Atlanta's hip-hop community has thrived in the last decade, but it seems that not all local studio owners are thrilled about it.
A year ago, when this column began, it featured Chicago's Engineering And Recording Society (EARS) and the Philadelphia Recording Community as examples of how hyper-local, grassroots groups can come together in an organic way and foster a sense of community among a region's recording businesses. It might be fitting, a year later, to look at another city, itself a major recording centre, but one that has been unable to reconstruct the local unity of its past.
The state capital of Georgia is also the capital of hip-hop. Atlanta was viewed as neutral territory after the East-West rap wars of the early 1990s. Local pioneers like Kris Kross and TLC were eventually joined by Outkast, Kilo Ali and Goodie Mob, and later Ludacris, Lil Jon, TI, and genre-benders like Danger Mouse. Hip-hop arrived in Atlanta to find a well-developed recording infrastructure already in place, with commercial facilities including Doppler, Crawford, Tree Sound, Southern Tracks, Purple Dragon (the last two now closed) and a few others, some of which have been around at least a quarter of a century. The Atlanta Society of Audio Professionals (ASAP) was also a robust group in the mid-1990s, linking facilities with a shared passion for the technology of sound.
But like other distinct cultural institutions, hip-hop began to develop its own infrastructure. Producers LA Reid and Kenneth 'Babyface' Edmonds had founded LaFace Records in Atlanta in 1989, signing artists including Usher, Toni Braxton and TLC. Reid's publishing company, Hitco, is still based there. LaFace were at the leading edge of a wave of successful producers who started or bought studios and helped turn Atlanta into what the local paper called "the Motown of the South”. It even began to inhabit pieces of old Atlanta: the former Soundscape Studios became Bobby Brown's Bosstown and now Outkast's private facility, Stankonia. Then, personal studios for entrepreneurial producers such as Jermaine Dupri, Dallas Austin and the late Shakir Stewart mushroomed, followed by countless spare rooms equipped with Akai MPCs and Pro Tools LE, which one commercial studio proprietor refers to as "plug-in practitioners”.
ASAP began to falter in the mid 2000s, as Atlanta's music scene became more attuned to software-oriented production. It's indicative of a larger changing of the guard that's been in progress for the last two decades, as the technical barriers to entry have melted away, putting far more people directly in contact with the simplified yet extremely powerful tools of music creation. Watching a beat session go down is less about acknowledging the demands of physics, and more about the willingness to explore endless layers of processing, looking for a sound or an emotion that — though perhaps inexpressible in words — nevertheless becomes the foundation for gritty urban poetry.
Bill Quinn, who has managed Doppler studios for all but three of the 41 years since it opened, says that the beats-driven culture in Atlanta experienced a kind of digital diaspora in the last decade, as the proliferating personal studios didn't share the deeply technical culture of the pro facilities. As a result, ASAP has withered over the last five or six years. "We're all not as connected as we used to be,” he says.
The old guard of studios and Atlanta's hip-hop constituency do cross paths: large studios are still a necessary part of the process as artists, beatmakers and budding producers move beyond the capabilities of their own gear. As they have in New York and elsewhere, rap and R&B sessions contribute significantly to commercial studio revenues here, but the culture clashes are telling. Jim Zumpano, owner of ZAC Studios, became so frustrated with lack of payment by several local hip-hop producers that he took the story to a local television station. He pointed out that Atlanta's media are happy to play up the city's hip-hop celebrities, but that those same celebrities were often being filmed and photographed partying while he was chasing them for payment so he could pay his electricity bill. The station ran with the story and Zumpano eventually collected the arrears.
"It seems like it's become a running joke to some people, a status symbol: 'How much can you beat the studio for?'” he says. Zumpano tried to get local commercial studio owners to revive ASAP, in part to help the community avoid dealing with the worst non-payers, but, he says, he's had few takers. "It's become a plug-and-play culture, and not just hip-hop. I don't think we can get people as excited about software as we used to about hardware, so there's less basis for common ground.”
Curtis Daniel III is co-owner of Patchwerk Studios in Atlanta, and one of relatively few African-American studio owners here. He suggests that record labels and even equipment manufacturers conspired, however unintentionally, to lower quality standards. The former did so in pursuit of lower costs, by giving validity to the beats based around cheap digital gear that permeate Atlanta, while the latter tacitly supported a perception that the entry-level products they've made could promise results similar to their high-end equipment. It has, he says, eroded the sonic quality of music and, in the process, much of the technical basis for ASAP.
The marriage of Atlanta and hip-hop takes the idea of music production as a lifestyle to its apotheosis, but somehow the studios that fuelled Atlanta's success got lost among the bling and the Cristal, and they're still trying to find their way back.