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Cover Story: Digital Good Times
How a tech podcast with a hip-hop pedigree is remixing Atlanta's digital scene
Digital Good Times
Weekly episodes air Tuesdays at 1 p.m. on ABLradio.com. Stream archived podcasts on Soundcloud and iTunes.On the same day last month that Facebook sent its 1.6 billion users into a tizzy over the long-awaited addition of several new emoji reactions, Atlanta rapper Future had a different corner of the Internet going nuts. He'd released his own set of official emoji. Available via the app Moji Keyboard, the customized pack features more than 150 Future-inspired emoji compared to Facebook's conservative increase of five. There's Future dressed in a wizard getup; Future dressed in astronaut gear; Future dressed like Purple Rain-era Prince (to complement his recent Purple Reign mixtape, no doubt). There's Dabbin' Future, Gucci flip-flops Future, even Jesus Christ Future with the blonde-dipped dreads and outstretched arms. And not to be outdone by Facebook's classic thumbs-up icon, there's also a "thumb-in-her-butt" meme inspired by one of the rapper's more explicit song lyrics.
It's an acquired taste, particularly for the hosts of Digital Good Times.
In a dimly lit state-of-the-art recording studio located behind a Chinese restaurant near Buford Highway, two rappers, one sound engineer, and their invited guest for the night debate the viability of Future's emoji #faceass come-up.
"People keep sleeping on this brother," Emman "Small Eyez" Twe says into a live mic. "I think Future is a lot smarter than most people give him credit for. He's very tech-focused in his moves."
If the entrepreneurial merits of a trap rapper's high-tech side hustle sound like a strange topic of on-air convo, you probably aren't a regular listener of the tech-based podcast and online radio show with a decidedly hip-hop bent. Founded in 2014, the show airs regularly on AB+L Radio and is available via Soundcloud and iTunes. It celebrates its 50th episode this week, enough of a milestone for the three hosts to share a shot-glass toast before recording.
While a concerted effort is underway to market the city as a digital hub courtesy of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce's privately and publicly funded ChooseATL campaign, DigiGoodTimes' mission is more grassroots. The show's hosts want to hip their listeners to the vast opportunities available in the digital economy while bridging the gap between the city's emerging tech scene and Atlanta's hip-hop-based creatives. It's the kind of cultural convergence that could distinguish Atlanta's tech scene from other Silicon Valley facsimiles. But doing so may take something Atlanta has shied away from in recent years — seizing on a central narrative that embraces the city's legacy.
This is a story about ideas. Better yet, dreams. Specifically, Atlanta's dream as a future tech hub of the nation, maybe even the world. But it's also a story about what it may take to achieve that vision. Infrastructure, yes. Capital, of course. And a highly skilled workforce. But perhaps more importantly, a culture that breeds innovation and entrepreneurship. There's a tendency to get too technical when we talk about emerging tech sectors and what fuels them. But at their roots, the same cultural market forces that drive the tech industry drive all business. And when it comes to being a cultural leader, Atlanta has a well-documented edge.
In the last half decade, Atlanta's tech scene has exploded with more than a dozen co-working spaces and incubators. While the city and state have maintained a well-established foundation in information tech — it has a $113 billion economic impact in Georgia, currently ranked No. 1 in cyber security — consumer-driven Atlanta startups such as Scoutmob and MailChimp have become household names. Local creators of the Yik Yak app are among the latest to make headway in the social media space. Inc. Magazine recently listed Atlanta among the top four startup hotbeds poised to give Silicon Valley a run for its money.
A mix of uber-successful startup entrepreneurs, tech-savvy forecasters, Atlanta hip-hop celebrities, even the Metro Atlanta Chamber has a vested interest in realizing such a future. Atlanta seemingly has all the right pieces: strong educational institutions, the country's third-highest concentration of Fortune 500 headquarters, and a strong entertainment base. But the most authentic proponents of the cultural convergence between hip-hop and tech are not venture capitalists. They don't hold the keys to the latest co-working space or startup incubator. They aren't even techies in the most traditional sense. Yet that hasn't stopped them from creating what's easily the city's most inspired tech podcast — if not the city's only podcast that sits at the apex of technology, music, media, and culture.
