Following up from my last blog about what I have been doing at SIF, I wanted to go in to deeper detail of on the Rap Map project I have been working on. The reason I wanted to discuss this one particular project at length is because it is near completion i.e. we are hoping to take a few layers of it live on ATL Maps within the next few weeks. But also because this project has been sort of a journey for me at a personal level.
As I have spent the last 5 weeks pouring through hundreds of song lyrics and videos, I have started to pick up patterns that have existed in music all along but were lost because we are not used to taken the whole musical body of work by an artist as one big performance piece. Stay with me on this – The way this project is laid out allows one to actually consider each artist not by one album but by their whole catalogue. And when you consider that whole catalogue as one piece of work, the nuances and complexity of their work truly comes through. Yes – Each album is beautiful or horrible on its own. But the entire catalogue is almost always various shades of brilliance that is reflective of an artist’s personal experience. And that is what I want to talk about in this blog post; artistic journeys that are heavily influenced by the city and locale.
The initial phase of this project has focused on three major Atlanta artists; OutKast, Ludacris and Childish Gambino aka Donald Glover (Community and Atlanta). The selection of these three over others is down to my personal preference but also the chronology they set up for this project going forward. OutKast was the original Atlanta sound. As mentioned in last week’s blog, Atlanta found its sound over a period of time and eventually it was the Dungeon Family that finally broke through in the early 90s to give this city a definitive voice. OutKast were the first major promoters and creators of this sound. It was raw, distinct, local and infused the Southern music experience in to hip hop. It did not talk about the hardships of Bronx but the difficulties of making it in a city that was still new to the idea of making it.
Then came Ludacris in the early 2000s with a sound that was more commercial success friendly. The feuds, the show off of wealth and pride of the new south were what the music was all about for him. His work met with significant commercial success but with quantity came the problem of quality. And late in to 2000s came Childish Gambino with a more mature sound that went past the pride of the new south or the feuds of the 2000s that had dominated the music scene. His sound was earthy, in your face about the realities of living in a city like Atlanta and explained the feelings of what it meant to try while the odds were stacked against you.
So for me, to do this project right I had to get a feel of this city and its music’s evolution. These three artists succinctly sum up that experience of the last 20 years across 20+ albums in a manner that gives us the story we want. This project helps me highlight the trends that are common across the three artists and generally the music that has originated in Atlanta. The city has had a major impact on music and it has shaped the evolution of artists in the last couple of decades. The major trends I have observed and are laid out in much more detail with explanation and relevant lyrics are going to be available in ATL Maps soon. But I would like to talk about a few of them here first.
South of Five Points
The story goes that there are two Atlantas. The one north of Five Points and the one south of it. The history of hip hop in Atlanta is exclusively the history of Atlanta that exists South of Five Points. I originally started this project with a hypothesis that as an artist started making it, they would start playing venues and start mentioning landmarks closer to Five Points and North of it. That hypothesis is somewhat supported in the initial phase of this project.
Starting with OutKast, majority of their earlier albums talk exclusively about South West of Atlanta. Greenbriar Mall and Bankhead are the setting of their adventures and daily life struggles. Ludacris talks about College Park and East Point in most of his earlier songs. Childish Gambino has the same flow of music with the exception of multiple mentions of Stone Mountain and Decatur (The Memorial Drive side). The way I laid out the project was to track the mention of local landmarks across their songs. Now in all cases, the earlier works for each artist have heavy mentions of where they are from and the areas that are stages for their life.
But there is also aspiration to move up in the world and that is what Lennox Mall mentions signify in nearly all instances. For example, ‘Air force one in the A-town, And you know where I’m headed, To the Lennox Mall, To get it done head to toe, N.W.A. style’ is from a song called Call Up the Homies by Ludacris from his fourth album while ‘Any charges set against me, chunk it up and stand tall, Next year I’m lookin in to buyin Greenbriar Mall, You probably own a lot of property! BLOW IT OUT YA ASS’ is from the song Blow it Out from the second album. The earlier work talks about taking over the area mall to stamp local cred. But once he gets major commercial success, the aspirations are no longer about Greenbriar or even East Point/College Park, they are about Lennox or Buckhead. This is also couched in another phenomenon I observed which I discuss next.
Forgetting Local When Going Global
More so than anyone else, Ludacris’ music proves this point. As he got commercial success and became a more nationally known artists, the mentions of his hometown dropped from his lyrics. Whereas his first album had 6 mentions of local landmarks, his fourth album had one. That is visible in the case of OutKast as well.
But Ludacris’ music also provides insight in to another phenomenon. After his fourth album tanked, he went back to his roots and came out with a fifth album that includes at least four songs out of 12 that have strong mentions of Atlanta specific locations. The logic for this, I argue, is that once an artist becomes big enough, they are forced to ditch Atlanta as their home base in favor of New York or LA. Without their home base, the commercial success rolls in but it is not sustainable as it takes away the quintessential Atlanta sound that made their music wonderful in the first place. So when the commercial success eases up, they are forced to go back to their roots to rediscover the lyrics and music that gave them cred in the first place.
In essence then the city and its environment is critical to the sound of these artists. The landmarks, the experiences and the struggles of this city are what their music is based on and one you take that away, their aspiration of making north of Five Points is gone. And with that goes the X factor in their music.
As we dig deeper in to music of other major artists, I hope to find further evidence of these trends. For now, what I know is this city has influenced sounds that have received commercial success only when they have stayed loyal to the city. Once that connection is broken, the commercial success erodes as the originality withers away.