A Business, Man

Rap Capital: An Atlanta Story BY Joe Coscarelli. New York: Simon & Schuster. 448 pages. $30.
The cover of Rap Capital: An Atlanta Story

A MONTH BEFORE Atlanta hosted the first hip-hop-focused spinoff of the BET Awards in 2006, an executive at the cable network joked the event would likely not benefit the local economy. He was probably right. Rap dollars already coursed through the Southern city like its ceaseless traffic, bankrolling recording studios, propping up nightclubs and music-publishing companies, and sustaining a vast corps of DJs, strippers, bodyguards, and lawyers. After the inaugural BET Hip Hop Awards aired and nearly half the honors went to Atlantans, local rapper T. I.—who won four awards that night, the largest individual takeaway—described the show’s location as the city’s due: “We control and monopolize so much of this hip-hop industry, it’s only right that they start bringing these awards down here.” 

BET’s programming choice followed a sea change happening across rap. Steadily in the 1990s and then decisively in the early 2000s, rap’s cultural and commercial axes shifted away from Los Angeles and New York City and toward the south. Cities like Atlanta, Houston, Memphis, Miami, and New Orleans, once dismissed by record labels and music magazines as backwaters, became hit factories where artists set trends and warped language and sound, selling millions of records in the process. Their innovations and conventions quickly became foundational, both to the genre and to pop culture writ large, spawning stars like Missy Elliott and Lil Wayne, and popularizing production styles like chopped and screwed mixes and the Triggerman loop.

The South, as a whole, contributed to these evolutions in aesthetics and style, but Atlanta harnessed the changing winds more successfully than its sister cities. Dubbed the “Motown of the South” by the early 1990s due to major producers and artists like Babyface, Bobby Brown, and L. A. Reid relocating to Atlanta to hunt for talent, the city had a serious record-industry presence as its rap scene took shape. As savvy homegrown hip-hop labels like So So Def Recordings and Wrap Records took advantage of that proximity to industry power, the city’s informal network of talent shows, party promoters, and radio stations coalesced into a development pipeline for local artists and sounds. While artists and labels in other southern cities had to prove themselves through independent sales or local hits before monied A&R folks showed up on their doorstep, Atlanta’s acts could gain access to the machine and its resources through happenstance discovery at shopping malls or open mics, or through personal contacts. Kris Kross, TLC, and T. I., among many others, all got their starts this way.      

That pipeline—and the local culture that sustains it—remains active to this day. It is the subject of Joe Coscarelli’s Rap Capital. Expanding on his reporting on the city’s global influence and its colorful figures, Coscarelli, a New York Times reporter, offers an account of how Atlanta has become the epicenter of the world’s most popular genre. Part scene report, part business profile, Rap Capital leverages intimate access to some of the city’s most visible talent and power players to chronicle how the city’s oft-mythologized music gets made and sold. “Having spent much of the last decade in and out of Atlanta, . . . I have encountered not just the big names at the center of this network but also the lesser-seen connectors, the grunt workers, the mothers, the DJs, the dealers,” he writes.  

The book works as a basic explainer of the ways in which the modern music industry—in Atlanta and beyond—still depends on the upward flow of trends and sounds from regional and online scenes. But as a portrait of Atlanta and contemporary hip-hop, Rap Capital fails. Coscarelli’s account overstates the influence of commerce and industry, neglecting the delightful chaos of the music’s creators and audiences, and downplaying the ways Atlanta music, and rap more broadly, refuses to be masterminded. 

Atlanta is a city where dance crazes pop up overnight like mushrooms and then disappear just as quickly; where teenagers fiddling around on pirated music software become millionaires; where platinum artists and newcomers alike trial-run songs at strip clubs. These currents pull Atlanta rap in every direction at once, a sprawl manifest in rich, restless songs like OutKast’s “Rosa Parks,” Young Thug’s “Harambe,” and UnoTheActivist’s “By Myself.” But in Coscarelli’s telling, Atlanta’s industry insiders alone direct the music’s volatile tides, a reduction that distorts the unique ecology of the city’s scene and reveals the limits of the business-oriented gaze that often shapes national rap coverage. You can barely hear the music over the stock bells.     

AFTER OPENING WITH a compact account of the early years of Atlanta rap, Coscarelli’s narrative centers on the past decade, a period in which trap music, an Atlanta staple, became a signature sound across all of pop music. Embedding himself with the label Quality Control (QC), the underwriters of marquee 2010s Atlanta-area acts like Migos, Lil Yachty, and Lil Baby, Coscarelli spends the book shadowing QC’s matrix of clients and business partners. His access to chart-topping artists like Lil Baby and Quavo, struggling newcomers like the late Marlo and Lil Reek, and industry veterans like the label’s founders Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “P” Thomas, structures the book, his adventures whisking him around the city. Even though he struggles to bring them to life, the teen house-parties, marathon recording sessions, and staid business meetings he attends tacitly show the more peripheral locales that fashion Atlanta rap. 

