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Culture Wars

Migos performs at a nightclub in Las Vegas in February, following the <em>release</em> of its album <em>C U L T U R E</em>, which debuted at No. 1 on the <em>Billboard </em>album chart.
David Becker
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Migos performs at a nightclub in Las Vegas in February, following the release of its album C U L T U R E, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart.

Atlanta eats its young.

That might be a cold-blooded accusation to level at a town dripping with so much black cultural currency. But the hip-hop capital has gained more than it's ever contributed to its greatest export.

Welcome to the city too player to hate. Where a handful of Dungeon dragons gave birth to an extended Family — from Goodie Mob and OutKast to Killer Mike and Future — that permanently shifted hip-hop's center of gravity. Where the trap transformed from literal dead-end to hypothetical escape route for the discarded and forgotten. Where a generation left to its own digital devices created a content craze by teaching the world to Dab, Whip, Drop that Nae Nae, Hit Them Folks and Whoop Rico.

Like music to capitalism's ears, these are the signs of a sonic identity 20 years in the making. Meanwhile, the city continues to reinvent itself for the sake of outward appearances. Now it's the Hollywood of the South. Next it's the Silicon Valley of the South. But the one thing Atlanta has consistently been, the hip-hop pedigree that's kept its international flame perennially lit, still gets the shaft on the low.

Consider this irony: Donald Glover's celebrated FX show Atlanta, which earned record ratings and Golden Globe statues following its debut season, received Georgia film tax incentives legislated within the last decade to lure film and TV production to the Peach State. Yet the twice-as-old, homegrown music industry, on which the show's plot is centered, still runs off an ecosystem largely unsupported by state funding or investment from the city's civic and corporate communities. The resulting failure to leverage this global cultural cachet suggests too many people in high places don't fully understand, appreciate or respect the value of hip-hop as an economic growth engine. While local politicos and power brokers look outside the city for world-class inspiration, they often overlook the one thing the rest of the world looks to Atlanta for.

In the last two months alone, a steady stream of mainstream dominance has kept all eyes on the ATL: Migos popped the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with "Bad and Boujee" and the group's album, C U L T U R E, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Future became the first solo artist in history to release two albums that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in back-to-back weeks. Lil Yachty added a major Target endorsement — and the longest commercial aired during the Grammy Awards' February broadcast — to his portfolio. 21 Savage signed a deal with Epic Records, where CEO L.A. Reid continues to corral talent fresh from the southern city where he co-founded the now-defunct LaFace Records a quarter century ago. And the latest virtual unknown to continue Atlanta's streak of seemingly overnight phenoms is newcomer SahBabii, who spits melodies so tender they belie the explicit reality he represents.

His seductive street anthem "Pull Up Wit Ah Stick" — slang for a semi-automatic weapon — serves as a subtle reminder of Atlanta's national ranking as the city with the highest gap between the rich and poor. Like the rose that grew from concrete, it's the shameful little secret buried in Georgia's red clay. And the resulting divide is the basis of a culture war being waged over the city's most fetishized and stigmatized commodity.

The rise of Traplanta is the untold story of a city split in half by historic income inequality, shifting racial demographics, and an equally enigmatic identity crisis. The irony, of course, is how that inequity has helped to cultivate a trap-rap innovation economy from which Atlanta perpetually feeds.

"Young rich n*****, you know we ain't really never had no old money. We got a whole lotta new money, though." — Migos, "Bad and Boujee"

One month after Donald Glover made Migos a household name, two of the trio's members — Quavo and Takeoff — found themselves receiving another honorable distinction. A flier circulating on the web suggested the rappers were scheduled to school New York University on the subject of culture. The ratchet Dab daddies who made the dance they created so ubiquitous it earned copycats Cam Newton and Hillary Clinton equal amounts of contempt were set to take on the halls of the academy. It sounded too good to miss.

Hip-hop in 2017 is certainly no stranger to academia. This semester alone has already seen the introduction of popular new courses on Georgia college campuses covering the trap and OutKast, alike. But Migos' members didn't subject themselves to two hours of Q&A at NYU to earn the academy's praise. They did it for the C U L T U R E LP. A twist on the typical release party, the event was part of the rollout campaign, produced by New York-based music marketing firm NUE Agency, that helped them achieve their first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200.

It only took ten minutes for Migos' CULTURECLASS at NYU's Cantor Center to morph into laugh-out-loud absurdity. Curious about Migos' effortless ability to stride the line between culture and commerce, Julie Anne Quay — the stylish founder of fashion-forward social media hub VFiles — asked: "How is cash a fashion statement, and is there a duffle bag full of cash nearby right now?"

