A3C Independent Hip-Hop Festival
Now in its third year, the A3C Festival seems poised to draw considerable attention to Atlanta's beleaguered underground hip-hop scene. Organized by Arc the Finger Records, the three-day event will include dozens of acts from around the country, and give some much-needed shine to a community overshadowed by the city's world-famous urban music industry.
When outsiders, including this writer, think of Atlanta indie rap, they think of artists such as MF Doom, Danger Mouse, Scienz of Life, Massinfluence, Hemispheres and even legendary transplant acts such as Public Enemy and KRS-One. But most of those groups thrived in the late '90s and early '00s – a period when music fans viewed underground hip-hop as a viable alternative to Puff Daddy and his shiny-suit brand of pop-rap.
A decade later, many of the college students who once helped those acts sell tens of thousands of CDs give their allegiance to indie rock. Music critics and tastemakers champion "crack rap" kingpins such as Young Jeezy and T.I. while lambasting indie hip-hop as wonky verbiage by hopelessly idealistic "backpackers." Meanwhile, most of the acts from Atlanta's late '90s renaissance either went on hiatus or moved out of the city. "[The scene] took a little break," says J-Mil of Collective Efforts. As a result, the quality of Atlanta's underground hip-hop music isn't as compelling as it once was.
Today, Psyche Origami is arguably the best-known underground hip-hop act in Atlanta. As Arc the Finger's top artist, the trio has completed several cross-country tours, and is slowly garnering national attention. "Over the past few years, we've been able to make quite a bit of a name for ourselves," says rapper Wyz.
Despite his group's success, however, Wyz feels pessimistic about the state of the Atlanta hip-hop community. "The more mainstream and commercial aspects of the city have really put its foot on the neck of the underground and independent scene here," Wyz says. "It's almost an oxymoron within itself: An underground hip-hop what? Wait, don't you mean mainstream rap? It's like, no, we do something different."
Underground hip-hoppers often define themselves in opposition to the mainstream rap heard on the radio. "Atlanta's known for crunk and snap music. And there's nothing wrong with that," says Kel of Alpha Noise Project. "But it's nice to have local artists that are doing more conscious music." That doesn't mean, however, that they all sound the same. There are endless varieties, from soulful and jazzy artists such as Collective Efforts; and classic boom-bap groups such as Psyche Origami; to swaggering rap acts such as Supreeme and Gripplyaz.
"We're like the black sheep of the Atlanta underground, no pun intended," says Quality from Proton. With an aesthetic closer to J-Dilla than A Tribe Called Quest, Proton doesn't necessarily fit in with Atlanta's indie rappers or rap ballers. "In other cities, there's not such a division between underground and mainstream," he says wistfully. For example, in San Francisco, hyphy rapper Mistah F.A.B. makes records with the politically conscious Zion-I, while Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets recently appeared on a track with rap superstars E-40 and Snoop Dogg. But here in Atlanta, it's unlikely you'll ever hear Ludacris jamming with Collective Efforts (although, to be fair, Psyche Origami performed at a Ludacris concert last year).
Perhaps rap groups of different styles need to band together. The city's crunk rappers could use an alternative outlook: For all their success, the likes of Yung Joc and Young Jeezy are often criticized for being too simplistic and one-dimensional. Meanwhile, underground rappers could learn how to make music that resonates beyond their narrow audience.
"It's about the community. If the community doesn't get something together, then it's just going to be a stagnant scene with one perspective," J-Mil says. He adds that Atlanta consists of "a million different cultures, a million different neighborhoods and million different scenes. When all of them come together, that's what makes Atlanta hip-hop what it is."