He also has 20 years of experience working in radio, starting at urban-format stations V-103 and Hot 97.5, Atlanta’s first all-hip-hop radio station, and he’s toured with acts like his lifelong friend and collaborator Jonathan “Lil Jon” Smith.
During a conversation in the club’s locker room, where he sat near a plaque recognizing the Blue Flame’s role in the success of Lil Jon’s hit 2003 song “Get Low” (given to the club by the “king of crunk” rapper himself), Will said the goal is essentially the same when he’s working at Blue Flame, Atlanta’s oldest Black-owned strip club. Still, there are still nuances that make strip-club deejaying quite different.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
“A strip club deejay has a lot of freedom. You’ve just got to keep the money flowing, keep the guys interested in what you’re doing, and keep the vibe up. I was a party deejay at first, and I had to learn how to be a strip club deejay,” he said. ”By me being a veteran, I deejay off reading the crowd. Deejays have got to learn that formula first before they can do anything else.”
There are many factors that made Atlanta the home of hip-hop today, but one of the most significant contributors to the culture is the fabled relationship between the music industry and this city’s famed strip clubs. It’s a story that’s been told many times, sometimes in outlets based far beyond our city’s borders, but it remains a story which could only happen in Atlanta.
But as more artists promote their music through the internet and social media, there’s a question about how much clout Atlanta’s strip clubs have in influencing the next big hit.
There’s a general consensus that the internet significantly affected exotic dancing establishments. Adult entertainment is ubiquitous online, and with the rise of social media sites like OnlyFans, not only are dancers finding ways to earn money in spaces outside of strip clubs, but the connection to music is affected as well. The songs are more accessible with a click on the computer than a trip to the strip club.
Strip clubs were also affected by the onset of the 2020 pandemic. As people were advised to wear protective masks, avoid heavily populated indoor spaces and practice social distancing, lapdances became more risky than risqué. Since the internet had already become a viable option for not only marketing but distribution and sales of music -- thanks to the success of artists like Atlanta’s own Soulja Boy who pioneered viral independent rap success with “Crank That” -- strip clubs may have lost pole position, as rappers seemed to realize they could find paths to even bigger stages, at least temporarily.
From the club to the radio
Historically, the system worked like this: A rap artist would approach a strip club deejay and ask, often with some form of compensation, to have their record played. If the deejay agreed, in the ideal scenario, the song would play, the dancers would have a positive reaction and move enthusiastically to the music. Customers would also be happy and respond by spending more money. A star could be born.
DJ Will said radio program directors would tell him and other deejays to go out and see which records were making people excited. If the crowd liked it, they might add the song into programming rotation on the air, and ask if the station’s deejay staff knew how to get in touch with the artist to get clean, radio-friendly versions.
“You know, we play a lot of stuff that’s dirty,” he admitted.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
If that didn’t happen, there was also the chance that the deejay or someone else present in the strip club was connected to the music industry, and realize that this amateur rap song had the potential to be a hit single. Those power players might even be in the club and witness it for themselves, and be able to spot an uncut diamond ready to be polished into a hip-hop hit.
One such story is that of “Whoomp! (There It Is),” the cult classic song from Atlanta rap duo Tag Team.
DC The Brain Supreme, a member of Tag Team, was the deejay at Magic City when he recorded the song in 1993, and was thus able to test it at the fabled strip club. The crowd liked it. Soon enough, the party cut would go on top top nationwide singles charts and land them a performance on Arsenio Hall’s popular 1990s late-night TV talk show.
But as times have changed, the influence of these traditional incubation spaces for new rap records has changed as well.
‘The cheat code’
“The strip clubs in Atlanta are still very important but they aren’t the be-all, end-all that they used to be,” said Nick Love, an Atlanta-based project manager at ONErpm, a company that offers a suite of modern-era music industry services such as marketing and digital distribution, both of which he manages in the genres of hip-hop and R&B.
Love’s career journey includes working directly for Jeezy’s Corporate Thugz Entertainment record label, and for Magic City, where he helped popularize the Atlanta strip club’s famous Monday night experiences. He’s also a cofounder of the Coalition DJs deejaying collective, whose members were instrumental in breaking superstar rappers like Jeezy and Future by playing their music in Atlanta strip clubs.
Hip-hop, more so than other forms of music, is in constant change. Love said we’ve moved past the era where a single element like having a song played at the right strip club on the right night can change a rapper’s career.
“At one point, radio was everything! Especially Atlanta radio. If you got your song spinning on one of our stations, you were almost guaranteed a deal. It’s not like that anymore. At another point, if you were getting constant coverage on one of the big blogs… you were surely the next to blow. That’s gone. Then, the Atlanta strip clubs became the cheat code. If you were booming in Magic City, you had the golden ticket. It’s not that anymore.”
Separating the real from the fake
At the eastside strip club Pin Ups, a dancer who calls herself “Hershey” works the door on a Sunday evening just before sundown. Here she prefers collecting a cover charge from customers to performing nude, but she has signed up to be a dancer at Candyland, a downtown strip club which was once known as Goosebumps but has changed under its new ownership, the rapper 2 Chainz.
Hershey said in some ways it’s just easier for aspiring rappers to promote themselves through strip clubs, as it allows them an in-person opportunity to sway the audience’s introduction to their music by experiencing it where people are already having a good time. “It’s more hands-on. If you go to Magic City, or like, this club or that club, it’s popping.”
She’s seen upstart artists attempt to borrow cultural relevance from Pin Ups by coming in groups to shoot music videos, hoping to capture scenes of energetic pole-dancing and airborne currency inspired by their songs. The results, from Hershey’s perspective, are not always convincing.
