It’s been a long time since Atlanta wasn’t the most important city in hip-hop.
From Gucci Mane’s trap house revolution to Future and Mike Will’s mainstream takeover to the tip-of-the-iceberg brilliance of Young Thug, the epicenter of the South continues to drive the hip-hop conversation. And with the sound of Atlanta strip-clubs firmly entrenched in the pop zeitgeist, it was only a matter of time before things got truly and profoundly weird.
In 2014, the only cliché bigger than calling PC Music “divisive” is calling Atlanta rap “weird.” Still, that tag has been an easy catch-all for the year’s most interesting developments: Young Thug and Bloody Jay’s effervescent Black Portland, the increasingly-experimental Rome Fortune, the inexplicable rise of iLoveMakonnen, and tracks like OG Maco and Key!’s exclamatory ‘U Guessed It’.
But no development has been more exciting than the rise of Awful Records, a crew of rappers, producers, singers and artists that seem ready to takeover not just Atlanta but the rap world at large. A collective in the truest sense, each member is a multitasker, each release a group effort. Comparisons to similarly constructed groups fall short: this isn’t the Wu-Tang (there’s no grand plan in sight) or Odd Future (same punkish attitude, less juvenilia sideshow act).
After being the talk of New York’s CMJ festival, we’ve decided to introduce the crew’s ever-expanding roster, highlight key releases, and get a few words from members of the Awful family (the ones we could track down, at least).
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Father is the founder of Awful Records, which originally began as an offshoot of an endeavour he called Awfully Creative (which in turn became Awful Media Group). He’s also a self-taught jack of all trades, rapping but also designing artwork, producing and engineering tracks, and directing and editing videos.
He dropped his debut release last year, unspooling his high-pitch flow over a strange blend of So So Def, chop-and-screw, and sinister club music. But by the time he dropped Young Hot Ebony earlier this year, his style had morphed into what it is now: sometimes spoken, sometimes sing-song, and usually raunchy raps over barebones beats.
When doing street tales, there’s both chilling detail (“Two dead, six wounded / That’s what you get for not rolling as a unit”) and winking irony (“Never had to whip a brick, but I get the gist”). He’s also has the crew’s best feel for the zeitgeist, from the flip phone fetishizing ‘Nokia’ to the unbeatable hook on ‘Look at Wrist’.
Ethereal (aka Obie Rudolph) goes way back with the Awful family, he’s just “always been off doing Obie” (in the words of Father), making beats as one half of Optimus Pikachu and dropping an album (2011’s Abstractica) for Yelawolf’s Slumerican imprint. He started producing in his late teens, making sample-based loop material before being introduced to the hardcore continuum; he’s released entire EPs of jungle and drum-and-bass and notes that it’s what he’d stick with if he was able to focus on one sound.
A self-described “weird kid” growing up, his first cassette was Nirvana’s In Utero and he performed in a jam band (he calls Phish “the greatest band on the planet”). He came to rap late by hanging out with rappers, and running with the Awful crew has pushed him to embrace the genre. “It’s very inspiring to see the reception [of Awful] because it’s been really natural to us,” he explains. “We haven’t changed since a year ago when no one was paying attention to us.”
Ethereal’s left-field oeuvre lives up to his moniker: woozy experiments that draw from Stones Throw-styled hip-hop, off-kilter soul and ‘nuum electronics. His Awful debut, Cactus Jack, weaves together hypnotic loops, somber melodies and minimalist trap drums, all punctuated by a creepy laugh drop that makes it clear: this isn’t for the weak of heart.
Archibald Slim is Awful’s resident nostalgic: his heady lyricism, dusty trunk-rattlers and hood survival themes evoke Southern legends UGK and OutKast (there’s a strain of East Coast classicism in there, too). He’s also one of the most prolific members, dropping three self-produced efforts (COGNAC, MRUNLUCKYLEFTY and Look What The Cat Dragged In) and teaming up with Stalin Majesty for AR in the span of just over a year.
“Every one of those was made in like a week,” he says of the process behind each project. “Each one is how I’m feeling at that point in time. I do a bunch of tracks at once to capture that state of mind.”
He attributes Awful’s success to the “friendly competition” that the crew embraces. That collaborative spirit resulted in his stylistic breakthrough: September’s He’s Drunk!, a tight, 30-minute effort produced entirely by crewmember KeithCharles Spacebar. With just a few tweaks to Slim’s old-school formula, the mixtape is his most vital work yet — alternately spooky, soulful, funky and forceful.
