The simple fact is that while the city’s urban music scene may have attracted attention around the world via chart-toppers such as T.I., Ludacris, Jermaine Dupri, Usher, Young Jeezy and Soulja Boy, Atlanta hasn’t produced much in the way of widely known underground talent in the years since artists such as OutKast and Goodie Mob were elevated to notoriety.
Hip-hop’s other major centers of activity—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area—have long proven fertile breeding grounds for up-and-coming talent, with local record labels such as Rawkus, Stones Throw, Definitive Jux, Hiero-Imperium and Quannum Projects providing safe havens through which they could develop without the pressures of major-label sales expectations. But while Atlanta certainly has produced more than its fair share of talented indie hip-hop artists over the past decade, the scene has never managed to coalesce into a bona-fide movement. The question is, why?
Back in the day
In 2001, Creative Loafing’s then-Music Editor Roni Sarig wrote a cover story called “Hip Hop’s Underground Avengers,” the subtitle of which suggested that, “As Atlanta’s mainstream urban music industry keeps rolling out the hits, an independent community rooted in hip-hop culture grows.”
Through interviews with local notables that included MF Doom, Company Flow rapper Bigg Jus and Public Enemy mouthpiece Chuck D, Sarig painted a convincing portrait of an ATL underground poised on the precipice of becoming hip-hop’s Next Big Thing. And with a thriving music scene that had attracted legends such as EPMD’s Erick Sermon, DJ Red Alert, and Phife of A Tribe Called Quest to the city, few at the time would’ve doubted the city’s bright future as a haven for rising urban talent.
D.R.E.S. tha Beatnik (a.k.a. Philadelphia native Andre Lett), a human beatboxer who once toured Europe with The Roots and continues to host a weekly MC battle at the Apache Cafe, claims that the years between 1999 and 2003 were the apex for Atlanta’s indie hip-hop scene.
“There was an insane level of talent that was coming out of Atlanta’s hip-hop underground,” he says, before clarifying, “which should never be confused with Atlanta’s rap underground. There was a level of camaraderie and competition—everybody wanted to make sure they had the ‘livest’ stage show on the planet. It was very ‘culture forward.’ At that point, Atlanta started getting its national presence felt. Artists were actually getting distribution deals and being able to exercise their independent chops, to make their mark and be able to sustain a career doing it.”
But even before this era, when OutKast and Goodie Mob were rising to national prominence, there was a vibrant underground scene that included artists such as Prefuse 73, turntablists such as DJ Shortee and DJ Faust, and groups like El Pus, Mass Influence and the Micronauts. According to Brian Knott—the founder of Arc The Finger Records and organizer of the annual A3C Festival—the scene’s evolution since his arrival 12 years ago can be broken down into distinct waves.
“That first crew of folks was Mass Influence, Justin Hale, Hemisphere, and an electronic band called PH Balance,” he recalls. “That was the crew that brought along groups like Minamina Goodsong. They had a good crowd, but there was never any infrastructure in Atlanta to support it. We started the label and signed Minamina, Psyche Origami and Collective Efforts. Binkis Recs [whose frontman, Jax, unexpectedly passed away after collapsing onstage in November 2008] was doing really well. We put some more infrastructure behind it and were able to get everybody out on the road. We were putting records out nationally and internationally. We had the benefit of more Internet stuff, so we were able to get more fans in a lot of different places. We did a good job of licensing to TV, so it helped spread those things a little bit more. That was the biggest difference between that first phase and our phase.”
But Arc The Finger wasn’t the only local business providing support for the burgeoning community. College radio stations such as Georgia State’s WRAS (Album 88) and Georgia Tech’s WREK gave up-and-coming hip-hop artists airplay. Record stores such as Earwax and Criminal Records gave them retail outlets through which to hawk their wares. Record labels such as LaFace, Rowdy and So So Def helped develop their talents on a national level. Elemental Magazine gave them print exposure. Promoters such as Vagabond Productions (owned by Speech), FunkJazz Kafé and Groove Essentials mounted concerts featuring nationally known artists such as Digable Planets, The Roots and The Fugees, often booking local groups as their opening acts. And clubs such as MJQ and Yin Yang Café gave ATL artists performance venues through which to build a following.
“Atlanta’s underground height was the Yin Yang days, when you had India.Arie coming through playin’ and Bonecrusher workin’ in the kitchen,” says Larry of Proton, one of the few groups from the scene’s heyday who continue making music today. “Sometimes he’d come up and spit [rhymes]. You had groups like us. We’d perform, then André from OutKast would come through and sit in the front row. Goodie Mob would just be hangin’ out. It wasn’t pretentious. You had Joi just hangin’ out at the Yin Yang, which is now Apache.”
Clearly the city was developing an infrastructure at the turn of the millennium that could’ve helped nurture the next Arrested Development, OutKast or Cee-Lo Green. But other than Gnarls Barkley, Green’s collaboration with iconic producer (and former Athens resident) Danger Mouse, the ATL hasn’t produced a nationally respected underground hip hop act in years. And the reasons for the scene getting waylaid are as varied as the people you speak to on the subject.