DigiGoodTimes is the brainchild of rapper, producer, and progressive hip-hop scene mainstay Small Eyez. At 31, he's a longtime tech enthusiast who sees little to no delineation between both worlds. Nearly each week on the show, he and his business partners and co-hosts — the equally eclectic musician, rapper, and graphic designer Jack Preston, 33, and coder/developer and audio engineer Tristan Kharvari, 28 — combine their passions for tech and creative culture into a show as flavorful as it is educational.
In a year and half, they've become the scene's scrappiest advocates, spotlighting some of Atlanta's most inventive startup founders and innovators.
They call themselves cool nerds; no irony intended. Even as creatives in a city full of self-professed ATLiens, they occupy a space reserved for true outsiders. That same status characterizes their relationship to the city's digital scene. To put it in tech jargon, they're disruptors. And the intersection they foresee could be exactly what Atlanta needs to distinguish itself as high-tech's next cultural hot spot.
IT'S DEFINITELY NOT hip-hop night at Privé. The Midtown Atlanta nightclub served as the setting for the Feb. 25 TechCrunch meetup and pitch-off. Several entrepreneurs are here to pitch their startups to a full house for 60 seconds each. Imagine "Shark Tank" but in a nightclub. With the lights on. And the music off. One of five judges is Marc Gorlin, CEO of Roadie, a year-old Atlanta-based startup with the potential to disrupt the small-package delivery business the same way Uber upset the taxi industry. The crowd is an interesting mix of deep-pocketed venture capitalists, startup entrepreneurs seeking funding, and techies eager to network.
Small Eyez and Preston haven't come to pitch or to poach tonight. But that doesn't stop them from picking favorites. "Futurecasting," Small Eyez calls it. "I don't really give a shit about sports, so I track technology like sports." His favorite among tonight's batch is Spün, a startup promoting a calorie-counting eating utensil that allows users to track nutritional intake with each bite. Already beyond the initial round of funding, it's a crowd favorite, too.
Among last year's standouts was Tech Square Labs, the well-funded co-working space co-founded by Paul Judge. A serial entrepreneur known as much for the Ferrari and Bentley he alternates between as he is for his cybersecurity success, Judge is the only African-American Small Eyez recalls seeing grace last year's TechCrunch stage. Still in the minority among a crowd of about 200, there are around 20 black people here tonight, about double last year's turnout, they say.
But it isn't race alone that makes them distinct.
In a sea of tech bros dressed in button-down collars and Dockers, Small Eyez and Preston look as if they ignored that memo. The former rocks a DigiGoodTimes T-shirt under his coat, with an African kente-print scarf draped around his neck. The latter dons a varsity jacket and felt fedora to complement his signature handlebar mustache.
If this Petri dish of squares represents Atlanta's digital future, Small Eyez and Preston stand out like a couple of well-rounded cool hunters. But ultimately what DGT seeks is a total cultural integration of Atlanta's creative class — coders, developers, and designers combining with artists, producers, and musicians. For now, they're pioneers of a sort, straddling the gaping expanse that separates the two while striving to bridge build.
"We're in a space that's really new," Small Eyez says. "There are very few people that understand the interconnectivity of it. So we're trying to be the vanguard of it and show people that it's beneficial to combine both worlds."
Like its co-hosts, DGT's lineup of guests often includes other ambidextrous talent with overlapping interests, such as MIKKOH, aka Sharon Oh, the DJ who also runs marketing and digital acquisitions at the Atlanta-based social media/anonymity app Yik Yak.
