Is #NewAtlanta a movement or marketing, and does it even matter? Plus, we reveal the producer of "All Gold Everything."
Written by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)
Yesterday evening, news quickly spread that Trinidad James had signed with Def Jam records for a rumored $2 million, just a week after performing at Santos Party House. The crowd at the NYC venue included a number of the label’s executives, including president Joie Manda, and it marked the culmination of a rise that seemed somehow both improbable and completely predictable. It was not his first time in New York, although it was his first since the buzz around his viral smash “All Gold Everything” reached critical mass.
It was also, to quote one publicist close to the situation, a “shit show.” Celebrities and VIPs were turned away at the door, or at least had to wait for a significant amount of time; comedian Hannibal Buress, New York Knick Baron Davis, rapper Joey Bada$$, and journalist Elliott Wilson were among them.
Like everything about James’ sudden rise from Atlanta scenester (he was working at Ginza clothing boutique in downtown Atlanta when he decided to become a rapper) to hip-hop star, the oversold show sparked cynicism. But Trinidad’s unlikely-yet-forseeable rise marks an important moment for Atlanta, an attempt to reassert its dominance in an era where regional styles, broadcast cheaply and easily on the Internet, have the potential to upset the city’s long-running centrality to hip-hop.
One man’s “gimmick” is another’s style. If rappers were forced to abandon "gimmicks," the genre would suffer. Many times, those "gimmicks" are shorthand for charisma and personality.
Like any Internet-driven phenomenon, James has attracted his share of detractors. Many of their concerns are unfair; a hit song is a hit song, and “All Gold Everything” qualifies, at least by the modest measure of YouTube success. From A$AP Rocky to Kreayshawn to Chief Keef, critics have been quick to point out that imagery and gimmicks overshadow the music, seemingly unaware that their criticisms of the hype cycle aren’t far removed from the flawed arguments thrown at chart-topping pop stars a decade ago. One man’s “gimmick” is another’s style. If rappers were forced to abandon "gimmicks," the genre would suffer. Many times, those "gimmicks" are shorthand for charisma and personality.
James’ considerable on-camera charm hasn’t completely transferred through to his vocal performance. As has been widely reported, he only started rapping about 10 months ago. His inexperience is a sharp contrast with Gucci Mane’s more effortless, experienced style on their recent collaboration, where James’ verse has a bludgeoning simplicity. This is where some of the cynicism is understandable. Simplicity isn’t an inherent negative, but in his case, it feels more by default than by design.
His rise felt too smooth for most. Trinidad linked up with influential New York DJs Ballers Eve, and is co-managed by the group’s DJ J.Dirrt. Motion Family—skilled, established cinematographers known for Pill of Atlanta's viral video “Trap Goin Ham”—put together the “All Gold Everything” visual, as well. Even the success of his Santos appearance felt suspicious. Live concerts in New York are a chance for rappers to control the news cycle, and what better marketing can you ask for than overselling an event, leaving VIPs and journalists stuck outside of a mere 570 person-capacity venue?
But canny management can only go so far, and Trinidad’s success says a lot more about how Atlanta’s business model is adopting to new channels for success.
Go Dreamer and Spree Wilson are sitting on the couches in the Complex office. Both are part of what is being called, mostly by the people involved in it, New Atlanta, or #NewAtlanta, or, as Go Dreamer says in person, “Pound New Atlanta.”
That it is as much marketing as movement at this nascent stage doesn’t seem like a problem, although New Atlanta is something of a misnomer. Many of its artists—Trinidad James excepted—came of age in an earlier era. Go Dreamer was a member of Hollyweerd, a group that made some blog noise in the late 2000s with a series of tapes and singles like “Have You Ever Made Love to a Weirdo?” Spree Wilson is a rapper who also sings and plays guitar, creating songs that are as alternative rock as they are hip-hop. Many of the other names brought up under the New Atlanta umbrella, like Sean Falyon and Grip Plyaz, have been covered by local press and notable writer Maurice Garland for several years.
New Atlanta is also an odd name because Atlanta has never really gone away. In 2012, as in virtually every year for the past decade, Atlanta artists have been amongst hip-hop’s most successful and most popular on a national scale. No other metropolis comes close.