In theory, QC should be an excellent window into the people and dynamics of these spaces. Like their forebears in the 1990s and 2000s, Lee and Thomas made their mark acting as a clearinghouse for international record companies such as Universal and Warner, which largely outsource the scouting, development, and management of musicians. With brokers like Lee and Thomas in place to discern fads from fixtures, these record companies can minimize risk when signing new artists while still enjoying access to emerging trends. In rap, that arrangement is especially important because listeners and critics often seek acts that strike them as “authentic” or “real” and spurn obvious meddling by industry bigwigs. And, as Coscarelli notes, the overwhelmingly white makeup of the record business’ top brass makes the “instincts and relationships” of Black executives like Lee and Thomas especially valuable, because they are better suited to determine what might resonate with listeners.

In practice, this means boutique firms like QC do the grunt work of procuring talent, listening to rough demos, fielding tips from friends of friends claiming “the next big thing,” and keeping artists out of legal trouble. The racial and class tensions of this farm system are manifold, as this setup forces Black executives and artists to contort their art to fit a marketplace that they don’t control. At one point Lee bluntly explains to Coscarelli that the industry is better for establishing brands than making music. “Brands last longer than songs,” he says. “I tell every artist when we sign ’em—I’m real with ’em—‘You have an expiration date on you as an artist. Let’s turn you into a brand.’” The work QC does to navigate this system without whitewashing its artists is fascinating, but Coscarelli focuses more on kingmaking than mapping the power relations of this dynamic and showing how that push-and-pull shapes the resulting music.

From the beginning, his depiction of QC is hyperbolic and grandstanding. “No local organization has proved a more reliable talent incubator or hitmaker during this period,” he claims in the introduction. That is an overstatement. QC is just one among many successful Atlanta labels with extensive industry contacts and local roots, such as Ear Drummers, Young Stoner Life, and Generation Now. Coscarelli’s exaggerated plaudits gloss over the many QC artists (Johnny Cinco, OG Maco, Skippa da Flippa) who have not become hitmakers.

Coscarelli consistently wraps QC and its artists in unearned superlatives and false precedents. Until Migos, he writes, an Atlanta group “had not really broken out on a national scale since OutKast,” a claim that erases snap music, crunk, and swag rap, group-driven Atlanta-born genres that topped charts in the 2000s. Elsewhere, he describes a clip from Menace II Society that opens Lil Baby’s “My Dawg” music video as “situating Baby along the continuum of rap history . . . at least in subject matter and swagger, if not sound,” because the clip features an N.W.A song. What? In context, the song is simply part of a scene from the movie; the director likely included the clip in the music video rather than Lil Baby. Plus, in Coscarelli’s many interactions with Lil Baby, who is one of the main subjects of the book, the rapper never mentions being inspired by N.W.A or West Coast rap. Later, Coscarelli describes deluxe editions of albums as a “QC tactic,” as if the company invented repackaging music. In his telling, every decision by this one label and its roster reshapes culture, a myopia that feels Faustian as his claims grow more untenable. His access provides no benefits to the reader or his work.     

THE EXAGGERATION might be excusable if Coscarelli at least turned his access to QC into real insights into the label’s artists and figureheads, but they remain elusive. Coscarelli never develops a rapport with them or probes their often-vague statements. He alludes to Thomas’ criminal past, for instance, but he never broaches it directly on the page. “As late as 2009,” Coscarelli writes in his typical insider-y mode, “P was in the streets heavy enough that he found himself in ‘a real situation,’ deploying his trademark plain-speak that also happens to conceal a lot.” Access to a source is sometimes contingent on an agreement to avoid certain subjects, but Coscarelli does not make the reader privy to such brokering. He seems to just record everything he hears without questioning or confirming it.

The book’s composition heightens the lack of perspective. Though Coscarelli includes footnotes at the end of the book, he adapts his Times stories, and quotes from articles by other authors, into his prose without clear attribution, a style that makes the prose feel distant, devoid of scene-setting or a larger sense of place. Important locales, such as the music studio Patchwerk and the strip club Magic City, whose DJs and dancers are paid to test new songs, are glossed with generic adjectives like “storied” or given no description at all. He seems to want to speak to Atlantans as well as a general audience, but he never fully commits to either. The jerkiness of the prose deprives the book of continuity and authority. And he never seems to develop a clear perspective on the music. 

That waffling might be Coscarelli’s attempt at neutrality, a choice that could be informed by the voyeurism that has colored past national coverage of Atlanta rap. From the New York Times clutching its pearls over mixtape language in 2007 (“The language on mixtapes is raw and uncensored; rappers sometimes devote a whole CD to insulting another rapper by name”) to GQ calling a Magic City dancer “post-human” in 2015 to Vice’s 2015 documentary series Noisey: Atlanta opening with a source cooking crack, the mainstream media has long associated Atlanta rap with crime and vice. This gaze colors rap coverage, and a standard way for national outlets to cover this indelibly popular music is to emphasize the business acumen of artists and the economic impact of their art. This approach is respectable, but it always comes at the expense of the music; the colorful magic of artistry inevitably gets reduced to the grayscale metrics of capital: views, streams, sales, sponsorships.

