Art of the hustle

For nearly a decade, Jabari Graham’s Art Beats + Lyrics has been a success on the road. Now he’s taking it on the air.

On the Facebook invite for last month’s Gentleman Jack Art Beats + Lyrics, Jabari Graham typed out a vague but inspiring late-night message that cast a shadow of doubt on the future of the annual urban art and music showcase.

“On the real this might be the last GJ AB+L,” it read. “I dunno but if it is...I wanna thx everyone who supported the show; Ive learned so much, made mistakes, made plenty of connections but always valued relationships etc. I guess im an example but mann if you have an idea and you passionate about it. Dont be afraid to take a risk to see if it can come into fruition. peace.”

Typos aside, this much was clear: The man behind the decade-old event that helped bridge the gap between hip-hop heads and art purveyors while galvanizing a generation of young urban creatives in Atlanta and beyond was approaching his own crossroads.

But in Graham’s artful way, he left more unsaid, provoking speculation about the future.

It’s impossible to consider Graham’s legacy thus far without the paradoxes piling up: A self-described introvert with a degree in business management starts an underground art party and pairs it with a global brand without compromising the cool. Instead of falling for the binary logic that pits underground against mainstream and art against commerce, he consciously chose all of the above. And it proved to be a scrupulous move — one that took AB+L from an organic local event cobbled together with less than $1,000 to a 12-city annual tour bankrolled by approximately 1 million corporate dollars within eight years.

But Graham is less interested in reveling in his past success than he is in teasing the next chapter. After learning earlier this year that a shift in marketing priorities at his corporate sponsor Jack Daniel’s would leave the Gentleman Jack AB+L tour high and dry for 2013, Graham considered seeking other sponsors to keep it rolling. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized he was ready to “do something different.”

That phrase could easily serve as his personal mantra. Lest we forget, this is the same dude who collaborated with his former Shameless Plug promotions partners Fadia Kader, Bem Joiner, and Jerald McBride to bring in current stadium-status rappers Drake and Kendrick Lamar for their first Atlanta shows when both were still relatively unknown blog rappers; the same dude who compelled the newfangled Dirty South to “Remember Atlanta” by reuniting Goodie Mob on stage in a concert that foreshadowed the group’s proper reunion album by four years; the same dude who brought Swedish electro-soul upstarts Little Dragon to town long before they became Big Boi’s favorite far-out collaborators.

If the best tastemakers have a penchant for predicting which way the zeitgeist will swing, Graham is practically the pendulum. Pair that with his instinct for business, and his next move could be his best move. It consists of converting AB+L from an annual festival to a 24/7 digital platform designed to turn his cultivated audience of early adopters on its collective ear.

In October, Graham soft-launched the online radio station he calls And like a man with an innate ability to shape the culture, he’s already tapped a source of “fuel” for the mission — fuel being the name he’s bestowed upon a new microgenre of music unearthed during one of his SoundCloud listening sessions.

Like his Facebook invite, it also involved late-night musings and an accidental misspelling. “I thought about the ‘fu’ in future and then the word soul. I was drinking so I thought soul ended in ‘el,’” he says. But “it spelled fuel, and it sounded cool.”

Which, in Jabari Graham’s world, is ultimately what matters.

The modest, one-room office space from which Graham’s Internet radio startup broadcasts stands in stark contrast to the grand scale his touring showcase reached in recent years. At its height last year, AB+L required an 18-wheel tractor-trailer to transport all the art, promotional materials, and moving parts from city to city. A traveling production crew of 12 managed set up and the attendance at each venue averaged 2,500.

ABLradio’s Downtown digs in the M. Rich Building, on the other hand, barely seats eight people comfortably. That’s how many were on hand during a recent taping of “Day 1 Radio,” the urban culture and lifestyle show co-hosted by music and culture journalists Maurice Garland, Branden Peters, and Nadine Graham. In the show’s first month, they’ve scored sit-downs with guests ranging from industry legend DJ Drama to burgeoning Atlanta rapper/singer ForteBowie.

Instead of artwork, Graham’s handwriting covers the walls. He’s been plotting out his vision for the new radio station on oversize sheets of graph paper. Time slots are filled with a wish list of Atlanta DJs and radio jocks (Jamal Ahmad, DJ Kemit, etc.) he hopes to secure as show hosts; programming blocks featuring creative names such as Parent’s Stash (old-school), Tuck Me In Radio (slow jams), and PimpTrickGangstaClique (the ATL-only playlist); and a handwritten mission statement that spells out his goal: “to be an alternative to a top 40 station ... while maintaining credibility with the streets.”

