This comprehensive piece interviews half a dozen Atlanta underground Rap vets, who recall a healthy harbor for NYC talent, and DJ Drama's little-known transition from Binkis Recs to Gangsta Grillz.
Researched and Written by Phillip Mlynar
All eyes are on Atlanta rapper B.o.B. right now. With his chart-topping debut album, B.o.B. Presents The Adventures of Bobby Ray, the young ATLien is aiming to join his city's Hip Hop icons Ludacris, Young Jeezy, OutKast and T.I. as certified Rap royalty. But long before Bobby Ray was staking his claim, and before Atlanta became a hit-making Hip Hop mecca, a small group of local artists started to sew the seeds for a self-sufficient underground hip-hop scene at the turn of the '90s.
With bass music dominant on the Atlanta party circuit, cats like Christopher X (now recording for Stones Throw under the name CX KIDTRONIK, then a member of K.I.N.) and H20 (now of Massinfluence, then with Yall So Stupid) found themselves part of an organic group of upcoming artists unafraid to get creative and mix their influences together. Their sound was as likely to throw in a sample of the Beastie Boys or add guitars to the mix as they were to endorse the trappings of booty-shake music or Gangsta Rap. It was a sonic blend and open-minded attitude that became influential to the independent mentality of future A-Town artists like Senor Kaos and Flux of Binkis Recs. As Talib Shabazz, owner of the town's Earwax Records, maintains, the turn of the '90s was the start of a whole new era for Atlanta Hip Hop...
H20: I moved to Atlanta in September of 1990. Nothing was happening with Hip Hop – it was all R&B; LaFace Records was running it. This was an era before OutKast and even before Jermaine Dupri. I had graduated out of high school two years before, moved to Atlanta, ran into Spearhead X, who started Yall So Stupid. I saw the underground Atlanta scene from the minute it started.
CX KIDTRONIK: The Hip Hop scene was weird in those days. You had a lot of booty music, bass music, 'cos that's the culture there with the strip clubs. It was music like Luke and 2 Live Crew would make. Though I remember Big Gipp from Goodie Mob at that time in a group called East Point Chain Gang. Lil Jon was a deejay at the time who would play House music and throw these parties called "Fried Chicken & O.E." The chicken and beer would all be gone within minutes! When he first came out with the East Side Boyz, they were on some booty music.
Senor Kaos: My earliest memory of Hip Hop in Atlanta would probably be like Splack Pack, bass music. This was the very early-'90s. OutKast and Goodie Mob and Ghetto Mafia didn't really hit until '93.
Talib Shabazz: It's fair to say that bass music was dominating then. Atlanta's Hip Hop artists were mostly on the booty-shaking side. In '93 at Earwax Records we were selling a lot of booty-shake records.
H20: There was an early Hip Hop crew called Too Krazy, and there was a group called K.I.N. that was Christopher X's group. Saul Williams was in that group also. Those dudes were dope!
CX KIDTRONIK: K.I.N. stood for Knowledge In the Name of our ancestors. It was a group that I came into. The main guy was Andre Henderson, whose name in the group was E=MC2. Our sound was very political, very theatrical – we'd sample Meat Beat Manifesto or "Too Many Puppies" by Primus, which we mixed with the end of the Beastie Boys' "The New Style." It was kinda like a Public Enemy sound but more Industrial and mixed with faster Punk Rock.
H20: K.I.N. was typical of live music in Atlanta at that time 'cause everyone played instruments. Even R&B groups would play their instruments; it was rarely programmed beats. Actually, Yall So Stupid were one of the first groups that was able to get involved in that circuit without having a band.
Talib Shabazz: Three groups really kicked off the Atlanta scene: KI.N, Yall So Stupid, and Too Krazy. K.I.N. was an integral part of the scene at that time. Christopher X was one of those people that's ahead of their time.
CX KIDTRONIK: Our stage show was crazy. We'd have three small trampolines on stage that we kept jumping on. Saul Williams was a dancer for us, and the other kid is now the deejay for the Nappy Roots, Sol Messiah. He was also a breakdancer for us. We opened for every big Hip Hop band that passed through Atlanta: Cypress Hill, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest... But we never got to release any music. We were talking about that in the last days before we ended it. At one point we were going to be the first group on Dallas Austin's Rowdy Records, but we ended things. Rowdy wound up going with Yall So Stupid and Illegal.
