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What the future holds for Atlanta hip-hop

Can the city’s rap reign last forever-ever?
Rapper Olu of Atlanta hip-hop group Earthgang performs at the 2019 Afropunk Atlanta festival. Ryan Fleisher For the AJC

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Rapper Olu of Atlanta hip-hop group Earthgang performs at the 2019 Afropunk Atlanta festival. Ryan Fleisher For the AJC

Music industry veteran Kawan “KP” Prather, an Atlanta native, has a prediction on where the city’s hip-hop influence is headed: “I think it’s gonna be a minute before Atlanta creates the new thing.”

Through his time as an A&R executive at LaFace Records starting in the 1990s, Prather played a major role in the rise of Atlanta as the world’s hottest hip-hop city. He is responsible for signing artists like OutKast, Goodie Mob, and T.I. to contracts with the storied record label run by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Antonio “L.A.” Reid.

Today, Prather believes things have changed for the next generation of rap talent, ironically in part because of the city’s successful music industry run.

“We’re too popping,” said Prather. “We are asking people to get hot before they come to us now, whereas we used to be the place where people would come because there was a chance to get hot.”

(L-R) Clifford "T.I." Harris, Kawan "KP" Prather, Antonio "L.A." Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds attend the ASCAP Rhythm And Soul 3rd Annual Atlanta Legends Dinner Honoring Antonio "L.A." Reid at Mandarin Oriental Hotel on September 25, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Department)

Credit: Paras Griffin

Credit: Paras Griffin

With hip-hop surviving long enough to now qualify for an AARP card, what does this mean for the health of Atlanta hip-hop going forward?

A range of Atlanta hip-hop contributors, from deejays and promoters to managers and record executives, have insights and theories on what might shape the future.

While in recent years Atlanta rappers like Future and Lil Baby have had mainstream success and inspired others to try similar approaches to making rap music, some Atlanta music industry insiders believe the city’s hip-hop artists are pushing less creative boundaries today than in past eras, offering fewer new perspectives or widely supporting artists that do.

“Earthgang and JID are selling out concerts and festivals all over the damn world,” said Atlanta radio personality and podcast host Brian “B. High” Hightower, referencing two popular hip-hop acts from Atlanta whose careers launched in the last 15 years. “And they can’t get a record playing in full rotation on the radio [here].”

‘Return of the G’: Is the future going to look like the past?

When it comes to rappers, the only title as important as “best” is “next.” Innovation is a core tenet of hip-hop, and the thirst for a new sound, style and point of view is something that always has to be quenched.

But recently, seasoned older rap artists are finding success and releasing some of the most critically acclaimed music of their careers.

One of the biggest stories of the year has been 48-year-old Atlanta rapper Killer Mike releasing “Michael,” an album critics like media personality Charlamagne Tha God have called his “magnum opus.” The release of “Michael,” for which Killer Mike is openly lobbying to be recognized at the 2024 Grammy Awards, came 20 years after his debut album “Monster.”

Killer Mike’s mentor Big Boi, who is also 48, continues to tour the world with singer/producer Sleepy Brown by his side. And their fellow Dungeon Family rap representatives Goodie Mob have reemerged after years of dormancy to become one of the most visible Atlanta rap groups outside of Migos.

Rapper Big Boi performs alongside Sleepy Brown during Wind Down Concert in East Point on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Michael Blackshire/

Credit: Michael Blackshire

Credit: Michael Blackshire

This calls attention to the other side of the spectrum. In recent years, many distinct leading voices of Atlanta’s newer hip-hop generation are having their careers cut short by death from gun violence or incarceration. This includes deceased rappers Bankroll Fresh, Trouble and Takeoff, and jailed rap stars YFN Lucci and Young Thug.

“The future of Atlanta hip-hop is gonna look older than younger,” Hightower said from his office in downtown Atlanta. “That whole little gap between 25 and 35 – those folks are dead [or] in jail.”

Hightower believes much of Atlanta’s new rap presents less opportunities for different generations of fans to come together and enjoy the music as they once did. He thinks the result will be a return to what was made in the past.

“What you’re gonna see is the resurgence of older music being circulated in hip-hop, whether it be on the radio, in the clubs or in the concerts.”

That isn’t hard to believe. If you grew up listening to OutKast’s first three albums, all released in the ‘90s, there were sonic elements both youth and elders could seemingly appreciate. Examples include Curtis-Mayfield-influenced production on OutKast’s debut album “Southerplayalisticcadillacmuzik,” the choruses of songs like “Elevators” from their sophomore LP “ATLiens,” and the unforgettable horns on the deep cut “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” from the 1998 album “Aquemini.”

