Thursday, May 7, 2009

Sugarhill's last jam — plus a Shameless Plug for the future of live music in Atlanta

Posted By on Thu, May 7, 2009 at 3:11 AM

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(See more photos of Sugarhill's last jam at John Crooms' photoblog, or

Last night’s going-away party at Sugarhill in Underground Atlanta was “beautifully chaotic,” in the words of resident funkstress Joi, who’s held Sugarhill’s open mic night down as host since its inception in ’06.

When we broke the news on Crib Notes last week that the owners of Sugarhill had decided to close down Atlanta’s premier live soul venue to search for better digs, people began leaving mournful comments (myself included) that made it seem as if the announcement marked the end of an era.

But when Joi stepped on stage around 11:30 p.m. last night clad in skintight patent leather leggings, a backless red tee and red platform stilettos, it was apparent that she had not come to kick the proverbial bucket. Instead, Sugarhill’s last jam quickly morphed into a nasty, New Orleans-inspired, funk-jazz, juke joint of a funeral.

“This journey started about two and a half years ago ’cause it wasn’t shit to do in this city,” Joi eulogized from the stage, “this beautiful chocolate city full of talented artists.”

Fans and artists alike came out to show love for a venue that became their home away from home over the past couple of years.

First up to the stage, Joi introduced Ken Ford. The electric violinist started stroking his strings and in short time he’d gotten a rise out of the packed house. As he worked his way up the scales — backed by bass, guitar, drums and keys — the shrieks were multi-orgasmic. And those were just the ones he elicited from his fiddle.

Then came Dres tha Beatnik, who kept the crowd hype with a few freestyle verses and what seemed like an original country rock tune he sang after removing a layer of clothing and his beanie. (It conceals a thick ass ’fro, in case you’ve ever wondered.)

Joi called Scar to the mic next. When he started singing the hook of his signature Curtis Mayfield-cover “Underground” — “Oooh, sukie sukie nah … Undergro-u-n-d, tonight it’s goin’ down” — everybody joined in, and for a moment it seemed like all the criticism about Underground Atlanta was much ado about nothing.

click to enlarge SUGARHILL CO-OWNERS: Freddy Luster, Richard Dunn and J. Carter
  • SUGARHILL CO-OWNERS: Freddy Luster, Richard Dunn and J. Carter

Later, the birthday girl, Phillipia, blew up the spot when she kicked off a rousing, three-song set with her funked-out, grimy-soul rendition of “Turn My Swag On” by Soulja Boy — yes, Soulja Boy. If the mere thought of such a performance seems out of place, it resonated perfectly with the unspoken theme of the night: What’s next?

But maybe it should’ve been, “Swagger [don’t] stagger ” — which blogger Maurice Garland coolly admitted was his goal since he’d imbibed a few drinks with friends in honor of Cinco de Mayo. He wasn’t alone. When a woman started to topple over after missing a step in the balcony, the tightly-packed, standing-room-only crowd was the only thing that kept her on her feet.

‘What’s next,’ however, had less to do with what was going on inside those four walls last night and more to do with how the scene might evolve during the club’s absence.


Many of the scene's major players, past and present, were in attendance last night, including artists Malachi, Avery Sunshine, Keisha Jackson, Anthony David (who reminisced over Sugarhill last weekend), one-third of Jaspects, KP, and Tuki of Hollyweerd. DJs Kemit, Rasta Root, and Salah Ananse were also in the building. Even a few promoters, marketers and retailers were on-hand as well, including Darryl of Moods Music, Jodine Dorce of Red Bull, and Jason Orr — who still deserves credit for sparking Atlanta’s live, alternative soul movement with FunkJazzKafé a decade and a half ago.

But when I heard Bem Joiner (of the branding agency, Rebelutions) and Jabari Graham (Art, Beats & Lyrics founder) were in attendance last night, it struck me that they, too, would play a role in the scene's next step.

click to enlarge HALF OF SHAMELESS PLUG: Jabari Graham and Bem Joiner
  • HALF OF SHAMELESS PLUG: Jabari Graham and Bem Joiner

As half of the new promotions team, Shameless Plug, Joiner and Graham (along with partners Jerald McBride, and Fadia Kader of Broke $ Boujee fame) were responsible for last Saturday’s uber-successful Drake concert at the Loft. While thirty-somethings packed inside Sugarhill near its final night to catch Philly soulster Bilal perform, collegiate cool kids packed the Loft to see the Canadian-bred rapper with more Web buzz than Wilbur (see Charlotte’s Web).