Senor Kaos: Some of the bigger acts that started to emerge then were Raheem The Dream, Kilo, Ghetto Mafia, The A Town Players... Then as the mid-'90s came up the Dungeon Family started to take over with OutKast, Goodie Mob, Rico Wade's Organized Noize and all those cats on the scene representing.
H20: At that point you were either on a major label or you weren't. OutKast and Goodie Mob was out and on majors, but you started to see a lot of indie records coming in.
Come the mid-'90s and OutKast and Goodie Mob's Organized Noize-produced sound was on the up. But as Andre 3000 and his associates saw their major-label-backed profile increase around the world, back home in Atlanta the next generation of hip-hop artists were beginning to see the virtue of putting their faith in the independent route. Inspired by news of the beginnings of a buoyant, grass-roots indie rap scene in New York, astute heads in Atlanta embraced the sound of Company Flow, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Bobbito Garcia's Fondle 'Em roster.
At that time Atlanta benefitted from an infrastructure suited to supporting indie rap music: Earwax Records provided a focal meeting spot and venue for in-stores; Talib Shabazz's radio show brought news of the latest underground songs from New York; locally-based publications like Elemental and Frank 151 helped spread the word about the A-Town's underground artists. Soon, out-of-town indie acts started to head to Atlanta to perform, while in return Massinfluence became indie ambassadors for Atlanta around the world...
Senor Kaos: Earwax Records was like a staple of the Atlanta indie scene. It closed late last year, but that was the number one record store here. If anyone was doing an in-store signing, it was there. It was right in the middle of Midtown, not in the 'hood, so you felt safe going there. There was definitely a community of people who were involved in the scene there, who knew all the artists, all the deejays, and all the hot shit. It was the spot to network and be seen on the indie scene.
Talib Shabazz: We were on Peachtree Street, so very conveniently located. Even though everyone says there's a hundred Peachtree Streets in Atlanta, there's only one that runs down through town and we were on it. We were right next door to Club Kaya, which during that time period got famous for DJ Nabs doing his old school Sundays.
H20: Earwax Records was the spot, and there was also another place called Tape Masters but it was in a flea market in downtown Atlanta, at Five Points.
Flux: Earwax was always the first place for me to go to get records. They was on Peachtree Street. They used to have these house parties on Sundays and all the in-stores. I remember being there and seeing [Notorious B.I.G.] and Craig Mack when they came down. Craig Mack had brought along EPMD's old deejay, K La Boss. Everything Craig Mack did he was rhyming, whether just talking or signing records – so he'd write, "To my man Flux / With the nun-chucks / Kickin' like Bruce Lee!"
Senor Kaos: Back then in Atlanta you had the resources to make people pay attention to the independent scene. You had two magazines based in Atlanta that were promoting Atlanta Hip Hop, Frank 151 and Elemental. You might live in Charlotte or Miami but you'd get a copy of them and that would open your eyes to the Atlanta scene. It created a situation where these bigger indie labels outside in New York and California would know about the scene. It lead to cats like Massinfluence and Micranots taking their music wider.
Talib Shabazz: Understand this: Atlanta's always had an independent rap scene from the '80s with cats like MC Mojo and even [MC] Shy-D started off independent. But when we started seeing really lyrical content was when you had groups like Yall So Stupid who brought through a generation of cats who came up listening to them – it was then that you started to have Micranots, Starhh Tha Femcee, Binkis Records... It was that early independent spirit that fueled the fire.
H20: The college radio stations would play lots of indie records, but often Atlanta artists themselves didn't put out their own indie records: You had like a Senor Kaos, who had a group called Vintage Imperial at the time, and Binkis Recs, who put out a record through Bobbito's Fruit Meat [Records] label. Cognito in our crew [Massinfluence] would take trips back and forth to New York to converse with the labels and deejays there.
Senor Kaos: From the New York indie artists, Company Flow was definitely getting played on the Atlanta underground scene. Georgia Tech and Georgia State radio stations would play them, the early MF DOOM songs, all the stuff on Fondle 'Em [Records], all the stuff on Rawkus [Records]. Lyricist Lounge was doing shows down here – you might have Goodie Mob being on the show but then there would also be a Punchline or a Wordsworth performing from New York, or a Co Flow or a J Treds. It was kinda meshing the two scenes together.
CX KIDTRONIK: One beat that I heard a roommate play for me that really influenced me was Company Flow's "The Fire In Which You Burn Slow." I'd always play that.
Talib Shabazz: This was the Rawkus era! I'd play all their stuff on my radio show. Also, Dilated Peoples or anything on ABB Records, and even later on cats like Akrobatik and [MC] Paul Barman.