One of the first members of the Awful crew, KeithCharles Spacebar first emerged in 2011 with a jazzy, Soulquarian-inspired sound, but by the time he dropped HOWTO[COUNT] late last year, he had expanded his influences beyond neo-soul and golden age hip-hop. “I like nostalgic music, but it’s better to do something that hasn’t been done,” he says. “You have to kill your heroes.”
The five-track EP displayed an experimental streak; last month’s KEEP[COUNT] streamlined those instincts into one of the heaviest Awful releases yet. Taking cues from Timbaland, After Dark, Gucci and more, his greatest strengths might lie in production; he’s produced Archibald Slim’s He’s Drunk!, RichPoSlim’s Brawl, and Father’s ‘Fake AF’. “I spit beats out faster than everybody else,” he says of his recent streak. “I just make something and move on, make something and move on.”
On ‘Drink My Spit’, he distilled Awful’s promise into one lyric — “we the new No Limit” — a sentiment shared by the scores of people who saw the crew at CMJ. “As an artist, you see your peers on a ground level: people your age, some like you, some don’t,” he explains. “But when we went to New York, we saw live ass fans: teenagers coming out every fucking night. That blew my mind.”
Richposlim (a nickname that went from Poet to Po to Slim Po Slim to what it is currently) might describe himself as Awful Records’ Dame Dash, but his contributions on the mic outpace those of the Roc-a-Fella co-founder. After dropping verses on tracks by iLoveMakonnen and other members of Awful, he teamed with Father for the true-to-its-title Brawl EP, an antagonistic three-tracker that includes the hypnotic ‘Full Moon’, the blown-out blow-job anthem ‘Throat’ and the Bay Area-indebted ‘Plot’.
Along with rapping, shooting videos and acting as Awful’s “half-assed PR guy”, he’s also been able to explain what makes Awful tick and how Atlanta has reamined such a hub for musical innovation. “Historically, after slavery, there was always a bunch of niggas in Atlanta, whether they were dirt poor or doctors, politicians or movers and shakers,” he explains. “Atlanta is the black capital of the South, and it’s always had that black soul thing going on. It’s a real black city and it’s always been ahead of the curve.”
One of the difficult aspects of following Awful is that it’s not actually a record label: there’s no central repository, and releases are spread across various platforms, some free and some for sale. After the legal issues surround DJ Drama in the past decade, the mixtape game changed, with rapper giving original projects away as promotional material. “That was stupid — that’s not how capitalism works,” he says. “You might as well sell it, because your diehard fans will still buy it. It just makes sense.”
“I’m not putting my best work on a free tape. It’s 2014: you can hear it on SoundCloud or Spotify, and if really like my shit and want me to do my thing, you can pay a few dollars.”
There’s an old Dave Chappelle bit about seeing groups of black dudes that include a couple of white guys. “Those white guys are some of the most dangerous motherfuckers in them groups,” he says. “Ain’t no telling what they’ve done to get them black dudes’ respect. But them black dudes have seen them do some wild shit.”
That’s the first thing that comes to mind when describing Slug Christ, Awful Records’ resident drug-dazed based-goth. After emerging in 2013 with a collection of “slugged out” remixes, the rapper-producer has been on a roll this year, dropping four collections of creepy crawlers about drug addiction, suicidal depression, blacklit-sex and blood-soaked confrontations. Mixing menace with melancholy behind the boards and on the mic, with a distinct aesthetic and a gift for sneaky hooks and unforgettable titles (‘Clinical JRPG Depression’, ‘Off a Zan in Feudal Japan’), Slug might be the total package.
He briefly studied painting at SCAD, and names mid-century painters Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock as inspirations. “I’ve made some weird ass music in my past projects,” which range from 8-bit beats to surf pop to metal, “and I’m trying to stay on the very tip of the avant garde,” he says. “I want to walk a nice thin line between being acceptable by modern standards and pushing it forward — not just in rap, but art in general.”
And what about the name? “A slug is a little, disgusting creature. There’s the perpetual loneliness it lives in — no one wants one as a pet. But it leaves a trail behind it, no matter how insignificant.” As for the second half? “I wanted to compare myself to God.”
GAHM is an acronym for “Greg and his Mew,” a nod to what he calls his biggest musical influence: the soundtracks of Pokémon. Despite that, GAHM’s music is far from kawaii. He describes his work as “rhythm & creep,” citing seemingly conflicting influences: R&B standards Bell Biv DeVoe and R. Kelly, but also Burial, System of a Down and cult darkwavers Sopor Æternus and the Ensemble of Shadows.
