The Atlanta hip-hop scene exists on three levels: the unsigned artists working to gain traction, the rising stars playing smaller clubs and venues around town, and the name-brand stars playing Atlanta's top venues as they come home from national and global tours.
The last time Outkast returned (#ATLast) to Atlanta — in 2014 — they filled Centennial Park for three of the most lit nights that park has ever seen, and when Gucci Mane played his first show in Atlanta since his release from prison (he was convicted on federal gun and state assault charges), he showed up a new man —sober and ripped —to play the Fox Theatre (and even trotted Drake out like it was no thing).
Hip-hop is headlines and big business in Atlanta — if there are more iconic places to play than Centennial Park or the Fox Theatre, feel free to share in the comments.
In any event, those moments bring headlines, promotional stops, billboards and radio ads. Social media hums a respectable citywide buzz for our favorite trap stars. What might go a little less noticed is the second tier of performers still on the local (and regional) grind to stardom.
Here are our five favorite venues to see exactly that type of show; the spots that would feature a pre-prison Gucci, or an Outkast-circa-ATLiens-sized (or smaller) artist.
736 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE
The venerable club has changed shape with the city since its March 1994 opening. Staying relevant for more than 22 years requires an adaptation to shifts in mood and culture, and MJQ has proved itself masterful at making those shifts seamlessly. To this day, you can catch some pretty amazing shows at the Ponce nightlife epicenter — if you can find a website or phone number that lists the schedule, that is.
64 Third St. NW
Apache Cafe runs an eclectic mix of soul, spoken word and hip-hop. The Third Street spot hosts a recurring Wednesday night event -- Al Smith's jam session -- with a live band and an open mic for performers. Thursday night's weekly Exposure is the kind of event that producers and industry representatives attend seeking the next big hip-hop artist in the city. Exposure is an open mic night hosted by B Rich (of T.I.'s Grand Hustle label, and host on 94.5 FM). Securing a performing slot will run you $100, while enjoying the show is only 10 dollars.
241 Forsyth St. SW
OK, you aren't going to see many performances of the music, per se, at Magic City. At least not by the artists who recorded them. There will be a performance. Just not a concert. And the guys on that track are probably in the building; you don't just waltz onto the airwaves on a Monday night at Magic City. You work your way into DJ Esco's rotation.
529 Flat Shoals Ave.
Look, the 529 is a rock club that leans more towards underground punk and metal bands. But every once in a while, an amazing hip-hop act will get up on stage and absolutely annihilate. That's probably why Andre 3000 is known to show up at the club. For your next taste of the intersection between hip-hop culture and the traditional head banging EAV metal heads, stop in for the Oct. 27 performance of Dr. Dre's The Chronic by The Sixteen Bars Hip-Hop Orchestra. That'll give you a sense of why the 529 is a noteworthy place for hip-hop. When it's on the schedule, it's usually pretty cool.
1374 W. Peachtree St. NW
The Center Stage complex in Midtown offers three venues in one location, and each of them offers a little hip-hop. For small acts, Vinyl is the place to see unsigned artists before they break. Once they do, you're likely to see them on Center Stage; after all, Rival Entertainment owns both the venue and a reputation as one of the city's leading concert organizers. You can end your year with Wacka Flocka Flame on Dec. 29, or do Thanksgiving right with Roswell High School's own Russ on Nov. 22.