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Atlanta: the city that defined the 2010s and altered the sound of the world

This decade, Atlanta’s rappers exploded out of the underground and onto the world stage, influencing everything in their path

Deep fakes, influencers, viral fashion – we live in a world unrecognisable from the one we stood in ten years ago. As a chaotic decade comes to a close, we're speaking to the people who helped shape the last ten years and analysing the cultural shifts that have defined them. Explore the decade on our interactive timeline here, or head here to check out all our features.

In 2013, Migos – a rising rap trio from Lawrenceville, a suburb just outside of Atlanta – were already making waves locally when they released their breakout single, “Versace”, spotlighting their now-signature triplet cadence. In the four days since Migos had released their Y.R.N. mixtape featuring their tribute to the Italian fashion brand, Drake had quickly become a big fan. About a week later, he hopped on the track, adopting the young rappers’ flow and elevating it from the underground to global mainstream audiences. By the time Migos released “Bad & Boujee” in 2016, catapulting them from rap favourites to a pop culture phenomenon, their flow had already permeated hip hop. “That rap pattern, that cadence, changed hip hop,” Coach K, one of the label executives behind the group says. “With Drake coming in and adopting the flow, I watched the whole rap culture take that cadence.”

During the 2010s, as hip hop became increasingly mainstream, Atlanta – the city that developed some of the genre’s most prominent rappers and producers during the decade – became even harder to ignore as a cultural hub. The “black Mecca” became a player in tech, TV, and film, creating opportunities for middle-class residents, but also struggling with housing insecurity and income inequality. In the midst of this emerged a diverse group of rappers such as Young Thug21 Savage, and of course Migos, who defined the way the world sounds today.

This isn’t exactly new or unique to this decade. Atlanta has been a steady presence in hip hop since LaFace opened its doors in the late 1980s and early 90s, and a hub for music and black culture long before then. But as the exports of the culture have been pushed increasingly into the mainstream on a global scale, so has Atlanta. From Migos making viral jingles for Rap Snacks to repping fashion brands like Versace and Gucci, corporations have recognised the power of utilising hip hop, and the Atlanta rappers who push the culture forward to sell a lifestyle. Still, even as the genre has moved to the centre of popular culture, Atlanta rappers have maintained a level of authenticity through their work within the city: 2 Chainz turned the trap house into an HIV testing centre, while 21 Savage has launched numerous charity initiatives for the city’s disadvantaged kids.

Trap music certainly isn’t new to the 2010s, but it’s not hyperbole to say that it exploded this decade. The genre was already thriving in the 2000s thanks to Atlanta rappers like T.I. and Jeezy, and producers such as Shawty Redd, DJ Toomp, and Lex Luger. Zaytoven had already made a name for himself as a producer thanks to the keyboard-led trap productions he’d made for Gucci Mane. He credits “Make The Trap Say Aye”, a 2008 song with OJ Da Juiceman and Gucci Mane, with inspiring many of the trap rappers in the 2010s, as well as DJ Esco’s “Too Much Sauce” with Future and Lil Uzi Vert (“Future really changed the game, period, by coming in rapping, but then also being melodic. To this day, that is the sound of hip hop,” Zaytoven adds) and, of course, Migos’ “Versace” (“It changed the climate and the rap pattern of the music”).

“That rap pattern, that cadence, changed hip hop. With Drake coming in and adopting the flow, I watched the whole rap culture take that cadence” – Coach K

In this decade, Zaytoven and young gun producer Metro Boomin carried on the legacy, releasing trap anthems in the streaming era that would become global, mainstream hits, at a time when genre lines continued to blur. “Whatever the most popular music is at that time is pop music. Right now, whether they want to admit it or not, rap music is pop music,” says Leighton ‘Lakeshow’ Morrison, co-founder of Atlanta label Generation Now, the company behind Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert. “So, Katy Perry is going to reach out to a rapper and try to make her songs sound more hip hop. Miley Cyrus is going to work with Mike WiLL Made It. They’re going to try to capture that sound.” Brands have tried to capture the essence of the culture, too, from Lil Yachty and Migos endorsing beverages to Gucci Mane (finally) becoming the face of a Gucci campaign, shot by Harmony Korine.

Trap is just as distinctive in its instrumental form as it is vocally. One of trap music’s defining sounds is its hi-hats, which have since transcended the genre to become synonymous with popular music all over the world today. Writer Shawn Setaro described this as “a busy, short burst. The hats are programmed in complicated patterns, at rapid-fire speed – faster than any human could ever play it – usually contrasting with a relatively simple and pared down drum patterns on the kick and snare drum. Once you recognise it, you’ll hear it everywhere: from Migos to Future to Flume to Baauer to Bryson Tiller to K-Pop stars BIGBANG.”