John Robinson: One of the first links we [Scienz Of Life] made was with a publication that still exists today, in New York, which was Frank 151. Actually, the first show we ever did in Atlanta, they sponsored us and brought us down there. There was a Fat Beats there. We had a nice foundation of people that were already in tune.
H20: "Tried By 12" [by The East Flatbush Project] did really good in Atlanta; that was an instant hit. Co Flow records did well, and of course all the Rawkus stuff. Cognito, from our group Massinfluence, was actually doing promotions for Rawkus at that time. We had a hook up for bringing the Lyricist Lounge to Atlanta. I think that was the first time that Talib Kweli and Co Flow performed outside of New York. It was at this place called Club Kaya. It's the type of place where you'd now see P Diddy or Jay-Z having a birthday party. But that night, everybody who loved Hip Hop was there. Kweli performed, Co Flow performed, we had Big Gipp hosting it. I remember having a conversation with Kweli and him saying he didn't know they knew about the music out here. El-P was on stage saying, "I ain't even know my records went this far!" That was one of the nights that we got real tight with Mr. Len. We put in a little Company Flow reference on the cover of Massinfluence's "All Out b/w Analyze" 12-inch.
Flux: Locally, you had Micranots and then of course Massinfluence. There was also a group called Partz Unknown, Lyrical Giants... Binkis formed in 1997. It was a spin-off by me and my man, Jax out of a group called N.E.B.L.O.S.
Senor Kaos: Vintage Imperial was my crew. It was me and a homie who I went to high school with. We clicked instantly 'cause we were both different from a lot that was going on in Atlanta – we wasn't talking about rims and smoking weed and getting drunk, our subject matter was a little different. This was in around '98.
CX KIDTRONIK: I remember hearing Massinfluence on BET or some shit!
Senor Kaos: Massinfluence were the home-town heroes! At the time, they were the biggest Atlanta cats doing independent music. They had the best show; their stage show was crazy. You didn't want to perform after Mass 'cos they'd shut it down! They put out quality 12-inches and they had their business together. They found a way to stay independent but not stay local. A lot of cats were like, "Oh, I'm the shit in Atlanta!" But Mass were like, "No, we're the shit, period!" I respected those cats like my big brothers. Once they started hitting MTV and being in Blaze magazine, you'd see them walking down the street, doing their shit independently, and that gave hope to other people in the city.
Flux: Massinfluence was very influential. They were touring worldwide. I know Jax saw them as very inspirational business wise. Mass was like our brothers from another era. We connected with them and got to tour with them – which was how we ended up connecting with Count Bass D.
H20: We got brought over to Europe with DJ Typhoon. We went across Scandinavia, built with Boulevard Connection. I love those brothers. We'd be put on bills with like The Arsonists and High & Mighty. But before Massinfluence began performing there was a group called Datbu who released their own LP and got a lot of love in Atlanta. DJ Kemit from Arrested Development was in that group and the female emcee in their crew, named Divinity, is now the bass player for Beyonce. They motivated us to go outside of the Atlanta area.
DJ Drama's Hour
DJ Drama is known worldwide for his Gangsta Grillz empire. But before he was crafting mainstream mixtapes for Jeezy and Weezy, he was selling smooth R&B blend tapes, spinning underground Hip Hop like Company Flow and Mos Def, and very much a cog in the Atlanta indie Rap scene thanks to his early role in Binkis Recs. But as the '90s rolled on, Drama sensed an impending shift in the Hip Hop landscape and dabbled with a new sound. It was a move that paid off financially, as his one-time peers recall...
H20: DJ Drama was in Binkis Records as an underground Hip Hop deejay first. He was playing Company Flow, Mos Def, anything out of New York. He was originally from Philly and played all the grass-roots stuff.
Flux: DJ Drama was actually in Binkis around the time we created it, along with my man Spice, Mike Self and Jax. They were all going to school at Clark Atlanta University at that time. When Jax didn't enroll in his third year, he started working at Marco's Pita, which was an independently-owned black pita shop. They opened a new store and asked Jax to manage it. He had Spice and Drama work for him. That's how those relationships got built. When we started Binkis, Drama was the first deejay.
Senor Kaos: At first Drama was putting out what gets termed that "real Hip Hop" shit. It was blend tapes, Automatic Relaxation, smoother Hip Hop and R&B, then straight underground Hip Hop like Co Flow, Non-Phixion, Scienz Of Life and them. Drama was spinning those cats back in the game.
