Will Welch can hear the self-doubt at the other end of the line. It's August 2008, and André "3000" Benjamin is spending his day in Atlanta — his first in years — talking to the associate editor at GQ about the state of his solo album.
He explains that he's still searching for something to say, though in his mind, he still has something to prove. "But I'm thirty-three years old, and the things I rhyme about may not be the same that a twenty-two-year-old wants to hear," the lankier, more experimental half of OutKast says. "So there's a mid-rap crisis going on."
André stuck up for Southern rap to a booing crowd at the 1995 Source Awards. Eight years later, he was commanding the nation to shake it like a Polaroid picture. But here, he sounds humbled, defeated even — a far cry from the Southern swagger that helped make Atlanta a hip-hop capital, and the members of OutKast its founding sons.
The interview appears in photographer Michael Schmelling's new book, Atlanta: Hip-Hop and the South (Chronicle Books, Nov. 16) — a raw exploration of the teens and twentysomethings fueling Atlanta's brash, present-day rap scene, with additional interviews from Atlanta native Welch and essays by New Yorker staffer Kelefa Sanneh.
Schmelling, whose work has appeared in everything from The Fader and Vibe to the New York Times and Harper's, was the principal photographer for 2004's critically acclaimed The Wilco Book. He thought his next project would focus on OutKast's groundbreaking Aquemini, an album that transformed his perception of the city. "It told you everything, even what the weather was going to be like," he writes in Atlanta. "The imagery is so specific, the way a photograph can be."
But while OutKast inspired Atlanta's inception, a newer generation of artists informed its execution — those young MCs who grew up listening to OutKast but took production notes from T.I. instead. To research the book, Schmelling took to the Internet. He found hundreds of YouTube videos with kids showing how they "Crank That (Soulja Boy)." On MP3-hosting site SoundClick, he unearthed Dem Homicide Boyz's "Crank My Dance," with its backing melody that sounds like it was snatched from an Atari 2600 and bass that crackles like a blown-out speaker. A simple command — "Watch me/crank my dance" — compelled Schmelling to track down the Atlanta-based teen group. The blank stare of Dem Homicide Boyz member Lil Texas graces the book's cover.
While Atlanta offers a few snapshots of the city's all-stars — Big Boi with a Black & Mild in one hand, cell in the other, hanging out at the Body Tap; T-Pain's freshly painted red piano, black letters spelling out his name where Baldwin or Steinbach would normally be engraved — Schmelling's eye is primarily focused on the city's ambitious youth. Vivid color photographs explore home studios equipped with little else beyond USB drives plugged into slightly outdated PCs; foam mattress padding-turned-soundproofing for closet recording booths; and spiral notebooks housing lyrics jotted in chicken scratch.
"Soulja Boy's had a huge success in that scene and got there by doing it at home, which I think is a really important part of the culture," Schmelling says.
In a series of black-and-white images, Schmelling dives into Decatur's makeshift party scene — get-togethers at office parks (one is advertised as a gym and banquet facility by day) powered by bottled water and the right songs. Photos close in on booties and upraised hands, and then pull back for a wallflower-eye-view to absorb the convulsing crowd. "They're so focused on each other, and they're pairing up, grinding against the wall, freaking on the floor, re-pairing up and re-coupling," says Sanneh of what inspired his essay on the young party-goers.
When Schmelling and Sanneh last visited Decatur in 2009, the teens were gyrating to Waka Flocka Flame — a shock, since two years earlier no one even knew how to spell Waka Flocka Flame. "Every mixtape would have it spelled a different way, and we didn't know if Flame was plural," Sanneh says. "Some people called him Waka Flocka Flames."
Overall, Atlanta succeeds at encapsulating how the major and minor players thrive off a common energy that's equal parts DIY and characteristic ATL brashness. A golden-yellow flier advertising a "SECRET SPOT" off Center Hill Avenue, for instance, is just as straightforward as a flier for Aquemini, with its bold Times New Roman emblazoned on neon-green paper. The cars pictured aren't the newest of makes, but fresh paint jobs and ginormous subwoofers hint at owners making the best of what they have, just as with their home studios.
Despite timely name-drops and playful definitions of terms such as "trap" and "swag," however, Atlanta can feel outdated in parts. Welch's interview with André, for example, arrives a few months after the rapper's confident verse on "Lookin 4 Ya" — his latest reunion with Big Boi, featured on the iTunes deluxe edition of Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty.
Schmelling, however, isn't fazed. "That's what makes the scene interesting — is that it's in flux," he says.
"The last 10 years have been a bit of a golden era for Atlanta hip-hop — actually, another golden era," he adds. "So I think we have to recognize to document it."
Atlanta: Hip-Hop and the South by Michael Schmelling. Chronicle Books. $29.95. 224 pp.
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