Some say it was when three hometown cuties named T-Boz, Left Eye and Chili began prancing around in colorful overalls in 1991. Others swear it was the day two Southwest Atlanta kids called Kris Kross started wearing their clothes backwards in ‘92. Still others insist it was when longtime homeboys André Benjamin and Antwan Patton tossed their Webster’s Dictionary out of the window in ’94 and came up with the word “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.” Honestly, we may not ever reach a consensus as to when the Atlanta musical movement got its legs. But all we really need to know about it is that it’s been going strong 15+ years and doesn’t show the slightest signs of letting up anytime soon. And we’re not just talking about the Young Jeezy-, Gucci Mane-filled rap worlds either. What LaFace, So So Def, Rowdy and other local labels started over a decade ago in R&B was nothing short of phenomenal. The old adage goes that you never know that you’re making history when you’re making it. Musicians were just having fun… and selling lots of CDs at Tower and HMV. Thankfully, industry experts have had time to analyze the movement and come up with some reasonable explanations. “The Atlanta area is very fortunate to claim Jermaine Dupri as one of its own,” says Mark Edward Nero, R&B guide for the popular reference website About.com. “He and his musical associates have definitely helped the Atlanta area stay ahead of most other regions of the country when it comes to innovative R&B music. Thanks to him and highly creative producers and songwriters like The-Dream, Tricky Stewart and Keri Hilson’s songwriting group The Clutch, Atlanta’s managed to become fertile ground for creativity and cutting-edge sounds. Music creators in Atlanta are defining the sound of R&B music; other regions of the country are copying and playing catch-up.” It’s that seemingly endless game of catch-up that’s bewildered so many. With music being the cyclical bugger that it is, one would have thought after TLC and Xscape’s brilliant sprint across Billboard, the sound would have run out of steam and made its way to Miami or Oakland. But, in actuality, all it did was go down the block to Ciara. Surely, after the baton passed through her hands, however, it would have gone to Dallas or Philly, right? Had it, we wouldn’t be doing this story now. But just because MTV and the FM dial haven’t tired of Atlanta traffic, Varsity hot dogs and the city’s enthusiastic percussions, doesn’t mean that things haven’t changed. They have immensely. “I think the current wave of R&B ladies is equal to the last big wave of divas in the 1990s, but in different ways,” continues About.com’s Nero. “I’d have to give the ladies of the ‘90s an edge when it comes to pure vocal talent: modern singers like Ciara, Keri Hilson and the girl group Cherish all have refined, melodious voices, but some of the women from the ‘90s like Monica and Toni Braxton have bigger voices and more raw vocal firepower. But on the plus side for the modern artists is that they’re more freethinking and creative, as evidenced by brilliant, eclectic artists like Janelle Monae and India.Arie.”
Neither Monae (who’s originally from Kansas City) nor Arie (Denver by way of Savannah) are from Atlanta. But both have been in the city long enough to not only claim it, but to speak on its magnetism as well. “They’re experimenting with sounds,” begins Monáe, whose Wondaland Arts Society is partnering with Diddy’s Bad Boy to release her whimsy, soul/future pop CDs Metropolis Suites II and III later this year. “They’ve tapped into a sound that people from markets in the East Coast and the West Coast haven’t really heard. For a long time, those two coasts were taking over the music industry. A movement is very important. People can believe in something when there are enough people doing it.” Another thing that has helped the city keep its pool of musicians populated is the sense of “he/she made it here, I know I can too” hovering above the Atlanta skyline. Actors feel that way about Hollywood. Basketball players feel the same for the University of North Carolina. Janelle Monáe had a similar feeling about The A. “James Brown,” says Monáe, “is from Augusta but started his career in Atlanta. He had a huge influence on me coming ‘cuz I wanted that funk! I came here for that. OutKast, of course [influenced my decision too]. Yeah, there are just certain individuals that I was drawn to.” Keyshia Cole, one of today’s biggest R&B names and star of the Atlanta-based, BET reality series Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is, won’t credit the Godfather of Soul or Gladys Knight for influencing her exodus from Oakland to Atlanta three years ago. The 27-year-old singer offers, however, a more rooted explanation. “I’ve always wanted to live there because of the weather and the trees,” insists the multi-platinum artist who’s currently touring in promotion of her third release, A Different Me. “I feel like I have so much room to breathe. It’s like one of those places where when you’re home you’re home. It’s not L.A. where everything is moving so fast. It’s not New York where you’re coming home and moving so fast and living out of a suitcase. You never get the sense of settling down. That’s kinda why I chose to move to Atlanta— not because of the music but more so of settling down.” Ciara Harris is another singer who may have been born elsewhere (Austin, Texas), but wears the breezy, crunk hat just like an Atlanta native might. Throw on “Goodies” or “Never Ever” off her latest album, Fantasy Ride, and you fully understand why ATL mega producer Jazzy Pha gravitated to her back in ‘04. Now 23, Ciara’s sound is certainly maturing, still it’s keeping true to its Dixie beginnings. “This go-round,” Ciara told MTV a few months back, “there’s so many more things I get into, whether it’s fashion or my lyrics getting more aggressive. I’m having a bit more fun with my lyrics. I’m not afraid. In the beginning, I was conscious and really protective and somewhat scared in reference to doing some things. With this album I’m not holding back, there’s a freedom. It’s just the space I’m in right now.”