Earwax Records owner Jasz is understandably bitter about the failure of the ATL underground scene, as his retail outlet’s fortunes seemed inextricably tied to the scene’s success. With his flagging business now limited to online sales, Jasz places part of the blame on closed-minded radio stations and part on listeners who insist on the familiar tunes they know and love.
“There was no room for [indie artists] in commercial radio,” he insists. “[WRAS] and WREK did what they could, but V-103 and Hot 97 weren’t going to play that stuff. Now, if you bring a DJ a hot underground joint, who’s going to play it? Rasta Root and all them cats can’t drop it in their set ’ cuz they’re worried about their dancefloor. It ain’t that the Proton joint ain’t good; it’s that the crowd’s mindset is not receptive. You gotta hit ‘em in the head with familiarity. But there was a time back in the ’90s when we were receptive. Now, it’s like trying to grow a flower in the midst of a forest of tumbleweeds and dandelions.”
Killer Mike—the OutKast associate who achieved Top 10 success with his 2003 debut Monster before returning to the indie world—concurs that the ATL underground scene of today is much more stylistically segregated than the one in which he came up.
“In [clubs like] 559 and Sharon’s Showcase,” he recalls, “you could see OutKast, Goodie Mob, Master P and Splack Pack. You had those ‘bridge groups.’ Now, the lines have become so rigid, you don’t see that much anymore. That’s what scares me: If the audience is only getting exposed to ‘their’ artists, how do other artists get introduced? How do people get to know a dope-ass dude like B.o.B., if he can’t [get played at the clubs]?”
But D.R.E.S. and Knott believe that Atlanta’s problems are emblematic of an industry-wide tightening of the financial belts over the past decade or so. D.R.E.S. insists the scene continues to produce talented, marketable indie hip-hop artists, but says that record labels are too scared to take chances on unproven commodities. Knott, meanwhile, offers the perspective of an entrepreneur who was forced by the harsh realities of the music business to abandon Arc The Finger in favor of other, more profitable ventures.
“I’ll never sell another record!” he says emphatically. “I’m sittin’ at my office, looking at a wall with the leftover inventory. That’s enough of a reminder that people don’t wanna be buying records right now. We got press all over the country because we were this tiny label putting out records that sounded like they were coming out of the five boroughs in 1994. People were really responsive to it, but at the end of the day it’s off the radar. Mainstream media takes a very narrow viewpoint on that which is good and they pump it, pump it, pump it ’til it’s dead. There’s some great stuff that gets through… I think Kanye is unbelievable. Those things have amazing commercial potential, and happen to get pushed through and worked the way they’re supposed to. A lot of this game is just getting in the right place at the right time. It’s a tough, tough, tough business.”
Yes We Can
It’s a commonly held belief that the music industry tends to work in cycles that seem to come around every eight years or so (and often coincide with new presidential administrations). If that’s the case, could the ATL underground benefit from an impending cultural shift away from the snap, crunk and trap sounds that have dominated rap in recent years? Though Jasz remains pessimistic, others seem buoyed by the promise of hope they see in local artists such as Alpha Noise Project, Future Shock, The 808 Experiment, Hollyweerd, Gripplyas, B.O.B. and Proton. What’s needed, they say, is—to borrow the name of one of the scene’s most enduring acts—collective efforts.
“We should be more collaborative with our energies and our movements,” says Proton’s Larry. “Being crabs in a barrel doesn’t really benefit anyone.”
“If all the artists that made up the underground got ambitious enough to make sure their ass is covered and be smart about licensing their catalog and move towards a much bigger picture of securing distribution,” agrees D.R.E.S., “it could happen.”
“Major label fame is a great fertilizer for independent success,” suggests Killer Mike. “I’m not successful yet ’cuz I haven’t built a brand that not only keeps me afloat, but other artists. It’s cool to be on a Carnival cruise ship, but to own your own tugboat and to have your own crew on there… that’s a helluva thing. Rap has provided an alternative to drugs and crime. When dudes are tryin’ to put their people on, they’re just tryin’ to get an alternative to that [bull].”
If there’s a lynchpin that has held the scene together through the tough times, and which offers hope for a future in which ATL hip-hop is as rich and diverse as the Big Apple’s, it’s Knott’s annual A3C Hip Hop Festival. Launched six years ago as a way for Arc The Finger’s artists to align themselves with like-minded nationally known acts, the three-day event finds folks like Collective Efforts and Proton performing alongside Souls of Mischief, Little Brother, Biz Markie, Juice Crew and other leading lights on the indie hip-hop scene. With this year’s festival scheduled for September at the CW Midtown Music Complex, Knott seems cautiously optimistic that, for Atlanta’s underground hip-hop scene, a change is gonna come.
“If people are doing something and making moves,” Knott says, “they end up on the A3C. Last year we had Proton, Supreme, Gripplyers, B.O.B., Collective Efforts and Binkis Recs. We were well ahead of the curve on this new Atlanta scene that’s happening. There’s absolutely an eye towards trying to highlight what’s special about Atlanta. It’s just this seamless thing between new and old sorta working together, focusing on what’s interesting nationally but definitely with an eye towards what’s going on in our own backyard. I keep my Rolodex open and my radio, media and distribution contacts [open]. It keeps me dialed in to what I’m doing and keeps my eyes open for what’s next.