Taking it as a cue to turn up, Quavo responded in kind: "There's a pocket nearby," he said, pulling out an obscene stash of stacks like a magician retrieving a rabbit from his hat.

"Yo," a guy in third row laughed as cheers erupted from the capacity-crowd of 315 students and press, "pass some this way!"

If OutKast represents the hope of Atlantis, a destination equal parts real and phantasmic, the music fertilized by Atlanta drug traps signifies the forgotten stepchild complicating the city's purported legacy of black wealth and equal opportunity. Borne of a turn-of-the-millennium wave that shot T.I. to superstardom, trap music's original incarnation crested with the likes of Jeezy and Gucci Mane. Today the subgenre barely resembles the dope-boy struggles of its predecessors. New age flavors range from 21 Savage's morose flows to Rae Sremmurd's pop-trap anthems to the trippy psychedelia of Young Thug. The main difference: Trappers today are as likely to rap about using drugs as they are selling them. Still, trap largely reflects the other extreme within Atlanta's hip-hop binary and, by extension, solidifies the long-told tale of two cities—one prosperous, the other impoverished. Yet it's trap that has succeeded in creating an ecosystem that makes the world turn up.

Even in a city like Atlanta where black cool is a proven commodity, leveraging hip-hop's hustle has been a trying proposition. ChooseATL, the branding campaign launched by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, uses the city's hip-hop swag to market Atlanta as a premier destination for tech-savvy millennials and entrepreneurs. But the well-heeled corporate community it represents maintains an arm's-length distance from many of the culture's most marketable artists.

"People are scared of the young black creative," says Wil May, the founder of Atlanta-based lifestyle, media, and hospitality company #COOL. "That's really frightening to America's way of doing business."

An Emory University alum who once was roommates with Justin Bieber's manager Scooter Braun, May's own evolution from rapper/producer to creative entrepreneur has given him the advantage of both angles. "It's obvious that people don't want to empower hip-hop on a civic or global level because they feel like it's too dirty or too street or uplifts criminal activity," May says. "And while that may be true in a lot of places, in Atlanta black people have done a good job at making this a constructive movement as well."

Rapper 21 Savage attends a screening of <em>Noisey: Atlanta 2 </em>at The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta in January.
Paras Griffin / Getty Images
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Rapper 21 Savage attends a screening of Noisey: Atlanta 2 at The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta in January.

To understand how broad trap's fascination has traveled one need only watch the 2015 web-series Noisey: Atlanta. The 10-part doc racked up tens of millions of views and boatloads of controversy for its safari-like expose of Traplanta. Even Waka Flocka Flame took to Twitter to voice criticism: "Noisey I really feel like y'all exploitin the bad and the good in Atlanta #NotF******Kool #atall!!!!!!"

In the series, Noisey offered unprecedented access to the zones of the city that people all over the world celebrate without ever grappling with the reality. (That's true of many who call Atlanta home.) The episode featuring Migos turned the trappings of the group's success — semi-automatic weapons and Ziploc bags of weed in a suburban Stockbridge mini-mansion — into something resembling a theater of the absurd.

It wound up having real-life consequences. Footage from the Migos episode was used to deny group member Offset's bond after the trio was arrested on gun and drug charges following a performance at Georgia Southern University. In a call-in interview from jail to a local radio show, he called Noisey "the police" while insinuating the creators of the documentary tricked them into playing themselves on camera.

This January, the week after Atlanta lost Super Bowl LI, Noisey: Atlanta 2 premiered. The 44-minute episode was a follow-up to the original, and a chance to counterbalance the sensationalistic depiction. "We really wanted to go back and make amends for how people took our documentary and used it against people," Andy Capper, who produced both series, says. "We were mad about that [and] we got some criticism and flack, too."

To return they sought the approval of Migos and the trio's managers Kevin "Coach K" Lee and Pierre "Pee" Thomas. The two men behind the indie label Quality Control, home to both Migos and Lil Yachty, are the main conduits between Atlanta trap and the bi-coastal music industry. Coach K's industry influence includes formerly managing both Jeezy and Gucci Mane at different times in their careers.

"The most significant permit we got from the city was the blessing of Coach K and Pee," Capper says. This time Noisey traded the shock-and-awe imagery of guns and drugs for sincere depictions of the violence and despair that undergirds the music. A kitchen scene in which 21 Savage pulls out a collection of funeral programs and begins counting off all the friends he's tragically lost feels more climactic than anything in the first series. But Noisey also understands why trap's subversive elements are so compelling to commercial audiences.

