My funds were down, and South by Southwest wasn’t looking like it was an option this year. I mulled it over, and I weighed the pros and cons. I decided to take the leap of faith—I bought a plane ticket to Austin, Texas. I had to experience the spectacle that is SXSW, and most importantly, the legend that is The ILLMORE.

Once my ticket was purchased I had to finding an opportunity to document The ILLMORE, so I emailed Mike Carson, someone with whom I’ve had a good rapport since shooting at the R$VPA$AP show in May 2012. Carson is one of the original members of the ILLROOTS crew, so I thought that would be a good place to start, and it turns out it was a great place to start. Mike said he could allow me to shoot at The ILLMORE. About a week prior to show time, I emailed to confirm, and I headed to SXSW with high hopes.

I landed on Tuesday evening, and I caught a cab to the AirBNB rental at which I was staying. The rental was twice as far as advertised in the listing, and the ride cost me a whopping $53, which was a little more than 1/6th of my budget for the week. Immediately factoring in the necessary cab ride back to the airport on departure day, this left me with a measly $200 for five days. If you’ve ever tried to stomach a big city with low funds, you’ll know what I mean when I say it is a struggle. With the little money I had, I endured Austin’s brutal public transportation. Bus 485 became my savior, as it was the one that carted me (conveniently) to the entrance of The ILLMORE.

But let’s rewind a minute—When I landed in Austin, I had absolutely no idea where I was going or where The ILLMORE was located. While most people RSVP’d for general admission wristbands, I did not. And as a result, I didn’t receive an email with the address. I killed some time during my first day by waiting two hours in line and hanging around the Earl Sweatshirt show at Red Bull Soundselect. While at the show, I met two girls who reluctantly but thankfully shared the address for The ILLMORE with me. I ended up running into the same girls every night for the rest of the weekend.

When I got to The ILLMORE on the first night, I meandered my way towards the guest list check-in. After waiting it out, I realized I wasn’t on the guest list, and I hit Mike. He was still holding down the lighting situation at the G.O.O.D. Music Showcase at Brazos Hall downtown, so he sent Dylan Knight, an ILLROOTS team videographer, to let me in. I received a black 4-day wristband, but hit another wall as I headed towards security. Apparently, it pays to have an ILLMORE laminate (thanks, Dylan!) because they cleared my camera, and I was in!

The crowd was crazy, and everyone was getting amped by OG Chase B’s killer set. This was the first of many that I heard at The ILLMORE, and by each I was more impressed. I obviously tried to snag a spot in the VIP/backstage area, but with a black wristband, it was a no-go. I kept wandering around and got some great shots of UZI playing hypeman. While I was shooting, David Muniz spotted me and ushered me towards the entrance of the VIP/backstage area. If you know David at all, then you won’t be surprised to hear that he was able to get me a gold 4-day VIP/backstage wristband (thanks again, David).

I ran into Mike Waxx after the first night of The ILLMORE had concluded, and I was geeked about some Fujifilm Instax (polaroid type photos) I had shot while being backstage, and I showed him. Waxx was impressed, so he asked me to document each night of The ILLMORE. I immediately jumped on that opportunity because I have been a huge fan of ILLROOTS for as long as I can remember, and being a part of something as special and historic as The ILLMORE was a huge honor. Even though that night started with wandering in the crowd, I fended up on stage with Big Sean, his fiancé Naya Rivera, DJ Mo Beatz, Travi$ Scott and the list goes on.

The night wasn’t a total success, though. As soon as I left The ILLMORE, I realized that public transportation stops working around midnight. I didn’t want to designate anymore of my dwindling funds to cab rides, so I decided to walk 3+ miles back downtown around four-thirty a.m. each day. What I thought would be a nice stroll turned out to be a bit scary. I passed through some neighborhoods in which people were literally selling drugs on the street corners, which in and of itself is bad news, because I had thousands of dollars of camera equipment on my back. By the time I made it downtown around six a.m., I hit the Starbucks at the Marriott Courtyard for a quick tech and body charge—I ordered a venti iced coffee with 2% milk and seven pumps of vanilla. (Trust me, the seventh pump is crucial) and I whipped out my camera and sifted through my photos to edit. By ten a.m., I had a complete recap to send to Cliff Skighwalker at ILLROOTS for their daily posts.

I killed another hour every morning by dozing off every 15 minutes on the Starbucks couches until the trains started running at 11 a.m., and then I was on my way back to my AirBNB room to shower, change and get myself prepared for another day. I would then walk back to the train, head downtown and hang around at shows and venues until making my way back towards The ILLMORE around ten p.m. (to avoid the crowds). I had this exact routine every single day that I was in Austin for SXSW. This means, with no exaggeration, I slept a total of seven hours in five days. But it was all worth it because I had been waiting for the opportunity to work with these guys at ILLROOTS for who knows how long.

My excitement to work with ILLROOTS at The ILLMORE is due to their importance (for me) and for this culture. It all started with a dream. Kids growing up watching TRL, 106 & Park, etc. all had dreams of being a part of that. For some kids that dream faded with the classic idea of college, job, and the “natural” succession of “growth” as dictated by our culture; however, for the initial ILLROOTS guys, they kept dreaming, and they made those dreams a reality. For someone who never finished college just like them, to see them living out their dreams and becoming friends with pop icons and having them want to play at their after party is something I will never be able to wrap my head around. That is inspiring and touching. The most memorable part about The ILLMORE for me was on the last night the rumor of Lil’ Wayne and Birdman performing was in the air, and before we knew it, the guy who dominated pop music for five+ years and the guy who stood by his side during his entire career were on stage at The ILLMORE closing out the best after party at SXSW (and maybe even period).

But what was most memorable was when I was in the photo pit in complete awe, and my hand somehow still down on the shutter capturing photos. Mike Waxx was standing next to me, and he said something along the lines of, “this is one of the most important nights of my life.” And that’s when I knew that The ILLMORE was so much more than cool people performing and kids having a party. What popped in my head when he said that was a kid who fought (and probably argued to the death) with his parents, teachers, mentors, etc. on why he was dropping out of college, and having that moment come across for him that said dropping out of school was the best decision of my life.That moment when Lil’ Wayne and Birdman’s diamond encrusted grills glistening in our faces was that special moment for every kid who had ever had a dream and wanted to do anything to make it a reality. ILLROOTS is so inspiring, and it makes me want to be apart of what they’re doing that much more. Thank you for allowing me to document each night, and I hope this becomes something so much bigger than you ever imagined for many years to come – ILLAMERICA!