JON CARAMANICA NY Times 09/05/12
The strip club Follies, in Atlanta, is neither a dump nor a gilded pleasure palace. It could probably pass for a college bar, if not for the metal detector at the door and the never-ending parade of bare and bespangled bosoms. Inside, a narrow stage snakes around the bar, dividing the room into different sectors named for properties on the Monopoly board. “Travis Porter is right here at the end of Park Place!” the house D.J. screamed one Sunday night earlier this year, acknowledging the arrival of a young Atlanta rap trio — Ali, Strap and Quez — that has given Follies and many places like it a theme song.
“Make It Rain,” the group’s 2010 hit, is one of the great hip-hop singles in recent memory, a jubilant, raw celebration of what passes for economic stimulus in these parts: tossing dollar bills into the sky without care. Among the latest generation of Atlanta rap acts, Travis Porter is probably the most promising, with a series of salacious and catchy mixtapes under its belt and a major-label debut, “From Day 1” (Porter House/RCA), that came out in May.
When they entered Follies a little after 11 p.m., the men of Travis Porter were shown to a table near the D.J. booth. They exchanged large bills for neat stacks of singles, delivered by a waitress on a cocktail tray. Each member has his own way of redistributing these dollars. For Quez — tall, lanky and antic, with a huge, toothy grin — it’s to grab a stack of 100 singles with one hand, then flick them off one at a time with his thumb. Ali, with a broad face and a slight curl in his lip, is more of a loose tosser. And Strap, the most reserved of the three, with a wisp of a beard, is methodical, doling out his singles in tight, staccato bursts.
“Shorty right here, I been knowing since she was dancing in this little dance group in Decatur,” Quez said, talking about a woman, naked but for her shoes, who bent at a 90-degree angle in front of him as he rained dollars on her backside. A lot of times, he said, he can recognize the dancers from the rear.
Travis Porter’s first concert was in a strip club called Roosters, when the group members were still in their midteens; Ali’s mother was a manager there. They didn’t have money to give them, Ali said of the strippers who were dancing during their performance. “My mom gave us ones.” Later, Ali was chatting up a dancer wearing a neon green slingshot, while Strap lurked in a corner, a naked woman pressed up against him with intense familiarity as he whispered in her ear. The rules about touching appeared to be flexible.
The D.J. spotted the R&B singer Ne-Yo in the crowd and gave him a shout-out. A few minutes later the D.J. pointed out Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers quarterback. Late in the night, the Atlanta superstar Young Jeezy arrived with a big entourage, and sat, buddahlike, as the D.J. cued up his song “I Do,” with its flirty opening line: “I said I see some ladies in here tonight I might marry.” Again, the room got cloudy with dollar bills.
But by 1 a.m., there were signs of fatigue. The strippers were attractive, sure, but to the hip-hop elite in attendance they were familiar, too — friends, former flings, sometimes both. For a while, it looked as if Ali might not make it through the stack of bills in his hand. Quez was doing a lot of talking, grabbing the attention of a curvy woman with glow-in-the-dark barbells through her nipples. In other words, it was just another night in Atlanta.
Magic City, Blue Flame, Cheetah, Diamonds of Atlanta, Follies: the way some cities are known for their restaurants or their museums or their turn-of-the-century architecture, Atlanta’s landmarks are strip clubs. In the way that people in Los Angeles or Miami might ask you if you’ve visited the beach, in Atlanta, you’re asked if you’ve seen any strippers. And in Atlanta more than in any other city, hip-hop culture overlaps heavily with this world. The strip club is where new music is tested out, where stars go to be seen or to relax, where the value of a song can be measured by the number of dollars that fly skyward when it plays.
But for rappers seeking to make names for themselves beyond the city limits, this venerable strip club scene has turned into something of an albatross. Atlanta’s newest club champions — acts like Travis Porter, Future and Cash Out — all made their bones in places like Follies but have been fighting for the mainstream with more tenacity than their predecessors. In a way, they are running away from history.
From the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, Atlanta had a worthy bass music scene that rivaled the bigger and better-known one in Miami, with local stars like Kilo Ali, DJ Smurf and MC Shy-D making music for, and about, the strip club. The club’s centrality receded, somewhat, as the city moved away from that sound to the earthier, eccentric post-funk of groups like Outkast and Goodie Mob.
In the mid-2000s, though, the clubs rose to renewed prominence at the intersection of several emergent movements in the city — there was the city’s arrival as the center of hip-hop innovation, its rising black celebrity class and the pernicious influence of the crime syndicate BMF, which was known for its flamboyant and extravagant strip club outings. These were huge transactional scrums — rappers, dancers, criminals, bottles of alcohol, tens of thousands of dollars in the air.
