Joe Coscarelli has been covering music for years, perhaps mostly as the face of the Diary of a song series for The New York Times. But his first book, Rap Capital: A History of Atlantafinally allowed him to dive deep into one of America’s most vibrant rap scenes.
In the book, Coscarelli traces Atlanta’s contribution to hip-hop, from Freaknik in the late 1980s to artists such as OutKast, TI and Gucci Mane to the rise of young stars such as Lil Baby, Migos and Lil Reek. .
Andscape recently caught up with him to chat about rolling with Lil Baby, what makes Atlanta one of rap’s hottest cities, and where you might find the Next hip hop hub.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You were able to complete most of the stories in the book before the pandemic hit. How has this affected your process?
Yeah, the timing really worked perfectly because I tried to bring something to the book that I like to bring to all of my work, and it really allowed me to double down on this principle that, for me, the best journalism and the best music journalism comes from immersion. Whether it’s a famous person I’m interviewing, like Kendrick Lamar, or a small group in Brooklyn or a viral star, I just want to spend as much time with them as possible. It’s not even necessarily a one-on-one interview, of course, I still want to have that time to chat. But I also want to be there like a fly on the wall watching something they would do whether I was there or not. I just want to see how they move around the world. See how they live. I want to see what their daily life is like, because I think a lot of people don’t see that side of a musician. You see the result and you see what they want you to see on social media, but you don’t really have the mundane kind of idea of the everyday. So I like that, and I want more of that in arts journalism in particular.
The other part was the idea of watching a trip. I knew I didn’t want this book to feel like a history book. It’s not a complete history of Atlanta rap, but it follows people in real time. The North Star of this project is hoop dreams. There is also a documentary called To dig! which follows these two bands, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, over a period of many, many years to see where their careers go. It was very influential for me. I knew I wanted to get in there with people at the start of something and see where it was going.
It is often difficult to gain this access, especially with famous people. Does working with emerging artists make this access more possible?
Absolutely. Another thing I learned in my work at The New York Times is that you will always get more from the guy behind the guy than from you the dude. I realized that pretty early on. Justin Bieber released a new album and I said, ‘Hey, there’s this guy named Poo Bear hiding in the credits of every Justin Bieber song who’s never given an interview before.’ So I found Poo Bear. I wanted to hear what Poo Bear had to say. He’s probably had a crazier life, in some ways, than the wealthy teenage star he works for. So there’s some of that philosophy in this book as well. For example, if you interview producers, managers, DJs, these people will, I think, always be less careful.
The other aspect is catching people at the start of something. So even Lil Baby – who became a massive star during my reporting on this book – did one of his first interviews. I was writing about his label, and they were like, “Here’s our next artist. And he was like, ‘Why am I doing an interview? I don’t want to be here. He really wasn’t committed to being a famous person at the time. [in 2017], but I was there and I met him and we developed a relationship. And every time I saw him, he got bigger and bigger, but he always knew that I was that guy he talked to at the very beginning and got involved with him and cared about him and his journey. And people don’t forget that.
What was the hardest part of being so deeply with the people in this book?
You just really felt for people. You see the struggles of everyday life in poor neighborhoods, with people who felt like they never really had a chance in life unless they could do that very rare, almost impossible thing, like being a musician. It’s like winning the lottery. I think a lot of the vitality of music comes from that, from struggle and necessity, but there’s also a bit of desperation. Many of these young men I spent time with felt like they had no options. And you want to be there for them, because I’d be dishonest to say that they didn’t see me as some kind of helper, or a vehicle for success. You’ve got media interest, that means you’re onto something, right?
So balancing that is difficult. This intimacy that forms with certain sources with which you spend a lot of time, but at the same time, having to remain, if not objective, at least distant. I am not your manager. I’m just a reporter and chronicler of your life. So it’s like being close to someone doing physical activity and seeing how they think and what they’re going through, but not participating in it. It’s a strange division.
We had all these hip-hop hubs: New York and its neighborhoods, California, Detroit, Atlanta. What do you think is next?
What’s been so crazy and cool about covering rap in the age of streaming, and I talk about it in the book, is that every city now has a scene that can reach national or international consciousness. When I grew up between Florida and Georgia, there were no rappers coming out of where I went to high school in Orlando. I had literally never heard a rapper from Orlando during my teenage years there. But thanks to YouTube, SoundCloud and other platforms that allow people to distribute their music, all of these very specific regional scenes have been able to develop.
How has TikTok changed the landscape?
The TikTok stuff is interesting because I wonder if it’s about pushing songs or building careers. I think there is a big gap between the two. People can get lucky in a TikTok hit, but I don’t know if that always translates into production or a stable career. I think it’s really hard to start like that when your song explodes and has millions and millions of plays, but you’ve never done a concert before. Or maybe you never even has been at a concert before. I’ve been hearing label stories lately about kids who started making music during the pandemic and are now being contested by major labels for million dollar deals who have never attended a show before .
Before the pandemic, they were 13 and hadn’t gone to a concert alone. So you’re really asking a lot of a teenager to turn a TikTok hit into a legacy career.
What exactly makes Atlanta a “rap capital”?
I think what makes Atlanta special is their ability to regenerate. The music scene has a real small town feel to it. Everyone overlaps. Everyone comes from someone else. You look at someone like Kevin ‘Coach K’ Lee, don’t you? He has played a role in the careers of Pastor Troy, Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane, Migos, and Lil Yachty. You can trace a lot of Atlanta rap history through this guy and there are so many people like him. Whether it was a producer like Zaytoven or someone like Gucci Mane, who brought all these artists under him. They really build on each other, but do something quite new each time. I just think Atlanta always pushed it forward, and it resulted in these micro-generations of innovators.
There is a jostling there that one does not necessarily find everywhere.
Yeah, there’s a chip on their shoulder, which has always helped. And I think that comes from still being unfairly looked down upon in rap and generally in the South. Not being New York or Los Angeles, there is an inferiority complex as a city and a place for music. I think it’s creatively fruitful.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, what’s your favorite moment in the culture?
I can only talk about my time, but I think back to the stuff that blew my mind like the Lil Wayne mixtape from The Dedication to around 2007. Just the volume of music that came out when people realized they could use the internet to flood the world with music. It really sticks in my mind as having an impact from both an industrial and an artistic point of view. I think we still see the long tail of what he accomplished in that run, but also personally, I just felt like I had so much music to pour. I liked it so much.
Where do you think the Atlanta rap scene will be in the next 5-10 years?
I think it’s a really interesting moment. The more I think about the era I cover in the book, the more I feel like that era is over. I think of it basically as the rise of Atlanta during the rise of streaming. But Atlanta has always been so good at picking up trends and then coming up with their own version, so I’m curious to see how they diverge as we move through the 2020s. I can’t wait to see where it goes.