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?"
It's not always so easy, however. In fact, Collipark wasn't initially impressed in early 2007 when he first caught wind of a skinny, charismatic rapper called Soulja Boy Tell'em. Only sixteen, he reportedly had a massive MySpace following, but Collipark didn't believe his millions of hits were the real deal.
And so he set out to determine if this kid had any living, breathing fans outside of cyberspace. At his sons' T-ball game he asked random children if they were familiar with Soulja Boy, and almost all of them said yes. Astounded, he consulted with influential Atlanta radio DJ Greg Street.
"He said he'd been getting requests for the song ['Crank That'] but he didn't know what they were talking about," Collipark says. Having bypassed the industry machinery altogether, Soulja Boy had somehow built a massive fan base.
If Jermaine Dupri had signed Soulja Boy, he may well have revamped his image and changed his songs, but Collipark did no such thing. "I allowed him to be who he is," he says. "His first album was literally just us going in and rerecording songs he had on MySpace."
We all know what came next — Soulja Boy became the first megastar rapper of the Internet age, racking up some half billion YouTube views and selling millions of MP3s and ringtones. In fact, Soulja Boy epitomizes the disparaging term, "Ringtone rapper," which refers to those deemed simplistic enough to get their point across in the few moments it takes for a cell phone to chime.
Almost all of Collipark' future artists would fall under this category. When rap elitists were looking to blame someone for the downfall of hip-hop as they knew it, they picked the wrong target. Instead of Soulja Boy, it should have been Collipark.
"I love watching peoples' reaction to my new groups for the first time," Collipark wrote in a Twitter message not long ago. "It's this confusing look that I can't explain but it's priceless!"
Shortly after Soulja Boy's arrival came the debut of another Collipark discovery, Shreveport teenager Hurricane Chris. Unlike Soulja Boy, Chris could actually spit, but you wouldn't know it from his hits like "A Bay Bay," a simple sing-along with an irresistible ear worm. ("It's so hot up in da club/That I ain't got no shoes on," he raps.) In the famous 2008 mixtape track where Ice-T famously accused Soulja Boy of having "single-handedly killed hip-hop," he also took time to insult Hurricane Chris — as well as his signature braids. "Take them fucking beads out your fucking hair, kid," he said.
Up next for Collipark was Atlanta youngster V.I.C. and his Soulja Boy–coproduced title shot "Get Silly."
My chain too silly/ My wrist too silly
The girls throw me dish 'cause my rims big billin'
My ride too silly/ I ride too silly ...
I be wilin' on a island somewhere just like Gilligan
It was an example of the increasingly common "fooling around with the Casio presets" aesthetic but even more grating, and the song was a hit.
In early 2010 Collipark took on a pair of Dallas newcomers called Treal Lee and Prince Rick, who had a local smash called "Mr. Hit Dat Hoe." It had its own dance, naturally, performed by a furiously gyrating Urkel look-alike. Collipark says he knew immediately, just from the song's name, that it might be something for him, and after getting wind from his brother Derrick that the song was a phenomenon in Texas, he flew to Dallas to check it out.
Taken to a "hood sports bar" where the song was in rotation, he witnessed pandemonium. At one point a fight broke out, resulting in a girl's weave being thrown across the dance floor. "That's the kind of thing you've got to see to know something is legit," Collipark says. He released the single on his label, but not before changing its title to the somewhat-less-domestic-violence-y, "Mr. Hit Dat."
Collipark, now finishing his second vodka and cranberry, smiles at the memory. To him, finding an underexposed southern music scene (like the one in Dallas) is like a baseball card fanatic discovering a box of old Topps packs in his grandmother's attic.
But whether he has ushered in hip-hop's apocalypse or simply created an ultraefficient way to give fans what they want is up for debate. What is not, however, is his unparalleled ability to predict what a devotee of the Wu-Tang Clan is going to hate — and what is going to drive an eleven-year-old girl wild.
Excerpted from Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop with permission from Chicago Review Press.
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