Neo-soul is a major musical and cultural force in Atlanta, but that wasn't always the case. A little more than a decade ago, there were no sisters in head wraps performing at venues such as Apache Café, no DJs spinning rare grooves at the Harlem Bar and no one listening to the music of British soul reanimators such as Omar or Incognito.
Then came Ken Batie.
Batie's actual career title was "radio personality." From 1985 to the summer of 2005, he worked as a jock (often with longtime partner-in-crime Ken Rye) at Clark Atlanta University's radio station, WCLK-FM (91.9). Though WCLK was primarily a jazz station, Batie experimented with emerging styles of soul music during a time when the sound was still called acid jazz. He also promoted shows and DJed at venues such as the legendary Ying Yang Café. By doing so, he exposed the still-new genre – later called "neo-soul" – to a young audience hungry for more than the bass music and gangster rap of the early '90s.
Before long, his young audience began to pick up its own instruments and started writing and performing. Over time, these artists – India.Arie, Anthony David, Van Hunt, Jiva and Donnie, among countless others – would reach music fans around the world. All of them credit Batie's mentorship as a primary reason for their success.
Batie suffered from poor health in recent years. But he was still active on the scene, and even launched an online radio website, HotIceOnline .com, after his WCLK show ended. Tragically, it was a car accident, not one of his ailments, that claimed his life on Feb. 12. The soul community immediately responded with a candlelight vigil at Clark Atlanta University; a public funeral for him that attracted hundreds of people, from family members to musicians and artists; and a memorial jam session at Underground Atlanta's Sugarhill.
Here, a few of Ken Batie's friends and the artists he influenced reminisce over the godfather of Atlanta's progressive-soul scene.
Jamal Ahmad, DJ: "A lot of the artists and musicians owe a lot to Ken. He was truly the first guy to play their music. You have to understand, independents aren't getting any radio play. Ken's show was immensely popular. So if you're getting play on that show, you're getting some serious spins. At one point, Ken had 200,000 listeners in the '90s. He had a lot of listeners because what he was doing was so unique, and people were fiending for it."
Ken Rye, friend/business partner: "The one thing that people don't understand about musicians, and artists in general, is that there's an incubator that they go through. During that time, they're trying to develop confidence in themselves, streamline and fine-tune their skills, and develop confidence to get where they need to be. People would come to Batie at that stage. 'Can you play a couple of tracks from my CD?' 'Can you come and listen to me play here?' He would hear them, understand it and respect it. To the point that it was worthy for widespread distribution, he would put it out there."
Son Christopher, poet: "Groovement was the first soul compilation to come out of the Atlanta scene and have a distinct and unique sound. During all of that, Ken was the guy that was our mentor, our guide and the one we feel gave us the wings to keep moving forward – even when things got rough, and we weren't sure how to work with one another. Some people left. Some people stayed on. Ken was always there, mentoring us."
Anthony David, singer/songwriter: "He was encouraging as hell. For me, my first recordings and stuff, I wasn't really that sure [if what I was doing was good]. Especially the first record. He would give me a lot of encouragement about it. To me, he was a guy you could always count on for a good smile and good words.
"He was a link to the different generations [in the local soul scene]. He was our link to the Mother's Finest and S.O.S. Band era [of the '70s and '80s]. He is a torchbearer and a carrier of tradition in that way."
Donnie, singer/songwriter: "Ken Batie was one of the first people in Atlanta to give me exposure. I did a radio interview with him back in the mid-'90s at WCLK. ... He was very supportive in my efforts to really get out there. He's responsible for a lot of people's careers, such as mine and India.Arie's."
Jamal Ahmad: "[During the last few years] Ken was working on his website, HotIceOnline.com. He was also dealing with a lot of health issues that stopped him from doing a lot. But he was DJing here and there, and getting some things in motion. And then this happened."
Ken Rye: "[Batie and I] would talk about crazy stuff like, 'Who'd you have play at your funeral? Who would be your dream concert?' So in a lot of ways it came together just like that. ... It was a very music-intensive funeral. Julie Dexter came through and did 'God Bless the Child.' I was trying to be cool, but I almost broke down when she sang that."
Julie Dexter, vocalist: (Laughs.) "I tried to hold it together. Yeah, it was one of the hardest performances I've ever done. I've never sung at somebody's funeral before that I'm close to. ... I wanted to be with everybody else, crying and shit, and I had to hold it together for this song. ... People told me that I did him proud, and that's all I wanted to do."
In addition to his many friends and supporters, Ken Batie leaves behind wife Lisa, and 8-month-old twins Kenneth and Kennedy. Those who wish to contribute to the Kenneth A. Batie Memorial Fund at Wachovia Bank can mail contributions to: P.O. Box 78422, Atlanta, GA, 30357-2422.