For the first two decades of rap history, the focal points were New York and Los Angeles. When Atlanta’s OutKast won best new artist at the 1995 Source Awards, they were audibly booed.
Atlanta’s hip-hop culture would eventually gain respect from coast to coast and by the 2000s, artists such as Lil Jon, Young Jeezy, T.I. and Ludacris would become synonymous with the Dirty South.
The momentum didn’t stop in the 2010s with the arrivals of 2 Chainz, Lil Yachty, Young Thug and Future. That’s the era New York Times culture reporter Joe Coscarelli primarily covers in his new book “Rap Capital: An Atlanta Story” (Simon & Schuster).
“The streaming era is what I wanted to cover from 2013 to 2020,” said Coscarelli, a New Yorker who stayed with his aunt in Atlanta while reporting for the book.
He frames “Rap City” around the rise of Atlanta trap artists Lil Baby (”Drip Too Hard”) and Migos (”Bad and Boujee”). Both gave Coscarelli plenty of access. He also looks at the rise of Marlo, a promising rapper who was murdered in 2020.
“It was important to find characters I could follow,” Coscarelli said. “And hopefully through very specific stories I can tell a more universal one about the way this music culture works.”
He opens the book 40-plus years ago when Wayne Williams was trying to break into music but ultimately became more famous for being imprisoned for life for killing two men. Williams was also tied to the case of dozens of missing and murdered Black children in Atlanta, which he has steadfastly denied. Lil Baby’s mom Lashon knew one of the victims and her childhood was shaped by the fear her parents felt when Lashon’s peers were disappearing around her.
“It directly affected the mother she became,” Coscarelli said, and ultimately the shaping of Lil Baby (real name: Dominique Jones) himself. From a story-telling perspective, he said, “that was a real breakthrough.”
Key players in the book include behind-the-scenes players such as Kevin Lee, better known as Coach K, and Pierre “P” Thomas, co-founders of Quality Control, the Atlanta-based label and music-and-sports management firm that helped both Migos and Lil Baby become international stars.
Coscarelli appreciated how Quality Control focused on old-school talent development as opposed to just finding a hit and jumping on bandwagons. “They built artists and did so over and over again,” he said. “They had multiple breakout stories and that’s because of the groundwork they laid. They understood the scene and their audience.”
He looks at how underground mix tapes, sold out of strip clubs and car trunks, built up many Atlanta artists like Future and Gucci Mane. “Migos put out mixtapes before they released an album,” he noted. Online, he said, “young people were used to getting a ton of music free online. When streaming popped up, rap artists were primed to use it far quicker than, say, country artists.”
Coscarelli also notes how many of these rap stars were not initially dreaming of getting into the music business, and some had to be coaxed by managers like Coach K.
“When talking about trap music and guys that allegedly came from a hustling background, ‘I’m not a rapper’ is a refrain,” Coscarelli said. “That was something Jeezy always said. It’s basically a meme in rap. They have other skill sets... A lot of them didn’t have time to dream about being stars. They were just trying to live.”
In Atlanta, he said, that is a good thing. “It’s authenticity and living your rhymes,” he said. “That’s seen as a bonus. Someone like Lil Baby when he came out, he already had something of a buzz. He was known around the neighborhood.” (Lil Baby was a drug dealer before focusing on music and spent two years in prison.)
Migos hit No. 1 on the pop chart in 2016 with “Bad and Boujee” with “no sacrifice to the pop playbook,” Coscarelli said. “They didn’t change their sound at all. That showed the power of streaming. A previous song ‘Versace’ was huge in rap but barely made the Billboard charts. By the time ‘Bad and Boujee’ came along, the audience and technology had caught up. That to me was the beginning of the most recent golden age of Atlanta trap music in the mainstream.”
But this past spring, Atlanta rap stars Young Thug (real name Jeffrey Lamar Williams) and Gunna were arrested. The indictment against Williams includes charges of participating in street gang activity, violating the Georgia controlled substances act and possession of a firearm while committing a felony. Gunna, whose real name is Sergio Kitchens, was indicted for one count of conspiring to violate the RICO Act, which is used to take down large criminal organizations. Both men say they are innocent.
This, Coscarelli said, has left a bit of a hole in the Atlanta rap scene.
“We haven’t necessarily seen who comes next in Atlanta,” he said, “who fills that vacuum. But the amazing thing about Atlanta is there is always someone with a new style.”
Coscarelli is exploring relatively untrodden ground with “Rap City.” There are books by the likes of Roni Sarig (”Third Coast”), Kennesaw State University professor Regina Bradley (”Chronicling Stankonia”) and Ben Westhoff (”Dirty South”) that explore some historical aspects of Southern hip-hop.
But Coscarelli said there needs to be more journalists delving into this world. “There are not enough books about rap music in general given its global impact,” he said, while hundreds of books about the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and other boomer-friendly acts are readily available. “That’s an injustice.”
Indeed, his book barely touches on older artists like T.I., Ludacris and Goodie Mob. He even spoke to Big Boi of OutKast but used none of it because it didn’t fit his book’s narrative.
“I didn’t want to write an Atlanta history book because that’s not what I do,” he said.