In the 1990s, the city of Atlanta experienced two transformative events: the 1996 Summer Olympics and the emergence of the southern hip-hop movement. While the city was erecting venues in preparation for the Centennial Olympic Games, now-famous rap group Outkast was splicing beats and recording its iconic album “ATLiens.” Fast-forward 20 years, and the Atlanta hip-hop movement has burgeoned: established Atlanta rappers such as T.I. and Ludacris laid the foundations for Atlanta hip-hop, and up-and-coming artists such as Future and Lil Yachty have helped earn Atlanta the reputation as the “center of gravity for hip-hop.” However, journalists and even rappers observing the Atlanta hip-hop movement have argued that Atlanta does not adequately highlight this music movement in the city’s history books. Additionally, hip-hop producers find it difficult to establish commercial deals between their contracted artists and the surrounding business community. Though rappers such as B.O.B corroborate these grievances, Atlanta native and rapper CeeLo Green shared in an exclusive GPR interview that he views the situation in Atlanta differently.
Traveling back to examine the history of the Atlanta hip-hop movement is an important step towards understanding the impact of this movement on the city’s cultural identity. As Green notes, Atlanta was not the founding city for southern hip-hop, but rather “an extension of the Miami-based Skating Rink Movement. It was based on the skating rink, which was the culture for Atlanta,” said Green. Though, roller-skating was not the only influence for these artists, according to Green.
Along with soul, funk, and even rock influences, this nascent southern hip-hop movement from the early 1990s had political roots: “We thought we were fighting a political fight as well. We were young and eager and impressionable, not to mention the aspect of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. We felt like we were activists, which was the tone of what we had to say commentary wise,” said Green.
Entering the 2000s, Atlanta had an established identity as a beacon for not only southern hip-hop, but also as a new regional hip-hop style rivaling the East Coast-West Coast movements. Some of the biggest rappers of the 21st century have hailed from the city. With such palpable influences on American hip-hop, some argue that Atlanta fails to embrace this identity as a pioneer of the southern rap movement. A common argument undergirding this claim is the fact that Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport lacks any artwork or display of the Atlanta hip-hop movement. A student interviewed by the Atlanta Business Chronicle contended that the lack of any mention of Atlanta hip-hop in the city’s airport was “arresting.” Despite these claims of a lack of representation for Atlanta’s hip-hop movement in Hartsfield-Jackson, Green had a starkly divergent experience when he strolled into the world’s busiest airport.
“One of my songs was an adopted and celebrated song in Atlanta. My song ‘Bright Lights, Bigger City’ was played all throughout Hartsfield Airport. It was almost like it was on cue for when I came in the airport. I also don’t feel slighted when I’m going through the airport and don’t see a big picture of Goodie Mob, I don’t think like that because I am confident with what we contributed both to the city and to the world at large,” said Green. Evidently, Green didn’t need a poster on the wall to appreciate his influence on the southern rap movement in Atlanta.
From Green’s personal experiences, Atlanta should be given more credit for its embracement of the hip-hop movement. Notwithstanding Atlanta’s airport, mentions of southern hip-hop in the city range from pop-up street artwork across the city to exhibitions and events at the flagship art museum in Atlanta, the High Museum of Art. Additionally, a brand new “moving art exhibit” has opened its doors free of charge to all Atlantans, fusing dance, art, and hip-hop in an energetic bohemian spectacle.
“I am confident with what we contributed both to the city and to the world at large.” – CeeLo Green
Though Atlanta might be lacking representations of hip-hop culture in its airport terminals, Hartsfield-Jackson is not an accurate microcosm for Atlanta’s attitude towards hip-hop. At JFK Airport in New York City, there are no noticeable hip-hop murals or pictures. LAX doesn’t have any hip-hop-related exhibitions either. And these airports are located in arguably the two most influential hip-hop cities in the United States. Besides airports, in New York City there are hip-hop tours as well as the National Museum of Hip-Hop located in the Bronx. Los Angeles offers tours of Easy-E and Dr. Dre’s childhood neighborhoods. Atlanta has guided tours of the city’s biggest recording studios. Broader examinations of these cities’ evident embrace of hip-hop through various cultural avenues tell a different story than simply measuring the amount of hip-hop artwork inside each city’s airport. Simply put, why should the presence of hip-hop-inspired artwork in an airport be a gauge for how much a city embraces hip-hop culture?
