Friday, July 25, 2008

Art Beats + Lyrics: A conversation w/Jabari Graham and Dubelyoo

Posted By on Fri, Jul 25, 2008 at 3:39 PM

Jack Daniel’s Art Beats + Lyrics

Lil Wayne sold a million albums in a single week, heartily disproving the notion that hip-hop is dead. Right?

At least, that’s the industry’s rationale.

But if you turn on your typical urban radio station (as I did yesterday) and two out of the three songs played in a set feature the ubiquitous “goblin” (his word, not mine) Lil Wayne, doesn’t that in itself prove that hip-hop is on the decline?

That lack of artistic diversity has provided the perfect backdrop for an event like Jack Daniel’s Art Beats + Lyrics to flourish. The free event/exhibit takes place tonight only from 7 p.m.-midnight at the Foundry at Puritan Mill, 916 Joseph E. Lowery Blvd. To reserve free passes, visit www.jackdaniels.com/ABL.

I crunched it up with co-founders Jabari Graham and Dubelyoo the other night in a warehouse off of Krog St. as they put the finishing touches on some installations in preparation for tonight’s show. We talked about what it took to parlay the original Art Beats + Lyrics into a corporate partnership with Jack Daniels, what happened after that infamous night in 2005 when they painted Atlanta’s High Museum hip-hop, and how they plan to give Special Ed a run for his money in Johannesburg.

Rodney: People still talk in amazement about the second AB+L event held at the High Museum in 2005. It was like you all painted the White House black. What was the High's response after that?

Jabari: It was a mixed response. Because on the museum’s part, the day of the show they were tripping out of their ass because it was something that they wanted, but they didn’t know how to handle it. They had so much expectation, it was urban, but it was so many people that came out and it was no chaos. So afterward, it opened up because they got a lot of memberships [as a result].

Dubelyoo: Did they ever send a thank you letter?

Jabari: They didn’t send shit.

Dubelyoo: 3,000 people show up to your venue that have never been there. And the funny thing is that sparked other people to do art shows. And that’s the cool thing about it….

Rodney: A lot of people view AB+L as one of the events that helped fan the flames in Atlanta's urban underground art and music movements. Do you see it like that?

Jabari: Not really, it’s just like, man, we’re putting out a good product. It’s simple, man. Find dope artists, and I love music. My background is putting shows together.... That’s what I did [as a marketer with Universoul Circus]. And we promote it like a concert. I make sure we have a good P.R. campaign going on just to get editorial and what not, advertising. And then we gotta get the streets and make it viral....

Dubelyoo: One thing I would like to see happen is that other people see this or see something like this and go home and step their stuff up. So basically it inspires people to try something outside of the normal gallery system.

We promote this show like we promote a rock concert. The one thing about a show at an art gallery is there’s really no sense of urgency to see it. It’s going to be up for two months. Why rush to see it? This is up one night and then it’s done. You gotta wait 'til whenever it comes again. But you get a sense of urgency that causes people to come out because they know that they’re going to see something exciting. That’s what’s kinda missing from art right now is the excitement level.

Jabari: One thing we’re trying to do with AB+L is definitely shed light on the South, cause I say this all the time, but if you look at hip-hop music back in the day it was straight East Coast/West Coast…. And the same thing goes with art; art and music go hand-in-hand. If you look at some of the magazines, Juxtapoz or Beautiful Decay, I’m not knocking them.

Dubelyoo: They rep their people.

Jabari: Right, and most of those magazines are in New York or L.A., so of course that’s gonna happen. But it took groups like Outkast, Dungeon Family, Ludacris to shed light on musical artists from the South. If you go to the West coast or the East coast right now and listen to the radio station, you're gonna hear some Shawty Lo, whatever the fuck is the South. So at least with AB+L, we want to represent the South.

Dubelyoo: Big urban art shows don’t go to these cities, they don’t go to Charlotte. Big urban art shows don’t come to Atlanta. They pretty much stay on the coasts. So we’re gonna take it to [places like] the DC area. We’ve got artists in the show that aren’t from the South. We’ve got people from all over, but a lot of the artists are from the South.

Rodney: A lot of cats and young, urban promoters out here are like, 'Ok these cats obviously know what they’re doing, I want to know what they know.'

