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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

Naked Hip-Hop Ambition

Aspiring rap stars flock to strip clubs in Atlanta -- `the Motown of the South' -- to build a buzz and catch the ear of industry star-makers.

April 28, 2006|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — It was "Magic Monday" at the Magic City strip club, a windowless brick building near the downtown Greyhound station.

Inside, 57 exotic dancers with names like Isis and Peaches and NaNa were shaking it, as the song goes, like a saltshaker. The soundtrack was Southern hip-hop -- all simple synthesizer lines, raunchy party chants and the gut-rattling bass kick of a Roland TR-808 drum machine.

Tax Holloway pressed close to the stage, sipping champagne and watching the women twist themselves into exaggerated affectations of lust. But Holloway wasn't really here for that.

The aspiring rap star knew that on Monday nights, Magic City was packed with Atlanta's hip-hop cognoscenti, and he wanted to see how they responded when his new song played over the sound system.

"I need to see the reaction of the people to know if it's really going to be my first single," Holloway said. "Or see whether I need to go back in the lab."

Holloway is 23, and he wants to be rap's next big thing. So he moved from Detroit to Atlanta, where a burgeoning music business has earned it the nickname "the Motown of the South."

In the rap world, Atlanta is also known as the Dirty South, and for good reason: Some of the industry's key business is conducted in strip clubs. Stars and star-makers come to the clubs to preen, party and listen for trends bubbling up from the streets. Young rappers like Holloway come to create a buzz for their music, and network with disc jockeys, music producers and stars.

"Strip clubs is just the place here," says Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, the Atlanta rapper and actor who appeared in the Oscar-winning movie "Crash." "It seems they get all the good music first."

The success of local artists like Ludacris, OutKast, T.I. and Young Jeezy, among many others, has spawned a network of record labels, development companies and studios, and they have become crucial to Georgia's billion-dollar music scene. Nationally, Atlanta's influence has arguably never been stronger: At one point in March, local rappers were featured on seven of the top 50 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

That success has brought a new sense of glamour to a city previously known as the home of buttoned-down blue chips like Delta Air Lines.

It has also attracted a Hollywood-like subculture of aspiring stars.

"Sometimes it seems like everybody in Atlanta's got a hip-hop record," said Tosha Love, music director for WVEE, Atlanta's top-rated radio station.

Two decades ago, strip clubs were among the few places that would play the nastiest Southern rap records. As Southern rap went mainstream, the connection between club deejays and musicians has only grown stronger.

And so, Monday through Wednesday nights -- when Atlanta's professional class is most likely sleeping -- undiscovered hopefuls descend on three of the city's best-known strip clubs, promoting their dreams and demo CDs in the presence of live nude girls.

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Tax Holloway is tall and slim, and he carries himself with an easy elegance. The website of his fledgling record label describes him as having a "strong, silent pimp-like demeanor," and he cut a cool, unflappable figure amid the Magic City bacchanal. His attire was gangsta casual: backward ball cap, blue Dickies work jacket and matching work pants that pooled around a pair of white alligator-skin Nikes.

Around him were hundreds of patrons who had come to be part of Magic Monday. It is a storied weekly event: Rappers drop "Magic Monday" in lyrics as a shorthand for the kind of party most people only see in videos. At 2 a.m., five dancers shimmied on an H-shaped stage in the middle of the room, and the rest worked the floor, offering to work at closer quarters for the big tippers. Heads swayed and bobbed to a seamless string of regional hits, and the deejay goaded the mostly male, mostly black crowd to new heights of generosity:

"Where the paper at?" he barked. "Come on, let's do this for real!"

The vegetal tang of marijuana floated in the air. From time to time, patrons flung plumes of cash toward the rafters, letting the dollar bills flutter where they may -- a ritual known as "making it rain." It began as a flashy way for big-timers to tip the dancers, but it has evolved into a thing unto itself -- a raw display of wealth and power. In Atlanta, the presence of two or three major rap stars in one club can lead to a rainmaking competition, and leave thousands of dollars on the floor.

"What happens in here is not even about the girls anymore," said Herman Harris, 24, a Magic City manager who calls himself "the Hugh Hef of Hip-Hop."

Tonight, on an elevated platform to Holloway's right, Chaka Zulu, co-chief executive of Ludacris' Disturbing Tha Peace imprint, was hosting a party for a few dozen friends. They traded $100 bills for bricks of shrink-wrapped dollars, which they popped open and flung by the fistful. Below the gyrating dancers were more dancers, who crawled around and stuffed the cash into plastic grocery sacks.

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