New Atlanta is an odd name because Atlanta has never really gone away. In 2012, as in virtually every year for the past decade, Atlanta artists have been amongst hip-hop’s most successful and most popular on a national scale. No other metropolis comes close.
New Atlanta’s existence is a sign of how the Internet has allowed the full breadth of a city’s hip-hop scene to find an audience. Most cities have multi-tiered scenes, from populist street rap to Tumblr hip-hop in the vein of Raider Klan, from art school kids to retro backpackers, from post-Odd Future skate rap to club-oriented tracks to particular regional variations. At one point, radio dictated a national discourse on hip-hop; you were either on it or you were underground. The Internet has broadened the number of channels available, allowing artists that might have struggled for exposure in past years to find fan bases in new ways.
When artists from the New Atlanta scene talk about what they’re trying to do, it tends to come in language about bringing awareness to styles that people aren’t familiar with.
When asked about the movement, ForteBowie, a promising rapper and singer who has collaborated with Trinidad James, says, “A lot of kids grew up in this city watching people like T.I., Ludacris, Young Jeezy, Future, and all these people coming out of the city. We related to that, because, of course, we’re from the city. We’re also influenced by a lot of other things. Different genres of music or different lifestyles. We had our own voices, and we all felt like people like Jeezy and Future can’t tell our stories for us, even though we from the same place.”
Spree Wilson's thoughts: “We’re trying to show the whole scope of the city, rather than what you would know Atlanta to be in the last 10 years. Most people know it for street music, ratchet shit, turned up shit. If you think about Atlanta before that, it had that, but it also had the artistic shit, R&B with LaFace, bass music. It was all that, man.”
Spree’s latest single, “Right One/Wrong Time,” is a throwback to an era that didn't receive much national attention. At once retro and contemporary, the song melds Atlanta bass history with a sincere, heart-on-sleeve love story. It’s produced by The Flush, which is Go Dreamer and Jeron Ward, who recently had high-profile placements on fellow ATLien Big Boi’s newest record, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. The duo were roommates at Georgia State; Jeron was friends with Big Boi’s cousin, which helped them get their feet in the door at Stankonia’s A Room studio. What's most promising about Spree’s single is that it sounds like it has the potential to crossover.
And this is where New Atlanta could end up being a successful movement. Unlike in many other cities, where alternative-rap weirdos are either exalted by bloggers but fail to find much radio traction, Atlanta has the infrastructure to support artists who can make their moves across the board. Since Outkast—the obvious forefathers to any rap artist in Atlanta making moves outside of the street rap norm—being eccentric hasn’t been a detriment to getting national attention.
“We need points on the board,” Spree Wilson says. To Spree and Dreamer, charting is the goal—and that means pushing their music not just online ("Publications aren't strong in Georgia," Go Dreamer admits), but to club DJs, strip club DJs and radio DJs.
To both artists, New Atlanta is an attempt to be inclusive and celebrate the younger, oddball side of Atlanta’s scene. The city has a large number of performance venues, from Smith’s Olde Bar, where rapper Scotty built his local following, to the recently-shuttered Lenny’s, where Yelawolf cut his teeth. Trinidad’s particular scene—of which Spree and Go Dreamer are also a part—is centered around Drunken Unicorn/MJQ.
“Those are underground clubs. The weirdo clubs. That’s the shit that we hang around. We don’t go to the mainstream, the Velvet Rooms. That’s that bullshit,” explains Grip Plyaz, who's been rapping since the late '90s, when he came into contact with proto-New Atlanta group, Proton. “It’s different. You go to MJQ, you’re not going to get 50 bottles. You’re not going to see motherfuckers at MJQ with rosé bottles in the VIP section or none of that bullshit. Pay 20 dollars to get in the goddamn club, just to see someone sitting in VIP all flexed. It’s more in-your-face type shit. There’s no VIP. It’s dark.”
Unlike in many other cities, where alternative-rap weirdos are either exalted by bloggers but fail to find much radio traction, Atlanta has the infrastructure to support artists who can make their moves across the board.
Yesterday, Plyaz released his own record, the fantastically-titled Purp, Wind & Fire, which features guest spots from Trinidad James, Go Dreamer and recent Strange Music signee Rittz. The record has some strong moments, but doesn’t seem liable to catapault Grip to national superstardom, nor does it seem intended to. Instead, Grip seems focused on building up a fan base that will be drawn to his particular avenue. “We’ve got totally different stuff down here that people have never heard. We’re just trying to pave a lane for that.”
