What Does Atlanta Sound Like?
It may be hard to believe now, but 20 to 30 years ago, there was no such thing as an "Atlanta sound." Sure, there were bands like The S.O.S. Band and Cameo down here making hits in the '80s, soon followed by the Babyfaces and After 7s of the world, concocting their own brands of R&B and earning incessant radio play. But those acts all just sounded like themselves.
Even when the city's hip-hop artists began to carve their national niche via a spectrum ranging from Kris Kross to TLC to Arrested Development, there was still no unified sonic idea. Outkast largely get credit for putting Atlanta "on the map," but people who lived and worked here at the time will tell you that initially, their sound didn't resonate in anyone's backyard, thanks to the city's preoccupation with Florida's bass music and California's gangsta rap. And at first, anyone who tried to mimic Big Boi and Andre 3000 fizzled before you could even remember their name.
Even as the Ludacris / T.I. / Pastor Troy / Young Jeezy synergy began to blow, the "sound" was really more of a vague idea of association and camaraderie. Yes, there were similarities in accents and subjects, but Ludacris wasn't going to make "Trap or Die," and Jeezy wasn't going to make "Saturday." So again, everybody sounded like themselves. Which in turn meant they didn't sound like anybody else, either.
Same went for the producers behind the hits. DJ Toomp didn't sound like Shawty Redd, who didn't sound like Organized Noize, who didn't sound like Jazze Pha, who didn't sound like Lil Jon. All of whom, just like most of the rappers, came from different eras, parts of town and schools of thought. What worked in the car might not work in the club. What worked at the strip club might not work at the college party.
In 2013, Atlanta is still having quite a run, and the artists are still not closely associated with each other, but oddly enough, they now sound like they might be. Future has been enjoying a two-year reign as the city's biggest new star, thanks to the omnipresence of his digitized crooning on both underground mixtapes and pop radio playlists. But star-in-waiting Rich Homie Quan sounds like a younger version of him, the only difference being their lyrical content. Likewise, area beatsmiths Sonny Digital and Mike Will Made It have a stranglehold on mainstream rap's sonics, so it's no surprise that most other producers sound like carbon copies, whether they're from Atlanta or not.
Slightly reminiscent of the Florida bass-influenced sound of the early '90s, today's Atlanta sound is heavy on the thumps and high on the synths. Samples and soul are hard to find, with artists like Scotty and producer/DJs like Burn One being rare proponents of local rap's new wave who actually use those elements. What's left of the city's commitment to R&B tunes can be heard in artists like Marian Mereba and India Shawn. But there is no up-and-coming Usher, Toni Braxton, 112, Jagged Edge or Xscape to complement.
So, what does Atlanta sound like right now? At a quick glance, it sounds like a 24-hour party that the neighbors haven't called the police on yet. A longer stare, however, will reveal that even though much of the city's output has a similar feel now, it still manages to differentiate itself from everything else, from everywhere else.