“So, Katy Perry is going to reach out to a rapper and try to make her songs sound more hip hop. Miley Cyrus is going to work with Mike WiLL Made It. They’re going to try to capture that sound” – Leighton “Lakeshow” Morrison, Generation Now

If Atlanta’s artists changed the sound of pop music, they also changed the feeling of it, too. Reflecting on Future’s discography over the decade, including Monster, Beast Mode, 56 Nights and DS2Pitchfork’s Stephen Kearse wrote that “narcotised, addled, and sometimes tender, Future has spent the past decade making whatever music he wants: trap ballads, twerk anthems, petty kiss-offs, trippy blues. His superpower is his ability to smear emotional states into odd collages, his protean voice ascending to the peaks of exuberance or plunging to the depths of misery.” And one doesn’t have to look far to see the influence of Young Thug’s warbly delivery and fashion sense on the current generation of rappers including Lil Uzi Vert, Gunna and more. Thug’s influence stretched all the way into pop and in 2017, with the help of Thug’s standout flow and Atlanta tales, singer Camilla Cabello scored her first number one single on the Billboard 100 with “Havana”.

In 2011, Donald Glover released his debut album under the rap moniker Childish Gambino. While generally well liked as a rapper during the first half of this decade, Glover’s name didn’t typically come up in conversation when discussing Atlanta rappers, despite the fact that he grew up just outside the city in Stone Mountain. With the release of FX’s Atlanta, the conversation surrounding Glover seemingly changed overnight. Through the lenses of two cousins trying to make it in the music industry, Atlanta provides a satirical look at the idea that the city often has two faces: one for the haves, and one for the have nots. On “This is America”, Glover zooms out of the city, looking at the complexities of being a black man in America during this time. Sonically, 2016’s Awaken My Love is very clearly inspired by the musical stylings of Funkadelic, but the themes of the album, from inequality to racial injustices and relationship woes aren’t that different to the unflinching tales rappers have been telling in this city since Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and Goodie Mob’s Soul Food.

“Every single year there’s a new group of people to come up in Atlanta. The minute you think you’ve named all the new artists from Atlanta, a year goes by and you have five new people” – 6lack

There was a time, around 2013 or 2014, where it wasn’t uncommon to go to a showcase in Atlanta and see Young Thug, Migos, Two-9, and Trinidad James all on one bill. Around this time, 6lack, Earthgang, and J.I.D were roommates who frequently performed at these shows. “It was a fun time. There weren’t too many rules,” 6lack says of the time. “There weren’t labels and big management teams involved. It was all underground. We just built a community of people that consisted of artists and our friends that were our first group of fans.” Today, the group of friends have released critically-acclaimed projects and garnered Grammy nominations for their work.

6lack notes this scene wasn’t unique to this time, though – in the late 80s, for example, Dallas Austin, TLC, Jermaine Dupri, and Organized Noize all hung out together and developed their sounds at local skating rinks. The East Atlanta singer says the fearlessness and diversity of sound that often comes from the city is a result of years of feeling like the underdog. “Initially, the popular thing was a West Coast or New York sound. For a minute, we were like the last people to be accepted and understood into hip hop. So, by the time we broke through it was like a sense of fearlessness and a sense of pride,” he says. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say every single year there’s a new group of people to come up in Atlanta. The minute you think you’ve named all the new artists from Atlanta, a year goes by and you have five new people. It’s always quality. From the bunch you always find a good amount of actual gems.”

Towards the latter half of the decade, Atlanta’s music scene has ushered in a new generation of artists, but the spirit of the music they’re making harkens back to previous eras. Artists such as 21 Savage, Gunna and Lil Baby have continued Atlanta’s legacy of trap music, while rappers such as Lil Nas X have merged the trap sound with country music to massive, record-breaking effect, showcasing, as many of the local rappers before him had done, that black southern life isn’t monolithic.

Rapper Yung Baby Tate, who says she first started making music as a 13-year-old at the top of this decade, believes witnessing the city’s growth in the last ten years has inspired her evolution as an artist. “It let me know I don’t have to be stuck to one sound just because I’m from here,” she says. Rapper Euro Gotit says this individuality – mixed with the unity and support felt throughout the city’s music scene – is what helps the city to stay relevant. “We’re more so about trying to build ourselves as artists, not so much trying to continue a legacy,” he says. “You can’t really give a fuck. You gotta be set in on who you are as a person. [Atlanta] might have a sound but, for those who lasted, nobody really came out trying to sound like the next man. And, if they did, somehow they found a way to evolve [that sound] into something bigger.”

Zaytoven echoes these sentiments. “Atlanta is everything,” he says. “Atlanta is crunk music, Atlanta is swag music. Atlanta is gangsta music. Atlanta is conscious music. Atlanta is snap music. It’s dance music. It’s all of that.”