How Atlanta became the center of the rap universe
As it celebrates its 50th birthday, we are mapping hip-hop's story on a local level, with more than a dozen city-specific histories of the music and culture. Click here to see the entire list.
For evidence of Atlanta's continued ability to produce music that feeds both the underground and the mainstream, look no further than Young Nudy's single "Peaches & Eggplants," with his cousin, the stoic cutthroat 21 Savage. The song, with its wordless hook ("Boaw, boaw, boaw, boaw") and hypersexual lyrics nodding to raunchy Atlanta jams of the past, is insanely catchy, but there is also an Easter egg within: 21's verse strikingly reimagines the local 2006 hit "Bubble Gum" by K-Rab and D4L. Nudy and Savage, who is currently on tour with Drake, have risen because their music feels both ways at once: authentic and hyperlocal, and yet deceptively accessible and ubiquitous. This, too, is the story of Atlanta. Its Black culture feels singular, yet mirrors other Black experiences, throughout the South and elsewhere in the nation. That is how its hip-hop scene became the center of the rap universe, the last semblance of a monoculture. Its unique perspective is born of a place that is as fascinating as it is complicated. The legend of "Black mecca" — of the "rap capital" — is crafted by both locals and transplants, and classism is essential to its narrative, as income inequality separates Atlanta's Black elite from those living in housing projects. It is a legacy built on resistance, but also compliance. Amid these opposing truths, Atlanta teeters but never falls from its pedestal.
Though hip-hop is in its 50th year, rap in Atlanta has only been thriving for half its run. At the height of the East Coast-West Coast battle for rap dominance, an incredibly tense 1995 Source Awards would mark the start of a new paradigm. The bi-coastal conflict rendered the South (or the Third Coast) all but invisible, and the jeering that ensued after Outkast won best new artist emphasized how little room there seemed to be for a new player — or new playas. A very annoyed Andre 3000, half of the winning Atlanta duo, unwittingly rallied the hip-hop in the region with an impromptu declaration: "The South got something to say."
In retrospect, the moment is a clear turning point, for the South and for Atlanta in particular, but the latter was still trying to figure out its musical identity. The scene was born in earnest in 1980, when King Edward J opened Landrum's Records & More, self-releasing a series of "J-Tapes," personalized mixtapes that set the foundation for Atlanta rap that would follow. (These tapes found their way into the possession of rappers like Killer Mike and Young Jeezy.) Scattered victories followed: the rapper Mo-Jo became the first MC to get local airplay (1983), MC Shy D signed to Miami's Luke Records (1986), producer Jermaine Dupri brought the precocious kids of Kris Kross to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 (1992) and the so-called "anti-gangstas" Arrested Development won the Grammy for best new artist (1993).
Around that same time, LaFace Records co-founder L.A. Reid was finally coming around on Outkast. After a trial run on the label's Christmas compilation, "Player's Ball" became so popular that the duo scored a record deal, releasing Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik in 1994. The following year, Goodie Mob's Soul Food helped coin the term "Dirty South." With Organized Noize recording both groups and more in producer Rico Wade's basement — the subterranean namesake of the rising Dungeon Family — Outkast and Goodie Mob rapped atop complex, layered soundscapes of soul and funk. Their lyrics centered the experiences of the Black working class in Atlanta, people being pushed aside in service of the city's Black bourgeoisie. In the '90s, city officials were trying to prove Atlanta was a utopia, especially with the arrival of the Olympics in 1996. The Dungeon Family made music that complicated this glowing image.
The inescapable East vs. West friction reflected the reality of the moment: coastal sounds owned the clubs, and raunchy bass music from Miami and Memphis crunk filled in the margins. But over time, Atlanta started to take on the flavors of other regions. As the home of HBCUs like Spelman and Morehouse College, the city was always welcoming young Black people across the country and assimilating their cultures. This exchange resonated loudest at the spring break event Freaknik, conceived by students at the Atlanta University Center, which grew so large that it became a public nuisance, as young adults partied in the streets. But its heyday was exactly the atmosphere for impresarios like Dupri to promote songs like Playa Poncho's "Whatz Up, Whatz Up," a rowdy party anthem that people could bounce their shoulders to.
