Bite the power 

Atlanta's hip-hop titans test-drive their nascent political power

To borrow from mafia lore, as hip-hoppers often do, the scene at Cafe Tu Tu Tango on this late-September evening was like a meeting of the Five Families. Upstairs in the Buckhead restaurant, as white patrons dined unaware below, the leaders and cronies of Atlanta's urban music industry converged in the interest of mutual cooperation.

Jermaine Dupri, czar of the So So Def empire was there, as was über-producer Dallas Austin, kingpin of DARP Studios and Freeworld Records. Mega-hit writer/producer Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs was there with staffers from his latest venture, Spere Records. Organized Noize producer Rico Wade, figurehead of the Dungeon Family (which includes OutKast and Goodie Mob), arrived fashionably late, while hip-hop radio host Ryan Cameron, celebrating his station's upgrade to Hot 107.9, hung by the bar.

They weren't there to divide turf or hash out rivalries. Rather, their interests lay in collectively grabbing a piece of the city's brewing political action. Gathered at an intimate fund raiser for mayoral candidate Shirley Franklin, Atlanta's urban music stars -- still in their 20s and early 30s -- are coming to grips with their cultural and financial clout for the first time.

Franklin's relative star quality made her the obvious choice for this bunch, even before examining any actual issues. But more than who they choose to back in the coming mayoral race, that they're choosing to back anyone at all suggests a new level of sophistication in Atlanta's urban-music entrepreneurs. And it seems the candidates are paying attention.

Mayoral hopeful Robb Pitts gives current Mayor Bill Campbell credit for raising the profile of the hip-hop industry here. He says he would continue the effort. Pitts acknowledges "the contribution the music industry has made to Atlanta, not only from a cultural point of view but from an economic development point of view."

But Pitts adds that "it could have a much greater impact on our city." If elected, Pitts plans to become a spokesman to help make Atlanta the "blues and gospel capital of the world."

Franklin notes that "young people here, musicians and producers and performers, are influencing the music industry worldwide." Her desire to support the locals -- to the extent that she's even promised to install an industry liaison on the mayor's staff -- stems from music's reputation as a pursuit "that's labor intensive, that's built on the talents of individuals. It doesn't pollute the air or the water, and it can continue to grow."

The race's third major candidate, Gloria Bromell-Tinubu, wants to use the local music community to further economic and social goals. She envisions a city school, in partnership with major record companies, to teach students about music industry opportunities beyond rapping, from producing to catering. (Although mayors have no direct authority over the school system, they can use their bully pulpit to influence the way Atlanta's schools are run.) She also wants to engage the music industry in "programs that will help create a positive model for our kids, as opposed to some of the things we're seeing from that industry now."

This is not the first time Atlanta hip-hop has gotten cozy with the mayor's office. Cameron's close relationship with Campbell enabled the mayor to use Cameron's Hot 97.5 morning show to curry favor among the hip-hop generation at a time when he faced tough questions from an increasingly hostile press corps. Now, with Campbell's days in office numbered, Cameron is encouraging his friends in the Atlanta hip-hop biz to get in at the ground floor with whoever might become the next mayor.

Briggs says he and Cameron got together and "sought out who would be the best candidate," then asked Dupri to join them "to make sure we were all on the same page about who should be put in office."

After choosing Franklin, whom, Briggs says, he "felt would probably be the one most receptive to the ideas we had," Briggs, Cameron and Dupri met with the candidate, "and we clicked." That led to the fund raiser at Cafe Tu Tu Tango.

Ever the diplomat, Rico Wade showed up at the Tu Tu Tango event to support Franklin. But he notes that Pitts "has been going hard for the city for a long time" as city council president. "And he's going to continue going hard," says Wade. "If he don't get [the mayor's office] now, he's going to get it one day."

Further down the line, Wade even sees himself as a potential Atlanta office holder. After all, Sonny Bono jumped from producing pop music to Congress.

For now, though, the five dons of Atlanta hip-hop are just beginning to feel out the influence they can exert in the political world. At their age, they've got a good head start over older hip-hop entrepreneurs. Russell Simmons, whose political activities didn't get rolling until he was in his 40s, organized a Hip-Hop Summit in New York City and testified before Congress this summer.

"These people pay lots and lots to Atlanta in taxes," Cameron said when he stepped forward to introduce Franklin to the small Tu Tu Tango crowd. "It's time for them to see that politics is a serious business in Atlanta. Russell Simmons is out of the demographic. There's got to be some young Russell Simmonses."

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