Cultural critic Rodney Carmichael, a former writer for the Atlanta alt-weekly Creative Loafing, once wrote at length about the dissonance of rap and Black Atlantans being both commodified and sidelined. “It’s visible in the homogenized ads for new live/work/play developments and civic marketing campaigns that push people of color to the literal margins,” he wrote of the phenomenon. “When Atlanta seeks to sell itself or attract new business and talent, we’re rarely part of the living story it tells. We’re the stepchild, the historical footnote, tolerated for the time being but designated for permanent erasure.” Rap Capital continues this trend. Although he reports from inside the rooms where the music originates, it often feels like Coscarelli is viewing the city through a telescope. 

A DECADE AFTER T. I.’s triumphant BET Hip Hop Awards statement, Atlanta’s vast cultural footprint became a source of hometown pride in the form of the saying and ad slogan “Atlanta Influences Everything.” Saying it (or wearing it on merch) can feel liberatory, but the mantra belies an anxiety pulsing beneath it. Influence is a shaky, spectral metric that softens causality into faint, gesturing attribution. Marketers and conspiracy theorists favor influence because unlike change, effect, contingency, context, or impact, it requires less evidence. Influence can be felt or traced, but never proven. Marginalized people and communities shut out of official channels sometimes cling to influence for this very reason, its informality a slight consolation.

Coscarelli clearly aims to counter the perception, among outsiders and Atlantans, that influence is Atlanta’s top currency. But the charts and rap as a whole already tell the story he offers. The mythmaking and bluster of his reporting only further obscure the details numbers never capture.

If Coscarelli truly wanted to illustrate the ways that Black art gets obscured and unacknowledged even in the heart of the rap industry, he’d focus on producers rather than rappers and business executives, but they are largely peripheral to the story he tells. The omission is glaring because producers are literally foundational to the music, their ideas and quirks conducting the performances of the rappers that they, like the local labels, scout, manage, and develop. They also often double as DJs and studio engineers, roles that further embed them in the city’s culture of trial and error in front of club audiences, and that implicate them even deeper in the act of songwriting.

Producers’ backgrounds also tend to illustrate the long tail of the Reverse Great Migration, which has made Atlanta, Charlotte, and Houston a destination for Black families decamping from other regions in search of affordable living and better job opportunities. Two producers profiled by the music magazine The FADER took this exact path. When wunderkind producer Metro Boomin, from St. Louis, was in high school, his mom would drive him eight and a half hours one way so he could record with Atlanta rappers he had met online. He eventually settled in the city and became one of the scene’s flag bearers, but Coscarelli only notes him in passing. Another transplant, Wheezy, from Vicksburg, Mississippi, would visit Atlanta during summers as a teenager, the trips blossoming into friendships with local rappers and producers. Wheezy also dropped anchor in Atlanta, becoming a key producer. 

“This is where you come down for a couple days and you never go back home,” rapper 2 Chainz once boasted of the city. Artists follow the same paths as retirees, college graduates, and workers who have settled in the Dogwood City, each newcomer seeking a fresh start and new horizons alongside success. Focusing so intensely on a label obfuscates the city’s larger legacy of reinvention and fulfillment.

Most important, this relentless influx of people shapes the teeming music, which variously incorporates marching bands, gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, dancehall, chiptune, New Orleans bounce, and Chicago drill, in addition to homespun permutations of Atlanta’s native rap sounds. Coscarelli acknowledges this tapestry only as it relates to QC, missing the ways the city’s diverse residents, as listeners and as patrons, encourage and facilitate such sprawling, open-ended experimentation. These exchanges are so much more than the investments and transactions Coscarelli reduces them to, the dizzying loops of rhythms and lineages bridging neighborhoods, regions, continents, generations, and sounds while laying the groundwork for more relays, more migrants. (Some artists, like Lil Uzi Vert from Philadelphia, Rae Sremmurd from Tupelo, Mississippi, and Pi’erre Bourne from Columbia, South Carolina, so seamlessly nestle into the scene that it can be easy to forget they are not native Atlantans.)

This constant traffic pops up in hit songs like Camila Cabello’s “Havana,” Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” and Beyoncé’s “AMERICA HAS A PROBLEM,” but the thrill of Atlanta’s scene is that even the songs that do not chart find a permanent home on some DJ’s set list or some producer’s tag or some listener’s neurons. This steadfast loyalty to a homegrown aesthetic and the many sounds that make Atlanta home is what makes the city a rap capital, not its valuation by the music industry. Coscarelli could have spent his time in the city mapping these fascinating pathways. But Rap Capital does not add more context to Atlanta rap or complicate the city’s myths. An empty award show, it just distributes laurels.

Stephen Kearse is assistant editor at Spotlight PA and a contributing writer at The Nation. His reporting and criticism have appeared in NPR, Pitchfork, the New York Times Magazine, and Oxford American.