Grinding in the streets

Big Oomp and Baby D take grassroots hip-hop to the people

Big Oomp is holding court in his southwest Atlanta office, giving interview after interview and fielding calls from supporters and admirers, all trying, perhaps for the first time, to be down with his underground rap collective. It's two days after news has broken that Big Oomp Records artist Baby D has signed with Epic Records, a Sony Music company that is home to urban and pop acts like 3LW, Michael Jackson and Sade. Talking on the phone to an acquaintance who casually slips in a pitch for some of his tracks, Big Oomp is non-committal and seemingly annoyed by what has probably been the umpteenth such request in the span of an hour. Yet, he seems to be enjoying the attention.

Big Oomp's small, modest office is located upstairs in a two-story duplex near the Atlanta University Center. It's outfitted with the basics: computers, a fax machine and overnight shipping supplies. If it weren't for the gold plaques lining the walls of the small quarters, it could easily be the office for an insurance company or a small-time lawyer.

On this day, the office is buzzing with energy. Big Oomp and his team are clearly in a state of transition, professionally and philosophically, as they prepare to put their recipe for regional success to the test on a national scale. Finally, it seems, Big Oomp and his camp are being taken seriously. They're no longer the overlooked stepchildren of Atlanta's music industry.

Baby D saunters through the door and takes a seat. His slender frame slouches at the conference table as he calmly takes in the activity swirling about the room. Except for an occasional smile, his youthful face is expressionless. He doesn't seem to have a care in the world, not even about how he, an artist known for his Southern-style rap, will be received nationally.

"The South is blowing up," he says, "from Lil Jon to Pastor Troy to T.I. to Archie. The South is being looked at right now as the new thing for 2003 and for the next four or five years. Right now I feel like I'm beginning to become a part of the new revolution."

A new revolution may be a bit of an overstatement. Atlanta clearly doesn't have the star power it boasted a few years ago, but the city remains on the music industry's radar. Baby D and his colleagues embrace a style called "crunk" — super-charged beats, bold lyrics and aggressive, somewhat exaggerated vocal delivery. Their sound is a little rough around the edges, not as slick and sophisticated as the stuff that comes from some of the city's more well-known artists. But now it seems underground acts like Baby D, Pastor Troy and Lil Jon are the ones getting noticed — a sign that fans may be ready for a little less polish in their hip-hop.

When the music industry considers the icons of the dirty South, the names most often mentioned are rappers like OutKast and Ludacris, and producers like Jermaine Dupri and Jazze Pha. They're the ones who have placed Atlanta on the proverbial hip-hop map. They've sold millions of records individually and collectively, and they've skillfully managed to extend their celebrity beyond the city limits of Atlanta and above the Mason-Dixon line. But venture deep into the heart of southwest Atlanta and ask the locals whose music they're bumping and they just might say Baby D. Ask them who's the king of hip-hop in Atlanta, and they'll probably say Big Oomp.

Big Oomp, Baby D and their following are practically legendary in certain circles south of the city. Since 1997, the camp has been recording, releasing and selling music conceived, birthed and raised in the 'hoods of Atlanta, and it is there that this music has found its success. But those who are not privy to Atlanta's underground hip-hop scene may not be all that familiar with Big Oomp and his platinum-wearing posse of down-home Georgia boys. This is not the kind of music manufactured in fancy, state-of-the-art Midtown studios with the aid of celebrated producers. These are not the kind of artists whose faces are plastered on the covers of magazines. In short, Big Oomp has earned success the grassroots way — by grinding in the streets and the clubs, depending on word-of-mouth instead of a public relations machine to get the word out.

The tiny seedlings that would someday be the foundation of Big Oomp Records were sown in 1990 when Big Oomp started selling mix tapes by DJ Jelly and MC Assault at flea market booths around the city. In fact, it was a flea market booth in Old National Discount Mall that became the first Big Oomp Records store in 1991. Another booth followed at Greenbriar Discount Mall some eight months later. But Big Oomp wasn't without competition.

"When we got into the game there was really only one other person who had it sewed up, which was Edward J. He was on the east side of town ... Decatur," says Oomp, a burly, well-groomed man whose stern facial expression belies his friendly, down-home demeanor. "So we came in and jumped off on our side of town and we started spreading out toward the Decatur area where Edward J was at." When one of Edward J's DJs put out a tape dissing Big Oomp's crew, Big Oomp retaliated with a tape dissing Edward J's camp. In the end, Big Oomp came out on top. "We wiped 'em all out," he says.

Once Oomp had carved his niche in southwest Atlanta, he decided to expand his market. His mix tape distribution operation eventually encompassed about 20 states. "We were mad promoters and marketers," Oomp boasts, "almost geniuses in our own world. We did massive flyers, postcards, posters. We just stayed hustling in the streets passing the word with flyers. Stores started calling asking how they could get the tapes. Kids started coming here for Freaknik, buying the tapes, taking them back home."

With so much territory under his wing, Oomp decided it was time for his record stores to make the transition from mall booths to storefronts, but he encountered resistance from the coalition of independently owned record stores. "We tried to go to the other record stores first to get in their coalitions, but they wouldn't let us in — I think because of how fast we made moves," says Big Oomp. "That's when we said, 'OK, we'll get our own stores and we'll get our own chain."