Each episode begins with a freewheeling convo between co-hosts and the special guest on a predetermined topic of tech interest. The guest of the week then shares his or her "hero origin story." In between the talk, music segments feature a carefully curated mix of hip-hop, electro soul, and futuristic grooves. The last segment, "Hire/Fire/Acquire" is a rapid-fire round in which everyone in the studio takes turns presenting a new tech development or startup while everyone in the room argues why they would hire, fire, or acquire said development. On a recent episode, the round ranged from Equipay, the dining app that splits bills equitably between diners to KinkBNB, the sex-positive version of Airbnb that allows consenting adults to rent out erotic short-stay locations for sexually themed vacays.
The range of guests is the real draw. Jewel Burks, the Forbes 30-under-30 cofounder of the app PartPic (like Shazam for the manufacturing industry), talked about meeting President Obama as an invited guest of the White House. Cybersecurity expert Marquis Montgomery discussed the booming industry's need to fill one million IT jobs over the next decade. Soap Goods Creative co-founders George and Kristy Gomez shared how they combined their design and branding expertise with the entrepreneurial will to start their own consulting firm. DGT even got to feature Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey by default while covering last October's annual Platform tech summit at Morehouse College, where Dorsey spoke.
Digital Good Times' origin story starts with the idea for the tech podcast, which grew out of a conversation between Small Eyez and Jabari Graham, proprietor of AB+L Radio. Graham's own startup is an online spin-off of his decade-plus visual arts and hip-hop culture festival Art Beats + Lyrics.
"As a station, we already had shows that focused on themes like music, art, and politics," Graham said in an email. "But a tech show hosted by four-to-five young African Americans is not only a niche concept that we didn't have, it's also something that needs to be highlighted. I get tired of seeing our youth believing that the surest way for them to attain success can only be by music or sports when the tech field is wide open for us."
Small Eyez's early exposure to tech developed from his adolescent appreciation for comic books and computer hackers. Born with a birth defect that required the amputation of his left arm, he dreamt of one day having mutant superhero powers. "I wanted to be able to teleport into the future," he says. Faced with depression in his teen years, Small Eyez sought escape in technology and music.
He moved to Atlanta in 2002 to attend Morehouse College's math and computer engineering dual-degree program in conjunction with Georgia Tech. Soon after, he began to immerse himself in Atlanta's underground hip-hop scene. By the mid-aughts, he'd hustled his way up to opening up for the likes of Dead Prez. So he dropped out to pursue his passion. The son of an African-American studies scholar and a Liberian native, his rap moniker Small Eyez comes from a West African proverb that prizes the collective community over the individual — or the small "i" over the big "I."
"To look at the bigger picture and see the whole thing, you've gotta have small eyes," he says. "We've really internalized that outlook and I feel like it's permeated into what we're doing with Digital Good Times."
The mission is couched in a mashup of culture and lingo that makes it cool to get schooled.
"Once again we rise from the mythical mist of the foggy lagoon," Small Eyez says with a thick Dungeon Master-like accent in one of his typical show intros before laughing at himself. "This is Digital Good Times. I told you it was gonna be foolish. I don't even think it up; it just happens right there." His self-deprecating, almost cornball humor is part of what makes their tech talk accessible. Despite heady subject matter, it's never overburdened with geek-speak or techno-babble. Instead, he refers to guests "dropping jewels" and "knowledge bombs" after they offer insights.
When Preston and Kharvari laugh at his unbridled enthusiasm, his common response is equally nerdy-but-cool: "Y'all tryna kill the chill." The three met at a retail day gig for a ubiquitous tech giant that Small Eyez and Preston still work for. (Because they aren't allowed to use the company's name in association with or promotion of their independently owned startup, the name isn't mentioned in this story.) Their shared affinity for music, tech, and creative culture leads to an out-of-bounds approach that makes little distinction between the three.
"Pitching is just like emceeing, man," Preston says in the middle of the TechCrunch meetup while watching startup founders give their onstage spiels. "You gotta be able to captivate a crowd. You gotta have personality. And you gotta know how to freestyle when they start asking you questions." Like Small Eyez, Preston's artistic leanings as a rapper, producer, and musician lie far outside Atlanta hip-hop's mainstream. He considers Andre 3000 an influence and fashions his own similarly styled brand of Southern dandyism, but that's about as populist as his taste gets.