“You have a lot of artists that come in and have their entourages, and the club is going up because they have friends in here that know their songs. But you can also tell when an artist has a real fanbase,” she said.
Pin Ups general manager Dwight Williams treats working with rap star hopefuls as a business opportunity. Having worked at Atlanta strip clubs like Diamond Club, Babes and V-Live, for more than 20 years, he remembers when rappers who tried to perform on strip club stages would be booed for distracting customers from what they actually came to see.
“Now it’s like a platform. I could charge this guy and his crew. If you bring 20 people we’ll charge you $10 a head, then I’ll give you a bottle discount, and you give me $100 bucks to perform, and putting [our club] live on your [social media] page, and you’ve got 30,000 [followers], I’m like, hmm… why not?”
Still, he has rules to filter out the fakes. “This is business. You’ve gotta pay to perform, and you’ve got to get 200 ones up-front, before you touch the stage.”
Williams also says in some cases if the artist is well-known and visiting town for other reasons such as touring, he’ll reach out to them to have them make appearances at his club, which brings those artists’ fans and more customers through the doors. In those cases, Williams said he’s had major rap stars agree to show up in exchange for $5,000 — in single bills — and three bottles of alcohol.
Rapper Omeretta The Great, who released the viral Atlanta-themed hip-hop song “Sorry Not Sorry” in 2022, said she visits Diamond Club and other local strip clubs just to have a good time with friends, but hasn’t had to include strip clubs in her go-to-market strategy. With a million Instagram followers, it’s less important.
“You can have a song blow up on a social media site and they’ll play it in the club, just because it’s hot on the internet. So I wouldn’t say it’s like when you had to go to the club and get approval from the deejay. It’s not a necessity anymore,” she said.
A different sound
There’s also a question of whether or not the deejay even wants to play your music. DJ Petty Pee Wee, a house deejay at Pin Ups, thinks the sound of Atlanta rap has become somewhat templatized due to the popularity of subgenres like trap.
“With hip-hop in Atlanta, it’s more coming to the same thing,” he said while watching a dancer on stage from the deejay booth. “That’s why I play more old-school than new-school.” He says artists from outside Atlanta like Juvenile, Lil’ Wayne and Juicy J of Three-6 Mafia provide the kind of feeling that goes with the music he prefers to play. “When you come into the strip club, it’s that lifestyle that gives you that energy.”
From DJ Will’s perspective, the tempo change also played a part in less Atlanta hip-hop being played organically today. “It used to be all up-tempo music, where the girls had to dance real hard, all night long.”
Love agreed that the sound of the city has slowed down a bit in terms of the tempo, but said it’s not all gloom and doom. “The biggest records in the clubs are still made by Atlanta artists,” he asserted, name-dropping Latto’s “Put It On The Floor,” Young Nudy’s “Peaches & Eggplants,” and new music from Gunna. “And as long as Future exists, we’ll always have that energy.”
Tequila Strong has a more mournful take on the music she hears at strip clubs now. A retired dancer, she entertained strip club customers for more than 15 years, with Pin Ups being the last place she performed. Now, having been the “house mom” at Pin Ups for five years, she works mainly in the dressing room, making sure dancers pay nightly fees to work the floor and keeping records such as their adult entertainment permits from the City of Atlanta.
Strong misses the hip-hop from her dancing heyday, and began naming the artists whose songs she preferred to play in the clubs, such as Atlanta hip-hop pioneers Goodie Mob and OutKast. “I remember them coming in the club before they made it big,” she said, with a smile.
It wasn’t so much about killing somebody and the themes in the music they have now,” Strong recalled. “The music from my era was about partying and having a good time. If you play the wrong song now, and there are some guys in here that have beef with each other, they [might] get to rapping and throwing up gang signs, and there’s an all-out war.”
She also lamented that the cultural conversation around substance abuse has changed into one of consumption. “They’re on the Percs that they rap about. They’re on lean. Back in my era they were talking about smoking weed, drinking Alize and gin and juice. Now they’re on Adderall.”
The vibes are still positive for Kiyana Neal, a 26-year old who dances under the nickname “Cookie,” but is simultaneously pursuing a career as an R&B singer. She’s been dancing for five years, starting at Magic City but now works at Blue Flame, and enjoys the experience of doing both.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
While she prefers music from soul singers like Anita Baker, Fantasia and Keyshia Cole in her spare time, she likes how music from Atlanta hip-hop stars like T.I. and Gucci Mane makes her feel as a dancer. “It’s perfect, because both of them are forms of entertainment. I feel like working as a dancer has actually elevated my perspective and mind frame on music,” she added. “I appreciate it on a whole different level.”
And Neal holds deep appreciation for a certain iconic Atlanta rap duo, particularly the slow, jazzy spoken word song “SpottieOttieDopaliscious.”
“OutKast and Blue Flame go hand-in-hand like chicken wings and fries in my mind.”
A special relationship
Love believes there will always be a special relationship between strip clubs and the music business because Atlanta is still a vital city for Black recording artists to work, create and celebrate. “This is where the fans are, and if you want to see your record react, outside of YouTube and DSPs [digital streaming providers], this is still the best city to come and find out if your music means something in real life.”
It also helps that the clubs enjoy frequent shout-outs on many rap songs, creating a symbiotic relationship. Killer Mike, Big Boi and others have consistently spoken highly of Blue Flame and other Atlanta strip clubs, along with newer generation artists like Future, who made Magic City the star of one of his earliest hit singles, “Magic.” These artists can now expect at least some level of support to continue for their music in their hometown.
“We influence a lot of people who haven’t even been here yet. I think that’s big for the clubs, the dancers and the rappers,” Will said, “but the strip club is going to win.”