A3C Festival’s exec director: “I want it to be a cultural institution the world thinks about”

The annual hip-hop festival and conference, which this year features performances from Wu-Tang Clan, Lil Wayne, and Talib Kweli, takes place October 3-7.

AC3 Festival Atlanta

Photograph courtesy of AC3 Festival

It would be inaccurate to call A3C an overnight success. Hip-hop aficionados have known for years about the festival’s many iterations that have taken place in various Atlanta neighborhoods since it was founded by Brian Knott 14 years ago. But A3C executive director Mike Walbert says he’s fine knowing people might have only learned about the five-day event, nicknamed “hip-hop’s family reunion,” in recent years. His mission is to make sure once people learn about A3C, they never forget it.

AC3 Festival Wu-Tang Clan
Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA performs during the 2017 Governor’s Ball. The legendary hip-hop group plays this year’s AC3 Festival.

Photograph by Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Walbert says he’s still pinching himself about this year’s A3C lineup, which will take for the second year at the Georgia Freight Depot from October 3-7. Wu-Tang Clan will take the stage Saturday to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their debut album Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers and will also participate in a conversation with homegrown NPR hip-hop columnist (and former Creative Loafing music editor) Rodney Carmichael, and a barbecue. The festival will also feature a Sunday set from Lil Wayne following last week’s release of Tha Carter V, the rapper’s first album in seven years. But, A3C is about more than celebrating the legacies of established artists. Atlanta newcomers such as J.I.D., Deante Hitchcock, and Childish Major are also on this year’s lineup.

The conference portion of A3C will feature with events and panels catered towards creatives and music entrepreneurs, including a panel on music technology in Atlanta, a discussion about mental health and substance abuse in hip-hop, a conversation between Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and writer (and Paideia graduate) Rembert Browne, and the “Action Accelerator,” which offers a chance for nonprofit social justice organizations that utilize hip-hop and art to pitch their ideas and win $10,000. Killer Mike, former music executive Steve Stoute, Quality Control’s Coach K, Motown Records executive Ethiopia Habtemariam, and more are billed to participate in this year’s conference.

AC3 Festival Atlanta
A panel at a previous AC3 Festival

Photograph courtesy of AC3 Festival

We recently talked with Walbert about what it means to curate a festival geared towards fans and creatives of the most dominant music genre in the country, and why Atlanta serves as the perfect backdrop.

How do you curate the lineup each year?
Anyone can put a lineup together so, for us, it’s about stories. We started at the beginning of the year like, “Yo, what anniversaries are happening? What’s cool? Let’s look through hip-hop history. What stories can we tell?” Every year we try to do a culture clash [or] some celebration. We really try to bring things to Atlanta that one, celebrate hip-hip history, and then two, shine light on the new shit. We really try to be, I think, one of the only events in hip-hop that really makes a concerted effort to bring those two communities together. When I’m talking about new shit, I’m talking about trap hood, backpack rap, conscious rap, [and more]. Come to A3C to see the depth and breadth of hip-hop.

What makes Atlanta the perfect place for this type of festival?
There are 125 Atlanta artists performing at A3C. Name another city in the country that could do that. I just feel like we’re amplifying what’s already here. Atlanta is the headliner.

You grew up in Atlanta, so how did that influence your love of hip-hop?
That’s the soundtrack of my childhood. I fell in love with hip-hop through Outkast. In all of my fondest memories from middle school, high school, and college, Lil Jon was in the background. The oldie station to me is Atlanta hip-hop. That’s the music I know. I’m getting to meet the people that influenced me and I get to now be a part of that story, which is something I don’t take for granted and understand the importance and impact of.

You mentioned the Action Summit—two days of panels and events focused on social justice—as being one of this year’s event that you’re “blown away” by. How did this event come about?
Like most things we do, we started with a leap. The origin of it was the Action Accelerator, which is the $10,000 pitch competition [for creatives interested in social justice]. [Four years ago] we were doing really one-off partnerships with nonprofits like a food drive or a can drive. But [at the end of the year], we were like “What did we actually do? We did the bare minimum.” So we met with the Center for Civic Innovation and said, “We actually really want to make an impact in the city.” We realized we’d have to invest actual money, and we’d have to invest time and energy. In a partnership with them, we launched the Action Accelerator, and that got the ball rolling. There’s so many talented people that are using hip-hop or their talents to enact change in their communities. We wanted to help these people scale up. But there’s so many more dope people than the five we are able to [select as finalists for the Accelerator] every year. [We figured] everyone who is not invited to be a part of the Accelerator should come here and meet each other. Really the genesis of the Action Summit was that we needed a space to make sure we can connect these people.”

AC3 Festival Atlanta

Photograph courtesy of AC3 Festival

You’re also partnering with Georgia State University for a “Creator Complex” where you’ll donate free creative services for one day. Tell us more about that.
We partner with Georgia State to take over one of their facilities, and we’re bringing in creative professionals to offer free digital services for one day to artists and producers. In 12 hours we will service between 500 and 700 artists and producers with free headshots, a free bio, a free website, free mastering of their album [and] remix sessions. They can also get DJs to do cuts on their records. Just running really loose numbers, we estimate we will provide about $100,000 worth of free services to artists. That is something that is emotional for me because I used to manage artists, and I understand that a $100 headshot [might be unobtainable]—”I can’t do it. I’m going to get my homie to take a photo of me.” We listen to 1500-2000 [electronic press kits] a year and we understand the difference between someone who is selected and not selected is the most minute thing. It can be, “Oh, they don’t have a headshot; they’re not ready.” Or, “Their music sounds good but it’s not mastered.” Or, “Their bio is written in all caps.”

A3C started 14 years ago, but the conference segment has only been around a few years. How has the A3C evolved?
We’ve been the A3C festival in name only for a very long time. We didn’t have a proper festival. We were just a bunch of shows and events. We’ve had the luxury of making a lot of mistakes and learning from them. People often think we’re two to three years old, and that’s 100 percent cool with me because honestly, it took us a while to get here. We were part-time for the first eight years. We didn’t have a conference. We didn’t have any panels until 2012. [The festival in it’s current iteration] has not been around for 14 years. We have not had Steve Stoute for 14 years. We have not had Wu-Tang for 14 years. Five years ago we were pretty content with [never having a] headliner of this elk. We never thought we would be here. It was so far from our grasps.

What do you want A3C’s legacy to be both inside and outside of Atlanta?
When you think of Atlanta, I want you to think of the Braves, the Hawks, the Falcons, Atlanta United, and A3C. I want it to be a cultural institution the world thinks about. We have a party with Atlanta United, we have a tech summit, we have the mayoral conversation. We bring elements of Atlanta together like no one else is doing. [I want A3C to be] a pride point for the city and the residents, even if you’re not in hip-hop. For the attendees, for the artists and the speakers, I want A3C to be an annual essential event to their careers, and I want it to be something that changes lives.