An early computer prodigy and former indie record label owner, Kharvari runs Digital Mass, the high-tech Chamblee studio where DigiGoodTimes records, with his business partner Sherman Kang. Attached to the studio is a warehouse that serves as the base of operations for Kang's apparel and merchandising company AP Clothing, which mass produces touring merch for some of Atlanta's most reputable rap celebrities (T.I., Future, OutKast).
During the show's early days in 2014, DigiGoodTimes' extended crew included DJ Acro Jam, Lawrence O'Connor, and Adia Lauren, all of whom have since departed though they still remain friends of the show. Lauren, a 26-year-old Clark Atlanta University graduate, became DGT's early plug into the Atlanta tech scene. Through her connections, she scored interviews with a host of Atlanta tech power players such as Burks of PartPic, Joey Womack of Amplify 4 Good, Justin Dawkins of Inflex Digital, and James Harris of Collider. Lauren's own entrance into tech came while interning in Mayor Kasim Reed's Office of Communications under director Anne Torres, who pushed her to pursue her interests in the scene. Lauren was eventually tapped by Torres to pen the original draft of Mayor Reed's 2013 Atlanta Tech Village address.
Her integral role as the woman on the mic lent DigiGoodTimes even more of something sorely lacking in tech: diversity. Like her former co-hosts, it's a problem she's well aware of. "Atlanta's tech scene is as segregated as the city is," Lauren says, explaining why the work of fostering cultural inclusion tends to fall on the shoulders of African-Americans, women, and other minorities. "We've always been better at diversifying because we've had to assimilate."
It speaks to the larger implications of DGT's mission.
"We're just a catalyst in this story, but it's really about the larger issue and getting the greater Atlanta immersed in this tech economy — especially the ones that could be the most innovative, which is the hip-hop and the music community," Small Eyez says. "Where the real shift happens is when we become the creators, and it makes sense because we created everything else."
WELCOME TO ATLANTA, where the players play. A tad played out, perhaps? Well, 15 years after Jermaine Dupri and Ludacris' Billboard hit became the city's unofficial anthem, a remix of sorts is underway. Long considered the cultural marker of the city, hip-hop's urban identity seems to run counter to the city's emerging tech scene.
The best example of that disconnect can be seen in a three-month-old promotional video produced for ChooseATL, the branding campaign funded since its inception by some of Atlanta's largest companies and civic and business incubators — including Turner Broadcasting, Invest Atlanta, and Atlanta Tech Village — to keep and attract more tech innovators to the city. Produced by the Nebo Agency, the video highlights some of Atlanta's defining qualities — the beloved tree canopy, the world's busiest airport, the placid view atop Stone Mountain.
But it renders the city's cool nearly invisible, choosing instead to reflect the growing sense of cultural homogenization reshaping Atlanta's urban core. Despite a conscious effort to highlight ethnic diversity, it paints a pretty vanilla portrait. All of which suggests the persistence of a negative perception surrounding hip-hop, one that seems to treat the culture like more of a liability than an asset in terms of marketing the new Atlanta to millennials.
When it comes to Atlanta's narrative, creating consensus has been a big challenge for years. In a diverse city full of transplants it's impossible for one story to represent an entire population. But there's also no denying how impactful Atlanta's role as hip-hop capital has been both culturally and economically.
"Atlanta is an extremely important player in the hip-hop story," says James Andrews, a former label executive and music marketer who worked with such hip-hop icons as Nas and the Fugees during his time with Columbia/Sony in the early '90s. Today, the Oakland native and hip-hop head resides in Atlanta where he's a key influencer and startup entrepreneur in the tech scene. "Atlanta's role is much more about the contributions of hip-hop culturally and globally than just record sales. I think sometimes people have a tendency to say, 'Yeah, I know hip-hop!' No, you know rap records, you know pop records, you know club records, you know strip club records. You don't understand the cultural dynamics of hip-hop."
At its core, that dynamic is made up of the same entrepreneurial spirit and innovation that fuels tech startups.