"The music sounds so dangerous and allows them to live vicariously through [acts like] the Migos," Capper says. "The Rolling Stones and Robert Johnson would sing about the devil. It's in the tradition of all the best R&B, blues and rock and roll music. That's why it's so successful."

Noisey: Atlanta 2 host Zach Goldbaum, who does a solid job addressing the roots of the subculture without shying away from all the vice, agrees. "Since the early '90s people have been obsessed with street culture," he says. "Trap music is a brand and [Atlanta's] able to own that so exquisitely. That's why we love Atlanta so much. That independent spirit of Atlanta is what we wanted to come through in the documentary. The level of influence is crazy .... The entire coast from Miami to New York sounds like Atlanta, so we wanted to make something that really celebrates the effect the city's had on the music industry and the sound of popular music."

But you can't talk about the popularity of Traplanta without dredging up the socioeconomic mess that undergirds it. Not even Noisey's daring brand of cultural tourism delves deep enough to reckon with such systemic failures as an Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal that's left behind a whole generation of students; an income inequality gap ranked No. 1 in the nation by the Brookings Institute two years in a row (2014-2015); and an upward mobility deficit that determines metro Atlanta children have a smaller chance of moving out of poverty than those born on the bottom rungs of any other major urban region in the country, according to the Harvard University-backed Equality of Opportunity Project.

"Many of the young people who grow up in the margins of our society in a city like Atlanta are becoming extremely successful by creating something that the whole world is acclaiming," says Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall, who is among the dozen-plus candidates in the city's upcoming mayoral election. "It's a direct reflection of the inequality that we keep hearing everybody harp about in our city: the lack of equity, the lack of inclusion, the income differential that we see between those who have and those who have not."

Raised on the black and bougie side of southwest Atlanta, the local politician's late father served as one of Martin Luther King's youngest staff members. Hall's three terms on city council, representing the same Old Fourth Ward neighborhood Dr. King grew up in, have been marked by attempts to reach across broad cultural lines. Though he isn't considered a forerunner at this early stage in the race, he probably bears more genuine ties to Atlanta's hip-hop community than any other candidate. He presented the most vocal opposition on city council to a controversial local ordinance proposed last December that would have severely tightened restrictions on music recording studios in a city whose cultural lifeblood flows from them.

But Hall also acknowledges the concerns that inspired the ordinance due to the number of recording studios located in residential areas where they tend to blend in with the surrounding neighborhood. Last March, popular local rapper Bankroll Fresh died violently during a shootout outside of northwest Atlanta's Street Execs Studio — the same recording home of Billboard chart-topper 2 Chainz. The ordinance would have banned studios within 500 feet of residential areas. "This is an environment that is constantly evolving," Hall says. "It has an impact on the expectations of quality of life that new residents, and sometimes longtime residents, feel they deserve because they've invested as well."

Hall believes the solution lies in fostering ties that reach beyond the typical distinctions of race and class. "There's an opportunity for a cultural connection," he says, "but right now we have some[thing] of a disconnect."

Yet the Street Execs shooting also represents an outgrowth of the same failed socioeconomic policies that have turned trap into a more viable career path out of the hood. For those whose realities contradict Atlanta's black mecca mythology, rap is often seen as a way out of no way.

It's no coincidence, then, that the most neglected and historically deprived parts of town have produced the city's most treasured assets. "We're creating a culture that's going all around the world," Hall says. "So consequently, we have influence. How we leverage that influence could mean economic opportunity or it could mean strife and civil war. It's that powerful."

Lakeith Stanfield (left), Donald Glover (center) and Brian Tyree Henry in a still from Glover's series <em>Atlanta</em>, which depicts the life of a trap rapper and his cousin, an Ivy League dropout.
Guy D'Alema / FX
Lakeith Stanfield (left), Donald Glover (center) and Brian Tyree Henry in a still from Glover's series Atlanta, which depicts the life of a trap rapper and his cousin, an Ivy League dropout.

A quarter-century after Atlanta began its emergence as a music powerhouse, local and peach state politicians are finally arriving late to the party. After decades spent reaping the economic impact of Atlanta rap's local boosterism, there's a concerted push to invest in Georgia's music industry, which generates $3.7 billion annually — largely driven by Atlanta's hip-hop bona fides. New legislation introduced under the gold dome in Atlanta in January could offer a 20-25 percent tax credit to projects recorded or scored in-state that meet a $70,000 threshold. If passed, the Georgia Music Investment Act will put music production on par with the state tax credit offered for the last decade to film and TV productions like Donald Glover's Atlanta.

