In the ’90s Atlanta finally started getting the world’s attention — and not just because of the Olympics. New York, the birthplace of hip-hop, would have been happy to ignore OutKast altogether, as would Los Angeles, the home of then-burgeoning gangsta rap. Rappers from both coasts made that clear during the 1995 Source Awards, when they booed OutKast for winning best new artist — which prompted André 3000 to say, “The South got something to say,” right there on that stage. The album that followed this incident, ATLiens, was another convincing bid for recognition on behalf of the American South.
Back in January, longtime Atlanta resident and A3C’s executive director, Mike Walbert, was reminiscing over these times. He was browsing “The 1996 Project,” a roundtable series by Complex on how hip-hop became a nationwide phenomenon that year. “I was like, ‘I could book 30 shows on this one topic,’” he says. “Then, what did it for me was the Olympics in Atlanta. I almost felt obligated to tell the story. ’96 was such a year for Atlantans and the city as a whole.” That realization is why the marquee event of this year’s A3C is 1996 Day.
The lineup, stacked with hip-hop veterans, is also consistent with the three-day hip-hop festival and conference’s name, which stands for “All Three Coasts.” Redman, joined by Erick Sermon and Keith Murray of Def Squad, will show how New York defended its reign. Too $hort will reestablish how he anticipated gangsta rap’s singular pimp perspective from the West Coast. Bun B of UGK will represent for that top-down, candy-car lifestyle in Houston. Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-n-Harmony will prove how its choral approach to hip-hop helped distinguish the Midwest from the rest. Mr. DJ, who formed the production group Earthtone III with OutKast’s Big Boi and André 3000, will lead an ATLiens tribute show with 19 other musicians. And throughout the day, Mr. DJ, Kid Capri, DJ Jelly and DJ Toomp will perform sets honoring the event’s titular year.
That October 8 lineup is impressive considering that A3C is a niche event by festival standards, with 35,000 attendees last year. “We are not a Live Nation event,” Walbert, the festival’s executive director, says. “We do not have a million-dollar talent budget, or anything close to that.” Still, A3C has grown substantially. A3C launched in 2004 as a single-day event spearheaded by Brian Knott and Kevin Elphick’s short-lived indie label ArcTheFinger. By 2013, though, when Bun B and Too $hort made their A3C debuts, the bill featured over 500 acts in five days. A turning point was when Bun B led a six-act tribute show for UGK partner-in-crime Pimp C, who died in 2007. Another was last year’s De La Soul Day. That night’s concert honored the art rap group’s 28-year history while, coincidentally, A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg made his last onstage appearance before he died in March.
For artists, being part of such a bill is about much more than just making a festival appearance. “It’s like, well, we can’t book a bunch of headliners,” Walbert says, “but we can tell cool stories.” The first act Walbert approached was Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, who had already been touring for the 20-year anniversary of second album E. 1999 Eternal. Returning artists Bun B and Too $hort were already game. Redman, a good pal of Too $hort’s, agreed after a few negotiations, to both fit the festival’s budget and keep ticket prices affordable for even the casual hip-hop fan. (For the first time in A3C’s history, single-day tickets are available at $54.) “Keep in mind that you’re part of something bigger,” Walbert would stress to artists.
Walbert had joined A3C in 2009, after co-founding and managing rap collective SMKA Productions. A3C had just moved to Center Stage to East Atlanta Village dives — an effort to downsize after losing money for some years prior. Headliners included Rakim and Killer Mike. Meanwhile, Walbert and Fadia Kader, now Twitter’s head of music partnerships, assembled a showcase that featured Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, among others, long before the Grammy nominations started rolling in. Everyone involved in A3C already had experience working with the hip-hop industry. But Atlanta had also long been an epicenter for the genre, to where no one had a choice but to pay attention, thanks to the works released from the mid-’90s onward.
Walbert has long had this idea for a show called “20/10,” where one act performs one classic hip-hop record from 20 years ago, and another, from a decade ago. He still hopes to make that happen at A3C one day. But for now, he sees it as more than fitting that an Atlanta-based festival honors landmark artists from 1996 this month.
“[Atlanta had] been growing so fast after that year, in some ways good and in some ways bad,” Walbert says. “But we took the crown in music in the United States. When OutKast got on stage in ’95 and dropped ATLiens, the focus of the music industry and hip-hop shifted to the South and has not left.”
To the point where you can do a festival like A3C out of Atlanta, I say. “100 percent. We couldn’t do what we do without them.”