IT'S A QUIET Monday night at the Royal, a classy lounge on Trinity Street downtown. OK, it's not just quiet. It's dead. DJ Ruckus is spinning Rick Springfield and Guns 'N Roses. The clusters of French armchairs and row of wrought-iron bar stools sit empty -- until a guy dressed in cargo shorts, big-laced sneakers and a Billionaire Boys Club T-shirt ambles in with some friends.
He grabs a seat at the far end of the bar. He orders a drink and proceeds to nurse it. For the most part, he keeps his fidgeting hands in his lap. Occasionally, he nods his head to the music. His friend, Jazze Pha, is keeping the mood light. And with a little time, Dallas Austin begins to loosen up. But not too much.
He's been back in the States for less than a week. It wasn't that bad over there in Dubai, he says in a hushed voice, glancing away when the topic comes up. Definitely could have been worse. Still, he adds, "it's good to be home."
That's the gift of a golden touch.
GO AHEAD, LAUGH. It's hokey. Cliché. PR fodder. But we're putting it out there, anyway:
Just about everything Dallas Austin touches turns to gold.
Hold on. We're not saying we love everything he puts out. We're not in total awe of the songs he's produced for Pink, Madonna, Gwen Stefani and Michael Jackson. His most recent big-screen project, ATL, was pretty cool, but it wasn't exactly a cinematic masterpiece. And that theme song he wrote for the city's overpriced branding campaign? Let's just pretend that never happened.
The thing is, people are so quick to point out Austin's near superhuman qualities -- that he's a visionary, that he possesses a mythic calm, that he showed signs of genius as a teenager -- it's hard to deny them. His name practically has become a brand in itself, yet he's not running around like some megalomaniacal jerk. He's got the respect of the mainstream and the street. He's got millions and millions in the bank. He wears flip-flops to business meetings. He's only 35. And he's super chill.
When you come right down to it, Dallas Austin -- boy wonder, self-made man -- is easy to like. And in no case has that been more obvious than in his love affair with the city of Atlanta.
Um, until now. And you just can't help but want to ask: Dude, what were you thinking?
But Austin's not talking about what went down in Dubai -- at least not until he does the inevitable radio interview with V-103's Ryan Cameron. And the city that used to be his biggest fan has clammed up, too.
Austin was the first, and so far only, hip-hop star to be fully embraced by the Atlanta establishment. The city's branding campaign cherry-picked him to write Atlanta's theme song. A fawning mayor counted on him to christen Atlanta with something "young and hip." Austin also happens to be one of the city's most civic-minded celebs, with a foundation that helps inner city kids and a track record of raising funds for noble causes. He's so marketable, in fact, that he spoke on Atlanta's behalf at the 2004 G-8 Summit.
What other hip-hop stars are popular enough to enlist a conservative U.S. senator such as Orrin Hatch, along with Quincy Jones and Lionel Ritchie, to ride to their rescue if they got into trouble with the law?
Yet the mayor has withheld comment on Austin's Dubai debacle. There's been no "Thanks for all the hard work" or "We're still behind you, Dallas" -- not even a "We'll sit down and talk about this when the time is right." Seriously, Shirley: Where's the love?
Austin wasn't accused of beating up his girlfriend. He didn't burn down anyone's house. He wasn't caught with an underage girl -- or an underage boy. He was nailed with a little coke -- enough to fuel a few modest users through a night of immodest partying. Perhaps it was the way he was caught that's the problem. Getting busted by customs officials in a devoutly Muslim city-state -- even one that's actively wooing celebrity tourists -- isn't the most diplomatic move. But he seems to be doing a good job repenting. Just last week, the Dubai courts accepted Austin's guilty plea -- and Dubai's leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, promptly excused him from having to serve the minimum four-year sentence.
Will the city find similar forgiveness in its heart? The initial silence of city leaders speaks volumes about their disapproval of Austin's indiscretion. Will he now join the ranks of so many other hip-hop stars with tainted pasts? Or will this faux pas wind up being remembered as a mere tiff? Will Atlanta and Austin make up?
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