"Hip-hop is the original Lean Startup," Andrews says, referring to the book by Eric Ries that has gained a cult following based on its business development theory for using the marketplace to test and refine new products.
"That's what we did in hip-hop," Andrews continues. "There's a huge relationship between Lean Startup parlance regarding how you launch companies and how hip-hop records are made and how hip-hop culture is created." He compares the same real-time feedback loop referenced in the startup world to the 16-week process labels once utilized to break a record from the first live performance to the release of a single followed by radio and video promotion. "You start to refine the product because of the streets."
When Andrews refers to hip-hop's ability to shape trends beyond music, it includes the early adoption of social media platforms and the manifestation of Black Twitter as a phenomenon driving national dialogue. But Atlanta's role won't be evident, he argues, until we're able to articulate the cultural dynamics of a city where, at any given moment, kids with a mobile phone and a Vine account are creating the country's next viral dance craze.
"As Atlanta goes, so goes the culture," Andrews says. "We're in a very important moment — a kairos moment — right now. We need to be able to tell the story of hip-hop and tech colliding out of Atlanta because that's going to set the tone."
And what might this hip-hop/tech convergence look like?
It looks like Nas, the iconic MC turned angel investor whose diverse portfolio of more than 40 startup investments has him accelerating toward billionaire status. It looks like DJ Khaled's insane Snapchat takeover making the cover of last week's Bloomberg Business, a story in which industry insiders, including Coca-Cola's Senior Vice President for Content Emmanuel Seuge, laud the name-brand DJ as the first to truly exploit the platform's commercial potential.
And in Atlanta last September it looked like Gorlin of Roadie and Ludacris announcing their partnership to promote the Atlanta-based shipping service. In the nine months preceding Luda's partnership, the app registered 130,000 downloads. In the five months since the rapper came onboard, downloads have nearly doubled to around 250,000, Gorlin says.
Andrews likens Roadie's success since partnering with Ludacris to dropping a hot remix: "I'm watching Roadie break their thing like a record!"
The deal between Luda and Roadie came about as a result of mutual friends they share in the music business who suggested Gorlin reach out to Luda's team. Gorlin knew it was the right fit when Luda complimented Roadie's approach to bringing people together. "Our tagline is friendshipping," Gorlin says, "and as Ludacris said in his first meeting, 'Friendshipping is dope.'"
While Roadie's commercials featuring Ludacris play in rotation on classic hip-hop radio station OG 97.9, it's about more than banking on a celebrity endorsement, Gorlin says.
"You can't be doing it just to try to get a celebrity involved, nor can a celebrity do it just to make a quick buck off tech," he says. "It needs to be a symbiotic relationship between the two where you can both help each other out and go the extra mile to do it." Though Gorlin prefers to keep the deal's financial arrangements private, he makes a point to call Ludacris a partner with Roadie and says Luda doesn't hesitate to call him for advice on other tech-related ventures.
Like the DGT crew, Gorlin believes Atlanta's ripe for such cultural collisions. What's lacking is the right environment. "One of the things holding it back is sort of a natural safe place for consumer tech in town to get together with hip-hop, and even the movie side of things in town, to see how they can get together and help one another out," Gorlin says. "It's certainly happening in other cities." It's true. The best example of that might be Hollywood A-lister Ashton Kutcher, who's become one of Silicon Valley's top celeb investors, alongside the likes of Bono, Jared Leto, and MC Hammer.
Judge is equally invested in sparking a fusion. After 15 years of B2B success in cyber security, the serial entrepreneur and Atlantan is currently working on what he calls "the ultimate intersection of hip-hop and technology." He describes his next venture as MTV's "Cribs" meets Sotheby's. The startup, called Curators, will essentially be an interactive digital auction house where users can tour the homes and bid on items owned and designed by influencers and big names in music such as Pharrell, Ryan Leslie, and ASAP Ferg. Currently in beta, the development team consists of three former Morehouse College students.
