The year in music 2001

Local color far outside of September’s shadow

No doubt it’s a blessing that Atlanta emerged unscathed, at least physically, by Sept. 11 and its aftermath. No murdered innocents, no collapsed buildings, no anthrax letters to CNN, not even any reports of “credible evidence” that an attack might occur. That’s a good thing, of course. But at my most perverse moments, I sensed that Atlanta took this as a slight — just another sign of how provincial, how un-international, the city really was.

How appropriate that the biggest homegrown post-attack ruckus came when some goofball busted through Hartsfield security in order to make a plane bound for — what else — a weekend college-football getaway in Mississippi? Sure, resigning ourselves to being a regional, rather than international, capital is a tough pill to swallow. Maybe not so much where it comes to being overlooked by terrorists, but more so in other areas where the evidence mounted highest this year — say, our stature as having a vibrant fine-arts community.

But on the bright side, regionalism suited us just fine when it came to popular music. In fact, the year’s best local albums made excellent arguments for Atlanta (and Athens) musicians as ambassadors of Southern art. At their best, these records suggest the way to become an international city is not by emulating bigger cities, but by developing regional style to where it becomes a mark of international distinction.

As a cultural declaration, the Drive-By Truckers’ two-CD concept album Southern Rock Opera was most notable. On it, the Athens (by way of northwest Alabama) quintet explores the mythology surrounding Southern rock’s greatest band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, as well as the identity politics of being a Southerner (specifically, an Alabamian). While the narrative isn’t nearly fleshed-out enough to warrant the “rock opera” tag, the record’s aesthetic achievement is impressive. Never having fit the classic definition of Southern rock before, the Truckers consciously adopt Skynyrd’s musical vernacular — not only to enhance the story’s visceral impact, but also as a way of coming to terms with Skynyrd’s complex place in recent Southern culture.

But the sound-world Southern Rock Opera inhabits is, in part, an illusion (or an allusion), because the record is much more: a tableau for some impressive storytelling, a social history for a generation of white Southerners and a relatively sophisticated political statement of Dixie young progressivism. And yeah, it fuckin’ rocks.

In that context, the other most significant local recording of 2001, the Dungeon Family’s Even in Darkness, seems like a disappointment. It’s the realization of the Southwest Atlanta hip-hop crew’s long-dreamed-of collective statement — merging Sleepy Brown’s funk-melodic flair, Ray Murray’s skewed compositional sense, OutKast’s post-hip-hop visions, Goodie Mob’s motley soul food, Big Rube’s poetic intelligence, and the street verse of Cool Breeze and the rest.

That Even in Darkness isn’t quite as brilliant as perhaps it should be doesn’t mean it isn’t pretty terrific. And with occasional glimpses of greatness beyond the sum of its parts — the open-door party vibes of “Trans DF Express,” the classic posse romp of “6 Minutes,” the rousing street gospel of “Excalibur” — the Dungeon Family realizes its full significance: as a true ghetto family, an idealized brotherhood (or knighthood, as they imagine) representing the extended networks of relations and folks-close-enough-to-be-kin that forms the fabric of Southern black life specifically, and traditional communities in general.

And in case that description conjures either barefoot-on-backroads cliches or more current rap stereotypes, check again. The Dungeon Family is on some futuristic shit — mostly intelligent, positive and progressive. And, whether they fully succeed, they at least come willing to try and turn the swords of Atlanta’s civil rights generation into the ploughshares of prosperity and artistic expression that is its legacy.

Which brings us to Bubba Sparxxx, the LaGrange-born rapper whose out-of-nowhere success this year might just present the worst-case scenario for “I Have a Dream’s” realization. White and rural like fellow Athens residents the Drive-By Truckers — but an acolyte of the Dungeon Family (whose Organized Noize team produces two tracks on his debut) — Sparxxx broaches the possible downside of cultural miscegenation on his unironically titled Dark Days, Bright Nights.

Driven most prominently by the kinetic tracks of Bubba’s Virginia-based label-head, Timbaland, the record is strong enough to occasionally overcome the former high-school football star’s workmanlike raps (yielding, for instance, the fun hit “Ugly”). But isn’t it disturbing to think hip-hop’s universality is such that thick-necked jocks, who might otherwise be kicking Smash Mouth and Hootie, are not only listening to this stuff, but are actually making it?

Still, if there’s anything Bubba Sparxxx deserves credit for, it’s setting the record straight on Athens, Ga. Because, Michael Stipe aside, the town has always been less a mecca for college rock than a haven for frat-boy types whose chief concern is pigskin. Just ask the security folks at Hartsfield.??