Last night in New York, Trinidad James was performing at the corporate-sponsored launch of some kind of sneaker when he went in on how Atlanta runs New York.
"I remember when New York ran this shit, dawg. When Dipset was turned the fuck up! We were in Atlanta like 'Oh my God, I have to wear my bandana on tilt like Juelz [Santana]. What the fuck happened, dawg? Us in the South, us 'bammas, we just did our own thing. But now we run y'all musically. That's crazy."
"I'm not trying to start nothing, but if you want to do something we can do something because I don't give a fuck. I'm just being honest with you. I looked up to New York music. But now every nigga that's really popping out of New York, you might as well say he's from Atlanta. He's from Atlanta. Y'all got more people that's interviewing people that are more popping than rappers. Y'all got better interviewers."
(He went on to compare Elliott Wilson to Prince. Which I'm not going to pretend to understand, but it sounded like a compliment.)
In response to this perceived disrespect—and perhaps the most disengenuous "I'm not trying to start nothing" in recent history—Twitter convulsed in a mix of righteous anger and an unsurprising amount of agreement. Fact is, literally ten minutes before writing this sentence, I stepped outside for a coffee in New York and heard Future's "Turn On the Lights" emanating from a passing car. Atlanta certainly has made its impact in New York. (Although as a former Chicagoan, I can also say that Atlanta's impact on New York is slighter than it's been in other parts of the country.)
New York's hip-hop listenership seems more fractured than ever. But so does Atlanta's.
This isn't news. People have been talking about New York's move to the margins in hip-hop for some time. Atlanta makes hits, because they have the infrastructure to do it: from its famous strip clubs (which serve as the proving grounds for the city's most successful hip-hop stars, whether up-and-comers like the Migos, or established acts like 2 Chainz) to the Coalition DJs, who decide what music gets played in them, the city has built a machine that extracts the songs likely to catch on in America more broadly and parlays them to radio. New York, meanwhile, is evolving into one of the country's wealthiest cities, and for all the lip service the hip-hop press will pay to still-existing hoods within its borders, the coverage of scenes in those places is minimal. The journalists that Trinidad James is referring to are, yes, more likely to discover music on the internet.
Mirroring the increasing disparity in wealth, New York's hip-hop listenership—between hipsters seeking "progress," partygoers seeking clubs hits, heads seeking some kind of abstract Spirit Of New York Hip-Hop—seems more fractured than ever. But so does Atlanta's.
Atlanta has always been known for its trendsetting dances and pop chart-chasing pop-friendly rappers, as much as it was the legacy of the Dungeon Family.
But lately, Atlanta's success has seemed particularly one-dimensional, at least by the account of Atlanta writer (and occasional Complex contributor) Maurice Garland in an essay on the rise of Atlanta's art scene. "Atlanta’s music scene has become an assembly line," he argues, "For what winds up being disposable music." Personally and respectfully, I don't really agree with the notion of "disposable music"—there's music you like, and music you don't—but his perception of decreasing excitement around Atlanta's hip-hop, and his sense that it's becoming a more one-dimensional space, relative to its history—doesn't feel too far off. The scene hasn't produced many new young A-list stars on the level of a T.I., Jeezy, or Gucci in a good while.
Around this time last year, Trinidad James was becoming one of the most talked-about stories in hip-hop. I wrote a piece then on a phenomenon that had been labeled #NewAtlanta. #NewAtlanta was an attempt to brand and reinvent Atlanta's sound as something outside the strip clubs and the DJ-friendly radio hits. Atlanta's underground scenes tend to emerge from certain venues—Trinidad James, for example, came out of a scene centered around the Drunken Unicorn/MJQ. But Atlanta was missing something else. "Publications aren't strong in Georgia," the local rapper Go Dreamer told me. Trinidad James' success was an opportunity to crack open the door.
The only artist to really make a dent in Trinidad's wake has been T.I.G. labelmate Rich Homie Quan, whose hit "Type Of Way" was released on Def Jam. Of course, that single did take the strip-club-and-radio path #NewAtlanta was hoping to bypass. Although Trinidad has had some chart success this year after jumping on fellow Def Jam artist August Alsina's "I Luv This Shit," the wall between more alternative, outside-the-mainstream rappers and wider success is still a tall one. (Spree Wilson, covered in the #NewAtlanta piece and an early blog-endorsed rapper before that, seems to have finally found commercial success—if not creative—on Afrojack's EDM track "The Spark.")
Some have argued that we're now in a "post-regional" era. But regionalism still matters. It just fractures along different lines than the production styles of a metro area.
Some have argued that we're now in a "post-regional" era. But regionalism still matters. It just fractures along different lines than the production styles of a metro area. In California, Los Angeles and the Bay are "Not as separated as it used to be. Not just in sound, but as far as what the audience listens to." But Cali's DJ Mustard/IamSu axis still spins in a different direction than Atlanta's trap diaspora. Likewise, a variety of localized scenes have emerged at various times throughout the country, reinventing the regional. The Bay Area's post-Hyphy sound of artists like the Mob Figaz showed the influence of millennial New York. Chicago emerged in 2011 with an approach that mutated Atlanta's late-'00s sound through a filter of its own slang and culture (and continues to do so).
In those cases, regionalism is about closed, extremely local systems that engender such creativity, as its been going back to the days of Queensbridge or even, yeah, those Bronx parties where the entire artform started. Unique circumstances engender this kind of creativity. In the old days, though, it took a lot longer for a popular rap artist to be nationally known. The internet has made the kind of regional team spirit Trinidad is pushing feel a little outdated. Once the initial creative spark is lit by a localized scene, it spreads more quickly, along lines defined by different variables, shaped by different power structures.
Just one example: the kind of corporate power that caused Rick Ross to (temporarily?) lose his Reebok gig. Writer Jessica Hopper recently wrote a piece about how "Selling Out Saved Indie Rock" for Buzzfeed. The in-depth piece gives a look at the new way stars are made, and that success is through music for commercials. Corporate sponsorship has replaced music labels as the primary source of funding for a variety of artists. Many times, the right ad placement can help an artist cross over completely, and does more for them than an MTV placement. The article concludes with a quote from Gabe McDonough, vice president of music at ad agency Leo Burnett. "These big companies," he says, "are the last people paying musicians what they are worth.”
Local scenes have always been hip-hop's creative engine, and no matter what an internet Utopian might say, the music's innovators seem more likely to come from scenes that have a real social space in which to develop. The internet just exposes us to these artists faster. What's really likely to shape a rapper at this point—whether from Atlanta or New York or California—is who can pay to keep them recording.
After all, Trinidad James might not have even been in New York if not for that sneaker company.