When the plans for Glover's show initially began to circulate, the city responded with a collective side eye. Residents questioned whether he was authentic enough, black enough, Atlanta enough to do the city justice. By the time the premiere rolled around last September, it drew the largest 18-49 demo audience of a basic cable or primetime scripted comedy series in the last three years. The season would go on to disprove all the doubts surrounding its star and creator. By shaping the plot of Atlanta around an average trapper-turned-rapper and his exceptional Ivy League dropout cousin-turned-manager, Glover accomplished something equally profound by humanizing the trap.

"Donald Glover's doing a tremendous service by being honest about certain parts of Atlanta," Andrew Aydin, an Atlanta native and congressional staffer for Congressman John Lewis tells me. But Atlanta alone is not at fault for its failure to embrace its hip-hop identity. As a blue city surrounded by purple 'burbs in a blood red state, racial politics throughout the region have long kept the black mecca from attaining its vision. The decades-late push for a music tax credit is coming at the same time that MARTA, the city's rapid transit system, is on the cusp of a partial expansion denied it for more than 40 years. Atlanta's legacy of racialized transportation policies is symptomatic of a larger disease.

"How many statewide politicians have won elections by running against Atlanta?" Aydin asks. "And yet, those same campaigns are financed by some of the same corporations that exist in Atlanta." The music tax credit will require statewide politicians to buy into a predominantly black music industry, just as MARTA's economic stability and growth has always been dependent on white suburbanites and state regulators opposed to supporting mass transit purportedly used for Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta. Even the bigoted old nickname coined for MARTA still speaks volumes.

"When your state government is telling the rest of the state that Atlanta is the problem not the answer, it breeds that strife. It breeds that conflict," Aydin continues. "And eventually I think everybody, the state and city folks, are going to have to realize you have to embrace Atlanta — you have to embrace the weird; you have to embrace the different — because that's our best product. That's our best potential for future growth."

Nayvadius Wilburn is the present embodiment of that future. Quite literally. The rapper Future got his stage name from his older cousin Rico Wade, co-founder of the legendary Dungeon Family and Organized Noize. As the story goes, Wade would tell his younger cousin, then an aspiring emcee known as Meathead, that he was indeed the future, the one to carry on the Dungeon Family legacy and, in turn, Atlanta hip-hop.

The same year Future launched the first in a trio of career-defining mixtapes (Monster, Beast Mode, 56 Nights) that set him up for his first No. 1 album, DS2, Phil W. Hudson began covering music, sports and finance at the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Hudson quickly recognized the huge chasm that existed between the city's hip-hop culture and its business community.

While hanging out with one of his finance sources, who worked for a multinational accounting firm that was soliciting a new pro athlete as a client, Hudson asked him, "'Do you guys have any rappers on your roster?'" The answer surprised him. "I asked why the hell not," Hudson says. "And he said, 'We just never really thought about that.' I said, 'Well that's ridiculous because I'm sure Jermaine Dupri, at the height of his career, was worth more money than some of these major executives in town.'"

The more Hudson interviewed Atlanta-based hip-hop talent and executives, the clearer the issue became: Black music's worldwide marketing power was being slept on by some of Atlanta's biggest global brands.

"One of the best points that was ever made about the disconnect in Atlanta came from Jermaine Dupri," Hudson says. "He told me he was really shocked that Usher was signed with Pepsi. He was like, 'How can Coca-Cola, the world's biggest behemoth in the soft drink industry, let their fierce rival come into their own backyard and take what is potentially one of our biggest music brands in Usher?"

The missed opportunity is even clearer in rap, where artists derive their clout from bragging about lifestyle and luxury brands in songs and videos that often double as major commercial endorsements. It's a simple equation, according to Hudson: "Rappers make things cool. What's cool becomes pop culture. What becomes pop culture sells."

Of course, there are exceptions to this alienation.

Lil Yachty may not have gotten any stage time at the Grammys this year, despite his first-time nomination, but he still managed to bumrush the show. The Atlanta bubblegum trap act starred alongside pop star Carly Rae Jepsen in an epic Target commercial, the longest of the night at three minutes. Atlanta superproducer Mike Will Made-It was also featured.

With his red-beaded braids and a drug-free persona as playful as his music, Yachty's become a brand unto himself. His endorsements include Nautica, the apparel brand he's reviving as its newly-named creative designer, and hometown beverage Sprite. Coke's cooler decaffeinated cousin has actually enjoyed a long relationship with hip-hop. It dates as far back as 1986, when Kurtis Blow appeared in an early commercial rapping the tagline "Now More Than Ever It's Sprite." Along with a host of East Coast legends, other Sprite endorsers over the years have included such foundational Atlanta acts as Kris Kross and Goodie Mob. But most of Atlanta's genre-defining artists over the past couple of decades have remained noticeably absent from the soft drink's hip-hop-themed campaigns.

