ATHENS, GA—The town renowned for cultivating R.E.M. and the B-52’s has long been a haven for indie rockers; the rent is cheap, the locals are always buzzing around concert venues, and starting a band is so easy that virtually everyone and their mother is in one. Over the decades, the outfits at the forefront of the scene have rotated from R.E.M. and Pylon in the ‘80s to Widespread Panic in the ‘90s, The Whigs in the ‘00s and Of Montreal and Reptar in the ‘10s. While relatively few Athens bands have achieved widespread commercial success, being revered locally cements them into the culture and reflects broader trends in the worldwide music industry, which raises an interesting question – where is the hip-hop?
Undeniably the most relevant and popular music genre of the past decade (corroborated by even the Pulitzer Prize Board, who for the first time eschewed a classical or jazz artist for the Pulitzer prize for music to award Kendrick Lamar for DAMN.), hip-hop had long seemed absent from the small town that loves to boast of its thriving music scene. Perhaps most perplexing is Athens’s hour-or-so proximity from Atlanta, the culturally rich metro where over half the population is African-American and where some of the biggest names in rap call home. On the surface, Athens appears to spawn white rock bands like rabbits spawn other rabbits, but behind-the-scenes (and more recently, in the spotlight) is a tight-knit, passionate, and grinding community of hip-hop artists who are redefining the music scene in Athens. I spoke to some of them to get the low-down.
On March 25, Athens presented its sixth annual Hip Hop Awards, honoring artists like Caulfield for best male hip hop artist and Seline Haze for best female hip hop artist, StackBoy Twaun for best producer, and Fly Visionz for videographer of the year. Among the award recipients is promoter Sam Lipkin, who won mover and shaker of the year as well as best event promoter in connection with her blog Volumes Hip Hop. The awards are based on community votes, which substantiates Sam’s place at the heart of the hip-hop scene. She tells me she got started in January 2017 wanting to do more than be a fangirl for her many rapper friends; “Kevin Boyd [AKA Son Zoo] told me the fall before I started the magazine that that’s the one thing we don’t have is exposure. There’s not a lot of hip hop exposure in the main magazines.” So she decided to create a blog that would give Athens hip hop the dedication and exposure it deserved, and in January it went full digital, including interviews, cultural pieces, and event listings. Javae Chapman, local artist known for his poetic, lo-fi style of hip-hop (you can listen to his brand new release here), says “Athens doesn’t even have a hip-hop radio station, so the only way to experience any hip-hop is to either create it yourself, or come out to a local show.”
That’s one way that the Athens music scene has evolved – venues have become much more accepting of hip hop than they have been in the past. According to Sam, “I think the city has seen that hip hop is profitable to them. Maybe in the past there was a strong reaction against it because of some stereotypes but also I just don’t think they saw the worth of it.” Now, hip hop in Athens is becoming more mainstream, with Sam noting that “there are a lot more daytime events instead of hiding hip hop away at nighttime.” Amel Alyamani, Athens coordinator for music blog Hand Me The Aux, reported that the last show they put on sold out the Caledonia Lounge, a predominantly indie rock venue, saying “it was incredible how many supporters came out for the Athens artists.”
Despite challenges of visibility, artists have been achieving goals and making waves in Athens and beyond – Caulfield, the innovative, self-described “garage rap” hip hop collective comprised of Curtison Jones, DJ Luke Highwalker, and Scott Sutton, opened for Ugly God at the Georgia Theatre last fall and more recently, for Bone Thugs-n-Harmony at Terminal West in Atlanta. DK and Seline Haze, a local couple who are both independent up-and-coming rappers, “have probably done the most out-of-town shows that I’ve seen,” says Sam, but you can catch them in Athens on May 12th at Flicker Bar. Linqua Franqa, local hip hop star who has heavily impressed with her debut self-titled album, was praised in the New York Times for her SXSW performance, and is headlining Athfest this summer. Kxng Blanco, an 18-year-old Clarke Central High School student and promising newcomer in the scene, received media attention when he performed his song “Dear AmeriKKKa” at a Black History Month assembly and received an in-school suspension for it being deemed offensive. Alongside the rise of hip hop’s visibility in the town is a push by members of the scene to make a political difference in the community. Tommy Valentine, a former rapper and longtime pillar of the scene, is running for District 9 county commissioner while Mariah Parker AKA Linqua Franqa is running for District 2 county commissioner, both of whom have received ardent endorsements from various hip-hop artists in Athens.
The tight-knit community that defines and bolsters musicians in Athens doesn’t exclude its hip-hop artists; even in an overwhelmingly cut-throat, competitive genre, Sam tells me “there’s a lot more willingness to raise each other up in the community. Maybe it used to be more just a culture and now it’s truly a community.” Everyone I talked to agrees – SeanC, local rapper who dropped a remix of Nas’s “Life’s a Bitch” and Flight Facilities “Crave” late last year, recalled a moment at a Caulfield show when he felt truly accepted in the scene: “Not a lot at the event knew me at the time, and when Caulfield stepped off, some of the crowd left before my set. I vividly remember his DJ, Brian, Luke Highwalker grabbing me by the shoulder and saying, ‘that’s not how we do it around here.’ He walked outside, and grabbed the whole crowd, and brought them back. After him and Caulfield hyped the crowd he said, ‘You’re one of us now, and we rock with everyone’s shows.’” There is an adrenalized energy rumbling through the hip-hop scene in Athens, Georgia, and in the words of one of their own, SeanC, “it feels like it’s only a matter of time before someone blows up, and whoever it is, it’s well deserved,” and anyone who is familiar with these artists couldn’t agree more.