Don’t make don’t make them kill them kill no motherfucking body in here
The Birthday Bash, Atlanta rap station Hot 107.9’s big annual show, has always seemed like a baby version of the Hot 97 Summer Jam. But every account I’ve read of this year’s Birthday Bash makes it sound like the Atlanta show might’ve equalled the New York one this year for both headline-seizing big statements and general dizzy pop thrills. The station managed to get every Atlanta rapper with a song currently in rotation on the same stage in the same day, including guys who have serious issues with each other: T.I. and Shawty Lo, Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane. Jeezy made a big play for A-list superstar status, bringing out both Usher and Kanye West, a stunt that would’ve killed at Summer Jam. Shawty Lo made a big deal about how his set was going to be better than T.I.’s beforehand, and onstage, he did everything he could to further this ridiculous beef that nobody cares about. Shawty’s big issue with T.I. is that he says he’s from Bankhead but apparently isn’t. Maybe that’s actually a big deal to people in Bankhead (though I doubt it), but I can’t imagine anyone else cares. But Shawty still brought out every other rapper from Bankhead, which meant D4L and Dem Franchize Boyz and D.G. Yola. (D4L and DFB had previously thrown shots at each other over which group had invented the snap-music dance. Shawty Lo gets in the dumbest beefs.) Shawty Lo also brought out Ludacris, who I guess still hates T.I., and he ended his set with “A new King has been born” flashing on the Birthday Bash screen. This guy should probably learn to string together a sentence before he tries to convince me that he’s king of anything. T.I.’s response was suitably regal: during his set, he did Lo’s goofy jogging dance, and then he let it drop. It must’ve been a whole lot of fun to see all this go down in person. But my favorite story from Birthday Bash is one that won’t grab a whole lot of headlines. During that same set, T.I. unveiled his latest Grand Hustle signings: 8Ball & MJG.
This is good news. 8Ball & MJG are Southern titans, but they’ve spent the past half-decade or so under contract to Bad Boy, a label that has no idea what to do with them. 2004’s Living Legends and last year’s Ridin’ High, the two albums they released under Bad Boy, had a few great moments apiece, but they were also frustrating and uneven and cluelessly sequenced and planned-out. Ball and G are great at a few very specific things: cartoonishly exaggerated crime-life narratives, hilariously nasty pimp-talk, fuck-you-up threats, heartfelt up-from-nothing inspirational talk, candid appraisals of all the bullshit the music business has put them through. On warm, slow, heavy Southern beats like the ones longtime associate Tmix made for most of their albums, they sound more at-home and natural than just about anyone else. But Bad Boy had them doing saucer-eyed R&B love-songs, glossy Danjahandz-type club-tracks, Jazze Pha squeakers, and all sorts of other bullshit that they had no business doing. We Are the South, the duo’s haphazardly compiled new best-of, is coming out on Koch, and that label makes perfect sense for these guys; I can easily imagine them cranking out solid midcard aging-rapper albums for their core audience for years to come.
Maybe that’ll still happen; these deals with artist-run major-label subsidiaries have a way of suddenly disappearing or just never getting started. And older rap heroes who sign with younger rap stars don’t have great track records; think Mobb Deep on G-Unit. But I have a good feeling about this Grand Hustle thing. T.I. knows how to put together Southern rap albums, and he clearly venerates these two; their influence was all over Trap Muzik in particular. On Grand Hustle, they’ll also have access to in-house producers like Khao, guys who crank out exactly the sort of beats that work best with their voices. If everything works out right, these guys should be able to put together a relatively big-budget album that could solidify their legend status, sort of like UGK did with Underground Kingz. This would make me happy.
Something else strikes me about this deal: Grand Hustle now has a stronger, deeper roster than any other artist-run label in rap. 50 Cent is down to only his most loyal supplicants. Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy are still messing with losers like Tyga and Blood Raw. God only knows what’s going on with Roc-A-Fella anymore. T.I., meanwhile, has Young Dro, an enormously likable younger guy and maybe the world’s foremost expert on car-color similes. He’s got B.O.B., a Dungeon Family stylistic descendant with a slippery but technically sound delivery and at least three great singles already under his belt. He’s got Alfamega, whose demented yammering tough-talk reminds me of Freddie Foxxx if Freddie Foxxx could rap really fast. He’s got Yung L.A.; I don’t really know anything about this guy, but “Ain’t I,” his debut single, is great eerie Southern-gothic slow-crawl stuff. He’s got Big Kuntry King and Mac Boney, who I guess are OK. He doesn’t have B.G., but he does have some sort of working relationship with the guy, and B.G.’s elastic nasal honk sounded amazing on the “Top Back” remix. And now he’s got one of the greatest Southern rap groups ever. On paper, this is a pretty incredible lineup, and I can see Grand Hustle just running 2009 like they were circa-2004 G-Unit. Two problems, though. First, T.I. is about to go to prison for a year, which might throw a considerable wrench in everybody else’s plans. Second: Grand Hustle’s only successfully managed to release four non-T.I. albums: Dro’s debut, which ruled, and albums that nobody bought or cared about from PSC and Governor and DJ Drama. I really hope Grand Hustle keeps its shit together; none of those guys should stay on the shelf.