Today the Big Oomp chain has seven stores in Atlanta.

The next logical step for Big Oomp was establishing a record label, and that's what he did in 1997 with the release of his first artist — Major Bank. That same year, 12-year-old Baby D joined the Big Oomp camp, making his debut on a compilation that also included rappers Intoxicated and Sammy Sam. "I was like the first booty shake/bass rapper on that album," Baby D recalls. "I've been with Big Oomp Records from the jump."

Since then, Baby D has released two solo albums: Off Da Chain, which features him and Big Oomp comrade Lil C, and his latest, Lil' Chopper Toy, which has sold 70,000 units since its release last September and features the dirty South anthem, "ATL" (with fellow Atlantans Pastor Troy and Archie).

Big Oomp even applies his grassroots business approach to garnering media coverage for his artists. He produces "Live Wit Da Oomp Camp," a weekly video show hosted by Baby D and DJ Jelly, which airs at 2 a.m. Saturday on UPN Atlanta. And he has a radio show called "The Dirty South Showdown," which is broadcast on 20 Southeastern radio stations (though none in Atlanta). Oomp also owns Top Quality Productions and Top Quality Publishing, a management company and graphics company respectively. All combined, Oomp's various endeavors amount to what could very well be a budding self-contained empire with the potential to push its own artists right up to the threshold of major-label opportunities.

Despite their homegrown success, Big Oomp and his artists have never received much attention from Atlanta's music industry elite, but major-label executives have been watching this clique for quite some time. "The majors have been steppin' to us since 1998," Oomp says. "And we've just been turning deals down because we were building ourselves up for that next clique payday."

It was the dent that bootleggers put in his company's sales that prompted Big Oomp to finally align with a major after all these years. "We're an independent label that does very well," Oomp explains. "But right now the bootlegging has gotten so bad, to where it's killin' the independent world. So the reason why we went on and took the deal is because there is no way to win right now independently. If the bootleggin' wasn't bad, we wouldn't be doin' this deal right now."

Baby D's debut album will be released in June, and it's expected to feature a mixture of new and old material. "We'll take some of our best songs that have been successful for us and put them on the new album," Oomp says, "but basically it'll be half and half." Epic has proposed having Baby D work with other producers, but Oomp's hoping to keep things in-house. "Some we might deal with, some we definitely are not gon' deal with," he says. "It's a toss-up right now. It all depends on how we're gonna come out in the next few weeks with what we got. If we feel we got enough songs, then we gon' keep it in house. If we feel that we just ain't got that hit yet and time is catching up with us, then nine times out of 10, we're gonna go out and get some more production."

Whether bringing in outside producers is Big Oomp's decision or a mandate from Epic, in the long run, it may not even matter. The proof will be in the sales. And how well the two companies work together might also determine the direction of Big Oomp as a label — that is, whether future artists will be released independently or through similar major-label partnerships. "Independent, you get rich quick. Major, you got to be a superstar to get rich," Oomp says, making his preference clear.

But Baby D has yet to be truly tested outside his own back yard. His music has a decidedly Southern flavor; not funk-laden and edgy like OutKast; not philosophical like Goodie Mob; not quite as commercial as Ludacris, all of whom are the artists that have, to some degree, been the yardstick by which Atlanta rap is measured. Baby D's ability to cross the geographical divide and the ability of Epic to properly promote the product are valid concerns for Big Oomp. The key, he says, will be to maintain control.

"Basically they kind of know how we operate," Oomp offers. "They did their homework on us. So, I went in basically making sure I got a lot of say-so over the production end, making sure I got a lot of say-so over the promotions. Because I know how New York will take an artist that they don't understand from the South and throw them out there, and if don't nobody pick up on them, it's a done deal for them. I made sure with this deal I'm still hands-on."

So the deal is done, the release date is set and Baby D may no longer be an obscure Southern rapper known only in certain circles. His label now becomes Big Oomp/Epic Records, and the stage is set for Big Oomp to be the next Southern clique to make moves on the hip-hop industry. But while Oomp and Baby D openly talk about their plans and expectations, Epic remains tight-lipped. In fact, Epic's A&R division wouldn't comment for this story, opting instead to wait until closer to the album's release — an indication their leadership may not be certain where it's going with this project.

Despite Big Oomp's confidence, he acknowledges his concerns about the project. What will he gain by sacrificing the crown prince of his label and what will he lose? Big Oomp's wagering that he can take the business principles that have worked for him for more than 10 years and apply them on a larger scale. He's trusting that the all-knowing major-label honchos will listen to him and allow him to navigate Baby D's project through the transition and on to even greater success. And he's hoping that during the process, Big Oomp and Baby D's loyal fans in the South will remain loyal.

"We have built up a home fan base through the South without you already," he says, as if talking to the powers-that-be at Epic. "Without none of y'all's expertise, without none of y'all's connections. If I step into y'all's shoes and y'all take me away from what I gave the fans at home, if this stuff flop, how am I coming back home? My whole thing is no we won't flop. 'Cause we gon' make sure that we givin' home what they want, 'cause we gots to come back home."