The heart of Hate City
In search of Atlanta's enigmatic underground
"Music is done," Bob Place tells me. "[It's] over."
A freewheeling phone chat with the local indie filmmaker and musician oscillates madly between excitement and indictment, laughter and lamentation. Place's chattiness is indicative not only of external influence ("I just finished smoking a joint right before you called," he apologizes), but of a bleary-eyed obsession with how music continues to function in a post-digital world. His self-produced, two-years-in-the-making documentary tackles the weighty issue of the Internet's effect on the music industry, as he explains it, while exploring the underlying reality of Atlanta's fragmented music establishment. In doing so, it also confronts a sentiment that has long dogged the community — that Atlanta has no love for the underground.
Welcome to Hate City. Long before Place cherry-picked it for the title of his homemade doc, the nickname originated among punk rock circles, an offhand response to Atlanta's incongruous civil rights-era motto: "The City Too Busy to Hate." As a descriptor of the town's artistic community, it stuck. The moniker is rooted in a history of dark joviality, the Southern Gothic precedent that provides us with our well-established sense of irony. But it's often all too apt. As Place discovered, "A lot of artists are frustrated with how Atlanta runs."
Despite a bustling and multitalented musical working class, the capital of the Southeast remains a chronic cultural enigma, a place in constant search of its identity. Atlanta is known for its viable extremes — the trap-happy hip-pop that dots the playlists of Hot 107.9 and V-103; the raucous indie scene that birthed garage-punk record labels Rob's House and Die Slaughterhaus. Yet when it comes to identifying the invisible middle, no cohesive sentiment emerges — save for a frustrating degree of ambivalence and protest.
There is a fervent attitude that characterizes the majority of people who comprise Atlanta's underground. As the lead for rockers Swank Sinatra and also a part-time comedian and animator, Place personifies Atlanta's ADD-afflicted creative culture. His doc has been completed for some time but has yet to see an official release; he plans an online distribution push, as well as screenings at local spots like the Goat Farm. (He couldn't make it available for me to screen online, explaining in an email, "I [haven't] yet been able to get it up there.") Place bills the film as "the story of rock 'n' roll in the hip-hop capital of the world," though his focus admittedly veers toward the industry's overall decline.
Hate City comes on the heels of another slipshod local rock doc — the previously released We Fun, a 2009 snapshot of the energetic scene that was then the center of Atlanta's indie culture. It was billed as "an important piece of music history," which was true, if you were in one of the featured bands (Black Lips, Deerhunter, etc.). The self-aggrandizement at the heart of the film was an undeniable reflection of the times: In the stark absence of financial support from record labels, artists have to become ultra-self-promoters — or else.
This post-DIY spirit is less communal than entrepreneurial. "It's no longer 'how do I get a record deal,'" Place says. "[It's] 'how do I start a record label?'"
That rampant attitude has led to a creative boom but has also further divided the local community. "There's just so much going on," music blogger Davy Minor notes. "It's probably impossible ... to represent everything." Minor's blog Ohmpark is the driving force behind the yearly Atlanta Music Roundtable, a gathering of local music writers that puts forth, among other things, a register of the "Most Underrated Local Artists." Last year's list included groups such as Nomen Novum, the Sneaky Hand, Slowriter, Dead Rabbits, and Sleepy Genes — names doubtlessly unrecognizable to most Atlanta residents, to say nothing of folks outside the greater city limits.
"We're not just a hip-hop town," Minor says, regarding Atlanta's one-note perception. "We're not just the place where Deerhunter is from. We're not just some random redneck city in the South. But that's [how] people outside the city think of us." Minor views the discordance inherent in the local underground as a constructive element, a counterpoint to the town's reputation. The trouble, he says, is getting people to see beyond the exterior. "To me, the problems with our scene aren't internal, they're external," he says. "The problem isn't that our scene is fragmented. The problem is that no one outside our city knows that."
Perhaps the real problem is that no one agrees on the problem.
Theories abound. Writer and musician Taylor Northern, who created the (recently retired) music blog Shot From Guns, laments that the typical nine-to-fiver remains clueless about what's happening around town — namely, the "10,000 acts performing in [East Atlanta Village] music venues" nightly — and advocates for more highly visible locals-only music festivals. Lifelong resident Brannon Boyle, who runs Speakeasy Productions and books shows at many of those venues, opines that local media is partially at fault. "The electronic scene doesn't get covered much," he says, "even though [it's] thriving. It doesn't seem like most music writers are into it, so all the articles about it are from a total outsider perspective."
Criminal Records owner and Record Store Day co-founder Eric Levin attributes Atlanta's troubles to the lack of a comprehensive chronicler of the scene. "We don't have a local [record] label that represents the enormity of what we have," he says. "We have great attempts, historically and currently, but we don't have a center."
If Atlanta's independent rock scene is known for the Black Lips' machismo debauchery and Jessica Juggz's vaginal fire tricks, the perception of our local hip-hop scene is doubtless even more one-sided.
"Sometimes Atlanta is a little starstruck," Yamin Semali says.
The MC is one half of Clan Destined, a 10-year-old local hip-hop duo comprised of two North Carolina natives who met while attending Morehouse. In its devoted eclecticism, Clan Destined is actually a typical Atlanta act — artists immigrate here from near and far, bearing a mix of backgrounds that enrich our musical fabric. Still, the city remains a mystery, even to those who call it home.
Pittsburgh native Will Feagins Jr.'s introduction to Atlanta was an eye-opening experience. His documentary Underexposed won both the Critics' and Viewers' Choice awards in Creative Loafing's Short Cuts film contest earlier this year. "I had kind of the same preconceptions everyone else has," he recalls, concerning the city that exported Gucci, Waka, and Soulja Boy.
Underexposed features dozens among the local hip-hop underground, many of them transplants — nascent and established names like Headkrack, Lyric Jones, Fort Knox, Adrift Da Belle, Shred Tut, Mr. Enok, Journey Brave, and Phene — ruminating on the theme "I am Atlanta Hip-Hop." As rapper and graphic designer Sean Fahie explains in the film, "You've got backpackers here, you've got hipsters here — you've got a bunch of people doing a bunch of different things." Righteously, Feagins wanted "to show everyone else outside of Atlanta that it's not just one type of artist." Moreover, he wanted to induce cohesion within. "I just wanted people to be aware of each other."
Yet locally based artists seem motivated by the disorder. Clan Destined's Semali explains how it "fueled us to find our niche audience. ... We worked on our shows and got the performances to be something you'd pay to see. Now we have B-boys and writers involved in almost everything we do, so no rappers [or] promoters can really dictate our relevance. We are integrated into the culture."
There will likely always be fierce competition and widespread incoherency between the sects that make up the city's musical fiber. It's what fans the flames of creativity. For the ever-contradictory city of Atlanta, the term "Hate City" is a way of admitting ownership of its faults while it also categorically rejects them. People — like the filmmaker Place — wear the name as a badge while they vehemently deny its truth. Perhaps it ultimately should be taken, like much of what this mystifying metropolis does and says, with a grain of salt.
Still, the search for our creative core yields one takeaway: Atlanta is passionate as hell. "If you're trying to get into art for money, you're fucking stupid," Place says, laughing. "You have to have a passion to be doing it for reasons that are not about being rich and famous." This stubborn adoration of the craft is at the heart of Atlanta's disarray. In the end, Hate City misconstrues, misbehaves, even disagrees for the very same reason it creates.
Because we like it that way.