40 years of Atlanta music

A-Town as the new Motown, or, how CL realized the South’s got something to say

40 Years of Atlanta Music
Photo credit: Illustration by Sanithna Phansavanh

I moved to Atlanta and became Creative Loafing’s music editor in October of 1998, the same month that OutKast released its groundbreaking third album, Aquemini. It was good timing. I didn’t know it at the time, but Aquemini was like the fulfillment of a prophecy. You see, OutKast had won Best New Artist at the 1995 Source Awards for its debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and been booed to the stage by a New York crowd that saw the South as a hip-hop wasteland of booty-shake music. Dre (that’s a pre-numerical Andre 3000) took the mic for his acceptance speech and, after stumbling for words, simply blurted, “The South got something to say, and that’s all I got to say.”

Sure enough, three years later Aquemini did have some very relevant things to say about hip-hop, where it was heading, and who would be leading the way. The album marked OutKast’s arrival as powerful hip-hop visionaries tall enough to hit the pop charts and the moon while keeping grounded in the dirty red clay of home.

Looking back, it was for me a pretty great case of just being in the right place at the right time. It’s not every enterprising music journalist, after all, who happens to land at ground zero of a fundamental shift in the landscape of American popular music. That is, Atlanta’s emergence as the motor city of Southern hip-hop’s national takeover and, more broadly, the city’s establishment as the new Motown, the capital of urban music.

Of course, the road to black mecca did not start with Aquemini, nor with Andre’s pronouncement. Atlanta was, after all, the place where, back in October 1949, the nation’s first black-owned and -operated radio station, WERD, took to the air. The first voice broadcast was Jack “the Rapper” Gibson, whose opening call was echoed in Andre’s five decades later: “We are here!”

That’s why, in 1977, when Gibson started his Jack the Rapper black radio convention, it made sense to base it in Atlanta. For two decades, the convention brought together key figures in urban music — radio programmers, record execs, artists, aspirants — unlike any other event. At the same time, Atlanta was establishing itself as the capital of the New South and — thanks in part to a reverse migration that has brought blacks back down South in recent decades — home to the largest mass of prosperous, educated, and creative African-Americans in the region (perhaps the country). All this came together in the mid-’90s to create the kind of music industry infrastructure that still largely exists today.

From my own vantage point, Atlanta’s blossoming as the center of urban music also had a profound impact on Creative Loafing itself. From its start in the ’70s, CL has been intimately entwined with local music. Its writers were among the scenesters and musicians that made up the area’s rock music scene. But, it seems, to whatever extent CL was (and is) progressive and alternative, it had always been possible to be progressive and alternative without actually embracing diversity; i.e., engaging with the black community. This was not CL’s oversight only; alternative weeklies across the country long catered to the tastes of the white hipsters that were their most dedicated readers.

By late 1998, when Aquemini (and I) appeared in the picture, we were already six years past the emergence of LaFace and TLC, Jermaine Dupri and Dallas Austin, Arrested Development, and all the other indications that there was a whole other music scene out there to be discovered and covered. The music section I inherited was already making steps to address this gap — a young writer named Lang Whitaker had been recruited to pen a hip-hop column called “Furious Styles.” Still, the best way to ghettoize a style is to relegate it to a biweekly column. So, with the support of then-editor Ken Edelstein, we started doling out a lot more hip-hop assignments and, as Lang began to grow beyond CL (he’s now a well-established sports writer in New York), we farmed out assignments to new writers — including more black writers than had typically graced our pages.

Gradually, hip-hop — as well as club music — began to take up more space in CL’s music coverage. There was a little grumbling from the old guard of rock bands and veteran writers that now had to yield column inches previously reserved for them. But the goal was simple: a music section (and perhaps, an entire paper) that more accurately covers what’s really going on in Atlanta — that is, the whole city, not just certain parts. As the coverage became more representative, so did the readership, at least measured by the wider spectrum of review CDs and gig notices we began receiving. People were taking notice. And since I left in 2004, it seems from a distance that the paper has only become more representative of the city, in terms of staff and coverage. We take no credit for Atlanta’s urban music ascendance. But it’s nice to recall that we were there to cover it when it happened.

Roni Sarig was Creative Loafing’s music editor from 1998 to 2004, and is the author of Third Coast: OutKast, Timbaland, and How Hip-Hop Became a Southern Thing. He now lives in White Plains, New York, and teaches English and Journalism in Rye, New York.