DJ Burn One, who has worked heavily with a cross-section of Atlanta’s recording artists, looks past MJQ’s scene to some of the wider changes happening in Atlanta. “There are more camps now. There’s more groups, producers. For a while, everybody was stuck in the limbo between the physical—street team, marketing—and the Internet. But a lot of the people doing it now are Internet savvy.”
He draws attention to Ghetto Mafia, a talented Atlanta group from the late '90s that never managed to develop a national following. But, he argues, they would have done so were they rising a decade later, with help from the Internet. “That’s the biggest part, connecting with a fan base. Find people that identify with you and support it.”
At the top, of course, Atlanta has had a banner year. Two of the genre’s biggest stars were 2 Chainz and Future, both of whom dominated airplay nationally. Waiting in the wings is Young Scooter, a street rapper and member of Future’s Free Bandz imprint. With tracks like “Colombia,” standout Zaytoven collaboration “Fake Rappers,” and a fair amount of local buzz, plus high-profile collaborations with Gucci Mane, he could end up taking big steps in the next year.
Whether Trinidad James lives up to the promise of his $2 million Def Jam deal is an open question, but whether he succeeds could tell us a lot about Atlanta's place in the coming decade.
But for now, 2 Chainz and Future have split the throne as Atlanta’s reigning ascendant stars. It’s an unusual situation; relative to past dominant Atlanta rap artists, they have small-scope personas. Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy and T.I. were, comparatively, artists that fans became invested in as characters. Future’s fan base loves his songs, but his on-record persona is more as auteur than actor, and 2 Chainz, likeable and charismatic as he is, retains a fairly single-dimensional public persona.
It seems little wonder, then, that so many people have latched onto Trinidad James. Atlanta is a town with a major industry, but a vacuum for a major star, and James has a larger-than-life charisma and timely Internet-friendly appeal. But it might be too early to call anything Trinidad’s for the taking; recall that Pill’s hype began on the back of a Motion Family video, as well.
Whether James lives up to the promise of his $2 million Def Jam deal is an open question, but whether he succeeds could tell us a lot about Atlanta's place in the coming decade. Like much of the New Atlanta movement, it’s more about shifting power structure in the hip-hop world. Going viral and rubbing shoulders with New York publications has renewed importance for some artists, and opens up a lane to many others.
What was called the Atlanta sound in the past has long been an amalgamation of talents drawn to the city’s industry. Zaytoven is from the San Francisco Bay Area, Lex Luger is from Virginia, and Drumma Boy is from Memphis. As it turns out, the producer who created Trinidad’s biggest hit is from Mississippi.
A 28-year-old husband and father of three, Devon Gallaspy works in construction and as a forklift operator in Jackson, Mississippi. In his free time, he made beats as producer M.E. for a few local artists. “Guys haven’t really gotten nowhere yet. They’re in the process of doing things, in my city, Jackson, and a couple of guys from New Orleans,” he says.
He’d produced on and off for eight years, primarily using Fruity Loops, and at one point uploaded a zip file of his beats to DatPiff after a friend recommended the site to him. He designed cover art: “It said 'Beats' and had a lot of single letters—I designed it like that just to get attention to it. So I had a model, a bikini model, and turned the picture upside-down in black and white, and just put it in there. Because, you know, somebody’s always gonna look at a woman.”
A few months later, Gallaspy was riding in the car with his wife on his way to his brother-in-law’s house when he heard a familiar song on the radio. “When I was hearing it, I was like, ‘I wonder who that is on that old song.’ Because it was familiar to me. Then I turned it up, started listening to the sound of it, I said, ‘Aw naw, this can’t be, this my beat!’” Trinidad James’ cousin had pulled the tape from DatPiff, and “All Gold Everything” was born.
The producer is happy with how it turned out: “As far as the outcome of it, the status of the song and how people are reacting, I’m more proud of him. I’m proud of him to take that beat and do what I wanted to be done with it anyway. Somebody to get on it and go hard. The song is made exactly how I made it. Quick fast, say what you’re going to say and get off of it. That’s what he did, struck hard and got off of it. Also, with his style and the way he presents himself, they respected the beat more because of that. Like, this dude is killing them with one verse, who does that?”