Imagine a family reunion where all the uncles and aunts in attendance happen to be the forebears of Atlanta’s hip-hop scene. That was the vibe at the Rialto Theater on Sunday, Aug. 31 for the premiere of the new VH1 documentary, ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game.
Not even the arrival of surprise guest R. Kelly and his entourage could sway the crowd’s attention from a celebration 30 years in the making. Scheduled to air tonight (Tues., Sept. 2) on VH1 at 10 p.m., the 63-minute film documents the city’s rise from hip-hop’s boondocks to undisputed rap capital.
But this documentary forgoes the sheen and bling of Black Hollywood for the city’s meager, mostly overlooked hip-hop beginnings. It pays well-deserved tribute, instead, to frequently overlooked early contributors like MC Shy D, Kilo Ali, Raheem the Dream, King Edward J., and the groundwork laid by producers Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri, and Organized Noize.
By linking the city’s rap scene with its historic civil rights roots, the film sets Atlanta’s southern breed of hip-hop apart from the coasts that alternately dominated the genre before the South’s rise. The doc also ties the local scene’s launch in 1982 — when Mo-Jo became the first local rapper to release a record with “Battmann: Let Mo-Jo Handle It” — to the end of Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered Children case that plagued the city’s African-American community for four years before reportedly ending that same year.
From Andre’s regional battlecry, “the South got something to say,” at the 1995 Source Awards to T.I.’s subgenre defining trap anthems, a portrait of Atlanta emerges in ATL: Rise of a city of perennial underdogs slowly finding the means to voice their own Southern-inflected drawl.
The 37 interviewees who provide commentary and fill in the doc’s back stories include local pioneers (Mo-Jo, MC Shy D, Raheem the Dream, King Edward J, Kilo Ali, DJ Toomp); architects of the scene (Rico Wade and Ray Murray of Organized Noize, Jermaine Dupri, Kawan Prather, Shanti Das); seminal artists (Ludacris, Killer Mike, T.I., Bonecrusher, Usher, Jeezy, Speech of Arrested Development, Pastor Troy, Rich Homie Quan, I-20); cultural critics (Maurice Garland, Joycelyn A. Wilson); Atlanta politicians and sports legends (former Mayor Andrew Young, current Mayor Kasim Reed, Dominique Wilkins), and those whose venues became major platforms for the city’s hip-hop identity (Shyran Blakley of Shyran’s Showcase, Michael Barney of Magic City).
While the film’s stars arrived Sunday night for black carpet photo opps and press interviews, the lobby filled up with a who’s who of Atlanta rap and DJ legends, emerging artists, behind-the-scenes stalwarts, and industry heavyweights.
Longtime A&R record exec Kawan “K.P.” Prather, who serves as a co-producer of the doc, is perhaps best known for signing T.I. to his first record deal years after getting his own start as an original member of Dungeon Family and A&Ring records for OutKast at LaFace Records. Despite his proven eye for talent, he says no one could foresee back then what Atlanta would become. “We always thought we were gonna forever be the underdogs,” he said Sunday.
Like ATL: Rise, K.P. credits the city’s rise, in part, to its civil rights roots.
“People in the South, and especially Atlanta, we have the privilege of having parents who were in the Civil Rights Movement who showed us how to mobilize and showed us how to work together in a way that helps [achieve] a common goal,” he said. “Whenever I go out of town, people tell me, ‘It’s so crazy how all y’all work together.’ I never noticed it before that, but it comes from the people that we were raised by.”
Civil Rights stalwart and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who’s also featured in the film and walked the carpet at Sunday’s premiere party, talked about the role black music has played as a both a cultural force dating back to the civil rights era. “Our music is our struggle,” he said. “Black folk have a right to be angry and if they don’t find a channel for that anger, they take it out on each other. And I think hip-hop has helped [this generation] to articulate their frustrations and their anger, and make money doing it. And money eases frustrations as well as anything.”
Making money was the last thing on the minds of Atlanta originators like MC Shy D, the New York native and cousin of hip-hop founding father Afrika Bambaataa, who moved to Atlanta as a youth. When he released what could rightly be called the first Atlanta hip-hop anthem, “Atlanta, That’s Where I Stay,” in 1988, Atlanta’s sound was still a second cousin to Miami bass.