While the last decade has seen several hip-hop superstars come out of Atlanta — T.I., Young Jeezy, Ludacris — it’s also fostered more than its share of club-friendly onetime crossover wonders like Dem Franchise Boyz or Shop Boyz. Acts like these “were making songs to try to get played at Crucial and the Poole Palace, and they ended up on Billboard,” said DJ Drama, a mixtape D.J. who’s a fixture in Atlanta’s rap world. When success caught them unprepared, they fizzled.
That’s a fate that Future, for one, has been trying to avoid. Future, who released his major-label debut, “Pluto” (A1/Freebandz/Epic), in April, is perhaps the least typical rapper to ever emerge from Atlanta’s strip clubs. He not only raps but sings, and often manipulates his voice digitally on songs, giving him a spooky, post-human presence. His mixtapes have been a striking blend of grimy street realism and outer-space-focused fabulism. It’s a blend suggestive of some of the extravagantly strange music made in Atlanta in the 1990s, including the debut albums by Outkast and Goodie Mob, which were produced by Organized Noize. (Rico Wade, one of Organized Noize’s anchors, is Future’s cousin and mentor.)
Future was grateful but blunt about his success among the G-string set. “My goal was never that,” he said in the small studio in Atlanta in which he does all his recording. “I just knew I had to start with that. You gotta go through the front door to get to the back of the house.”
Future had just flown back from San Francisco, where he performed his breakthrough hit “Tony Montana” at the N.F.C. Championship Game. Even though it was the regular night of his own D.J., DJ Esco, at Magic City, Future came off the plane, went to the studio, and then home.
In fact, during my two trips to Atlanta, it proved impossible to get him to a strip club, any strip club, despite the fact that one of his hits at the time was “Magic,” as in Magic City. For days, his representatives hemmed and hawed, eventually declining on his behalf. Future had meetings about brand partnerships to attend, and a dinner to celebrate the Steve Harvey film “Think Like a Man” — Future had a song on the soundtrack — but no time for strip clubs.
“I don’t go to clubs for fun, I go to clubs for business,” he said. “I’m going to connect with the D.J.’s, or I’m going making sure I pay the girls, make sure they good and make sure we throw the money.” Travis Porter echoed the sentiment. “They’re your promoters,” Quez said of the dancers and D.J.’s. “You’re just paying your promoters — strip club payola, even though you can’t write that off.”
But years of patronage and torrents of dollars can’t guarantee smooth passage from the club scene to the mainstream. Future’s ambitious and eccentric first album, “Pluto,” sold only 40,000 copies in its first week, a middling debut. Meanwhile, on the heels of “Make It Rain,” Travis Porter signed to the pop powerhouse label Jive, a tough fit. Jive followed “Make It Rain” with “College Girl,” an almost comically tame love song with a video featuring the group dressed like neo-preps, neutering its rowdy charm. It didn’t work out. Jive has now dissolved, and Travis Porter was reassigned to RCA. (The cover art for its latest hit, “Ayy Ladies,” features a woman sprawled facedown across the three members’ laps.)
But by the time of the BET Awards, in July, neither Travis Porter nor Future were invited to strut their stuff on the main stage. Instead, the nasal-voiced Cash Out acted as the ambassador from Atlanta’s strip clubs, performing “Cashin’ Out,” his breakthrough single. It was originally released late last year, and its grass-roots success eventually earned Cash Out a record deal with Epic. The song went on to top the Billboard rap songs chart and even crack the top 40 on the Hot 100 pop chart.
The popularity of “Cashin’ Out” had a lot to do with the Internet — the video now has more than 5 million YouTube views — and its viral success suggests that rappers might not need to be tossing dollars five nights a week just to get their songs played outside of Atlanta. “Why would you give that money away?” asked Sonny Digital, the producer of “Racks” by YC featuring Future, another unavoidable strip club anthem. “When you break a song on the Internet, that’s happening for free.”
Cash Out may have broke out on the Internet, but he began his campaign the old-fashioned way. After his song was recorded, for “three or four weeks straight, he was [at the clubs] politicking with the D.J.’s and the dancers,” said his producer DJ Spinz.
While the strip club remains the most reliable way to rocket-boost a song out of Atlanta, the scene competes increasingly with other hip-hop micromovements, including the country-rap of DJ Burn One and younger, tamer acts like Rich Kidz, who suggest something like a PG-13 version of Travis Porter. Then there are the bleak, intense street rhymes of Alley Boy and Trouble, whose Duct Tape Entertainment label feels miles removed from the showy dollar tossing of the clubs.
I met both Alley Boy and Trouble in the Wallpaper-worthy midtown Atlanta apartment of a colleague. We talked about their recent jail sentences and about making street-oriented music in a city known for its joyous club anthems. Alley Boy was emphatic that, as a musician, he had no use for strip clubs. Which is why it surprised me when, before he left, he pulled me aside and warmly asked if I had seen any strippers while I was in town. The precise way he phrased that question was unprintable, but it felt like it was his civic duty to ask it: “You really can’t come to Atlanta and not see any.”
Tags: strip clubs