Graham’s modeling his venture after Internet radio leader East Village Radio, which covers an eclectic range of sounds from Dirty South (Ballers Eve) to shoegaze (Happy Medium). The decade-old New York-based station switched from 10 watts on the FM dial to a dot-com address after a 2003 ‘’New York Times article earned the pirate station a cease-and-desist letter from the Federal Communications Commission.
Like East Village Radio, he aims to create an equally eclectic urban listening experience that encompasses a taste of ’90s nostalgia with that new-new. Unlike EVR’s original nonprofit model, however, Graham intends to turn ABL into a for-profit venture. His long-term vision for that is on a separate sheet of paper with a header that simply reads: “How to make $.” The dollar sign is outlined in green marker for emphasis. It lists a handful of revenue-generating options, from onsite display ads to concert promotion and sponsorship opportunities.

With the industry leaning toward online music streaming, major players like Apple and Pandora are broadening the legal parameters of music licensing. Though it’s still slightly uncharted territory, it’s only a matter of time before the gray area fades to black, as Graham sees it. And he intends to get in while there’s still a ground floor.

“If you can have Wi-Fi in an airplane 20,000 feet off the ground, then you best believe it’s going to be Wi-Fi in your cars pretty soon. And if iTunes is about to stop downloading to go to iTunes radio, c’mon, the writing is getting to be on the wall.”

Ask Graham where his creative ideas come from and he responds with little more than a casual shrug. “I’ve just always been a creative dude,” he says before adding, “Whiskey helps.”

Raised by his mother in the South DeKalb County suburb of Lithonia, Graham admits to having an active imagination as an only child. As he matured, he learned to hone his energy. After graduating in 2001 from the historically black Jackson State University in Mississippi, he returned to Atlanta and, desperate for a job, found himself in a glorified Foot Locker management program at the Mall West End. Between a clientele that mostly consisted of “dope boys” and “strippers” and managers who were always on the lookout for employee theft, the position left little room for advancement.

“Basically, you’re just working at Foot Locker,” he says in hindsight. “You ain’t gonna become no manager.”

A visit to nearby Clark Atlanta University’s career placement office proved fortuitous. He discovered a posting for a paid internship with UniverSoul Circus, which led to a full-time marketing/promotions position working under the man who would become his mentor, circus founder Cedric Walker. As the pioneer behind the Fresh Fest, rap’s first national arena tour featuring Run-DMC in the early-’80s, Walker quickly recognized Graham as a fellow “idea man” whom he says had “his finger on the pulse.”

Friend and former circus co-worker McBride also recalls how “Jabari would just come up with ideas.” And when his immediate bosses in the promotions department didn’t bite, he learned to sidestep them and head straight to Walker, who was always impressed.

“We cut out the middleman completely after that,” says McBride.

Their fresh concepts didn’t keep them from getting laid off during an off-season lull. After three years at the circus, Graham was collecting unemployment. When McBride got another gig before him, he knew he had to come up with something fast. Like most big ideas, his would start from the bottom.

Similar to hip-hop’s birth as a visual art form on subways in early-’70s New York City, Art Beats + Lyrics emerged in Atlanta at a time when graffiti was still harshly stigmatized. The city of Atlanta had passed an anti-graffiti ordinance in 2003 and local art galleries generally shunned artists whose aesthetic reeked of spray paint or urban swag.

Fahamu Pecou, a celebrated painter and Atlanta College of Art graduate, recalls the lack of options such local artists faced at the time. “There was this void in the city,” he says, referring to the brain drain the city suffered as his peers abandoned Atlanta for New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The opportunities for exposure were especially limited for artists of color who didn’t conform to the traditional art world.

“For a young urban artist, especially, it was really kind of dire,” he says. “There were the galleries and then there was the High Museum of Art, which had really not been paying attention to what was going on locally in the first place.”

Meanwhile, the National Black Arts Festival, which was reaching its peak in Atlanta, catered to an older generation of African-Americans. Graham experienced it firsthand in 2003 while helping his cousin Darian Roberts man his NBAF booth at Greenbriar Mall. After noticing the disconnect between the festival’s demographic and his cousin’s artwork, he started “formulating a lens for urban art.” His curiosity led him to scout out Little Five Points, where he’d take photos of graffiti by the likes of Atlanta artist Totem; scour hip-hop magazines like the Source, where he discovered eventual AB+L co-producer and visual artist Dubelyoo; and search for underground art shows at cafés and alternative venues.

“I noticed the art shows were cool but they weren’t funky,” he says. “And I knew I could make these art shows funky.”

So he retooled a borrowed UniverSoul Circus PowerPoint presentation with photos of art, donned the only suit he owned — a two-piece seersucker number he jokingly refers to as his “civil rights suit” — and began soliciting financial support. He didn’t raise much, but with money saved from his unemployment checks, donations from family, friends, and church members, and $250 from Little Five Points’ commercial developer Don Bender, who would successfully challenge the city’s anti-graffiti ordinance in 2006, Graham threw the first AB+L in 2004 at the L5P bar the Five Spot on a budget of $1,000.

