A Tale Of Two Cities: How Atlanta Overtook New York City As The Modern Hip-Hop Mecca
Atlanta has become the mecca of hip-hop because it has built an infrastructure where each generation helps the next crop of artists “get on.” While New York hip-hop has no such farm system due to years of infighting.
There’s supporting your friend’s dreams, then there’s what Atlanta rapper Young Thug did for his fellow ATLien Lil Baby. Last week, Lil Baby told XXL that Thug wanted him to focus on rap so bad that he literally paid him to stay out of the streets and get in the studio. “Young Thug, he gave me all the jewels…He said ‘Bruh you can rap, you got it. You could be next.'”
It turns out Thug was right. Lil Baby is one of the most in-demand artists in Atlanta off the strength of his Harder Than Ever album and Drip Harder collaboration with Gunna. What’s more fascinating about Thug’s charity is the fact that Lil Baby didn’t even sign to Thug’s YSL Records. He signed to industry behemoth Quality Control. Thug didn’t profit off of Baby’s come up. But he’s just paying forward the good treatment he received from Gucci Mane, his mentor figure who gave him a $25K advance to sign with 1017 Brick Squad without hearing a song. It’s also worth noting that upon Gucci Mane’s 2014 incarceration on gun charges, he sold Thug’s contract to 300 Records, saying “I didn’t want nobody to take advantage of him. I wanted him to be his own boss. ”
Gucci and Thug’s good deeds weren’t about turning a profit, it was about seeing the next person shine. That communal mindset is part of why Atlanta is the new mecca of hip-hop. Despite their share of internal conflict, they embody the immortal words of Paid In Full’s Ace: “everybody eats, B.” If only New York’s hip-hop scene had the same mindset since the turn of the century. They more accurately reflect an observation from Paid In Full’s Rico, who noted “half these niggas wanna be the man just because.”
While Atlanta hip-hop has built an infrastructure where each generation helps the next crop of artists “get on” with weighty features and gestures like Thug’s, New York hip-hop has no such farm system due to years of infighting. While the whole Apple was grappling to be King Of New York, Atlanta simply resolved to be royalty together.
Last week was the 10-year anniversary of his ThisIs50 fest, where 50 Cent threw an olive branch to several artists he and his G-Unit crew had been beefing with throughout the 2000s, including the Lox and Joe Budden’s Slaughterhouse. At the time, 50 said “they say New York City, we don’t actually get along, that’s not true. We could work together and get more money than we can get apart.” Fabolous tweeted in response that, “it’s interesting to see 50 Cent unite with NY artists when he’s one of the reasons NY hip hop became so isolated & crumbled..Do u agree NY?”
50 called Fabolous’ comments “disappointing,” but he didn’t issue much of a counterpoint. It’s hard to disagree with his assertion if one connects the dots. Rapper IDK called 50 Cent a “superhero” to his generation, but the G-Unit general wasn’t using his power for good. 50’s gripe with Ja Rule and Murder Inc. had him throwing lyrical darts at anyone who collaborated with Ja. His indignation with Fat Joe and Jadakiss’ appearance on Ja Rule’s “New York,” and Havoc’s appearance in the video, caused him to throw shots at all three artists on “Piggy Bank.”
The drama went deeper when, in the midst of antagonizing Styles P by proclaiming he could “stop a record” at Koch Records, he ended up getting into it with Cam’ron on Hot 97. 50 Cent then essentially split Dipset in two by having Jim Jones and Juelz Santana perform onstage with him right after he and Cam’ron traded disses. As Dipset member Un Kasa recently recalled, the chess move spelled the end of Dipset as we knew it. Of course, 50 ended up squashing his issues with all of those crews, but it was too little too late.
That said, New York’s fracture isn’t all 50 Cent’s fault. The tension that he perpetuated wasn’t new to the city. New York rap, more than any other region, is predicated on a concept of lyrical supremacy that’s ripe to breeding a culture of hostility. As Nas proclaimed on “The Message,” “there can only be one king.” And artists’ fight for King of New York status often devolved from healthy competition to real-life discord. The ’80s had the Juice Crew vs. Boogie Down Productions and Kool Moe Dee sparring against LL Cool J. In the ’90s, certain members of the Wu-Tang Clan had strife with The Notorious B.I.G. over whose mafioso-stylings were superior. Nas and Biggie were on a collision course before Biggie’s untimely death. Who knows how much acrimony they could have bred had the lyrical sparring continued. JAY-Z and Nas’ subsequent fight for the crown seemed inevitable in the wake of Biggie’s death.
But Atlanta has never been on that program. It was during Atlanta’s mid-2000s rise that Young Jeezy and other southern rappers rankled traditionalists by declaring that they’re “not a rapper” at all. New York’s greatest MCs have hoards of battle rhymes referencing them being the best, but you’d be hard-pressed to find similar in the Atlanta rap canon. Their passion for the craft and sense of competition doesn’t manifest in the same way that it has in New York because the thematic priorities are so different. It’s why the city’s biggest rappers can not only coexist but put on the next artist with no qualms about their own light being dimmed.
That said, the city’s rap scene hasn’t been 100% harmonious. There have been numerous beefs, including Gucci Mane and Jeezy; Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka; TI and Shawty Lo; TI and Ludacris; and Future and Rocko. Some form of conflict is natural within any large collective. But what’s impressive about the Atlanta scene is that (for the most part) they’ve been able to either squash their conflicts or allow them to fester without fracturing the entire scene.
Perhaps they know the cost of sowing discord in the city’s tight-knit scene. As 2 Chainz noted on Everyday Struggle, the city is small, and “everybody got a Draco.” Gucci Mane and Jeezy’s beef, which culminated in Gucci Mane fatally shooting Young Jeezy’s artist in self-defense, is an example of how far beef can go. And it seems like, consciously or not, artists have resolved to never let things go there again. Most are in a different space in life, as evidenced by Gucci Mane and Jeezy being able to be in the same spaces multiple times in the past decade, including a Beyonce show in 2016.
There’s simply too much money to be made in Atlanta, and too many young artists like Lil Baby, Gunna, inspiring both the previous and next generation to further their career. Only recently has New York adopted similar energy, with contemporary mainstream acts like A$AP Mob, High Bridge, Casanova, Young MA, Dave East and others working with each other. Hopefully, they can take cues from Atlanta, who have operated with a model as similar to socialism as there will likely ever be in hip-hop. Eventually, it will be Lil Baby’s turn to reach out to the young artists under him who “got it” and lengthen his city’s unprecedented run. If recent history is any indication, that won’t be a problem for him.
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.