Future packed the second headlining stage at Music Midtown on Sept. 17. 2017. He brought fellow Atlanta rapper Young Thug on stage during his set. Photo: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC File

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

The rapper Wicked of Decatur-based group Ghetto Mafia, which played an influential role in Atlanta’s rap history, believes it necessary for “old-school” rappers to carry the torch of making music that will be considered timeless down the line. He compares hip-hop to a luxury car that he wouldn’t allow his son to drive.

“That Lexus, that Benz, was my dream. I took care of it. When I give it to you, you have no equity in it, it was just something handed down to you. Same thing with rap. Hip-hop was a way of life for us that we still live to this day. For this newer generation, it’s just a hustle.”

Wicked’s philosophy could explain why some Atlanta rappers who came during later waves after the days of OutKast and Goodie Mob believe that an effective “handing down” never happened. Some Atlanta rappers whose careers launched in more recent years have said established artists never or rarely made efforts to connect with them as they were up-and-coming local acts. Even College Park native 2Chainz rapped on the song “Feds Watching” about the “OGs” failing to support the younger generation.

Conversely, when successful Atlanta artists do make such efforts, they sometimes create progeny who find their own success but don’t really advance an original sound. The consequence, Prather thinks, is new artists might find themselves pigeonholed in a creative space that’s difficult to escape, resulting in “new Atlanta” rappers’ unique, potentially needle-moving creative approaches to rap being dampened or drowned out in favor of what is already known to work.

“Ultimately it’s gonna come down to helping the dope [new] people find the dope OGs, so somebody can protect them in this space and allow them to be vulnerable... so that the kids don’t feel like they have to change.”

‘The Whole World’: How lack of community impacts the culture

In the late-1990s, when Atlanta started earning nicknames like “Motown of the South” and “hip-hop’s center of gravity,” much of that was because of the money, hit records and mainstream success being generated at LaFace and other locally based record companies like Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def, the Ludacris-led Disturbing Tha Peace label, and T.I.’s Grand Hustle Records.

Those labels offered access to greater visibility, and in cases where they might have overlooked the range of Atlanta’s unique rap styles, there was always an underground or independent community of creative contributors — artists, DJs, producers, promoters, writers, venues and more — working together to support Atlanta talent.

Bboy Orkin Man performed during the b-boy competion at  Masquerade. Courtesy of Raymond Hagans

Credit: Raymond Hagans, Special

Credit: Raymond Hagans, Special

Today that seems to happen less often. Prather says that’s possibly due to the rising cost of living in Atlanta.

Back when he and others were leading Atlanta hip-hop into the future, the culture often benefitted from creatives being able to meet and collaborate at lower expense than if they were pursuing such connections and opportunities in other major industry cities, like New York and Los Angeles. This was, in Prather’s words, “when Atlanta was new and rent was cheap.”

“When New York was the hottest, we made [Atlanta] hotter because we could afford to be creative here and not have the stress of trying to make $4,000 rent every month,” Prather said. “You need a job to do that, which is going to take away some of the creativity.”

The waning sense of community could also be from a different, but perhaps just as obvious reason.

“COVID kind of shook it up a little bit with everybody just staying in the house,” offered Popstar Benny, the producer behind Atlanta rapper Anycia’s viral hit “So What.”

He believes the 2020 pandemic and rising rents have made people gather in smaller, more intimate neighborhood spaces. That could be a benefit, as it’s ironically reminiscent of producer Rico Wade’s red-clay-floored basement studio, famously shouted out as “The Dungeon,” where Organized Noize Productions and members of the Dungeon Family rap consortium recorded early songs that made Goodie Mob and OutKast Atlanta rap legends.

“If someone has a studio set up at their house, everybody might end up going over there and next thing you know there’s seven or eight of the ‘who’s next’ people hanging out there.”

It could be that music, like children, benefits when raised in a loving home environment. It could also be true that hip-hop must find its way outside the house and mingle with new friends in order to flourish. This exchange of ideas and shaping of taste might explain how it comes to life through dance, fashion and other expressions.

But if people are doing that less than before, how will hip-hop spread and continue to live in ATL?

Steven “Steve-O” Dingle is a longtime Atlanta hip-hop insider who has worked with industry companies like Quality Control Music and talent company United Masters. He remembers not many years ago taking Atlanta visitors interested in the local hip-hop scene to the lounges of Peters Street in Castleberry Hill, and defunct Edgewood Avenue nightclub Department Store.

The Brown-Hayes Department Store at Edgewood Avenue and Boulevard: Once at the center of African American commerce, this building is now at the center of today's Edgewood nightlife district. Built in 1899, it's still the site of many an art project. The building even has its own Facebook page. The "Brown-Hayes" part of the name at top is pretty faded on this side. (PETE CORSON / PCORSON@AJC.COM)



Now, he said, he doesn’t know of a physical place where someone can find the same crowd. Social media platforms are where artists are building connections with fans and followers now, making it seem as if the in-person community aspect of the culture has been replaced with an in-the-comments relationship.

