A Photographer’s Adventures in the Dirty South
If you want to see the best possible documentation of how the South’s hip-hop scene rose to dominate the entire world of music in the 2000s, there’s only one lens to look through: Zach Wolfe’s.
Sometimes, you hear the right record at the right time, and your life changes immediately — and in ways you might never foresee.
He was an Iowa kid, a small-town boy. By the late 1990s, hip-hop had already become the rebellion music of choice for teenagers all over America, regardless of race or background, and for Zach Wolfe, the soundtrack of his youth was the New York hip-hop coming from artists like Jay-Z and Nas.
In 2001, Wolfe found himself back in Denver, where he’d gone to art school, after a brief and unsuccessful sojourn to Los Angeles.
“I went through a bad breakup,” he says. “It was kind of a first-love situation.”
A friend, hoping him to cheer him up, gave him a copy of “Southernplayalisticadillacmusik,” Outkast’s first album from 1994. He’d never heard it. He’d stayed loyal to the hard New York sound. He hadn’t opened his ears to the Southern thing.
“I felt like I’d never heard anything like that,” he says. “It just changed my life.”
Soon after, he arrived home to find a U-Haul parked in front of the place he shared with two roommates, both of whom were chefs. Both had found jobs in Atlanta. They asked him if he wanted to move there with them. To make the offer clear, one said, “If you want to, you need to put your stuff in this truck now.”
He packed his stuff and put it in the truck.
“I wanted to meet Outkast,” he says.
Big Boi of Outkast, 2008
He was 23 years old. About a year after he arrived in Atlanta, he finally met Outkast’s Big Boi. Within another year, he had fallen into an interesting situation for a white country boy from Iowa, finding himself as “kinda the only person in the city” who made a living shooting photographs of Southern rappers, producers and hip-hop community figures.
As Southern hip-hop essentially took over the music world in the 2000s, Zach Wolfe was there to document it all.
“I got introduced into a culture that very few white people had been brought into,” he says. He remembers one night in particular at Club 112, a now-defunct but once wildly popular Atlanta hip-hop club.
“I went to Club 112 with all these guys — Lil Jon, Killer Mike, Lil Scrappy, David Banner, T.I.,” he says. “The guys at the door didn’t want me in there, but they got me in. I got wasted with these rappers and woke up in my apartment the next morning with no idea how I got there.”
His rapper buddies had made sure he got home safely.
“With all those guys,” Zach says, “I felt like I was loved and accepted. That was really something.”
Southern hospitality. Gets ’em every time. Wolfe, now 37, remains in Atlanta, and has no plans to leave.
The Bitter Southerner is proud today to bring you a collection of Zach Wolfe’s hip-hop photos. They’re about the best look you could ever have at a group of determined young Southern artists as they were in the process of changing the sounds in teenagers’ ears all over the world.
Andre Benjamin (aka Andre 3000) of Outkast
Little Five Points, Atlanta, 2014
Andre Benjamin may very well be the most beloved figure in all of hip-hop. While Big Boi is Outkast’s id, Andre 3000 is the band’s wellspring of creativity and weirdness. These photos were shot in the back room of Wax ’n’ Facts, Atlanta’s most venerable independent record store, whose owner, Danny Beard, has played critical roles in Atlanta’s music scene ever since he started an indie label to release the B-52’s’ first single back in the late 1970s. “Andre is the most special guy in rap,” Wolfe says. “Like Killer Mike, he’ll make anyone feel like they’re on the same level as he is. When he came into Wax ’n’ Facts that day, he made a point of introducing himself to everyone. He just lights up a room, always smiles. But he’s got two sides to him. He’s got the warm side, but then he has a creative side — his little world that only he understands. That shot (at left) I selected, I feel like, was the moment when he was going into that."
T.I., born Clifford Joseph Harris Jr., is one of the biggest stars to come out of the Southern hip-hop world. Pretty much every album and single he’s released since 2003 has climbed to the top (or near the top) of the charts. Here he is in the studio recording his fourth album, "King," which sold more than 2 million copies and topped the Billboard 200 and the magazine's R&B and hip-hop charts.
Bobby Ray Simmons Jr. (aka B.O.B.) of Decatur, Georgia, began his rap career at age 14, when he sold his first beats to the rapper Citti. He hit the big time eight years later with his single “Nothin’ on You,” which featured a guest appearance from Bruno Mars. “He’s a talented guy,” Wolfe says. “He’s someone who I feel like is continually pushing himself to go places he hasn’t been in the past with his music. He’s so talented, he can do anything. I think we haven’t heard his best work yet.”