About two-dozen visual artists participated in the show, hosted by emcee Jayforce of WRFG-FM’s Beatz & Lyrics. Graham created enough pre-show buzz to draw nearly 400 attendees, including a High Museum rep he had the foresight to invite after learning the museum was interested in programming for college-age patrons.

The first-time event packed out the small venue. But despite charging a $5 cover, he walked away with just enough money to pay his next month’s rent.

“I didn’t let that bring me down,” he says. “I just started building on it to see what could I do next to make it better.”

After pitching AB+L to a Sprite brand manager he met by chance, he and Dubelyoo used Sprite’s interest to hook the High.

“Basically, we pimped it,” Graham says. “I told Sprite that I had a show at the High and I told the High people I had Sprite as a sponsor.”

The resulting 2005 show, sponsored by Sprite for a cool $10,000, was an event like nothing the Southeast’s premier fine arts museum had ever hosted: DJs spinning break beats. Break-dancers spinning on their heads. And more than 1,000 young urbanites snaking their way through a temporary maze of art installations that turned the white-walled museum into a kaleidoscope of color. Pun intended.

By making visual artists the stars of the show, Art Beats + Lyrics successfully remixed the platform pioneered by FunkJazz Kafé founder Jason Orr’s alternative urban music and culture festival in the ’90s.

AB+L filled in the space between what was happening in the galleries and maybe took what Jason Orr had been doing with FunkJazz Kafé to another level because it had that multi-sensory experience,” says Pecou, a participating artist who stole the show that night at the High by turning his arrival into a piece of performance art, complete with a hired bodyguard named Big Daddy and a model on his arm named Honey. He was one of his neo-pop paintings come to life, a walking critique on the spoils of celebrity and excess in hip-hop. “It became a spectacle,” Pecou says.

In the eight years since then, the walls separating graffiti-inspired art from galleries and corporate partners from creatives have become more transparent. It’s best exemplified locally by Atlanta’s thriving young arts scene and globally by the street art explosion, which has found its biggest canvas on social media. While AB+L can hardly claim credit for those trends, it certainly shows Graham’s ability to anticipate them.

Though he was still left with little more than rent money after his high at the High, Graham parlayed the event’s overwhelming success into a bigger bankroll when urban ad agency IMAGES USA approached him with the idea to pitch AB+L to its client Jack Daniel’s/Gentleman Jack. Their first rollout included four cities (Charlotte, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Jackson, Miss.), which eventually multiplied to an additional eight (Dallas, Houston, L.A., Miami, Philadelphia, New York, Birmingham, D.C.) and an overall annual budget in 2012 of approximately $1.5 million.

The budget accounted for an impressive 2012 lineup of musical guests that featured indie-electro newcomers Mansions on the Moon; rap icons Scarface of Geto Boys and Shock G, aka Humpty Hump, of Digital Underground; and the most-sampled musician in hip-hop, James Brown’s legendary funky drummer, Clyde Stubblefield.

As history’s proven, however, hip-hop and corporate interests tend to go together like Ecstasy and date rape. Whenever the two become bedmates, the culture’s bound to get screwed.

But when it comes to what Graham calls “the whole sellout-type thing,” he says nothing about AB+L was ever compromised.

Of course, there’s one glaring concession impossible to overlook. As a title sponsor, Jack Daniel’s got to put its Gentleman Jack brand name and logo above that of Art Beats + Lyrics. Even in media coverage, the sponsor was adamant about it. But it’s also hard to discount what patrons got in return: free admission, free food, and, of course, free Jack.

“I didn’t get any kind of corporate energy from it; I was just like, ‘Oh shit, free drinks in this bitch,’” says Garland. “I thought it was a cool partnership.”

And it ultimately helped propel the subculture, says Walker. “Any new or emerging idea or culture needs perpetuation,” he says. “And that comes in financial forms in a lot of cases.”

AB+L became something of a cultural touchstone for a generation of young urban creatives. “The show got to a point where it became a litmus test for what kind of shit you’re really on,” Garland says. He recalls what he thought when he’d meet black Atlantans who said they’d never heard of AB+L: “Either they were bougie or they just weren’t as cool as they thought they were.”

Pecou says the most impressive thing was AB+L’s ability to expose art to a crowd that might not have seen it otherwise, while also increasing the exposure of participating artists. But he also wonders whether the corporate sponsorship of AB+L caused the traditional art world to view it as a party more than a worthy art show.

“In some respect, it may have caused more conventional art institutions to kind of look down on the event as not being a serious art event. So I do worry about those kind of readings of the event,” says Pecou, whose focus as a visual artist and hip-hop scholar has been to bridge critically the space between those often-opposing worlds.

For Graham, the bridge he established between underground culture and corporate America is equally valuable.

