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Naked Hip-Hop Ambition

Times Staff Writer

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.

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“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.

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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.

*

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.

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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.”

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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.

Holloway threw a few bills from time to time, but they amounted to little more than a trickle. He was born Andre Padgett on Detroit’s rough east side, the son of two autoworkers, and he has never known a world without hip-hop: He was 3 years old when LL Cool J released the hit single “Radio,” and 4 when Eric B. & Rakim released the groundbreaking “Paid in Full.”

By the time he was 15, Holloway was skipping class and running with the hard kids. He fell in with one of the neighborhood’s most powerful drug dealers, Antonio “Wipeout” Caddell Jr., who featured Holloway on recordings by a group he was managing called the East Side Chedda Boyz. Their underground tapes and CDs sold well locally, and they got some airplay with a song called “I’m a Chedda Boy.”

Major labels flirted with the group, but things fell apart after Caddell was killed outside a Detroit nightclub in September 2004. Holloway, who had been living in Atlanta part time, moved there permanently to start a solo career with the help of one of Caddell’s friends, Don Adams, a former cocaine dealer who spent time in a federal penitentiary before establishing himself in Atlanta as a real estate broker.

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Adams had cut a deal with the Magic City management to promote Holloway for a year. For an amount that Adams wouldn’t disclose, the club would flash Holloway’s name and “COMING SOON” on a digital wall projector, put up ads in the men’s room, and play his songs. The goal was to attract a major label and secure a national distribution deal.

It was a novel way to circumvent the usual method of getting played at Magic City: sweet-talking or heavily tipping Magic Monday’s musical gatekeeper, Fernando Barnes.

Barnes spins records as DJ Fernando, and to a certain kind of Atlantan he is a very important person. Musicians stop him at shopping malls, bars and restaurants, talking up their demos and pressing copies into his hands. He keeps the discs in a gym bag in his black Cadillac Escalade. It’s Li’l this and Big that, a so-and-so of pseudonyms and acronyms and creatively misspelled nicknames. Much of it never makes it from the bag into the booth.

Musicians often have better luck if they approach him in the club with their CD and a gratuity. On Magic Monday, they will pay him as much as $200 to play a song once.

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But Barnes has his limits. If a song kills the energy in a room, he won’t play it again. It doesn’t matter how much money he’s offered. “With me it’s a real touchy issue, because if your song is garbage, I don’t care who you are,” he said.

Sometime after midnight, Barnes put on headphones and listened to the first few seconds of the songs on Holloway’s demo. He didn’t like what he was hearing. Nothing sounded hot enough for Magic Monday.

“Come on -- at least one song,” yelled Harris, the club manager.

Barnes grimaced.

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“At the end of the day, he’s the deejay,” Harris said, shaking his head. “I can’t make him play a damn thing.”

Holloway had been hoping that Barnes would play what he thought was his most radio-ready song, an upbeat number with an R&B; chorus called “One Night Stand.” Instead Barnes chose “Get It, Get It,” a song about hustling after money in the drug trade.

When the song came on, Holloway’s friends yelled out and tossed their dollars. The rapper rocked his shoulders a little, his face hard and dispassionate, his lips moving to the sound of his own voice:

I’m so for real.... I got Colombians who ship cocaine.... Everyday my money double.”

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The dancers kept dancing and the heads kept bobbing. But for some of the veterans in the room, the song didn’t have the spark of an instant anthem.

“It was all right,” said Zulu, the record executive. “But the first time hearing it, it wasn’t nothing interesting. He’d have to keep coming to the club to ensure that it was getting played.”

*

Tosha Love, the WVEE music director, was sitting at a cocktail table in the back of Strokers, a strip club tucked into a mini-mall in the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston. She was munching deep-fried bar food and making notes next to a list of unknown musical acts. There was L.A.B., a hard-core rap group from Syracuse, N.Y.; Escobanton, a dance-hall reggae act; and Group X, an R&B; vocal group that had been coming here for weeks.

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Tuesday at Strokers is “Looking for a Hit” night. The disc jockey plays one song by each of the first 10 unsigned artists who walk through the door, so long as they tip the dancers during their number. Then Love gives each artist a free critique. From time to time, she finds a trendsetting song at Strokers and adds it to her station’s playlist alongside the music of more established rap and R&B; performers.

Love said it can feel like an odd place to do business, given the backdrop of neon lights and naked flesh.

“You have to get used to the strippers walking around, but this industry is basically built on the street,” she said. “You have to get back to the street to know what’s hot, and in Atlanta a lot of times that means the strip clubs.”

The deejay cued the demo by L.A.B. One of the rappers in the group, Benny Blanco, loped around the small stage with a friend, tossing bills at two women in nothing but heels.

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Blanco’s group had tried unsuccessfully to secure a record deal from major labels in New York. A big meeting with Def Jam records went nowhere. So Blanco drove to Atlanta with a few boxes of demos, hoping for a fresh start.

The song the deejay played was called “Bring it Back,” and it lamented the rise of what Blanco saw as the commercial degradation of hip-hop. For Blanco, many of the worst offenders these days emanate from the South, especially the strip clubs, where songs like the recent No. 1 single “Laffy Taffy” (“Girl, shake that laffy taffy/that laffy taffy”) start as custom-built exhortations for exotic dancers, and end up translating easily into shallow but popular party anthems.

It is a trend, he said, that leaves little room on the radio for his brand of hip-hop, which is heavy on social realism and the slamming, macho Northeastern sound that fans call the boom-bap.

“The labels ... they want some real bubblegum right now,” Blanco said. “You even go to the labels in New York, they want the down-South sound.”

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“Bring it Back” made no concessions to the Southern sound, and when Blanco huddled with Love at her cocktail table, she told him as much.

“You’re not going to have a good time breaking down here,” she said. “I’ve got major acts from New York that’s not getting airplay down here. That’s just the way the tide is changing in music.”

*

The Body Tap, a two-story building on Atlanta’s west side, doesn’t bill itself as a strip club but as an adult entertainment megaplex, with a kitchen, two bars, and a hair salon with a manicurist.

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For amateur musicians, the rates for a spin during Body Tap’s “Richlife Wednesdays” start at about $50, payable to disc jockey Antoine Nolan, a former Auburn University football standout who works as DJ X-Rated. The rates go up as the night wears on and more big shots roll in.

Omar Cooper, a New Jersey native who raps as O-Coop, had paid Nolan to play his song “Get Money.” There were rumors that some big stars would be in the club, and Cooper, 28, wanted them to hear what he was working on.

“Technically, I’m here on business,” he said. “But I’m going to have fun doing it.”

But Cooper -- who also runs a barbershop -- was home and in bed around 1:30 a.m. when the highest of high rollers made his entrance. There was a ripple of rumors, and then, suddenly, there was Sean “Puffy” Combs, formerly known as P. Diddy. He climbed up on the stripper stage, with an entourage in tow.

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Through the confetti-like haze of dollar bills, he looked as if he’d just won an election. “P. Diddy in the building!” DJ X-Rated shouted over the mike.

The girls kept working, and the dollars kept flying. But now all eyes were on the fully clothed man in the dark glasses and the baseball hat, the rap impresario who could pluck a man out of his barbershop and deliver him to the jet set.

A synthetic bass drum pounded, a synthetic high hat skittered, and Diddy took delivery of his bricks of dollar bills.


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