Three Six Mafia
Beale Street, Memphis, 2006
No story on Southern hip-hop is complete without mentioning the influence of the Memphis crew Three Six Mafia, two members of which, Juicy J and DJ Paul, are shown here with the Oscar they had just won for Best Original Song — “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” — in the movie “Hustle & Flow.” Wolfe says, “Memphis rap in those days, the music had an aggression that was Memphis’ form of expression. There’s no one who sounded like these guys. It was the most unique sound in hip-hop.”
Castleberry Hill, Atlanta, 2013
Big K.R.I.T., a native of Mississippi who won a spot on last year’s BS Best Southern Albums of the Year list for his remarkable “Cadillactica,” has made Atlanta his home for several years. His music often strays into more spiritual territory than one usually hears on Southern hip-hop records, sometimes flowing lyrics like “I found life, in the darkest of times / How can I describe what’s God’s design? / With these faulty eyes that often lie?” Better still, Wolfe says, “He’s the most humble guy I’ve ever met in the rap game. You don’t see that much. But the ones who do have humility, though, I think that’s the litmus test for who’s still going to be around in 10 years.”
Yelawolf, born in Gadsden, Alabama, and now residing in Nashville, may be the walking symbol of how Southern hip-hop’s appeal crosses all the cultural lines. Part Cherokee, part white dude, Yelawolf has been rapping for more than 10 years now, but he broke through to national attention with his 2010 mixtape, “Trunk Muzik.” Wolfe says he hears traces of country music and the Three Six Mafia alike in Yelawolf’s tunes. “He is definitely a unique voice from the South, in my opinion,” Wolfe says. “There’s just no one like him, and his energy is amazing.”
The Bluff, Atlanta, 2011
Curtis Snow isn’t a rapper, but the life he led, growing up with a drug-dealing father and then going into the game himself in western Atlanta’s notorious Bluff neighborhood, could make him the star of any Southern rapper’s songs about the gangster life. In fact, Snow was the star of an independent film in 2012 called “Snow on tha Bluff,” which Vice called a “pseudo-documentary” that was “groundbreaking … through its mix of fiction and nonfiction. It lets the world know what’s going on in places where poverty and crime are everywhere."
“Walk It Out” Video Shoot
This photograph comes from the video shoot for the song “Walk It Out” by Unk, a Georgia rapper who has since disappeared from the scene. But “Walk It Out” was a huge hit in 2006, hitting No. 10 on the U.S. singles chart and No. 2 on the rap charts. “It was these hundreds of kids at a housing project on Bankhead Highway (since renamed Donald L. Hollowell Parkway),” Wolfe says. “Every time they’d roll the music, the kids would just come out in the street and dance. There was just an energy that was just undeniable."
T.I. & Waka Flocka Flame
Atlanta, 2008 & 2010
At left is T.I., during a 2008 shoot for the cover of XXL magazine, just before his most successful album ever, "Paper Trail," was released. At right is Waka Flocka Flame, who made the scene in a big way in 2010 when his debut album, “Flockaveli,” came out at No. 8 on the Billboard charts. “I’m a fan,” Wolfe says of Waka. “He’s kind of like Atlanta’s answer to Three Six Mafia — just super-raw, unchained energy. That dude is definitely from the streets, but he knew what he was gonna do from day one. He brought a different energy to the city of Atlanta."
If Southern hip-hop has a self-made entrepreneur, it’s Bryan “Birdman” Wiliams, a New Orleans rapper who founded the highly influential — and highly successful — Cash Money Records all the way back in 1991. Since then, Cash Money has introduced the world to artists such as Juvenile and Lil Wayne, another New Orleanian who today is one of the world’s top rappers. Hurricane Katrina sent Birdman and many of his crew to Miami, where they remain. “In a way, we could thank Birdman for everything we’re talking about in Atlanta," Wofe says. "He was the first guy to monetize Southern rap. Everyone in all these pictures can be traced back to him. He’s the entrepreneur of the bunch.”
Little Havana, Miami, 2008
Wolfe shot this photograph shortly before Lil Wayne’s masterful 2008 album, “Tha Carter III,” was released. The day before, Lil Wayne had walked out of a Rolling Stone photo shoot after only six minutes in front of the cameras. And he showed up for his shoot with Wolfe six hours late. “In the years I’ve done this, I can’t think of an album that was more anticipated than that one,” Wolfe says. “That album, in the months before it came out, it was a mythical thing.” And because Wolfe isn’t the typical photographer — he’s a rap lover first, photographer second — he hit it off with Lil Wayne and spent two hours shooting him. “That dude, there’s no one like him,” Wolfe says. “He was just a photographer’s dream shoot.”
