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Rap music has always placed a special significance on hometown. As a source of pride and community, rappers continually make lyrical reference to the city that gave them their start, be it “Chiraq” or “good ol’ Watts.”  Beyond the hometown shoutout, local styles influence the way artists make use of rhyme and rhythm and add regional flavor to the underlying production; a rapper’s origin inspires the entire track.

And it’s not just a one-way street, either—an artist’s success in turn influences local hip-hop culture. New rappers get a boost from stars who come out of their city and incorporate similar rhyme schemes and structures. In “Good Ass Intro” on Acid Rap,  Chance the Rapper pays homage to fellow Chicagoan Kanye West by incorporating the same vocal riff that Kanye used on to kick off his I’m Good mixtape. Chance has talked widely about the Chicago legend’s influence on him, tweeting out in 2015, “Kanye West taught me to be fearless.”

Through this inward focus, epicenters of rap music have flourished across the United States since the genre’s inception in the ‘70s, cultivating loyalty from rappers and fans alike. New York dominated the scene in the early years but was soon challenged by an upstart rap culture in Los Angeles. The two cities vied for hip-hop supremacy throughout the ‘90s, with competition quickly escalating to form the notorious and bloody East Coast-West Coast rivalry.

While New York and Los Angeles continue to produce top artists, the rising prominence of other cities during the 2000s contributed to the diversification of modern rap styles. Eminem exploded out of Detroit, Lupe Fiasco from Chicago, and Lil Wayne from New Orleans. Though hip-hop’s geography has become more diverse, one city in particular has relentlessly produced talented artists in recent years to become rap’s most important cultural center: Atlanta.

Quantifying Rap

To understand shifting regional influences on hip-hop, the HPR explored the selling power of rappers as determined by the Recording Industry Association of America. The RIAA is the organization responsible for certifying tracks “Gold” and “Platinum,” and does so with a specific formula that takes into account album sales, downloads, and streams.

All of the songs and albums that have been certified by the RIAA are searchable on its website and were scraped by the HPR. Each certification was then translated into the number of units sold based on the RIAA formula. This data was put through the MusicBrainz database to add genre labels and hometown information. Though the data is imperfect, it is fairly comprehensive.

A top-level look at the rap music in the RIAA data shows that the commercial success of hip-hop is volatile, but that the genre has been on an overall upward trend since its early days. The huge successes of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. (among others) stick out in the late ‘90s before both rappers were killed. The spikes later on are yearly variation as part of rap’s upward commercial trend.

Number of hip-hop RIAA units per year

Number of hip-hop RIAA units per year

Local Hip-Hop and Atlanta’s Rise

Successful artists have now sprung out of just about every corner of the United States, and they come from radically diverse backgrounds; Lil Dicky grew up in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia, while Kodak Black was raised in a public housing project in South Florida.

Hip-hop’s geographic diversity is apparent when comparing the influence of different cities and regions across the United States. Right before the new millennium, almost all of hip-hop’s success was found in New York and Los Angeles. As discussed, New York continued to rise during the early 2000’s, before commercially-successful rappers began to come out of other cities in the following years.

Number of city hip-hop RIAA units per year

Number of city hip-hop RIAA units per year

Noticeably, Atlanta has been emerging from the pack since 2015. Though not as influential as New York was in its heyday, Atlanta is now more of a rap epicenter than any other city by a sizeable lead. The city’s hip-hop scene thrives off of the interplay between the deep set of rappers who have been perfecting Atlanta’s sound for years and new, young rappers who are pushing the music in new directions. Much of the city’s musical success comes from a rap subgenre known as “trap.” Trap makes use of snappy percussion and dark, synthesized beats to tell gritty stories.

A Migos track, “Slippery,” perfectly captures the interplay between old and new Atlanta talent. Migos, a rap group composed of three relatives, rose to prominence in recent years with a heavy trap sound and a triplet rhyme structure that they dubbed the “Versace Flow.” On “Slippery,” the trio is joined by Gucci Mane, a fixture in the Atlanta scene who has been churning out hits since 2005. The rappers, old and new, seamlessly flow together as they rap about drugs, violence, and diamonds. At the bottom of the YouTube music video, the artists have labeled themselves “Migos ATL,” tieing the bond to Atlanta even tighter.

Breaking Down the Atlanta Scene

Migos and Gucci Mane are not the only rappers that carry Atlanta with them in their music. Sorting the RIAA data by most popular Atlanta hip-hop artists shows that T.I., Outkast, and Future have garnered the most all-time commercial success for themselves and for the city. T.I. made a name for himself in the ‘00s pioneering trap music and releasing high profile collaborations with artists like Destiny’s Child, Justin Timberlake, and Rihanna. Outkast was the first major hip-hop success to emerge from Atlanta a decade earlier, bringing the group’s soul- and funk-inspired southern sound to the national spotlight. Future’s presence continues to grow as he turns his blend of Auto-Tune and trap into hit after hit, recently releasing the chart-topper, “Mask Off.”

Top Atlanta Artists

To better understand what defines Atlanta rap, the HPR analyzed the lyrics that differentiate the city’s rappers from others. Using the Genius API, thousands of rap lyrics were collected and and grouped together by city. The amalgamated lyrics were then crunched to find the words that make up the unique vocabulary of Atlanta hip-hop.

Several words reference specific artists, and are represented below by “yachty” for the young, braided rapper Lil Yachty and “issa” for 21 Savage. Asked, in an infamous interview, about the tattoo in between his eyes resembling a cross, 21 Savage cooly responded, “issa knife.” Other words like “dab” and “skrrt” are slang terms popularized in Atlanta music. “Trap” refers both to the subgenre of rap and to the subgenre’s namesake; “the trap” is a place where drugs are sold and is so called because it traps a person in the lifestyle of a drug dealer.

Atlanta’s Hip-Hop Vocabulary

One of the qualities that makes rap music exciting is that it is constantly evolving. As hip-hop changes in years to come and rap’s sound is redefined, upstart rappers in different cities will likely steal the limelight from Atlanta. However, just as New York and Los Angeles continue to influence hip-hop, Atlanta’s flavor will live on past the city’s time as the cultural center of hip-hop and will serve as a foundation for new styles. Until then, the ATL will keep humming with rappers young and old.

Image Credit: Jason Persse / Flickr

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