Within five hours, his Atlanta concert sold-out nearly a month ago strictly off the strength of Facebook and Twitter updates. So yeah, he’s kind of a big deal.

There’s a lot I could say about that show — like how Drake is the first rapper to overwhelmingly elicit ladies’ lust since LL Cool J’s “Bad” poster adorned my step-sister’s bedroom wall — but most of it has already been said ad infinitum. Google “Drake” + “Atlanta” and see for yourself. Better yet, check out Anthony David’s blog post on the Drake show. (Yes, Acey Duecy was there, too. Dude gets around.) Industry celebs in attendance included Jermaine Dupri, Trey Songz and Usher. The latter two actually ended up being part of the show.

It was a special event, mainly because Atlanta got to count itself among the shortlist of cities to experience him live. Everyone in attendance walked away with confirmation that everything they’d discovered or heard about Drake was the truth squared. Indeed, dude is the future of rap — even if he does look like a life-sized cutout of ’80s R&B/pop-throb Al B. Sure. Don’t laugh. You know Al B. was fly as hell back then. (Did I mention Drake also sings R&B and acted in “Degrassi High,” too? And to think, a triple threat in hip-hop used to mean MC/break dancer/graf artist. But that’s another blog post).

Despite my sarcasm, I’m hopeful that the Drake show is a harbinger of things (or people) to come to Atlanta— specifically, more burgeoning artists with cult followings. For too long, the city has been a considered a second- and third-tier tour stop when it comes to booking such acts. And the biggest influence on any city’s musical output is the creative input to which its exposed.

Just like Sugarhill co-owners Freddy Luster (who co-owned Yin Yang Café during the height of the city’s homegrown soul scene), J. Carter (who took nightlife to another level with Sol Fusion) and Richard Dunn (who continues to cultivate Anthony David’s career as his manager); the cats behind Shameless Plug are in line to become another one of the city’s progressive musical forces.

When I asked one of the members, Jabari Graham, in an email over a month ago why he’d decided to delve into the shark-infested territory of concert booking along with his Shameless Plug cohorts, his answer gave me hope. “I travel to other cities to see acts like 88 Keys, Kid Cudi, [and] Santigold when they are on the brink [and] not totally blown up,” he wrote back. “Atlanta should be one of their destinations for exposure and for fans [but] ATL is labeled as swag or crunk so they may not feel the need to make an ATL stop. But we know ATL is more than that.”

If SP can balance the necessary promotional hype with the recognition of their role as cultural curators, the future is in magical hands.

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The next SP show, scheduled for Fri., June 5, is Houston rapper Devin the Dude w/88 Keys. Devin’s a legend in his prime whose tour bus rarely, if ever, passes through the state of Georgia. (He’s also known to sing a riff or two, but most of his hooks would make LL blush.) Keys is another buzz-worthy, bright light on the horizon.

It may be easy to miss the connection between Sugarhill’s temporary closing and Shameless Plug’s uprising. As the Drake and Bilal shows proved, there’s a bit of a gap between their targeted demographics. But when placed within the same context, it’s clear that one owes its presence to the other.

Before India.Arie, Donnie and Anthony David began cutting their teeth at Yin Yang Café in the mid- and late-’90s, there really wasn't much of a live scene to speak of for black acts in Atlanta beyond the occasional talent show or major label showcase. Concert promoters stuck to no-brainer, radio-friendly acts to fill large and mid-sized venues.

The arrival of SP wouldn’t be possible without Yin Yang, without FunkJazzKafé, without Sugarhill — which proved last night that the audience it’s help cultivate still yearns for more.

So while we bid Sugarhill adieu, we hope its only temporary as promised. Just long enough, perhaps, for us to miss Joi’s spottieottiedopalicious ass rocking those skintight leggings on stage.

Damn, damn, damn, James.

(Photos of Joi and Shameless Plug courtesy Photo of Sugarhill co-owners courtesy John Crooms.)

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