Music Issue - Chasing the cool
Hipster-hop makes a move for the mainstream
"Don't be so cool," show host Wil May urges the crowd from the stage at Compound. It's a Thursday night in early April, and the "This is the A" showcase is a coming-out party of sorts for a new hip-hop scene that's been bubbling beneath Atlanta's surface for the past year. "You already know you're cool," he says. "Don't try to be cool and shit."
Perhaps May had hoped for the same kind of electric vibe from the crowd that provoked him to proclaim "We on some black hipster shit in here!" two months prior at the Drunken Unicorn. Something of an identity crisis erupted after his statement, as some on the inside grappled with such a label and argued via blog about whether or not it fit them.
To be or not to be a black hipster? Ian Ford, for one, answered with a resounding hell no. "If anything, we should make a subtitle for 'white hipsters' because black people are the original 'cool kids,'" the youth marketing consultant and party promoter commented on CLCribNotes.com in February. Hate it or love it, cool black twentysomethings across the country are getting tagged as blipsters or black hipsters – from the Chicago duo Cool Kids to California's Pacific Division.
Despite their wide-ranging talents, many of the usual suspects scheduled to perform at "This is the A" have been lumped together, including newlywed supergroup Hollyweerd; "Fourth Ward slum lord" Gripplyaz; hip-hop's jazz ambassadors Jaspects; lollipop-hop princess Muffy; and vets of the scene, Proton.
But there are a few newcomers peppered in among the freaks, geeks and self-proclaimed weirdos, too. Record execs from major labels including Interscope, Def Jam, Universal Republic, Warner Bros. and Jive are stopping by to see what all the hype is about – to see if the same city that produced OutKast and the Dungeon Family, Lil Jon and his band of crunk disciples, D4L, and the Bankhead snap craze could pull yet another phat rabbit out of its black hat.
Atlanta's latest hip-hop incarnation has popped up so fast that it feels as though it was conjured out of thin air. The magicians at work are a handful of movers and shakers who figured out how to brand one of Atlanta's most off-brand pools of talent. As their parties evolved into performances, party promoters turned into talent managers. Suddenly, the stepchildren of the city's mainstream could step up in the world.
It's the closest most have come to a renaissance since Harlem, but there are also plenty who are concerned. Before the scene has a chance to come of age, some have already begun preaching its eulogy.
"I really do feel like we're gonna play ourselves out," says Fadia Kader, who's kept her frustrations to herself since returning to Atlanta after a short stint in New York. Lately, however, the unofficial mommy of the scene and Proton's manager has felt torn between the platform she helped create and the direction she sees it moving. "It's just a matter of who's smart enough to create distance but not cut the umbilical cord."
In March, 26-year-old Kader threw her last Broke & Boujee affair at the Royal. It marked the end of the monthly shindig's yearlong run, which had become an outlet for alternative-minded folk with mainstream aspirations.
"The whole basis of this party was to connect the dots between certain people and to build, like, a fuckin' army," she says. Kader put her own twist on the Sloppy Seconds theme, and utilized Ford's branding expertise as a party promoter and former Sloppy kid to get her monthly Everybody's a Celebrity party off the ground. Soon after, she launched ComeUpKids.com and began managing Proton. "Broke & Boujee started as one thing and then when I started to manage Proton and both of us got on the same page, I was like, 'I kinda see this little movement. I kinda see how I can manipulate this little party to kinda set a platform for everybody.'"
Even rapper Dreamer credits Broke & Boujee for opening up a new lane for him. It eventually led him to the other members of Hollyweerd. "I started dibbling and dabbling in her parties and I realized, 'Oh, this is where my music belongs.'"
The Hollyweerd song "Be Different" could serve as the movement's manifesto. It features SideStreet KED on the hook, rapping, "I know you're tired of that same ol' same ol' same ol' thang on the regular/think different, be different, sleep different, dream different."
Some call it hipster-hop. At least that's the name MC/street marketer Kid Kaos and his crew gave it. "It started as a joke," says Kaos, who respects the hustle, but questions the authenticity. "Cats are trying so hard to be different that they're doing the same thing everybody else is doing."
As desperate as it might sound, that's exactly the kind of trend a limp music industry likes. So it's no surprise that Kevin "Coach K" Lee, manager for Hollyweerd and Muffy, was able to attract so much prospective label interest to Compound.
"Me being a part of this movement in Atlanta, I wanted to introduce this underground scene to the industry," says Coach K, who formerly managed Young Jeezy and currently manages Atlanta rapper Rocko, who released his debut, Self Made, on Island Def Jam in March.
Though Hollyweerd formed barely six months ago, he says labels are already showing strong interest. "I've seen things move fast," Coach K says, "but it's moving really fast."
Too fast, some say. In the rush to build buzz, lackluster performances from newcomers such as Hollyweerd and Muffy have become the standard rather than the exception. Even scene supporters are feeling ambivalent. Dominick Brady, a former underground hip-hop promoter in the city, blogs about the scene under the name Firebrand. Some of his blogs and comment threads on other websites such as okayplayer.com have stirred up a lot of national interest in Atlanta's off-the-radar rap. After initially praising the scene during a phone interview, he called back several days later to offer a bit of tough love.
"I'm really disappointed with live performances in this city. I think a lot of people make really good studio work but there's probably a handful of acts that translate what they're doing to the stage," he said. "I don't wanna just be a cheerleader, because the scene's not going to get better if people don't say it."
Criticism duly noted, the city's so-called hipster movement is a refreshing change from the stale, snap-trap smog Atlanta has choked the charts with in recent years. Even a rapper as talented (and tormented) as T.I. sounds tired after the umpteenth tale of drugs, guns and ghetto glory.
But the scene's long-term survival depends on each artist's ability to transcend the trend. As Kader puts it, "There's a difference between having a moment and having an actual movement."