By Simon Vozick-Levinson
Updated March 20, 2010 at 10:51 PM EDT

Hip-hop seems to have a bigger presence in SXSW’s mix each year, and this week has seen no shortage of new rappers plying their trade in Austin. Many of the most talented were concentrated at the unofficial showcase that rap blogs Nah Right and the Smoking Section hosted at Peckerheads all Thursday afternoon. The standout of the acts I caught that day was Freddie Gibbs, a sharp lyricist with force-of-nature flows who originally hails from Gary, Ind. and now resides in L.A. (Honorable mentions to the artists who immediately preceded and followed Gibbs: Atlanta’s Pill, who fired off rapid tales of criminal life, and Pittsburgh’s Wiz Khalifa, an unflappably cheerful party animal.) I caught up with Gibbs in a hotel bar today.

Unlike many up-and-comers at SXSW, Gibbs isn’t particularly looking to catch a major label’s eye. He’s been there already — signed to Interscope for a time a few years ago, he says he was dropped after being told his music wasn’t commercial enough. “I’m not no pop dude,” he now says flatly. That’s an understatement. His lyrics are uncompromisingly dark, trafficking heavily in menacing attitude, graphic content, and profanity. Yet for a growing number of rap fans and critics, the level of verbal craftsmanship he brings to free online mixtapes like last year’s midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik has proven impossible to ignore. (Watch the gritty black-and-white video for “Womb 2 the Tomb,” a song he and Pill recorded for that mixtape, after the jump; lots of NSFW language.) “I mean, I’m street, I’m gangsta, and everything, but I’m intelligent at the same time,” Gibbs says. “Once people understand that, then they’ll know where I’m coming from.”

Not every rapper who makes great records is equally compelling on stage, so I was impressed by Gibbs’ assured performance on Thursday (one of eight gigs he booked for his first trip to SXSW). He draws inspiration for his live show from a source that I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed: Philadelphia’s jammy hip-hop troupe (and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon house band) the Roots. “I saw the Roots perform, and that s— blew my mind,” Gibbs says. “Guys like [Roots frontman] Black Thought motivate me to be better as an artist, better as a rapper. I try to take notes from him.” Surprising, but smart — many including myself consider Black Thought the best live rapper of all time.

Gibbs is currently hard at work on another free mixtape, Str8 Killa No Filla, and collaborating with producer and Eminem pal the Alchemist (another canny move) for a collaborative EP titled The Devil’s Palace, which he plans to release for sale one way or another. After our chat this afternoon, he was off to prepare for yet another SXSW set. “I’ve been getting a real good reception from the people out here in Austin,” he grins. “I’m ecstatic. I’m walking on air right now, man.”

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