Jamal Ahmad 

Soul in the hole

It's so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.

Atlanta's soul scene struggled with that sentiment throughout '07. Besides the February passing of former influential 91.9 (WCLK-FM) DJ Ken Batie, local soul has been on life support itself lately.

The absence of Jamal Ahmad may be part of the reason why. After a dozen years as a DJ at WCLK, Ahmad called it quits in early '07, leaving a huge hole in the scene he helped create.

"We were very consistent in breaking independent indie-soul and jazz artists," says Ahmad, who left the station as it began to lean toward more adult-oriented traditional and smooth jazz. "For instance, if WRAS-FM [88.5] weren't able to play groups like the Black Lips or Deerhunter ... I don't think their demand would be as high."

From 1995 to 2005, Ahmad's progressive "S.O.U.L." (Sounds of Universal Love) was a 91.9 mainstay that – when combined with Batie's weekday afternoon "Hot Ice" show – laid the foundation for local experimentalists to paint with a neo-soul palette. By feeding listeners a steady diet of acid jazz, drum 'n' bass and U.K. soul, Ahmad planted seeds in the city's pool of raw talent. And when they began to mature, he gave them the proper push both on-air and through the Groovement collective he co-founded to issue early releases from India.Arie, Donnie and others.

By contrast, Atlanta soul now seems stuck on the same refrain, with most artists content to mimic tradition rather than surpass the standard. But it's only a sign of the times, Ahmad says.

"When we were doing things in the mid to late '90s, one thing that you have to take into consideration is a lot of the players were very young," he says, referring to artists and promoters such as Jason Orr, who returned last September with Funk Jazz Kafé after a long hiatus. "It was youth culture."

Today, Ahmad names Janelle Monáe, among others, as the future of Atlanta's soul. "She's a breath of fresh air."

Jamal Ahmad continues to promote soul in conjunction with Hot Ice Live, held monthly at Sugarhill the first Saturday of every month. 50 Upper Alabama St. 404-658-0068. www.sugarhillatl.com.

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