Atlanta's R&B Underground Is Pushing to Make a New Pop Sound in Trap’s Capital
The A has always had a soul side, but these days it's thriving in the underground and DIY scenes.
Ask anyone around the world about Atlanta's place in music, and you will get a unanimous answer: Atlanta is no longer the trap rap capital of the world; it is the epicenter of the entire rap game. Many would claim "The A" as urban music's mecca. Our genetic composition has always included that 808 bounce and soul. But where did the soul go?
In the 90s and 2000s, the Atlanta R&B and rap worlds simultaneously kicked the door down to make the city a permanent fixture in the industry. As the Dungeon Family solidified itself among rap greats, LaFace Records artists like TLC and Toni Braxton also dominated the R&B airwaves. The crunk era birthed some of the biggest crossover hits from the city—not only for the likes of The Ying Yang Twins and Trillville but also for Usher and Ciara. R&B has always been synonymous with rap in Atlanta, but as of recently, it has disappeared from the spotlight.
Yet while you may be hard pressed to find any new Atlanta-based R&B acts charting on Billboard, there are a select few finding grassroots success in the digital age. A new strand of Atlanta's R&B DNA has emerged. These artists are no longer are coming out of the industry's "How to Make an R&B star" manual. They are DIY rebels. They are punk skater kids with soul. They are shelved label signees who took matters into their own hands.
Recently, the Love Renaissance collective has been the most visible in altering outsiders' perspectives of what the underground Atlanta sound is. With the annual Raurfest, spearheaded by Raury, progressive soul acts such as Atlanta's 6lack—who skyrocketed into the spotlight last year—JMSN, SZA, and Kilo Kish have been placed in front of sold out venues. The sound has also begun to find its place in the nightlife scene. WERC Crew, a creative collective and event production group I co-founded, has taken a lead in booking budding stars like Jesse Boykins III and Tiffany Gouche to play in Atlanta. Our monthly R&B dance party, The Groove, co-produced with Wally Sparks, packs out like clockwork, and we've even been able to pull off an "Only ATL R&B" edition, filled with five hours of R&B artists who have come from Georgia's own red clay.
Atlanta's support for its homegrown talent can also be seen at widely successful monthly events like Live on Edgewood, 3 Shades of Soul, and R&B Untapped. The city's affection for the smoother side of the industry has a strong local heartbeat. The following artists are some of those carrying the torch for the sound in 2017:
The perfect blend of Atlanta's pop and R&B worlds, Curtis Fields and Phil Jones (HAUNTED) come together to create The Pheels. Their lead single from their likeWISE EP debuted on Kitty Cash's Love the Free Vol.3. They are releasing their new EP, matterFact, this spring.
Kiya passed me her Fail In Love EP on CD after my set at Raurfest. I can't remember the last time someone handed me a physical CD, but I'm glad she did. The moments are few and far between when you come across a naturally gifted vocalist, the type who stops everyone in their tracks at live shows. Kiya has landed opening slots for Brandy and Goapele, and she has collaborated with tastemakers like electronic producer / DJ Tokimonsta.
Up until the release of his EP , Quiet as Kept, Thrice Groove's vocal chops were unknown to the masses. As a DJ he's rocked underground parties all over Atlanta and opened for Esta, Kastle, Sweater Beats, and Gravez. His debut project showcased his melodic writing style and quickly got support on radio outlets across the globe, including Soulection's Beats 1 show.
All Cows Eat Grass
All Cows Eat Grass live by the manifesto: Be Kool. For years this trio has traveled the world as part of Janelle Monae's live production team. During their travels they cultivated a sound that bridges funk and electro-trap. Hundreds of people come out to their bi-monthly dance party series in East Atlanta, where the band leads an all-out sweat fest. All Cows Eat Grass's sophomore album, Your Mom Thinks I'm Kool, is scheduled for a second quarter 2017 release.
Awful Records has been praised for its unfiltered brand of DIY rap, but the collective has quietly amassed a solid lineup of crooners as well. Abra has captivated audiences around the world with her 80s synthwave production and sensual melodies. Danger Incorporated serve as the latest edition to the the squad. Their post-trap, psych-influenced R&B songs have garnered hundreds of thousands of organic streams and video plays. Other notables include Alexandria and Micah Freeman, both of which already have an expansive body of work.
Kona is singer-songwriter raised in Atlanta who surfaced two years ago. She's garnered an impressive online buzz with only a few tracks to her name. Songs like "Sirens," produced by The Internet's Matt Martians and Steve Lacey, and "You," featuring Father and produced by Ethereal, have become cult hits. Her voice fits seamlessly over mid-tempo production, giving off hints of that feel good 90s R&B.
Nai just recently came across my radar. She's been hitting the local show circuit with strong performances, and her song "Adventure Time," a slippery pop deconstruction, has made its way into my most frequently played list.
Alex and Isis of St. Beauty have been local favorites for quite some time. Their smooth, restrained sound gives a sleek, modern edge to the familiar tones of classic soul for a result that is universally enjoyable. In 2015 they received national spotlight with placements on the Wondaland Records Eephus Tour and EP, while their new single "Borders" was featured in the HBO series Insecure.
Yung Baby Tate
It will be fascinating to see where Young Baby Tate goes. She is a staple in underground venues and indie parties in Atlanta, and her entire persona just breeds fun. She's carved out a trap-pop style of her own. Whether she smooths it out with a sultry melodies like on her song "Orange" or puts quirky lyrics over upbeat production as heard on her latest XMAS EP, she's bringing a fresh and exciting face to the Atlanta R&B scene.
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Lead photo by Lourdes Sukari. Follow her on Instagram.
Xavier BLK is an Atlanta-based DJ and the co-founder of event production company WERC. Follow him on Twitter.