Sometimes Atlanta's new wave of underground hip-hop seems like a motherless child. Or an alien that lost contact with the mothership.
In a galaxy far away from the finger snaps that made Bankhead go pop and the traps that turned T.I. and Young Jeezy into hot commodities, there exists an alternate universe where beats are measured by the blogosphere instead of the bump produced in your trunk.
Over the past year, an emerging underworld (filled with hipster-leaning hoppers, second-generation ATLiens, and otherwise unidentifiable but fly MCs) seemed poised to forsake an authentic Dirty South sound for more of the same cocaine-laced synth lines and recycled computer love à la Kanye West. It became a desperate state of affairs.
But the new compilation The 808 Experiment, Vol. 1 from SMKA Productions proves there's still hope. By bridging the city's slicker, hipster derivative and its indigenous red clay swagger, the album may bring Atlanta's rap legacy back to the future. And a burgeoning scene could get the chance to redefine itself before some random blogger does.
The 808 Experiment features more than 25 MCs, including Gripplyaz, one of the artists on the standout track "Caddys." Once he says with a laugh, "I am not a fucking hipster" for the umpteenth time during a recent telephone interview, it becomes clear not only how frustrated he is with the label but also how much he embodies the sentiment behind the compilation. Grip, like a growing class of local acts, occupies that rare, hard-to-define space within Atlanta's underground between straight-up hood and hipster-hop.
Raised in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward, Grip "grew up around the dope game [and] the skateboarders," he says. "We all hung out together."
Reconciling those two extremes through music is exactly what primary producer Blake "808 Blake" German, producer/engineer Kyle "7" King, and business manager Mike Walberg had in mind when they decided to form SMKA Productions over lunch one day at a Midtown Chick-Fil-A. The trio immediately began work on a project to highlight the range of local talent.
The three Atlanta natives and former Paideia classmates "wanted to come up with something new," says German. So they started with something old – the Roland TR-808. Introduced in 1980, the drum machine produced the menacing, trunk-rattling beats that became synonymous with the earliest strands of Southern bass music and booty-shake later in the decade.
From the outset, it's clear The 808 Experiment intends to resurrect that classic period and update it with an array of samples and melodic keys. "The Instrumental Introduction" is constructed around a 12-second loop of Rose Royce's 1978 classic "Love Don't Live Here Anymore," with its midtempo, gurgling bass line and eerie keyboard melody that almost sounds paranormal taken out of its original context. Then the voice of OutKast's Andre, sampled from 1996's ATLiens song "Elevators (Me & You)," repeats: "Now everyday we looked up at the ceiling (yep)/watching ceiling fans go 'round trying to catch that feeling off instrumentals." By the time the first 808 beat kicks in one minute and 25 seconds into the track, the curtain has been raised.
"It was almost paying a little homage to the dudes that came before us," says German. "OutKast, to me, they represent a very creative side of Atlanta that we forget about and I wanted to definitely showcase them because they provide a little bit of light sometimes [compared to] a lot of other stuff on the radio."
The CD offers a range of voices, from street-worthy (J Beans, Double R, Young Trimm) to rowdy (Supreeme, Tom P) to quirky (Rome Fortune, Wil May, o8o of Thunderkatz). With both natives and transplants represented, the album's unifying factor is its diversity.
"When I was coming up, there was the Hot 107.9 world and the Apache [Café]/underground world with mad nerdy white dudes in hoodies and, like, jaded, pseudo-Rastas from New York kicking freestyles over Wu-Tang instrumentals," recalls Supreeme, a member of Negashi Armada, who's featured on "I'm On Fire."
"That shit was cool to me. All that together definitely pushed me to be the rapper that I am today."
Atlanta's brand of hip-hop has always been a fusion of mismatched pieces. Take a big chunk of Miami bass, a dash of West Coast G-funk, then sprinkle New York's affinity for lyrics on top, and you've practically got OutKast's 1994 debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Not only did that album launch the Southwest Atlanta-based Dungeon Family movement of the '90s, it transcended the region – critically and commercially – by offering a compelling vision of the South.
It's an inheritance any underground movement should be proud to claim, especially one born in its hometown.
Aside from the cultural baggage that the "hipster" tag carries, the only thing missing from hipster-hop as a subgenre is the sense of regionalism that made rap such a dynamic genre back in the day. All it needs to become acceptable below the Mason-Dixon Line is a splash of the edgy, Southern-styled eccentricity that took OutKast from Cadillac music to Stankonia.
And where better to start than with a trunk full of kicking and screaming 808 bass?
SMKA's The 808 Experiment, Vol. 1 builds upon that legacy and represents an evolutionary step in what's already proven to be a watershed year for Atlanta's slightly off-the-radar rap movement. "I hope this opens up a door for us to be able to continue to show Atlanta, as well as the rest of the South and the country, what's going on in this movement right here," says German.
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