Atlanta, 2009 & 2011
Gucci Mane’s been in and out of jail a lot for a long time, going back to 2001. And jail is his current home, too, until sometime next year. But at the beginning of this decade, Gucci was the hottest thing in Southern rap. The picture at bottom was made in Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery. The Ferrari was brand new. “He’d just gotten that thing flown to Atlanta,” Wolfe says. “He was very proud that’d he gotten it. He’s my favorite person to shoot, hands down. He’s unpredictable, and as a photographer, that’s actually exciting to me. For some reason, he and I really connect.” Wolfe admits to asking himself, "WTF?" every time Gucci Mane winds up in trouble again, but says, “I’m not here to make decisions on these people. I look at myself as a neutral party, kind of like a war photographer in a way.”
Metro Boomin & Sonny Digital
Atlanta, 2014 & 2015
These two young men are the faces of the latest wave in Atlanta hip-hop. A little less gangsta, a little more nerdy. “The reason people are still talking about Atlanta rap music right now is because of these two guys. I firmly believe that,” Wolfe says. “They are responsible for the sound of Atlanta right now, and Atlanta is still somehow the top of the rap scene. These guys are nerds. They’re making music 24/7. They’ve learned from the mistakes of the people who came before them. These guys have deeper layers we’ve yet so see, and when they come out, we’re going to be amazed."
Rae Sremmurd (pronounce it “RAY-shrem-MERD”) is two young brothers — Khalif "Swae Lee" Brown and Aaquil "Slim Jimmy" Brown — whose debut album, “SremmLife,” shot to No. 1 on the U.S. rap charts upon its release eight months ago. “They are super young and super humble,” Wolfe says. “I kind of got a sense from them that they’re just baffled that this is happening to them. But they have an insane amount of energy and were willing to jump up and down for two hours straight.” This shoot was for Billboard magazine. Oh, and the name? It’s the name of their record label, Ear Drummers, spelled backward.
Run the Jewels: El-P & Killer Mike
Cheshire Bridge Road, Atlanta, 2014
The Bitter Southerner makes no secret of its love for El-P and Killer Mike, whose albums under the name Run the Jewels are two of the most powerful and socially significant rap records of the past decade. “Mike is a special guy,” Wolfe says. “He’s got a special place in my heart. Mike recognizes me as an artist, too, and he makes me feel like I’m an equal. No one else in the rap game has ever treated me that way. He’s a student of the arts. And whoever’s around him, he wants to make them feel special. I’ve been a fan of his from day one.”
Future — real name Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn — grew up in Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood. Wolfe remembers that in 2012, the buzz in the rap world about Future’s upcoming debut album, “Pluto,” was almost as intense as the buzz about Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III” back in 2008. But when Wolfe was hired to shoot this photograph for the cover of Source magazine, the working title for the album was “Future Hendrix.” That’s why we see Future looking distinctly psychedelic here.
Fat Man Key
Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, 2014
Fat Man Key is one of the founders of Atlanta’s up and coming Two-9 Collective, a group of rappers and producers whose sound, while owing much to the roots of Southern hip-hop, tips in a decidedly trippy direction. “He’s one of the more talented guys of this new generation,” Wolfe says. “He’s a producer and a rapper. He’s raw, man. He’s not the most warm person. He has a little sense of aggression to him that makes him interesting. He’s definitely not concerned with what other people think about him. He does his own thing.”
Mechanicsville, Atlanta, 2015
You haven’t heard of Solo Lucci yet, but you’re about to. Wolfe says Lucci is about to release a mixtape with DJ Drama that will make him known to the whole world. “He’s a maniac. He has more energy than anyone I’ve ever met,” Wolfe says. “Everybody will know about him. He’s like the second coming of Jeezy, not in musical style per se, but the fact that the streets are going to break this guy. I think he’s got staying power.”
2 Chainz is the current maestro of the fun-loving, hedonistic side of Southern rap. But it took him years of trying to crack rap’s big leagues to get there. Born Tauheed Epps, 2 Chainz is now a whopping 37 years old, old enough to be the father of youngsters such as Metro Boomin and Sonny Digital. “He has a presence that’s undeniable,” Wolfe says. “Like, he’s one of those who walks into a room, and he commands respect.” This shot was done on the set of the video for Travis Scott’s “Upper Echelon,” which features guest appearances from 2 Chainz and T.I. alike. “T.I. was really interested in getting around 2 Chainz,” Wolfe says. “He was so big at that moment, you couldn’t deny that he was the lead attraction at that video shoot. He was without a doubt was the hottest rapper at that time.”
Rick Ross & Yelawolf
Atlanta, 2015 & 2011
Rick Ross, the self-proclaimed “Teflon Don,” was born in the home of the blues, Clarksdale, Mississippi, but grew up in Carol City, Florida. Today, he’s made himself one of the rap game’s hottest properties. He’s put out seven albums, five of which have made it all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard charts.The photo of Yelawolf in the truck dates back to 2011.
Header image is Young Jeezy, 2007