The long tradition of ‘testing’ songs out on the public has found an unlikely new home...
Inside the insulated confines of the recording studio, it can be hard to find the cues you need that provide necessary context. You can rely on the input of musicians or producers, assuming there are any around — but music production has increasingly become a solitary pursuit, where finding some external guidance can be as tricky as it is necessary. Merle Haggard, the outlaw grandfather of country music, told Spin magazine back in 2000, “People get to dancing, and I play better... You can actually set your metronome, so to speak — in your mind — by a pretty girl’s ass... They know where the tempo is and where they want it to be. All you got to do is stay there.”
Back in the ‘80s, Shelly Yakus (John Lennon, U2, Tom Petty) was proud of how they had set up a low–power FM transmitter at A&M Studios in Los Angeles, where he was the studio and mastering facility’s chief engineer and vice president, and would play fresh mixes over it and listen to them on the radio of a 1957 Chevy as they tooled it around the studio’s parking lot, making sure the studio and broadcast compression let the track’s punch cut through.
Not quite that long ago, for a story on the production of the classic Barry Manilow track ‘Copacabana,’ released in 1978, the producer Ron Dante told me about how he and the singer confirmed that a particularly arduous mix version of the song, just before it was to be subjected to the scrutiny of label chief Clive Davis, was what it needed to be. On a Saturday night that Autumn, Dante and Manilow took the dance mix of the song to the real Copacabana club, on East 60th Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where the club had been since 1941. They pulled a favour from the DJ, and at midnight the track was pumped through the nightclub’s sound system. “Everyone on the floor stopped dancing,” Dante told me when we talked about it in 2006. “I was getting this feeling in my stomach like ‘Uh–oh...’ Then, one couple started dancing and then everyone else jumped in. What a relief. We knew we had nailed it.”
A more modern version of that kind of real–world validation takes place on a regular basis in Atlanta, the locus of hip–hop and rap in the US. It also happens outside the studio, in a club, but it ain’t no disco: instead, several of the city’s many strip clubs serve as reality checks for tracks in progress, before they hit the streets or the airwaves or broadband. In places like Magic City, a surprisingly structured crew of people act as a kind of funky focus group, in a process that often predicts or determines if a track is going to be a hit or not.
Basically, what happens is a producer or artist will show up with a track, on a CD or a flash drive, and slip it to the club DJ. That in itself is a substantial transaction, but the DJ is simply the gatekeeper. It’s the dancers who function as the barometer of a track’s worthiness. It’s how intensely they dance to a song that the producers and the label executives who swarm the clubs at night are watching for. It’s the same thing that Merle Haggard was looking for from the stage of some bucket–of–blood joint from behind the chicken wire in Bakersfield all those years ago.
It’s not quite that straightforward, of course. The dancers aren’t working for free, and the tips that are their bread and butter are tossed in fistfuls of mostly one–dollar bills, in such whirls of greenbacks that the process is known in the trade as ‘making it rain’. (The DJs will participate in the crowd’s largesse at the end of the night, when the dancers share their tips with them.) But somewhere in between genuinely assessing a groove using their combination of soul and booty, and understanding that most of the guests in the room are not there to evaluate a beat but rather take in a show by what the genteel literates of the 1930s used to refer to as terpsichorean ecdysiasts, the dancers find the middle ground.
The result often tends to be remarkably prescient. In Tamara Palmer’s book, Country Fried Soul: Adventures in Dirty South Hip Hop, rapper Lil Jon recalls how his 2003 hit ‘Get Low’ was slow to catch on, because, we’re told, the dancers “didn’t feel it at first”. But in time, she learned, dancers at several different strip clubs asked the DJs to play it during their stage sets, and ‘Get Low’ got big, in mainstream clubs and on radio and TV across the country.
Atlanta has become America’s hip–hop capital over the years, with a solid core of independent recording studios. It’s home to several key labels in the genre, including Lil Jon’s BME Recordings, Ludacris–owned Disturbing Tha Peace, Auto–Tune acrobat TI’s Grand Hustle Records, the So So Def Records label, and Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds’ LaFace Records, a division of Arista. Veteran producers like Jermaine Dupri still call Atlanta their home, and it’s been harvesting a bumper crop of new ones who are also influencing the larger pop universe — Mike Will Made It may be best known for his work with bangers like Schoolboy Q, Future and Kanye West, but he also supplied some cred to Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz. Finally, the city launched careers for artists including OutKast, Goodie Mob, Jeezy and, most recently, Young Thug. Collectively, they are doing something right. So at a time when hits are hard to come by, the way Atlanta’s hip–hop community has figured out if it’s got its groove on right or not is as good a metric as any. It’s certainly more organic than data analysis.