A Brief History of Atlanta's Rise in Hip-Hop

By Georgia Tech hip-hop scholar Joycelyn Wilson.

By Google Arts & Culture

Joycelyn Wilson

Andre 3000 by Cam KirkBottom of the Map Podcast

Atlanta, as a metaphor for opportunity, has come to represent Black excellence - a dynamic of realized racial and economic progress that other populations, minorities, and corporations have benefited from. Pairing “Atlanta” with hip hop complicates this dynamic because hip hop culture is no longer a part of the popular mainstream. It is the mainstream. 

Andre 3000 by Cam KirkBottom of the Map Podcast

And since the early 80s, Atlanta hip hop has played an integral role in the culture’s ascension. Though the Atlanta hip hop scene began to gain traction in the 1990s, its roots are grounded in underground artists and local talent who paved the way. So, how did Atlanta become recognized by The New York Times as “hip hop’s center of gravity”? Let’s take it back to 1982.

Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force - Planet Rock (Official Music Video)Swiss Museum & Center for Electronic Music Instruments (SMEM)

1982 is significant to the early history of hip hop culture, in general, and Atlanta rap music specifically. 

Afrika BambaataaMusikinstrumenten-Museum

Consider the fact that Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force dropped “Planet Rock” on Tommy Boy Records in June of ‘82. This sacred classic touted two tropes of the hip hop lifestyle – collective unity and knowledge of self – over the electro-synth sounds of Kraftwerk’s “Numbers”, Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican”, and a low end 808 drop that would blow out a corny speaker system.

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On July 1, 1982 – a month after “Planet Rock” and two years after Sugar Hill Records released “Rapper’s Delight” – the independent label founded by Sylvia Robinson dropped Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”, a critique of American race and class politics. Both “Planet Rock” and “The Message” solidified the artform as a global civil rights era storytelling medium created by Black and Brown youth for consumption by anyone who loved what the culture stood for. 

The Message (1982-10-01/1982-10-01) by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious FiveHipHop2020 Innovation Archive

While New York-based crews like the Soul Sonic Force and The Furious Five laid the groundwork, 1982 is also the genesis year for Atlanta’s rap music scene. 

A young man looks through vinyl in a Record shop by Adrian FiskMuseum of Youth Culture

A local label by the name of Velvetone Records got behind a young rapper named Mojo who attended Atlanta’s historic Booker T. Washington High School decades before trap-rapper Lil Baby did. The jam was called “Battmann: Let Mojo Handle It”. The artwork on the 12” single included a comic strip of Mojo as a superhero, who used rap music to “handle it”.

Maurice J. Hobson (top) with his father and brothersBottom of the Map Podcast

“It” being the burden carried by Atlanta’s youth throughout the end of the “sheltering in place” order mandated by then-Mayor Maynard Jackson during the Atlanta Child Murders and its impact on the city. “Let Mojo Handle It” is also the first Atlanta rap song played on local AM radio’s live broadcast from the popular Sans Souci nightclub.

Da BratLIFE Photo Collection

Although his song remained a local hit, arguably Mojo set the foundation for artists such as MC Shy-D, Kilo Ali, Arrested Development and labels like So So Def, DTP, and their incubation of Kris Kross, Da Brat, Jagged Edge, Xscape, Toni Braxton, TLC, Ciara, Ludacris, and many others. 

OutKast Mural by JEKS and Jonathan MannionBottom of the Map Podcast

These independent labels led to Atlanta’s establishment of its own record industry. Yet, Atlanta hip hop was not immediately welcomed with open arms, as it grew into a variant of Miami’s electro-driven booty music - a subgenre characterized by heavy bass, fast tempos, and sexually explicit lyrics. By the mid-1990s, gangsta rap became increasingly popular and the rise of LaFace Records’ OUTKAST, GOODie MOb, and production group Organized Noize led to the mecca’s recognition as “The Motown of the South”.

