In Atlanta, Where Hip-Hop Meets Strip Clubs

September 9th, 2012

In Atlanta, where hip-hop rubs up against notorious strip clubs, rappers who want to make it big get their start by making it rain.

Dustin Chambers

Future (at left) dances with the Atlanta rapper T.I. outside Magic City last December, during the filming of a music video for a remix of Future’s hit, “Magic.”

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.

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