H20: I hooked up with him just seeing him in the A. I was doing illustrations and artwork for his first mixtapes called Automatic Relaxation, which was all slow R&B jams like Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. I probably did about 20 covers for Drama. He had a stand down at the college where he sold his CDs by hand, making money there and then. Every week he'd hand me a CD, a playlist and the money at the same time – I could have been on his payroll! The first Gangsta Grills was actually number two. Gangsta Grills Volume One was a promo that he gave out to people at the college just to see if they were feeling it. This was when Ludacris and Three 6 Mafia were first blowing up, and he was seeing more and more of these types of people asking him things like, "You don't have no Trick Daddy on there?" So he came with a new mix and asked me what I thought of it. I said, "So are you gonna be spinning this from now on?" He said, "I'm just selling a CD, I've got to have music on there that people want." Then he came back with part two which was mixed a whole lot better. He said people were eating that shit up. Next thing you know, you wasn't seeing any more Automatic Relaxation or Glamorous Life mixtapes from him, none of that stuff he was making his money off before.
Senor Kaos: Things just shifted and Drama realized that making mixtapes with a certain type of music on it wasn't getting him the attention and the money he wanted, so he went for a more commercial thing.
H20: It's funny, he actually didn't put the 'z' in Gangsta Grillz until about four or five CDs in to the series – he spelt it with an 's' at first. He got a drop from somebody who said, "That gangsta grizz-illz" and that was when it changed.
The Fall And The Resurrection
As the year 2000 approached, the underground independent Hip Hop scene in Atlanta found itself going through some changes. In tandem with the local infrastructure beginning to disappear, DJ Drama's prophecy about the type of Hip Hop people wanted to hear came true and rap music from Atlanta started to become synonymous with the club-ready, trap-Rap that dominates the charts today. Slowly, the focus on Atlanta indie Rap faded.
But those still active on the Atlanta underground maintain that now, in 2010, it's as creative as ever and prepped for a resurgence. Later this year Massinfluence will drop a new project with new member Rubix; CX KIDTRONIK is putting together a solo album for Stones Throw Records that features DOOM; Flux is carrying on the Binkis legacy and working on a documentary; Senor Kaos is finishing up his album, The Kaos Effect; and Shabazz runs the recording spot Solar Sound Studio. Throw in the increasing number of out-of-town rappers deciding to move to the A, plus a new generation of artists like Aleon Craft and Hollyweerd bringing a fresh, hipper twist on Atlanta Rap, and the scene seems set to once more shine...
Senor Kaos: Slowly, things in the Atlanta scene disappeared. Elemental went to New York, Frank 151 went to New York. People weren't checking for Atlanta indie Rap 'cause they didn't know what was going on out here. Then the climate of the music changed. The pre-Crunk era was starting to gain momentum in Atlanta so the more lyrical stuff took a back seat. It was like going back to the early-'90s with the Bass music in that you had to have a dance to go with your song. The artists were still here but the climate of the music had changed, and with that there were no more indie labels outside of Atlanta wanting to put out Atlanta music like Massinfluence and Micranots.
H20: Looking back, you had a lot of groups in Atlanta that didn't really put out records. You didn't really start seeing a whole lot of Atlanta groups until this thing with the Internet popped up and blogs and free shareware and trading downloads started to happen. Now everybody can see everybody!
Talib Shabazz: I just think things changed and it went further underground. After the turn of the century the mainstream got focussed on Atlanta and you didn't really hear about the underground. That just forced the underground to go really underground.
Senor Kaos: There's a stigma about being from Atlanta that says that you've got to be rapping about selling dope and white tees and old school Cutlasses with the rims on it. That's cool, and it's definitely part of Atlanta's history, but at the same time you got people in Atlanta who are influenced by music outside of Atlanta and that reflects in what they do.
Flux: The indie scene is always here – it's just the times and the methods have changed. Some groups stopped doing stuff, some groups broke up. You've still got Mass doing it. You've got a lot of cats moving here since the early-2000s: MF DOOM moved here, Scienz Of Life, Count Bass D's just moved down here. We've got a lot of people still coming through, and a lot of groups in Atlanta are just underexposed.
Talib Shabazz: Atlanta's new wave is really sick! I'm just waiting for someone to figure out how to put these guys on a national level. I mean Aleon Craft is Big Marc from the Backwudz, and this dude's shit is phenomenal! Atlanta's underground right now is a real diamond – we just had to go through those years of coal.