“Everybody thought I was from Miami because I was [signed to] Luke [Skyywalker Records],” Shy D said during an interview at the premiere. “Then everybody knew I was from New York, so I said, yo, let me just make something for Atlanta to let them know this is where I’m at. I ain’t in New York and I ain’t in Miami, you know what I’m sayin’.”
Among the city’s pivotal DJs at the time, King Edward J was the mixtape king. He got his start spinning part-time at Mr. V’s Figure 8 on Campbellton Road, where his mixes were so popular people started recording them on the spot. So he decided to open his own record shop and start a DJ crew called the J Team. On Sunday, Edward J arrived in an all-white tux sporting a red bowtie and posed for pics alongside his former crewmembers and early-’80s contemporaries including Lady DJ, DJ Man, DJ Toomp, and others.
“The J Team was almost like another radio station for Atlanta,” he said Sunday, dressed in a white tux with a red bowtie. “Because in the beginning the only time [the city] cold hear hip-hop was for an hour or so on Friday night on V-103 [“The Fresh Party”].”
In the late-’80s, a coveted Edward J mixtape came laced with trembling 808 bass and his signature high-pitched voice delivered over and between tracks in a cool, animated fashion. “At first I was just playing around, trying to sound different and make my voice clear for you to hear,” he said, giving a sample of one of his old-school rhymes. “The game has changed so much, at that time just for a cassette, I was getting a nifty $13.50, and if it was 60 minutes, I would only charge you ten my friend.”
After Sunday night’s cocktail hour, with DJ Infamous spinning a strictly Atlanta playlist, writer and radio show host Maurice Garland welcomed to theater’s stage Mayor Kasim Reed for a few words before the screening, as well as the team of filmmakers, and executive producers Ludacris, Chaka Zulu and Jeff Dixon.
The filmmakers behind ATL: Rise are the same production company (Corner of the Cave Media) responsible for the last decade of VH1’s Behind the Music series. After completing their last installment on Ludacris, they thought a deeper dive on the history of Atlanta would make for a good doc. So they brought Ludacris and his management team (Zulu and Dixon) onboard.
Throughout Sunday night’s preview, the hometown crowed cheered every time another local legend appeared on the screen. As thorough as the documentary is in its scope and cultural context, the filmmakers have already braced themselves for criticism.
“There’s going to be people that are upset with us and will say we didn’t do it right,” said writer and director Brad Bernstein. “Everyone’s got an opinion on who was super important. But we really stuck to the artists, and some of the pivotal [people] like [Shyran Blakley of] Shyran’s Showcase. That [club] launched so much talent in Atlanta and gave these kids a platform to showcase their skills. So people like that we knew were really important to the story. And then there were other poeople who were left out by accident just because of time — like Player Poncho who had an impact on the scene. We just couldn’t get to everybody.”
Another notable exclusion is Mr. Collipark, aka DJ Smurf, who got his start with MC Shy D before going on to produce for and play a major role in the careers of Yin Yang Twins and Soulja Boy, whom he discovered via the Internet. Also missing in action is the snap era that spawned such Bankhead-bred acts as D4L and Dem Franchize Boys. It coincidentally happens to be the most widely derided period of Atlanta rap, largely blamed by East Coast cognoscenti for placing the genre on life support.
But outsiders should find it hard to hate on Atlanta’s overall contributions to the culture after watching this doc. Even after owning the charts for more than a decade, respect has been a long time coming.
“I never thought that the South would get its props. When I was doing it, the South wasn’t getting no respect,” Shy D said. But he’s proud to have played a hand in its come-up. “It’s a beautiful thing because it really shows all the hard work we put in back in the days is paying off now. Back then when we were doing it, we weren’t expecting it to blow up and get as big as this. We really were just doing it for the love of it.”
ATL: Untold Story of Atlanta's Rise in the Rap Game airs tonight (Tues., Sept. 2) on VH1 at 10 p.m.
Any intel about this Project Pabst festival that I scheduled for 10/1?
This does not take about The Chirch at all.
It is comforting to read that the Atlanta music scene is alive, well and growing…
The future of Atlanta's music scene is BRIGHT! My name is Zane Smith. Rapper/Producer from…
Adam Darby, for sure! Black Sunshine!
"2016 features a little something for everyone." people who love standing in long lines at…