Just as country music is made in Nashville, hip-hop is made in Atlanta. This is the town where the agenda is set, where the competition is cutthroat, where young rappers are discovering new ways to make English sound cool, and where their even-younger beat-makers are grinding away behind the curtains, discreetly running the show.
“We’re the foundation of this stuff,” says Sonny Digital, a 23-year-old producer currently churning out some of the most bonzo music in town. “We know what needs to be heard. And everybody’s listening.”
That breezy poise is common among Atlanta’s rising network of young hip-hop producers. This is a scene that rewards collaboration, rivalry and risk – echoing the teamwork, gamesmanship and freaky acts of aesthetic courage that birthed American jazz. The futuristic sound that these producers are pushing in 2014 is intoxicatingly aggressive, seductively sleek and difficult to ignore.
And while Atlanta has been a nationally recognized hot spot since superstar producer Jermaine Dupri built his empire here in the early ’90s, the city has been consistently rejuvenating itself as hip-hop’s capital and Shangri-La – through the cosmic slop of OutKast and Goodie Mob, through the strip club anthems of Lil Jon and Ludacris, through the street rap of T.I. and Jeezy, through the influential eccentricity of Gucci Mane, through the cyborg balladry of Future. Rap stars from New York, Los Angeles and Miami quietly keep second homes in the Atlanta area, too, trying to keep close to hip-hop’s pulse.
This summer, the city’s dominance has been felt through a rising class of innovators and weirdos, including Young Thug, Migos, Rich Homie Quan and Makonnen – rappers eager to jump on strange beats and try precarious things with their throats.
“Atlanta is a place to try things out,” says Alex Tumay, the in-house engineer at DARP, which recently rebranded itself as Urban Angels Studios. “You don’t want to be the guy who sounds like somebody else.”
Accordingly, Tumay describes the music being crafted at the studio this summer as “totally f—ing surreal” – primarily because a lot of it is being funneled to Young Thug, the studio’s steadiest client and the most astonishing new rapper to crash land on America since Lil Wayne.
There are three big hip-hop radio stations here in Atlanta, and on a balmy weekend in August, barely 10 minutes go by without any of them broadcasting Thug’s brilliant, blurry, occasionally postverbal babblings.
But the producers hunkering down at the studio say they don’t listen to the radio all that much. Radio is too slow. The record industry? Way too slow. The rap blogosphere is faster, but barely fast enough. They know they’re living in the torrid epicenter of this music.
Everyone else is racing to keep up.
Like so many rising Atlanta trailblazers, Metro Boomin is incredibly young (20) and grew up somewhere else (St. Louis).
He started making beats on the laptop he got for Christmas in seventh grade. In high school, back when he was knocking out nearly five beats every day, his mom would drive him eight hours to Atlanta so he could spend his weekends collaborating with rappers he met online.
He got his start working with a rapper named Tay Don, which led to a meeting with OJ Da Juiceman, then Alley Boy, then Gucci Mane, then Future. He graduated high school and enrolled Morehouse College – “I always knew the music was here,” he says – but he bagged his studies after a semester, leaving the dorms to crash at Sonny Digital’s apartment. Now they’re neighbors. “That’s my big brother, too,” Metro says.
Spinning in a swivel chair, his hair shoots out of his bandana toward the ceiling like an anime character’s. He seems at home, but also happy to be here, happy that he’s no longer working with rappers through a DSL connection.
“If they want to do something, we gotta get in the session,” Metro says. “That’s how the best songs get made. Sometimes you’ll get a hit off the e-mail, but I’d rather do it here in person.”
These days, a majority of hip-hop gets made anonymously, with producers and rappers collaborating remotely over computers. But Metro says quality work requires real-time interaction (something that also requires that he live in Atlanta). Being here has allowed him to forge creative relationships with artists that go far beyond supplying sonic wallpaper.
“I know their hops,” he says, referring to a rapper’s vocal cadences. “I know their tones – and they know I know. So we polish, and polish, and polish.”
He also knows how to coach and capture spontaneity. On Future’s “Karate Chop,” Young Thug’s “The Blanguage,” and the rappers’recent duet, “Chanel Vintage,” Metro pushes the vocalists toward the margins of their voices. “That’s the difference between a producer and a beat-maker,” Metro says. “You need someone to walk in there and turn a beat into a damn hit.”
[Warning: The music embedded in this story contains explicit lyrics.]
“Chanel Vintage” hasn’t caught on as a hit yet, but its walloping beat is illustrative of Metro’s ability to pummel listeners into delirium. It also offers a glimpse into the chaotic handshake economics of the scene, where producers frequently give artists free tracks in hopes of building long-term creative partnerships. Metro declines to go into the financial details of “Chanel Vintage,” but the song is being sold on iTunes under Metro’s name, suggesting that Future’s and Young Thug’s verses were repayment for beats Metro had previously gifted them.
But like rap’s anarchic star system and the mutating aesthetics that guide it, the economics of this music are in a perpetual state of unrest. “Some people will produce for a shout-out and a chain,” Metro says. “And I’ve been there. But nah, bro. You gotta pay me now.”
Southside, who has been tapping away at his laptop, chimes in. “Oh, I want some of that SoundExchange [performance royalties], too,” he says. “I want some of everything! I’ll go in there with a gun and get it!”
Everyone in the studio busts out laughing because this may or may not be true.
On Tuesday, Aug. 12, everything changed for Makonnen Sheran.
Drake – a global pop star with good taste and tremendous influence – dropped a surprise remix of Makonnen’s creamy and obscure mixtape cut “Club Goin Up (On A Tuesday),” instantly making the 25-year-old outsider the talk of the Atlanta rap bubble and beyond.
