A3C, Atlanta’s longest-running hip-hop festival, aims to become the next SXSW

The festival brings “innovators from music, tech, film, business, and social justice together to connect, learn, and inspire each other”

A3C: Ryan Wilson, Mike Walbert, and Paul Judge
Left to right: Ryan Wilson, Mike Walbert, Paul Judge

Illustration by Lorenzo Gritti

When Brian Knott launched the A3C hip-hop festival 15 years ago, he envisioned a few days of concerts featuring independent artists—many of whom he’d befriended as the owner of record label ATF. With a name paying homage to “All Three Coasts” of rap—the east, west, and south—the small-scale shows attracted an audience but barely constituted a festival, says Mike Walbert, its managing director.

Starting in 2012, A3C’s scope expanded to a larger look at how hip-hop influences the world and vice versa, adding a conference portion where artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs talked music technology and issues such as substance abuse and mental health or found resources like recording studios and video production.

A3C concert
Since launching in 2004, A3C has hosted artists like 21 Savage and Goodie Mob, along with panel discussions about topics like social justice and the music industry.

Photograph courtesy of A3C

Today, the five-day event starting October 8 in downtown and at music venues throughout Atlanta is one of the largest hip-hop festivals in the country, a summit where tens of thousands of attendees are just as likely to hear how politics and social justice intersect with hip-hop as they are to watch 21 Savage, 2 Chainz, and Lil Yachty, plus hundreds of up-and-coming acts. The conference, nicknamed “hip-hop’s family reunion,” is Atlanta’s answer to SXSW.

And much like SXSW, which grew from a small music conference in Austin and is now a multi-industry takeover of the city, A3C is branching out, becoming a place, Walbert says, that brings “innovators from music, tech, film, business, and social justice together to connect, learn, and inspire each other.”

Helping the festival and conference grow are new majority partners Paul Judge, a venture capitalist dubbed by Fast Company as the local “Godfather of Tech,” and Ryan Wilson, owner of the Gathering Spot, a private membership club and coworking space on the Westside. “There’s no better city [than Atlanta] to build a lot of things, but certainly not something like this where you’re growing across industries,” Wilson says. “While you will see people from all over the country at A3C this year, there’s no way that you leave the experience not understanding that [this is] something that really only could have happened here.”

A3C conference

Photograph courtesy of A3C

A3C concert

Photograph courtesy of A3C

To help accomplish their goals, the team is emphasizing the keynotes, panel discussions, and talent and business development portion of A3C. And they are leaning on relationships Walbert has cultivated since he became managing director in 2009, along with help from the new partners: Judge founded Pindrop Security and now oversees the TechSquare Labs early-stage venture fund, and Wilson is a vocal advocate for elevating Atlanta as a hub for business, tech, and culture.

Experiences will include a battle between startups for a $25,000 prize and an entrepreneurial track, both sponsored by Google, plus free music-studio time provided through a partnership with publishing service Patreon. VIP conference attendees will have access to experts through a collaboration with OTT, or Over the Top Fest, a new event that aims to help content creators compete in the era of Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services. Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, film producer Will Packer, fashion designer and Gucci collaborator Dapper Dan, and Kei Henderson, a label executive who manages 21 Savage, are all scheduled to speak. This year’s festival lineup features Megan Thee Stallion, Atlanta natives and brothers Lil Keed and Lil Gotit, and a Trailblazer series at Masquerade with E-40, Rakim, and Big Daddy Kane. Finally, A3C is hosting Fader Fort, the magazine-sponsored live concert series that has become a staple at SXSW.

The widened scope and larger footprint mean A3C’s conference and festival have outgrown last year’s venues (the Loudermilk Center and the Georgia Freight Depot) and will set up headquarters in AmericasMart. The downtown exhibition center gives organizers about four times more space than last year. And while this year’s events will make subtle nods to A3C’s 15th anniversary, Wilson says not to expect a lavish celebration. Walbert agrees: “What we’re producing this year, to me, is the culmination of 15 years of amazing work.”

This article appears in our October 2019 issue.