In the early ’90s, Dallas Austin ingrained himself in Atlanta culture with the arrival of Rowdy Records, the label he co-founded with Antonio “L.A.” Reid.
Singer Monica became their most significant act with hits including “Before You Walk Out of My Life,” and Austin’s producing career skyrocketed while working with Madonna, TLC, Pink, Gwen Stefani, Boyz II Men and dozens of other hitmakers.
Last summer – following his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame – Austin, 49, relaunched the Rowdy Collection clothing line as an initial step toward revitalizing a brand he built.
Phase two was to storm South By Southwest in March with a massive unveiling of the 21st century version of Rowdy Records, with Austin stationed as CEO and creative director.
But the coronavirus interrupted, so Austin pivoted.
“I was working all last year to get the (record label return) set, so luckily I had all of my assets together when South By Southwest got canceled,” Austin said recently from his Atlanta home. “At first everyone froze, but then we all realized that since you’re home, you can always listen to music. So I figured let’s get this (music) out there. It’s not doing any good sitting on my computer.”
Earlier this month, Rowdy returned with its first single, “STFU,” from Atlanta rapper Johnny Apollo. The label has also signed Tik Tok star Shac From Da 3 (“50 Dance Challenge”).
Apollo’s guitar-charging song is brash and pummeling, a notable shift in sound from the signature trap style espoused by Atlanta rap royalty such as 2 Chainz, Migos and Future.
“I wanted to have a new Atlanta purpose, like we did in the first place. Something not the norm,” Austin said about Apollo’s distinctive sound. “We wanted to twist the narrative of the usual rap sound from Atlanta. You start to look at Edgewood (neighborhood) to see what’s next and I saw this whole new wave of underground artists with different types of energy. This is what I want to display.”
Austin met the 28-year-old Apollo – born Richard Starks Jr. – through the Playlist Academy, an artist development program steered by Apollo’s manager, Jason “J” Wise.
Apollo had been active in Atlanta’s music scene since 2012, playing venues such as Aisle 5 and Smith’s Olde Bar. He was aware of Austin’s prolific history – “mostly through TLC,” he said with a laugh – and feels the responsibility of representing the rebirthed label.
“He’s one of the few executives in Atlanta that has the same aesthetic and influences and upbringing as I did,” Apollo, a native of southwest Atlanta, said. “He understands the type of artist I am…I’m super proud and blessed to be part of Rowdy. I’m ready to carry that name on my back and I think I’m the perfect artist to represent the name.”
In addition to the single, Apollo is readying the release of an EP, “The Lovely Rager,” which he finished a week before the pandemic stonewalled the music industry.
As is typical for Austin, merely executing the liftoff of his record label and shepherding new artists is only a portion of his current to-do list.
He and longtime friend Jermaine Dupri initiated a joint venture, JDA, in late 2019. The pair recently debuted their own version of the popular “Verzuz battles” on Instagram called “I Wrote That Song.” “Verzuz” is an online gathering created by Timbaland and Swizz Beats in late March that pits two similar artists with at least 20 songs in their canon against each other and fans vote on the winner.
The idea of musical combat didn’t appeal to Austin or Dupri.
“Because we’re from Atlanta, Jermaine called me and said, ‘We can’t battle. We have to do something else.’ Some of the battles were getting pretty negative and it’s a fighting sport and if I’m going to battle someone, it has to be someone I can battle with, not someone I have love for. It was uncomfortable for us to be in that position, and ‘I Wrote That Song’ was also a good way for us to get the word out that we’ve formed JDA,” Austin said.
The pair’s “I Wrote That Song” — essentially a master class in sharing background and technique of songwriting and hit-making — landed successfully, leading Austin and Dupri to try to further the feature. Austin names Jason “Pooh Bear” Boyd and CeeLo Green as artists they’d like to enlist.
“We want it to provide insight for people who write songs and for people who just want to know the stories behind songs,” Austin said. “It meant a lot to us to do it for the city.”
Austin, with his Rowdy Records, and Dupri, with the So So Def label, are envisioning JDA as their version of Babyface and Reid’s mega-successful LaFace Records, which catapulted Atlanta into the major music player spotlight in the ’90s. The focus, Austin said, will be “quality R&B.”
They’re currently working with M3, an R&B vocal group of brothers from South Atlanta High School discovered through the Dallas Austin Foundation.
“(The Foundation) was putting a studio in the high school and these kids started singing to me,” Austin said. “They are the perfect thing for Jermaine and me.”
In his spare time, Austin is also tinkering with a solo release, which he’s teased with the bouncy thumper, “Moneyango,” featuring singer-songwriter Naz Tokio.
“It’s going to be really ’90s-feeling,” Austin said of his upcoming album. “I wanted to bring the feel of what people liked about my music. I’m really excited about surrounding Rowdy with my energy.”
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