But whatever you do, don’t for a second think there isn’t homegrown talent to go around. It’s no biggie if you’re in the mood for radio-friendly soul (Keri Hilson) or a smoothed-out, coffeehouse listening session (Slick & Rose), A-town has got just the sound. We won’t even get into the funky, genre-splicing things Joi does on stage. The guitar-wielding Algebra Blessett would probably plop herself right in the middle of all those aforementioned stages. Part India.Arie, part Alicia Keys, all refreshing, Algebra may be where the Atlanta movement is heading next. “The girl’s the truth,” swears Nero. “We were in New York,” recollects Algebra, a Kedar Entertainment Group-signed artist, “and I walked out on stage —I was corn-rolled down— and cats saw a guitar on stage. I picked up my guitar and I heard three people go, ‘Awww’ [in disappointment]. I started singing halfway through the first verse and those same cats were bobbing their heads like, ‘Oh, okay. I get it.’ They expect the outside cover. I’m not burning incense. I’m not blinged out. I’m kinda caught in the middle.”
Kedar Massenburg, as you may remember, is the same visionary who introduced the masses to Arie years ago over at Motown. India’s ties to Algebra are yet another illustration of the tightness, direct or indirect, in the Atlanta R&B community. “I think that’s what Atlanta has done successfully,” chimes Janelle Monáe. “They’ve stuck together and supported each other. They’ve pulled each other up. One got in and pulled up the next person. They mentored and whatnot. A lot of goodwill has helped the Atlanta scene.” Monáe speaks from experience, as she’s worked with hip-hoppers Big Boi and Killer Mike in the past. She’s presently teamed with CeeLo on the “Open Happiness” campaign with Coke. While the likes of Janelle Monáe and Algebra might be prepping to carry the creative baton, it will take the continued efforts of household names like Ciara, Keri Hilson and Keyshia Cole —by the way, the talented trio has combined for over eight million in domestic album sales— to keep the mainstream’s attention on the Georgia capitol. Ms. Cole certainly seems up to the challenge. “I was young when I went to L.A. and first got my deal,” says Cole, who partnered with Atlanta siren Monica on A Different Me’s chart-topping “Trust.” “Also, me and my family we’ve all grown. I’ve grown as a musician, as an entertainer. I’ve learned so much more about the business and how to handle myself and actually prepare. I’ve evolved as a person throughout everything in my life.” She adds, “I’m just making sure I’m handling myself correctly. I’m not really a pop artist. I’m thrown in that pop culture. I’m definitely an R&B artist. I have to make sure what I put out there into the world and what people see is definitely something that I can be proud of.”
Ask any sistah with ties to the ATL’s impressive movement and she’ll probably echo a similar quote. Plain and simple, recording in the city —much like donning a New York Yankees jersey or playing a guitar in Seattle— comes with certain expectations. We may not be able to pinpoint exactly when those expectations started; we just know they’re there. “There’s a very close connection between the artists here in Atlanta,” declares Monáe. “The community has always been very ethereal and positive, to say the least. At Wondaland, we held a couple of meetings with all the ‘independent’ artists that were friends. We try to at least keep in contact with them and figure out how we can all come together and help build each other’s career up. Everyone is passing down the torch and lending advice.” Yep, Chicago, Detroit and Houston most certainly have a problem. It’s Hotlanta’s R&B sound. And, unfortunately for the rest of the country, the ladies behind it are just starting to warm up.