It's shortly after 10 on a Friday night and Stankonia Studios is getting crowded. Members of local rap duos Retro Sushi and FatKidsBrotha pace the control room or sprawl out on brown leather couches, while Hollyweerd's Go Dreamer sits at the monitor in a Pro Tools trance. A heated argument about Ja Rule is cut short when someone notices Major Payne is playing on the muted TV in the corner. Meanwhile, the track they're working on has grown hypnotic with repetition, though it stays unfinished: just a beat, a hook, and a shout-out to Two-9 on a loop for the rest of the night.
Founded three years ago, Atlanta rap collective Two-9 was the brainchild of local beatmaker Key, who says the goal was to start a "conglomerate," or, put another way, "a record label in reverse." He sold his friend Curtis Williams on the idea, and together they roped in a number of longtime collaborators including Retro Sushi and FatKidsBrotha, along with an extended family of other producers and rappers like Wavy Wallace, Damien, and Money Makin Nique.
If they remain well under the radar, it's not for lack of trying. With their resourceful social media push and passion for the arduous, old-fashioned work involved in the rap grind, from sleeping on couches to the chaos of dank, underlit club shows, they haven't slowed down since they started. This month, the group has earned a spot at the A3C Hip-Hop Festival performing alongside a daunting lineup of, among others, veterans of the very rap collectives who paved the way for Two-9's existence, like Wu-Tang and the Dungeon Family. If they weren't so busy, they'd probably be nervous.
As a date of birth, 2009 is accurate enough, but the roots of the crew go back much further. Ceej and Jace of Retro Sushi went to high school together, and Johnny and DavE of FatKidsBrotha are in fact brothers. Curtis and Key met as 10-year-olds living in the same neighborhood. "He [Williams] did all the music first," Key says. "I was kinda just a little thug."
"We grew up around these people," Williams says. "We're going to the same parties, we went to the same schools — we were just always around everybody." This sense of community comes through in their music, and in their videos as well, like the drunken backyard barbecue in their most popular clip for "Scottie 2 Hottie" (Key's the one with the pajama pants and the assault rifle, Curtis is the one who keeps getting distracted by his phone).
Key and Williams both credit regional rap styles like Bay Area hyphy and Atlanta crunk and snap music as their gateways into hip-hop. "A lot of dumb shit," as Key puts it, though you can hear the influence of these sounds in much of Two-9's own output, which takes cues from both the Internet-era underground and the strip club circuit.
Most of the members have been releasing music for years in various guises, but it's Two-9 Forever, the group mixtape released over the summer, that best embraces the contrast, veering comfortably from such hyperactive fight anthems as "9" to the blissed-out introspection of "Shake Em Off." Key calls it "a walk through our history," and the result is one of the most impressive local releases of the year.
With a growing online presence, a slate of out-of-town shows, and endorsements from figures like Killer Mike, Juicy J, and A$AP Rocky, the collective has gained momentum in recent months. Opening and producing for bigger artists has given them a glimpse into an industry they're still circling suspiciously. "It's funny," Key says. "A lot of these people are dickheads. It shows me what I don't want to be."
As thrilled as they are at the attention, they're more focused on their local following than the online hype cycle. There's a refreshing humility to the way they talk about their ambitions. "Everybody wants to be the best rapper or best producer or best whatever," Curtis says, "I'm not really worried about being the best. I'm worried about being the best Two-9, that's it. Making sure Two-9 is doing exactly what I know we're capable of doing."
Back at Stankonia, after the session has ended, Ceej and Jace linger in the parking lot smoking menthols and arguing about whether or not the person who just entered the studio was Miami rapper Gunplay. Having decided to their satisfaction that it was, they move on to other matters. "What's that one band that's the greatest band ever?" Jace asks. "Supertramp," Ceej answers immediately, and Jace nods in recognition.
Stamping out their cigarettes, they envision a tour that would involve the whole collective, stressing that this is the way they'd all like to proceed — as a group rather than as individuals. "We like doing this shit together," Jace says shrugging. "That's the whole point."
From headliners like Big Boi to West Coasters like Ab-Soul to East Coasters like Freeway to ATL's own Danny!, this fest covers every corner of the hip-hop nation