenience stores. Seemingly abandoned gas stations. It’s one of the rare moments in the last three days that the space is sonically empty.
But then Nichols’ voice creeps up, that bass baritone unmistakable. It’s not as loud as it was on Monday, but it sounds just a little more at ease, a little more sure. He’s not whispering, but it’s unclear if he wants anybody to hear him.
“I just have to wait for people to catch up,” he offers.
Seconds pass like the faded lines on the highway and his tone raises, this time ensuring that he won’t go unheard.
“I just have to wait for people to catch up.”