I'm at the corner of Peachtree and Eighth Street when a long BMW pulls up next to me. Driving is Michael Crooms, the producer known as Mr. Collipark. We've scheduled an interview at a restaurant here in midtown, but after surveying the situation he isn't having it. "Hop in," he says, turning the wheel and steering us north.
Apparently, I'd picked a bad spot. There's a gay bar nearby, and he doesn't want people to get the wrong idea. You see, a few years back the rapper Ma$e was stopped on a traffic violation around here, and before long gossip websites reported that he'd come to pick up a transsexual prostitute.
His paranoia feels a bit strange, considering that Collipark isn't normally a tabloid target. In fact, he keeps a low profile. Clad in a preppy gray sweater with a collared shirt underneath, he's inconspicuous and not wearing much jewelry. When we arrive at a quiet sushi restaurant about a mile or so north, he orders a Grey Goose and cranberry and notes that he doesn't do many promotional photo shoots. "I only pop bottles, maybe, three times a year," he adds. This helps explain why he's not a household name, despite having launched some of southern rap's most popular (and maligned) artists, including Ying Yang Twins and Soulja Boy.
But he's been tremendously influential. In fact, Collipark could be called an anthropologist of talent. His specialty is finding rappers who are popular in their hometowns — particularly those behind dance crazes — unearthing them, and bringing them to the mainstream. "I want to take that group that's dope as fuck, but can't nobody see it but me," he says.
His brand is everything elitist rap fans detest. It is the epitome of what people complain about when they complain about southern rap, and the kind of thing that inspired Nas to title his 2006 album Hip Hop Is Dead.
But Collipark makes no apologies. Kids like what they like, he says, and they are rap's most important constituents. "The youth is what always made hip-hop go."
Collipark was raised in College Park and earned his first nickname, DJ Smurf, for his diminutive size. He went off to college at Alabama A&M, where he studied telecommunications and then business. But academics didn't captivate him. Instead, he saved money from DJ gigs and as a rapper self-released a single called "2 Tha Walls" in 1992. The song's chorus may sound familiar:
To the windows!
To the walls!
Till the sweat drip down my balls!
When that chant landed in Lil Jon's hands a decade later, it would become crunk's siren call. In the nineties it could be commonly heard at black fraternity parties, so Collipark hadn't invented it, but he was the first to get it on wax.
He dropped out of college to team back up with Atlanta's first rap star, MC Shy-D. In 1993 Shy-D released a trunk-rattling work called The Comeback on Atlanta imprint Ichiban Records, with Collipark helping out on production.
Collipark proceeded to hook up with Ichiban himself, releasing 1995's Versastyle and 1998's Dead Crunk. But it was time for him to face facts: his career as an artist had stalled. Still, during Dead Crunk's recording he'd stumbled onto a second career as a talent scout. For a track called "One on One" he enlisted a rapper called Kaine and his friend D-Roc, the latter of whom had appeared on hit Atlanta record "Bankhead Bounce" when he was fifteen.
Their pairing on Collipark's track proved to be a memorable one. "It sent chills, hearing them back and forth," Collipark recalls. "I was sitting in the studio like, 'Oh shit.' I said, 'Y'all might want to stay fuckin' with each other.'" They did, and, despite being unrelated, were christened Ying Yang Twins to emphasize the polarities in their styles.
Collipark signed them to a production deal, and their 2000 debut single "Whistle While You Twurk" roughly splits the difference between bass and crunk. Two years later Ying Yang brought the "2 Tha Walls" chorus to Lil Jon, and "Get Low" helped propel crunk into the stratosphere.
Though Lil Jon got most of the credit for that movement, Collipark was quietly fashioning one of his own. These days his specialty is finding unknown talent and putting them on a national stage. His methods differ from those of Jermaine Dupri, who signed and crafted the images of rappers like Kris Kross, Da Brat, and Bow Wow, and also wrote and produced their songs. The slumping music industry now prefers to take on performers who already have big local fan bases and proven sales track records, sparing the companies from investing time or energy in artist development.
Collipark doesn't mold his artists, dress them, or write their songs. Instead, he simply seeks out already-established independents with hometown followings. "I believe in organic," he told the Dallas Observer. "It's the records and the acts that are truly on the tips of people's tongues, and that are truly hot in that market. ... What's in their cars when they're driving down the street? Or what's playing in the store when you're buying your liquor?"
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