“We just hear the music and see them on Instagram,” Dingle said.

Before social media became the powerful promotional tool it is now, artists had to build buzz by performing for small crowds, possibly at the now-closed Apache Café in Midtown, before graduating to The Masquerade or Center Stage over time. Now an artist can skip the building process, collect followers online and with luck, drive them to buy tickets to their first show by the thousands.

Depending on who is asked, the outcome can be magic or tragic.

“When it comes time to... sell tickets, they don’t know how to do shows because they haven’t done them,” says Brannon Boyle, founder of Speakeasy Promotions, which earned a local reputation for booking formerly under-the-radar rap artists like Run The Jewels and Odd Future to perform early in their careers.

Boyle said he’s seen artists attract large audiences for their first shows, only to deliver lackluster performances.

“That’s such a shame,” he said, “because if they had been out in these smaller places, where there’s not much risk, you learn basic things like how to use a microphone and that you shouldn’t rap over your vocals. You still have to work your way up.”

With venues closing as Atlanta’s cost of living continues to rise, it makes business sense that they would book talent that earn enough revenue to keep their doors open. But as a result, many new artists get shut out from starting to build a fanbase, and their craft, in the process.

The original Masquerade nightclub was in the old excelsior mill on North Avenue in the Poncey-Highland neighborhood.  (RICH MAHAN/AJC staff)

“A lot of these venues are not opening their doors to Black, urban music,” says Leah Tiller, head of A&R for Lotus Rosery, an organization whose goal is to support promising creatives by hosting pop-up local artist showcases and other events. “And it really sucks because a lot of these new artists have a lot to offer. So you don’t get to see the growth firsthand as much anymore,” Tiller said.

Add the fact that, according to Boyle, venues are more likely to book performances with agents they trust, and getting your name out there as a young Atlanta hip-hop act is made even more difficult today.

‘Elevators’: Will Atlanta’s sound level up again?

Is “the city too busy to hate” now the city too popular to innovate? At times it can feel that way.

After spending so many years creating new styles of music and dance, it feels to some that Atlanta has hit auto-pilot since the rise of trap music.

“I feel like it’s just easy to make,” explains Decatur-raised lyricist Grip, who signed with Eminem’s Shady Records in 2021.

Because they don’t lean heavily into the traditional sounds of trap rap, Grip believes emcees like Deante’ Hitchcock, Kenny Mason and himself are often seen as outliers compared to the trap sound Atlanta has become known for exporting. “The beat is hard and you can do melodies to it. The hooks are infectious... and you really don’t have to say too much. The beat does the job for you.”

“I think the thing that’s made trap music last so long was that its sound evolved every three or four years,” says Amir Shaw, Atlanta native and author of the 2020 book “Trap History,” which takes a socioeconomic look at the birth and growth of the genre.

“A T.I. song from 2003 doesn’t sound like a Young Thug song from 2019, or even a Lil Baby song now. This next generation put their own twist on it, but it still falls under that umbrella, which is kind of remarkable because you don’t really see subgenres in hip-hop last that long.”

This Sept. 14, 2018 photo shows rapper Clifford Harris Jr., better known as T.I., during a tour of his Trap Music Museum in Atlanta. AP Photo/John Amis

Credit: Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Credit: Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

It seems encouraging that Atlanta’s rap artists are still collaborating, but does it really matter if the outcome is songs that sound like more of the same?

“I feel like the production style of trap is just kind of a general Atlanta sound,” Popstar Benny said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s just that the foundation of our sound right now is built on trap.”

With the rise of streaming and social media content, IP addresses may have replaced physical addresses in specific cities when it comes to finding different hip-hop sounds. Now that listeners can curate their own playlists or listen to playlists curated for them by algorithms, they might hear similar kinds of songs played repeatedly, without knowing — and possibly without caring — whose song it is. In the process, an echo chamber is potentially created where nothing else really gets their sonic attention.

“Everybody sounds just like everybody else,” Tiller said, “because people consume music based on what they like to hear nowadays. So there’s like a sound on TikTok that blows up and they like the sound. If somebody else makes music just like it, they’re gonna be like, ‘Oh, I really like that song now’ — not ‘I like that person.’”

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Imitation has always been flattery in Atlanta. When celebrated producer Zaytoven’s style of trap-influenced tracks helped make Gucci Mane a star, aspiring rappers reached out for something similar. But even as a trap music pioneer, he admits it’s time for something new.

“I’m hoping these young people get back to learning instruments,” said Zaytoven while speaking at a September panel on hip-hop’s cultural influence on Atlanta.