But the cross-pollination that led to the development of Curators didn't happen in the hip-hop capital's backyard. It happened in Silicon Valley — at a backyard barbecue. That's where Judge met Greg Selkoe, his partner in Curators and the founder and former CEO of longtime streetwear e-commerce staple Karmaloop.com. Judge also counts Atlanta hip-hop icon Jermaine Dupri among the local tech enthusiasts he's coincidentally met on the West Coast.
Still, Judge sees Atlanta as a natural fit for the integration of technology and lifestyle.
"San Francisco may have more technologists than us but they don't have as much culture as us," he says. "Other places may have more culture but they don't have as many technologists. So if you look at the overlap — the cross-section of technologists and entertainment and culture — Atlanta has the highest density of that combination, for sure."
ChooseATL hopes to capitalize on that synergy in Austin March 13-14 when it converts the Austin Speakeasy into the ChooseATL House for SXSW's Interactive festival. Some of the weekend's featured panelists include Yik Yak's founders, "The Walking Dead's" producers, and rapper/activist Killer Mike in conversation with Shanti Das, former music industry executive and founder of R&B showcase ATL Live on the Park. It's the first big launch for what recently installed ChooseATL VP Kate Atwood hopes will become a movement to attract more tech talent to Atlanta.
"We should own the convergence of hip-hop and tech," she says. "That should be where we really make a mark." But she also believes striking the right chord to market the city is a challenge and an opportunity.
"Everybody wants Atlanta to be known for one thing, because other cities that really have an identity are known for one thing. ... The challenge is Atlanta has so much — there's not one industry, there's not one cultural corner that we want to, or that we can, really hang our hat on."
While that identity crisis might not be universally agreed upon, the reluctance to acknowledge a common narrative is real.
"Everybody knows Atlanta is disjointed," Small Eyez says. "It's not going to be easy to bring together these different subsections of Atlanta but we're working toward it."
Atwood describes the current potential for convergence like an eighth grade dance: "You've got tech on one side and you've got hip-hop on the other side. They totally want to come together and dance together, but they just don't know how to break that down." She wants to position ChooseATL as a convener between the two.
DigiGoodTimes shares that goal, even if Small Eyez and crew can't boast Choose ATL's financial backing. Their motive is driven less by an economic imperative than a conscious aim to help elevate the artistic scene they represent into the next wave of tech innovators.
"We just gotta be a part of this," Small Eyez said during the TechCrunch pitch. "The point of the show is to educate and be an advocate for us getting into the tech space in every way possible." At one point near the end of that event, I asked him whether he's harboring any other startup ideas worth pitching. After all, DigiGoodTimes is a tech startup, too — one fueled by an ahead-of-the-curve concept that's currently operating with little real funding. He has plenty of other tech brainstorms, he said. What he doesn't have right now is the capital. The show has yet to lock down any sponsors, though it's "one of the more popular shows" on AB+L Radio, according to station manager Marcus Williams.
"Their content is unique, and they draw a unique audience," he says.
For now, that amounts to social capital. The crew frequently partners with such entities as the Center for Civic Innovation and coding school General Assembly in Ponce City Market to record and throw live events. During a recent Valentine's Day party they hosted at GA called Heartbeats, Small Eyez deejayed the shindig using his iPhone and an Algoriddim app called DJay 2 that transformed his touchscreen into two digital rotating turntables. "I call it vibe-tech'ing," he said.
The trio continues to do a lot with a little.
"We're jumping into a sector where a lot of it is the haves," Preston says, "and with hip-hop it's being able to create what you can with what you have. We have enough resources to make things happen, but we're definitely taking that hip-hop approach and spirit of doing it our way and flipping it."
The Digital Good Times crew may not be holding the purse strings yet, but as cultural innovators pioneering this new convergence, they may very well be turning the key to Atlanta's tech future.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly overstated how much the Roadie app has been downloaded since Ludacris became a partner. Total downloads have reached approximately 250,000.
NEXT: See DigiGoodTimes' Top 5
The crew picks its favorite ATL-based tech startups and incubators among former show guests