Soon after, a video surfaced of Makonnen listening to the remix for the first time. “There’s no way this is real right now!” he says in the clip.
A week later, Makonnen was in New York, answering phone calls with far more composure, rattling off the traits that must have grabbed Drake’s ear: “The creativity, the fearlessness, the confidence to be different and embrace yourself.” A few weeks later, he announced that he signed with Drake’s OVO Sound label.
“These major artists can make a difference,” says Sonny Digital, who co-produced “Club Goin Up” with Metro Boomin. “Drake hopping on that song changed Makonnen’s career from Monday to Tuesday.”
But Drake isn’t the only one listening for the sounds wafting from Sonny’s home studio. “These labels, they’re watching,” the producer says, pointing out his window. “They got telescopes on Atlanta, trying to see what’s going on.”
Sonny holds his Midtown apartment so dear that he recently had the address tattooed onto his stomach. He calls the place “legendary,” but it definitely looks like the former party spot he says it used to be. Go up the creaky stairs, past the stripper pole and hanging above his workstation you’ll find a gold record plaque for YC’s “Racks,” the song that officially catapulted Sonny into the industry system in 2011.
“And once you catch a hit, people expect another one,” Sonny says. “Then another one, then another one. You’re constantly proving yourself. You don’t want to change? You have to change.”
He’s describing his short career, but the wild metabolism of contemporary hip-hop, too. This is a genre where, generally speaking, young producers are expected to build their reputations from scratch through mixtapes, album-sized collections of songs that rappers give away for free online. The practice has been going on for more than a decade.
Even more generally speaking: A generous rapper might float a few thousand dollars up front to a reputable producer for a mixtape track, but many rising beat-makers will work with a buzzy artist pro bono, hoping fans will begin to associate the artist with their sound. Then, when the artist records a proper album for a proper label, the producer hopes to get a phone call and later, a sizable check.
Or maybe a song migrates from a mixtape to an album, as in the case of Future’s “Same Damn Time,” produced by Sonny Digital for a mixtape in 2011, and released as a single from Future’s major label debut album in 2012. Different songs follow different, totally haphazard paths. Along the way, there can be lots of back-scratching, finger-crossing, bridge-burning and tongue-wagging.
But Sonny, whose cool Georgia drawl disguises how fast he’s actually talking, sees the entire mixtape system evaporating sooner than later. “It’s more about the songs,” he says. “With [streaming sites such as] SoundCloud, people can hear you right away. I can put a track out right now if I want to. That’s the beauty of it.”
And the pressure of it, too. This is culture-steering art being made at very high speeds.
“But that’s what drives you, you know?” he says. “It’s all a big gamble. We just roll the dice every day. Every. Day. We’re all playing off hope. We’re all depending on each other for making something happen.”
It’s Saturday afternoon at Tree Sound Studios, a labyrinthine recording complex 30 minutes north of the city.
Inside, Rae Sremmurd – a teenage duo who moved to Atlanta from Tupelo, Miss., two years back – are listening to their new single “No Type,” punching the air as if they’re hearing it on the radio for the first time.
The stoic in the Dodgers jersey presiding over the control board is their patron and producer, Mike Will Made It. His convoluted stage name originally meant that he was the guy who made the beat you were listening to. Now it means that every producer in Atlanta wishes they were him. He’s 25 years old.
His story starts like everyone else’s. “I have a 200-song catalogue in the streets,” the Atlanta native says of his early mixtape output, “and I never got any money off that.”
But the cash started flowing once he began elbowing his way onto the radio, producing hit singles for Future, Juicy J, Rihanna and others. He quickly caught the attention of record-biz uber-mogul Jimmy Iovine, who helped Will launch his own label, Ear Drummers. And in 2013, Will took a bold step into popland as the executive producer of Miley Cyrus’s controversial career re-boot “Bangerz.” It wasn’t his best work, but it was easily his biggest success, a fact that surprised everyone but him.
“If you know the girl, you know she’s swagged up,” Will says of Cyrus, who he nudged toward hip-hop and then toward urban radio. “I told the label, ‘What we gon’ do? Barbeque or mildew?’ And it was a trend-setting move.”
A lot of Will’s alchemical skill has to do with tempo and his ability to make something too fast or too slow feel just right. Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” might seem sluggish, while Future’s recent single, “Move that Dope,” feels hurried. But both were produced by Will and both ended up being hits.
More importantly, he knows how to get artists to bend toward pop, a talent he began to hone as a teenager, producing beats for Gucci Mane, the rapper who looms largest over this electric moment in Atlanta hip-hop.
“I told people Gucci was gonna take over the game. They thought I was trippin’,” Will says. “Now I’m seeing all these talents going from nothing and taking over the game.”
As for his young signees, Rae Sremmurd, the idea is to start at the top. The duo’s ecstatic summer hit, “No Flex Zone,” circumvented the channels that most artists use to ascend: it never appeared on a mixtape. If you wanted to own it, you had to buy it.
“With my artists, we aren’t dropping s— for free,” Will says. “If if it’s on [the free mixtape site] LiveMixtapes, fans are gonna get it for free on LiveMixtapes. If you put it on iTunes, they’re gonna pay for it on iTunes.”
That business savvy has gone a long way in the board rooms and recording studios of Los Angeles, where Will is doing a lot of his work these days. But the night before, Will was on his native coast, up on a nightclub stage behind Rae Sremmurd, reigning over the epicenter of hip-hop, making sure the teenagers of Atlanta saw his jewelry sparkling in the bright lights.
“I got to this point quicker than I expected, but I still love making this music with these new artists,” he says. “I love Atlanta. This is all I know.”
Note: This story has been updated to reflect the re-branding of the recording studio previously known as DARP.