“Let’s be real,” Graham says, “at the end of the day this is an idea that I had and a major corporation is paying for this idea. I think I’d be more so selling out if I didn’t get funding. It would’ve been an episode like Dave Chappelle’s skitWhen Keeping it Real Goes Wrong.’ I’d probably still be trying to pay my rent, but I’m keeping it real. Whatever,” he says, laughing at the thought. “Jack Daniel’s is a predominantly white corporation and this is urban. ... For us, that’s a blessing — to do it my way and they never told me to change anything.”

The pot got even sweeter for Graham two years ago when IMAGES USA fumbled its account with Jack Daniel’s. When Jack Daniel’s reached out to Graham, he jumped at the chance to eliminate the middleman and form “a direct connect with the supplier, so to speak,” he says.

The strategy paid in dividends. With no more filter between Graham and Brown-Forman, the parent company of Jack Daniel’s, the exchange of ideas and a budgetary increase came to fruition more quickly. Ad campaigns grew to include such major outlets as Spotify, Vice Media, and Google.

But things took a drastic turn after the 2012 tour. When the liquor conglomerate decided to shift the emphasis of its Gentleman Jack marketing campaign from urban to general market, Graham says Atlanta was the only city the sponsor decided to budget for AB+L in 2013. By then, he’d been toying with the idea of a radio station since short-lived Atlanta startup folded in 2011. One of Beehive’s buzzworthy shows, Come Up Kids Radio, had been produced by Kader, and was co-hosted by Joiner, Garland, and multimedia journalist Dominick Brady.

His mentor encouraged him to make the switch. “I told him don’t make the same mistake I made,” says Walker, recounting advice given to him 20 years ago by hip-hop mogul and Fresh Fest partner Russell Simmons. “When I started the circus, Simmons said, ‘You’re an idea man. Get this thing created and move to the next idea.”

Instead of giving himself the day off when he turned 34 on Nov. 1, the boss was back in his office wearing headphones and his trademark kente-print five-panel hat. He’d just finished recording a vocal drop introducing listeners to his latest audio obsession, the one he calls fuel. Like most things that spark his passion, Graham describes the hypnotic hybrid of Texas screw music and ’90s R&B just enough to pique curiosity.

“It just sounds fresh,” he says, recounting when he flew to Seattle to meet Sango, one of the DJs behind the sound so new it still has no official name. “I told him the same thing. Hip-hop is hip-hop, and screw music is screw music, but there’s no name for this. And I think that’s special, that they have this sound and there’s not a name for it yet. I want to give that a platform with the radio station.”

He’s so subtle you don’t even realize you’re being sold.

“I love putting people on to new music,” he says. “I always did it just by mistake or in conversation.” Now he has a purpose. Just as he expanded the platform for urban art, he hopes to change the soundscape of urban radio. He’s accumulated a library of 1,500 songs with the help of Joiner, another new-music junkie who serves as ABLradio’s assistant station programmer.

Joiner’s self-described “rants” about the state of the music industry and the redundancy of urban radio in Atlanta are nothing short of epic to those that know him. “Everything on the radio sounds like one long Future song,” he says. The critique isn’t intended for the reigning king of Auto-Tune rap, he explains, but the homogenization of corporate-programmed stations.

Between the proliferation of V’s and Hot’s filling up terrestrial dials across the country, “I see a way I can wedge myself inside there,” says Graham, ever mindful of filling a void. His initial investment of about $6,000 covers rent, streaming costs, website and app development, studio equipment, and insurance. He also intends to continue cultivating the arts and culture side of AB+L. The first episode of Arts & Craft, ABLradio’s NPR-style talk show, co-hosted by Brady and Carla Aaron-Lopez, features a mix of in-studio commentary and field interviews with Atlanta-based artists Pecou and Nikita Gale.

As for the original Art Beats + Lyrics, Graham’s still waiting for the fat lady to sing. Though the budget for his last event at the upscale Westside club Compound was downscaled from previous years, he still managed to book two solid acts in New Jack king Teddy Riley and West Coast gangsta rap legend DJ Quik, in addition to fuel DJs Sango, from Seattle, and 8TM, from France.

By his estimates, more than 3,000 people filled up Compound. The club looked like a three-ring circus, between the nonstop stream of guests taking in live performances, multiple DJs, art installations, catered food, and bars overflowing with complimentary whiskey. It must have been enough to impress Gentleman Jack, too. Graham’s sponsor has since been in contact, he says, showing renewed interest in continuing the relationship. He has no idea whether that might mean a local-only show or a full-fledged tour relaunch, but he says he’s down to capitalize on whatever.

In the meantime, he’s focused on his online grind.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, if it’s going to sink or swim,” he says. “I’m just gonna give it my all.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the AB+L Radio show Day 1 Radio. It is an urban culture and lifestyle show.