Another criticism heralded is that Atlanta’s business community distances themselves from the hip-hop culture in Atlanta. Brian Knott, founder of the Atlanta-based hip-hop conference and festival A3C, found it astonishing that Atlanta-based companies such as Coca Cola and Delta had no partnerships or advertisement deals with any Atlanta-based hip-hop artists. Similarly, founder of So So Def Recordings Jermaine Dupri exclaimed that Usher, an illustrious Atlanta rap artist, was featured in a Pepsi commercial — the irony of an Atlanta rapper working with the rival of one of Atlanta’s largest companies is immediate. B.O.B, a hip-hop artist from Atlanta, also vocalized this disconnection between Atlanta’s business community and the hip-hop industry.
Some argue that businesses distance themselves from hip-hop music due to reputation concerns with associating with a music genre that may contain expletives and obscene verses. Firstly, the notion that hip-hop promotes violent behavior and obscene expressions is a myopic outlook on hip-hop music as a whole. Though listening to mainstream hip-hop may support these criticisms, it is not an accurate characterization of the entire genre. Take Atlanta-based rapper Killer Mike for example, who opened up a barbershop near Hartsfield-Jackson that partakes in community outreach and youth mentorship programs. Additionally, a 2016 Sprite advertising campaign chose hip-hop artists for their ads who were role models and embodied honest values in their lyricism. If inappropriate lyrics are the sole concern, Atlanta businesses should make commercial connections with hip-hop artists that promote respectable values, as there are many Atlanta-based artists, such as Killer Mike, to choose from.
In contrast to B.O.B.’s statements, Green did not have similar experiences with Atlanta businesses shunning hip-hop, relating that, “As always with business, it’s about brand association, and everything that’s hip-hop music is not always good for association. So I guess I don’t have that issue.” Also, counter to the claims by Knott and Dupri, Coca Cola has recently staged a massive advertisement campaign for its popular beverage Sprite focusing on the history and influence of hip-hop. The campaign features lyrical excerpts from hip-hop artists such as Rakim and J. Cole that are printed on the cans of the citrus-flavored soda. Moreover, Atlanta-based rapper Lil Yachty was the star of a recent nationally aired Sprite commercial. Though these are just a few examples of Atlanta-based companies pairing with the hip-hop culture of the city, it’s clear that Atlanta’s business community is not wholly indifferent towards their city’s identity as a hip-hop hub.
Hip-hop music is an evident piece of Atlanta’s history and cultural identity. As the city reflects on its past, it should pay homage to its influence on the birth and cultivation of southern hip-hop. Though some characterize Atlanta as slow to celebrate its identity as the hip-hop mecca, Green’s experience with the city is markedly different. And as a pioneering hip-hop artist with visible influence on the formation of southern hip-hop, Green’s opinion carries weight in the debate over the genre’s place in Atlanta’s identity.
Wander into Apache Café, a niche venue behind the Varsity on North Avenue, and you will find ebullient hip-hop shows and soulful funk-influenced poetry and free verse performances. Or catch an art exhibit at the High Museum of Art with artwork by Fahamu Pecou, an inspiring hip-hop and soul influenced Atlanta-based artist. Check out the moving art exhibit at the Atlanta Performing Arts Center, featuring an amalgam of hip-hop, artwork, and dance. There are also tours of recording studios across the city. Simply put, look deeper into the avenues and nooks around Atlanta, and you might find that hip-hop is not only largely embraced by and represented in the city, but also very much alive and well.