Xavier Lamar Dotson, known professionally as Zaytoven, is an Atlanta music producer. Zaytoven makes new music at Patchwerk Recording Studios on Friday, July 21, 2023, in Atlanta. (Tyson A. Horne /

Credit: Tyson Horne

Credit: Tyson Horne

“Right now the music is getting so watered down because of technology. I look at my own studio and I got six or seven keyboards plugged up, two drum machines, all hooked up to my computer just to make a beat. Now these young guys just do it all on the cell phone. That’s the scary part about the future of music in Atlanta. I feel like if we have more artists focused on learning music, a lot of music would be more special.”

With 120,000 songs being uploaded to streaming services every day, according to entertainment industry data analytics platform Luminate, it’s almost impossible to predict what the next big thing in music from Atlanta will be.

What if the future doesn’t actually have a “sound?” What if the future just looks like people who just so happen to be from Atlanta, putting out music that finds its audience? Since the city has been at the top of the food chain for so long, there really may not even be a need or desire to represent it the same way older artists felt that there was a need to.

There’s also concerning data around hip-hop’s music industry market share, which appears to be shrinking. According to Billboard, even though hip-hop remained the largest genre in consumption units, its dominance is seemingly slipping. No hip-hop album topped the Billboard 200 album charts until Philadelphia rapper Lil Uzi Vert’s “Pink Tape” was released in late June.

Combined with R&B as a category, hip-hop also slipped into second place at 13.01% in terms of year-over-year unit growth, still ahead of country music but now behind rock at 17.71%. R&B/hip-hop’s overall market share has slipped by more than a point and a half to 25.92% since mid-2022, and by more than two percentage points in on-demand streaming.

Lil Baby performs at the third annual Lil Baby & Friends Birthday Celebration at sold-out State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Friday, December 9, 2022. Performers also included Drake, Chris Brown, 21 Savage, GloRilla, Lakeya, Rocko and DJ Fresh. (Photo: Robb Cohen for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Robb Cohen for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Robb Cohen for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

That could suggest that any ideas from Atlanta on how to innovate and keep creating hip-hop’s next big movement should surface as soon as possible, especially if our city wants to remain the culture’s capital city.

“In the future, I think it’ll probably have a different name,” said Prather. “Younger people kind of condemn their parents’ stuff. It’s going to be a renaissance of smart people leading it because we’ve got to the point where hip-hop is looked at as something that anybody can do, as long as they’re not stealing or robbing. So now I think that with the lack of information in music, the style of it is dying out.”

At least some Atlanta deejays believe new ideas and tastes are coming.

“I definitely feel there’s a renaissance happening musically, where there’s just so much intersectionality now,” says DJ Hourglass, a member of the WERC Crew, who produce parties where hip-hop, R&B and dance music is regularly played.

“There’s a lot of Afrobeats, R&B soul and funk colliding with trap and hip-hop influence. It’s just kind of morphing and contorting people and artists, where they’re digging deep into their cultural roots and still having that deep Atlanta influence of what came before.”

“The taste of the city is beginning to change because the demographic itself is changing,” says DJ Illwink, who moved to Atlanta during the pandemic because “it was still open.”

While he DJs frequently at venues like The Drunken Unicorn and Our Bar, he represents a growing population of people who don’t know an “old Atlanta” to compare with the music and culture of today.

“It’s still a Black city, but it’s a melting pot of Black culture. You still have a lot of people coming from the Northeast or Chicago, but I also see a heavy Caribbean and West Indian culture, and African culture too. It’s only expanding the rich Southern culture and what Atlanta built its name off of.”

Hightower, a Ben Hill community native, sees it too but feels that the influx could also stamp out locals.

“I’m in Atlanta, riding around town and I don’t know if I’m in Atlanta or Nigeria no more,” he said, only half-jokingly. “I cut on the radio; I’m hearing more Afrobeats music being broken than Atlanta local music. But that happens when you have program directors from out-of-state, that don’t have love for the locals and bring in their tastes, and you ain’t got no taste... then the local music is not going to break.”

Atlanta has come a long way since Big Boi and Andre 3000 won best new rap group at the 1995 Source Awards, and the city’s hip-hop community deserves its roses for massively impacting hip-hop culture.

Can it reset and find liberation, or will it soon find itself stuck in the trappings of past success? As the 1997 OutKast song predicted, we’ll find out in due time.


This year marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, a cultural phenomenon that sparked a groundbreaking musical genre. Although Atlanta’s emcees may have picked up the mic nearly a decade after the movement was birthed in Bronx, New York, ATL’s influence is undeniable. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is celebrating the city’s influence with the upcoming premiere of “The South Got Something To Say,” an insightful documentary on Atlanta’s rise in hip-hop. Accompanied by a monthlong series of stories, the AJC is exploring how Atlanta cemented its spot in hip-hop history. You’ll find many more stories and a preview of the documentary online at