Atlanta found its own sound. Pairing this early movement with OUTKAST’s 1994 manifesto Southernplayalistcadillacmuzik, and the “something” that the South would later have a say in, 1982 and “Let Mojo Handle It” sparked a flame for Atlanta’s decades-long cultivation of what has become one of hip hop’s most significant cultural innovations: trap music.

Gucci Mane by Keenan LitmonBottom of the Map Podcast

Trap music is a derivative of hip hop that has dominated the modern popular music scene since the early 2000’s. See TI’s Trap Muzik (2003), Young Jeezy’s Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 (2005), and Gucci Mane’s Trap House (2005).

Conspicuous for its 808 kick samples, recurrent producer tags, syrupy autotuned vocals, and repeated ad libs, trap holds widespread appeal. Although its upbeat club sound invites listeners to dance regardless of the song’s lyrical content or whether its key is minor or major, anecdotes carrying deeper messages and personal reckonings lie beneath the layers of heavy production. 

Goodie Mob by Austin Blue (mural)Bottom of the Map Podcast

Originating in the late 90’s out of Atlanta’s rising scene, the first references to a conceptual “trap” are embedded in The GOODie MOb’s Soul Food (1995). OUTKAST’s “Spootieootiedopalicious” (1998) acknowledged the duality in enjoying the indulgences afforded by the trap house lifestyle while simultaneously urging listeners to “marinate on” the trappings of the cycle of poverty as perpetuated by drug dealing and overt attempts by the Atlanta police Red Dog Unit to target black communities and black men.

The sentiments conveyed through the trap aesthetic are central to the experience of Black Atlanta community members growing up during the crack-cocaine war. These resilience stories represent one iteration of the complexities of the black American experience since the days of slavery.

CeeLo by Cam KirkBottom of the Map Podcast

Similar to New York block parties, Atlanta also had underground environments for expressing the culture with others. Opened in 1993, Club 559 was situated in the West End less than half a mile from the Atlanta University Center, is now a Family Dollar store. Once upon a time, however, this jook joint is where early down south rap music was played – oftentimes before reaching popular radio.

Crunk music - a union of musical elements such as bass, booty, dancehall, funk, rock, R&B, and soul created my Memphis rap group Three Six Mafia and popularized by Atlanta’s Lil Jon - reigned supreme in “the 559”. Surely, Club 559 played an integral role in producing the crunk experience and indubitably influenced the music’s crossover to mainstream appeal. Take for example, Lil Jon and The Eastside Boyz' “Who You Wit”. This year, it will celebrate 23 years as a 559 classic having been released in October of 1997.

Stankonia (2018-06-10) by Michael JohnsonTrap Music Museum

While 2000 might have marked the turn of the century for many, it was seen as a point of ascension for Atlanta hip hop, trap, and crunk music – especially with the release of OUTKAST’s fourth album, Stankonia on October 31, 2000.  Stankonia will soon celebrate 20 years.

Fun fact: its lead single “(B.O.B.) Bombs over Baghdad,” was banned by many urban top 40 radio stations because of its title and subject matter. If you go to the video and scroll to 2 minutes and 55 seconds, you’ll see me waving my hands in the air like I just don’t care.

2 Chainz 1 Crown (2020-05) by Shawn StewartTrap Music Museum

By the mid-2000s, artists like Gucci Mane and Ludacris had taken the hip hop scene by storm. They paved the way for artists like Soulja Boy, whose song and dance “Crank That” (2007) had everyone up on their feet. By 2010, the culture shifted when Waka Flocka Flame dropped “O Let’s Do It” (2010) and “No Hands” (2010). 

Gucci Mane by Cam KirkBottom of the Map Podcast

Now, labels like Quality Control and artists like Migos, Lil Baby, 21 Savage, and Lil Yachty continue to drive the Atlanta hip hop scene. Artists like Killer Mike, 2Chainz, and T.I. ensure that Atlanta’s hip hop history never dies. Killer Mike is one-half of the rap duo Run The Jewels and continues to fight for civil rights in his community as 2Chainz and TI have moved into archiving the evolution of Atlanta hip hop and down South trap music through the Pink Trap House and Trap Museum.

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