Russ finally becomes a hometown favorite

The international hip-hop star's quantity of music has built a quality fanbase

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Between 2011 and 2013, Atlanta-based rapper and producer Russ Vitale, better known simply as Russ, confined himself to his home studio in Kennesaw, Georgia. He recorded 11 full-length albums and released each one online. Despite his efforts, no one in Atlanta or anywhere else seemed to notice. By 2014, the Italian-American artist was in battle mode, producing and mixing new songs to release once a week via Soundcloud. At first, Russ was the guy spamming music journalists and bloggers on Twitter. But after being ignored, he started picking up fans on his own, so he allowed them to share the songs they liked. Soon, 36 of Russ’ songs surpassed one million plays, positioning him as one of the most popular artists on Soundcloud.

Last summer, Russ, now 23-years-old, signed with Columbia Records, and has since appeared in the 2016 BET Hip-Hop Awards Cypher, and embarked on two solo tours, including his current Yung God North American Tour. Most nights sell-out quickly.

Russ shows love to each city by wearing a jersey representing its home team. Crowds reciprocate by chanting the words to all of his songs making him feel at home — a feeling that Russ never felt in Atlanta. But now that the rest of the country is behind him, this reception in Atlanta has changed. In August, he played a sold-out show in Hell at the Masquerade. “Do you know how many times I’ve done this venue?” he asked from the stage, rocking a throwback Atlanta Hawks Dikembe Mutombo jersey. “The most people I ever had in here was 30, and now we’ve sold this bitch out.”

Russ credits his success to not relying on anyone else something he raps about in the song, "Do It Myself," offering up lines such as “No one taught me / I was like damn / Fuck it I'll do it myself.”

Straight-to the point, other songs such as "Manifest" and "Potential" are the reasons why Russ' music resonates with so many people. Russ prides himself on being a minimalist. "I just live my life and pay attention to what's going on around me," he says. "There are a million things to talk about but people aren't tuned in enough to their own life. My songs aren't elaborate, I'm not making abstract songs called 'Blueberries In The Sky.' I'm just doing regular shit. I'm not thinking too hard, I'm all about feeling."

These days, Russ has scaled back his schedule to releasing just one song per month. He still has plenty of things to say, he's just not at home as much anymore. In 2015, he signed with A-list talent agency CAA via mega-manager Cara Lewis (Eminem, Kanye West, Tupac Shakur). Lewis left the company, but Russ went with her, keeping her as his booking agent. The pairing of her experience with his endless catalog of music led to him selling out solo shows in New York and Belgium independently.

The faces in the audience were quite telling of who Russ is and what he represents in the context of Atlanta’s music and social history. He wound up in Atlanta during high school after his family lived in North Carolina and Kentucky. Much of fanbase is in their early-20s, and heavily influenced by the internet. Some were just learning to walk when Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was torn down to make way for Turner Field, and are now entering early-adulthood as the Braves relocate to SunTrust Park in Cobb County. They could barely talk when Big Oomp Records was popping, but they will chant “ATL hoe” without batting an eyelash. That spectrum of 20-year change is captured in the reaction to Russ’ music. “I think I am what Atlanta is looking for right now,” he says over the phone from Minneapolis, moments before performing for another sold-out crowd. “In the past, the city wasn’t ready to co-sign something so different from what the typical Atlanta “trap” sound was. But it’s time for some new shit, musically. The best music to come out of here has always been legendary, not regional.”

Russ plays Center Stage on Tues., Nov. 22. $24-$65-$400 (VIP). 8 p.m. 1374 West Peachtree St. 404-885-1365. www.centerstage-atlanta.com.

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