Dubelyoo: Learn how to write a proposal. That’s the first thing.

Jabari: Just one page. It’s just got to make relevant sense in terms of all that you can do for the company. One thing about Dub is he's a good artist, but he also understands that other side of the game. How to market yourself, just the business. Some artists, they just know one side. You’ve gotta be three-dimensional and be able to promote yourself and sell yourself if you don’t have an agent.

Dubelyoo: We bounce stuff back and forth. Like with proposals, he’ll start it, I’ll get it then lay it out. I think the first thing you need to do when you’re trying to come up with your own event is come up with a cool name, a good concept, work on your elevator pitch, cause you’ve gotta be able to describe your show in like one sentence. You can’t be like, ‘What’s your show?’

‘Uh, my show is like, uhh.’

You gotta be like, ‘My show is this.’ Boom. And you gotta be able to sell it with enthusiasm, no matter what it is. Like the first time you say it, even the thousandth time you say it, you gotta say it with the same level of enthusiasm. Because you’re selling enthusiasm to people, that’s what you’re selling. You know, excitement. So, to get somebody excited about something they’ve never seen before, that’s tricky – especially when you’re trying to sell an art show, but it’s an art show with music and all these big walls, murals. At first people are like (Dubelyoo grimaces), then they see it and they get it.

Rodney: So did you all have to go into boardrooms and make presentations?

Dubelyoo: Somewhat. One thing that’s interesting is when you work with a major partner you get to see how they do stuff in their world. It’s a whole different planet. These are like billion dollar companies. These guys are world renowned, so their whole perspective on things is different…. Like, we’re on the flyer level. They’re on the 'Let’s buy everything. We need billboards.'

Rodney: How did you originally corral so much support from artists to put the first one together [in 2005 at the Five Spot], was it just based on pure relationships you already had?

Jabari: No, cause I didn’t know anybody. Just going out there and talking to people. I just met them. Like I went to Little Five Points, and I took pictures of graffiti or whatever and I’d be like, 'Yo, you know this cat?' But once I found that one cat, people would put me on.

Rodney: So what’s the next step?

Jabari: These five cities are pretty much a test market. If these five cities work out, it’s going to go national. And I hope to go global, because I’ve been talking to people in Morocco and Johannesburg and I know how they do shit out there man. And I know they might love it. If they can still sell out shows with Special Ed right now — old hip-hop [cats] — I know that they’ll embrace us.

Rodney: I think everybody’s perception is when you go meet with the suits and you’re trying to convince them what hip-hop is, it’s an uphill battle when you’ve got culture on your side and they’ve got this mainstream image in mind. How hard is it overcoming that?

Jabari: It’s hard because even with Jack Daniels they hadn’t seen a bit of Art Beats + Lyrics, but they got it when they saw it…. In a way, it’s like you’re selling a dream, and they ain’t seen shit.

Dubelyoo: It’s interesting man, when you go to the meetings, it’s like, 'Wow the only people that have seen this is me and Jabari.'

Jabari: But the thing is even at the meetings, we come as we are. They may be suited up or whatever but I [do me]. They’re not gonna hear no hip-hop shit from another suit and tie. I’m just myself.

Dubelyoo: Just like any relationship, it’s a learning process. We did the show in Charlotte and it went over pretty well, overall. So for Atlanta, we’re really trying to take it up a notch.

Rodney: If I’m a young cat looking at hip-hop, it seems like the only way to capitalize is to follow the mainstream, but what you've done with AB+L is a viable cultural alternative. How do you take the organic side of it and the money side and balance those sides out?

Jabari: I think that it’s good to walk in different circles. I got one foot [here] 'cause I know that business side; I got one foot [there] 'cause I know that promoting side. But I could also be at MJQ, I can also be at Central Station – those 'hood spaces. You just gotta walk in different circles and kinda pull it together and be creative about it….

But even with the first show … even if no one shows up man, I know me and my friends are going to have fuckin’ fun. We’re gonna drink good and have good entertainment. So you may need to look at it in the grand scheme of things, but put yourself there and just have fun and do it and have fun, man. But keep it moving, that’s the main thing, keep it moving.

(Photo courtesy Jabari Graham)

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