Where the Hustle of Tech and Hip-Hop Collide


By Holly Beilin, Hypepotamus

Entertainment is thriving in the South. In 2016, Atlanta topped New York City and London to nail the No. 3 spot on the list of top film production centers worldwide. The epicenter of Southern rap for the past two decades, Atlanta’s global status for the hip-hop industry was highlighted in Stone Mountain, Georgia, native Donald Glover’s acclaimed FX Network series “Atlanta.” And it was certainly gratifying to see one Forbes contributor recently list the city as one of the top five upcoming tech meccas.

But I would I’d argue the ranking was a bit delayed. Whether you call it Silicon Peach or Transaction Alley (a nod to the city’s robust FinTech industry, which processes more than 60 percent of all U.S. transactions), we’re already there.

Just as Atlantans, both native and transplant, aren’t too busy to show the courtesy of a little Southern hospitality, the industry leaders of the music and tech scenes also aren’t too busy to learn from each other.

Hip-hop artists are, undisputedly, the original hustlers, fighting hard to bring their music to the public. But the paths Southern tech-startup founders travel are also full of obstacles. Navigating funding, product pivots, branding challenges, and the sheer logistical and operational challenges of small teams and limited time force startup founders to grind just as hard as any emerging artist. Atlanta has become the ideal place where the two industries can meet, collaborate, and help each other grow.

“We look at these tech buzzwords, and they’re really our lifestyle,” says Bernard Parks Jr., one of the three founders of Culture Republic, a recently launched company that combines the networks and experience of three hip-hop industry veterans to form partnerships between rappers and major consumer brands, as well as segue into new fields like technology. Parks formerly worked with the likes of Goodie Mob and the Dungeon Family. Now, with two other major Atlanta managers whose client roster has included some of the biggest names in hip-hop — think T.I., Ludacris, Travis Scott, and more — they soon plan to tackle the tech front head-on.

“When you’re talking about failing fast — we’ve been failing fast for a long while. We’ve been building our MVPs for a long time,” says Parks. “The fact is, you’ve got a million and one apps. Well, what makes yours cool? It’s culture. Because of our industry, we have our finger on the pulse.”

Bernard’s cofounder, Chaka Zulu, still closely advises Chris Bridges, aka Ludacris. Bridges has made his interest and support for the Atlanta technology community clear, telling an enthusiastic audience at the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s ChooseATL House at this year’s South by Southwest that for musicians, ignoring the tech industry simply isn’t an option.

“You have to get into tech,” Bridges told the crowd. “It is the future. This is how music is going to get distributed — how we distribute music, how we promote ourselves. If you don’t keep up with what’s new, you become your own worst enemy.”

In 2015, Bridges made his commitment clear with an official partnership and investment in Atlanta-based startup Roadie, which adapts the sharing-economy model of Uber to shipping. It was a natural partnership for Roadie founder Marc Gorlin, who epitomizes the nimbleness of the Atlanta tech scene. Gorlin was the man behind Atlanta FinTech giant Kabbage, which facilitates loans for small businesses.

“Ludacris’ commitment to making Atlanta awesome, through innovative music, charitable giving and entrepreneurship, and his passion for harnessing his brand to really help push the Atlanta tech scene to the next level makes him an ideal partner for Roadie,” Gorlin said in a statement at the time the partnership was announced.

The connections between Atlanta hip-hop and tech isn’t seen only in these one-off partnerships. Now in its 13th year, the A3C Conference and Festival “aims to empower and educate those that shape hip-hop music, technology, and culture.” A3C — an acronym that stands for All 3 Coasts — grew out of a regional hip-hop showcase produced by one record label with a basic music festival format.

But in the last few years, as the crossover between tech and music have become more apparent, the A3C organizers have expanded the conference’s non-music programming to ensure that hip-hop is getting its due as a driver of the industry collision.

“We’ve taken a shift on our conference to focus on music, culture, and technology. We are looking and listening to our audience and deciding the right path,” says Mike Walbert, A3C’s executive director. “The hip-hop community are early adopters in almost all social technology. Atlanta is the most tweeted per capita, Instagram per capita, YouTube views per capita, and Snapchat per capita – the highest in the country.

“We are trying to embrace that because when you think of Atlanta tech, you think security and Fintech. So, we are going to play the role of doing some cool shit. We are going through the process of finding those people and really trying to lean in and have cooler, sexier conversations that aren’t just about cybersecurity.”

Last year, one of A3C’s headliners was a particularly strong pusher of Atlanta’s position as the bedrock for music-tech collaboration. Former record executive, Startup Atlanta board member, and now CEO of a joint venture with Lady Gaga’s former manager Troy Carter, James Andrews is an Atlanta expat whose heart is still half with the city.

Andrews and Carter visited A3C as a stop on their countrywide Culture & Code Tour to herald the intersection of culture and technology. Andrews believes Atlanta has a unique perspective to offer.

“Everything new and fresh in the music business is happening in Atlanta, and if it’s backed up by an — underrated, by the way — tech community, it has so much potential,” says Andrews. “What I see in L.A. is this bridge between entertainment and tech. But what we don’t have in L.A. is what Atlanta has — it’s this next-gen, dope scene. Atlanta’s creating trends. You could draw a circle around [Interstate] 285 and point that way, that’s where the latest dance is happening; point that way, it’s the latest sound. There’s so much music happening in Atlanta, and the diversity of what hip-hop looks like in Atlanta — it’s the younger brothers and sisters of Andre 3000, it’s the Bob Dylan of trap music.”

In bringing these worlds together, Andrews says that Atlanta also has something to gain.

“Atlanta is so creative. No other city has this deep commitment to innovation in music, and this deep commitment to innovation in tech. If we can bring those together in a really organized way, that can be the Atlanta story."

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