“I’m a weirdo,” he admits. “In all my relationships, the chicks that I got with were really cool and could vibe with the creepy shit that I’m into.” Rhythm & creep is music inspired by and for those relationships.
The singer-producer established the template on the instrumental STRANGER, submerging his melodies in an impenetrable fog and interpolating everything from R&B group Az Yet to No Doubt’s ‘Don’t Speak’. He added a final element on his Awful debut THE HOUSE THAT GAHM BUILT, pairing backmasked cosmic slop with layers of his reverb-drenched vocals. And when he’s not exploring the creepy reaches of R&B, he’s Awful’s very-own hook man.
Stalin Majesty is responsible for one of the earliest Awful releases, the 75-minute epic Son of the Night. Cinematic in sound and scope, the mixtape established Stalin as both a rapper with the precise lyricism and sense of melancholic melody of contemporaries like Rome Fortune, Kevin Gates and Freddie Gibbs and as a producer in touch with the black-hooded histrionics of Three 6 Mafia.
While he “used to be one of those boom-bap guys,” Stalin’s open-minded approach sees him drawing from early favorite Notorious B.I.G. (“He always represented for the big dudes,” he says with a laugh) as well as Atlanta trap god Gucci Mane. And while he raps, sings and produces, none of those tags feel right — he prefers “rock star.”
Over the unnerving, horror-score beats of Son of the Night, Stalin tells tales of getting jobs and avoiding jail, about depending on his nine and relying on drugs to deal with a palpable pain in his heart. Earlier this year, he teamed up with like-minded Awful crewmember Archibald Slim for the similarly-grim AR, their complementary styles bringing out the best in both. The pair were college roommates and have the type of personal connection endemic to Awful. “That’s what makes it so special,” he says of the label. “We’re not some lab-created recipe.”
One of the two women in Awful, Lord Narf brings the same brash and bold attitude to her music as the rest of the crew. Growing up surrounded by artists of all stripes, and after writing songs for years, Narf finally took the plunge earlier this year, collecting a handful of tracks on her debut release For The Funky.
“I thought the songs wouldn’t go together, or that it’d sound thrown together,” she admits, “but it works because I was in the same mind frame for all of them. That was right around when I was figuring out what I wanted to sound like.”
Throughout the seven-tracker, Narf raps as if rolling her eyes at haters and doubters, her boasts and threats set to lush beats that run the gamut from Dungeon Family throwbacks (‘For The Funky’) to Eastern-tinged neo-boom-bap (‘Masterpiece’) to hypnotic menace (‘No Thang’). Throughtout it all, her sweet voice is deceptive, like a razor blade glued to the underside of a fingernail.
Figuring out the roster of Awful Records is complicated by the fact that a few of its members are also among the ranks of another Atlanta collective, NRK (“nobody really knows”), which — to further confuse our Venn diagrams — was founded by Hal Williams/Pyramid Vritra of Odd Future associates Jet Age of Tomorrow. One of the artists pulling double duty is Pyramid Quince, who draws influence from spaced-out G-funk and early OutKast and is firmly on the trippier side of the Awful spectrum.
This summer, he dropped the synth-blasted Coodie Breeze, which was mostly produced by LuiDiamonds, another talent with dual NRK / Awful membership, and Quince’s partner-in-crime in FreezaMode. The duo’s SpaceTalk focuses their self-described “space fonk” into six gorgeous, trunk-rattling tracks perfect for intergalactic pimping.
Meanwhile, Quince’s solo Awful debut The Moon Lookin Fye Tonight: Live From The Disco features beats and verses by crewmembers Archibald Slim, Stalin Majesty, and Lord Narf and is just as star-gazing as its brilliant title suggests.
The self-described “Darkwave Duchess,” singer-producer Abra offers a more clear-eyed take on R&B than GAHM, albeit with a black-lit uneasiness that is certainly at home on Awful. Her music should appeal to fans of Little Dragon, Purity Ring and similar proponents of chilled-out, left-of-center soul.
We’ve managed to keep the Odd Future comparisons to a minimum, but the first one that comes to mind when describing Micah Freeman is that he’s Awful’s Frank Ocean: a throwback, do-it-all soul man with real pop potential. Most of his collaborations with Awful have yet to see the light of day, but he’s been working with the crew since the beginning.
“I’m the youngest nigga in the clique,” boasts 19-year-old Playboi Carti. While he’s only been rapping for over a year, his youthful energy and self-confidence is what you’d expect from a teenaged rapper who’s running with Awful. He’s shined on tracks alongside Ethereal and Slug Christ, and he’s already linked up with ATL hitmaker at-large Metro Boomin on the nasty ‘FeFe’.