Trap rap, in particular, has its own cross to bear. When Future released DS2, the name was abbreviated from Dirty Sprite 2 for obvious legal reasons. There's no way Coca-Cola would've given Epic Records permission to associate its brand with the promethazine-syrup laced "Dirty Sprite" that Future references in his signature codeine flows. Sex, drugs and rock and roll may be as American as cherry pie, but hip-hop has always faced greater persecution over its illicit content than whiter music genres.

"It's definitely a complex scenario," Hudson says. "There's racial elements, there's business elements, there's marketing elements."

But there's also "a lot of missed opportunity," he acknowledges, recalling the widespread response he got while traveling abroad to China. "When I'd say I'm from Atlanta, it wasn't Coca-Cola that the Chinese knew us by. It was the Olympics and OutKast. We have this incredible brand, so how can we capitalize on this?

That's partly the job of Christopher Hicks, a former music industry exec who wants to help connect the dots as the new director of the Mayor's Office of Film and Entertainment. "We have a plethora of large brands here [that] exist in the city and have not necessarily leveraged the musical stakeholders in the city, so I want to create relationships there," he told Billboard last March.

But Hicks' position in an office originally created to exploit opportunities within the nascent film industry speaks directly to the disconnect. "The music industry was really put off at how hard the state worked to recruit film, an industry from out of state that really doesn't have any loyalty to Georgia other than our tax incentive," Hudson says. "So why do we have this homegrown industry that we're not helping? L.A. Reid doesn't live in Atlanta anymore. He should. And if we catered to our music industry better and incentivized it more we might be able to get more record labels to come here and stay here and leave their offices here. It creates jobs and brings revenue to the state. It's the whole economic impact. I feel like we're missing out on a lot by not embracing it."

The onus is on the city of Atlanta to figure out how to harness hip-hop's hustle. Because the culture doesn't need Atlanta to succeed; Atlanta needs the culture. The question is whether an independent ecosystem that has turned Atlanta's underserved music community into a global beacon would be helped or hampered by the city's interference?

Kwanza Hall wants to find ways to create infrastructure around what has essentially been a cottage industry. "I want to industrialize it and formalize it," says Hall, who considers the city's wealth of home recording studios greater innovation zones than Georgia Tech, the only university to make Fast Company's recent list of the World's Most Innovative Companies. "People are working with far less and making a whole lot more out of nothing. They're taking thin air and turning it into something that is of value in this society," Hall says.

But true investment in the culture has to dive much deeper than industry infrastructure, according to one of the most devout advocates of Atlanta's creative economy, Bem Joiner. "The lack of affordable housing, gentrification, piss-poor public schools, those are key cogs in the wheel," he says. "That's like the secret sauce to how the culture is made."

Secret sauce, indeed. Meanwhile, Atlanta's next ingenious reincarnation could ironically mimic the birthplace of hip-hop. A new proposal to loosen downtown signage restrictions could result in a district full of bright, oversized LED-display ads — just like Times Square. Hudson, for one, thinks ATL should seek inspiration a tad closer to home. "Nashville did such a good job embracing country music that it turned Nashville into Music City," he says. "Well, Nashville didn't really invent country music, it came there. We didn't really invent hip-hop, it kinda came here. They created this culture around country and it's put the city on the international music map. Atlanta needs to do that with hip-hop."

Sounds like a bright idea. But what would it look like if Atlanta and the state of Georgia were to truly leverage its biggest cultural export and invest in its success? Might we see an Atlanta Hip-Hop Hall of Fame located on Peachtree Street? Or maybe a Music Row district could set up shop in south Downtown for hundreds of hip-hop related businesses — major and independent labels, recording studios and publishing houses, consumer tech startups and media outlets — to flourish within an economic incubator driven by the culture? Perhaps a Grand Ole Opry-style performance hall for rap would serve as a major tourist attraction and cultural nexus for the economically-deprived creatives and the city's wealthy elite to meet?

Not even in the last black mecca is that a likely scenario. Outsiders may have zero qualms with embracing the culture. But closer to home, Traplanta is saddled with too much of the same racial baggage and class exclusion that criminalizes the music in the eyes and ears of many in power. The same pols who disgrace their districts by failing to advocate for economic equity find themselves more offended by crass lyrical content than the crass conditions that inspire it. Meanwhile, systemic ills continue to fester at will. It's enough to make you wonder who the real trappers are in this town.

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Rodney Carmichael
Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.