Black music scenes in America have always been characterized as having a specific “sound.” Scenes, or cities, such as Detroit, Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Minneapolis, New Orleans and Miami have each spawned a wealth of performers as well as consistent sounds and musical elements heard throughout a number of recordings relevant to those areas.
On the other hand, geographic-specific black music is a byproduct of sociopolitical responses. Artists use that localized space as a basis to further develop strong identities and pride in where they come from.
This is also the case in Atlanta, or “Black Hollywood” or “Motown of the South.”
The VH-1 documentary, ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game, traces the southern capital’s efforts in becoming a dominant force in both hip hop and pop culture. The city, along with other markets below the Mason-Dixon line, was once perceived as not being able to produce “authentic” hip hop music that could reflect an alternative reality for black communities or rival rap that came from New York or Los Angeles.
The 90-minute installment of the cable network’s Rock Docs series features primarily nostalgic (and quite humorous) flashbacks and commentaries from some of the city’s native recording artists (Ludacris, T.I., Usher, Jeezy, Killer Mike, Rich Homie Quan, Future), pioneering performers (Raheem the Dream, Kilo Ali, MC Shy D), superproducers (Organized Noize, Lil’ Jon, Jermaine Dupri, DJ Toomp), DJs (DJ Jelly, DJ Nabs, DJ Kizzy Rock), radio personalities (Greg Street), music industry executives (Kawan “KP” Prather, Shanti Das), scholars (Dr. Joycelyn Wilson), local business owners (Shyran Blakely), journalists (Maurice Garland) and political and civic leaders (Ambassador Andrew Young and Mayor Kasim Reed).
Produced by Corner of the Cave, ATL opens with an attempt to establish a parallel between the plight of the Civil Rights Movement with Atlanta’s burgeoning musical community attempting to cement their place in history amidst the imperialist attitudes of East Coast/West Coast rap artists. The artists hint at how the music sparked modern patriotism, was influenced by strip clubs and provided entrepreneurial opportunities for the artists.
The lingering despair as the result of the Atlanta Child Murders and the crack epidemic prompted Atlanta’s music scene to eventually evolve into the definitive celebratory climate the city is well-known for (i.e. Freaknik and the rousing “crunk” music).
Weaving together sequences of the city’s scenic landscape, snippets of music videos, news reels, rare footage and audio clips of memorable songs that were local hits or chart-topping singles round out the remainder of the special. Many of the sequences spark a trip down memory lane that might cause viewers (especially natives) to break out doing “the ragtop” or the “Bankhead Bounce.”
Major flaws in the film are the quick glimpses. The documentary breezes through the legacies of game changing groups such as Arrested Development, Kriss Kross and OutKast (who honestly should’ve had their own “Rock Doc” installment).
The LaFace Records and So So Def hit parades as well as producer Dallas Austin’s prolific output get a tad bit of screen time. On the other hand, most of the condensing may be a question of editorial discretion and working with a small window of time.
Otherwise, ATL’s greatest strength is recreating the city’s sense of camaraderie via on-screen talent. Each commentator delivers a personalized understanding of how Atlanta impacted them along with a one-of-a-kind charisma that allows them to appear as human as anyone’s next door neighbor.
ATL ends abruptly, which may arouse questions of what’s next or current in Atlanta’s rap culture. The 90-minute film could’ve worked as a multi-part miniseries like its “Rock Doc” predecessor, The Tanning of America, but still manages to capture the zeitgeist and evolution of a style of music that critics and audiences once believed would never succeed or completely consume the culture.
ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game premieres Sept. 2 at 10:00 p.m.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.