Dupri's So So Def record label was A&R'ed by the self-taught DJ Lil Jon, who was known to stake out local haunts with an ear to the ground, leading to the signings of Playa Poncho, city legend Raheem the Dream and producer Shawty Redd, and the compilation featuring the Ghost Town DJs smash "My Boo." But when Dupri inquired about a buzzing artist going by Ludacris, Jon wouldn't co-sign. Houston rapper Scarface, then head of Def Jam South, saw Jon's folly; after listening to 1999's Incognegro, he inked a deal for the rapper and his Disturbing the Peace roster. Once known as the Hot 97.5 DJ Chris Lova Lova, Luda brought a wackadoodle energy to belligerent raps filled with wisecracks and innuendo. His 2001 album Word of Mouf was triple platinum in under a year, with singles that conquered even Top 40 radio.
Still, Lil Jon had a calling beyond discovering other artists, which he found in forming the raucous Eastside Boyz, whose fever-pitched sound pushed crunk further into the mainstream. Atlanta hadn't invented crunk music; instead, it created something distinct of its own nightlife and strip culture. (See: "Get Low.") By the early 2000s, as Dupri celebrated the club scene that birthed these hits, Pastor Troy's "No Mo Play in GA" took aim at the dominance Master P's No Limit Records had been enjoying, declaring Atlanta the new Southern rap hub.
Despite a fierce desire to be taken seriously as a scene, Atlanta artists rarely brought that sternness to the studio, where songs built around dances and trends often carried the day. While outsiders challenged the validity of 2000s "snap music," artists like D4L, Dem Franchize Boyz and Soulja Boy Tell'Em — one of the first artists to crack the nascent platform YouTube — prioritized fun and ignored naysayers. But if ringtone rap was a seemingly ephemeral phenomenon ushered along by early video sharing, then trap music was the more substantial movement that saw into the city's soul, born of the local drug trade by duffle bag boys and homegrown beat makers. For more than two decades now, Atlanta has reimagined the constructs of trap as a place where drug stories are told and a sound built around the Roland TR-808 can shift fluidly with time. T.I. and DJ Toomp birthed trap as a Southern regality; (Young) Jeezy and Shawty Redd made talk of hand-to-hand deals sound suave and genteel; Gucci Mane and Zaytoven delivered garbled coke-fueled tales and fluttering synth organ.
This trio of duos defined the trap of the 2000s, but a new generation of stylebenders, each riffing on trap in their own way, defined Atlanta's legacy in the 2010s. A byproduct of the Dungeon Family, Future mixed the sensual allure of Atlanta's strip clubs with trap braggadocio, threading the two together through raspy, Auto-Tuned croons. Migos' deployment of triplet flows changed how rap functioned for years, both in Atlanta and beyond. And Young Thug's chaotic melodies reframed lyricism as more of an abstract concept, a means to generate motion. Where Southern rap, and the rap of Atlanta in particular, has always worked to push the genre as a whole to the left of center, Thug managed to push through boundaries altogether, into unrecognizable territory.
And with that push, trap music has moved beyond the trap, beyond Atlanta and beyond rap, to become the dominant sound of popular culture. Miley Cyrus tapped Mike WiLL Made-It, Young Thug helped take Camila Cabello to No. 1, and Post Malone's "Rockstar" went diamond with an assist from 21. Pop songs with trap drums became the norm. EDM and urbano took notice, too. 2 Chainz launched a trap-themed haunted house in Atlanta. "Trap yoga" classes popped up at movement studios. It wasn't just the sound taking hold everywhere, but the slang and the swagger.
Atlanta's legacy continues to be a microcosm of rap's in general: one of the singular preceding the accessible, of the distinctive becoming ubiquitous, of having something particular to say that is worth the entire world hearing. It is reflected it the breadth of the artists on display right now: thoughtful yarn-spinners like J.I.D. and EarthGang; melodic murmurers like Lil Baby and Gunna; punk-inspired ragers like Playboi Carti and Destroy Lonely; nimble lyricists with an affinity for pop like Latto or Baby Tate. These rappers have created music that, both intentionally and unintentionally, nods to the city's deep history while pushing sound forward — and outward.
Where to start with Atlanta rap:
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.