How Bankhead became a hip-hop landmark

Atlanta rap wouldn’t be what it is today without the area’s contributions

202
How Bankhead became a hip-hop landmark
Vincent Richardson, Kevin Denson, and Travis Denson—founders of Toe Jam

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

Research by Nile Kendall, Canopy Atlanta Fellow

This story was produced by Canopy Atlanta, a community-led journalism nonprofit that collaborates with Atlantans—from assigning stories to reporting and presenting them. More than 75 Bankhead community members helped choose and produce the stories for CA’s Bankhead Issue, including this one.

Before Vincent “Pudgy” Richardson and brothers Kevin and Travis Denson helped turn Bankhead into a hip-hop landmark, they sold CDs and white tees out of a bread truck outfitted with 15-inch rims. How they got the bread truck, or why they chose that specific mode of transportation, only Kevin knows. But this mobile operation—the humble beginnings of Toe Jam Music—made a lot of business sense in spring 1998.

At the time, it was the trio’s entry point into Freaknik, the Atlanta spring-break festival–turned–infamous street-dance party. Atlanta bass hits like Playa Poncho’s “Whatz Up, Whatz Up” and Bankhead’s own contribution, A-Town Players’ “Wassup, Wassup,” were in heavy rotation.

“Freaknik wasn’t just downtown,” Richardson says. “Freaknik had Bankhead jammed from Northside Drive, down there by the [Georgia] Dome, all the way to Mableton. This was pre-Covid. Everybody was out. It was the real Atlanta in ’98.”

At the same time, Southern hip-hop was achieving mainstream success. No Limit Records—whose roster included Silkk the Shocker, C-Murder, Mia X, and Mystikal—was on its way to selling 15 million records and earning over $100 million. Before the label, though, No Limit Records was a Bay Area music store. Richardson and the Densons saw a blueprint for their own success in the career trajectory of No Limit founder and New Orleans native Master P.

“Taking the Master P route is where you have inner-city youth able to set up a business plan around the music scene, selling your own CDs and just making the industry aware that you do exist,” Travis Denson says.

Six months after their bread truck first hit the road, the founders of Toe Jam Music set up shop across the street from Bowen Homes. With nearly 4,000 residents, this 74-acre family housing project off Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway near the Perimeter was large enough to have its own daycare, elementary school, and library. For soon-to-be famous residents like late D4L star Shawty Lo, Toe Jam was yet another important site. At this combination music store and studio, Toe Jam sold mix CDs featuring local artists and charged just $25 an hour for Bankhead residents to record there. Lil Mark, of the Bankhead rap group Yung Money, has called Toe Jam “the first distribution deal any rapper from Bankhead had.”

As Toe Jam was getting off the ground, Omaha transplant Tyrone Young was searching for work in the music industry. He stumbled across a “hole-in-the-wall” off Hollywood Road called Atlanta Sports Palace. Noting the pool tables inside, Young told owner Jimmy Adams that he should rename the venue. He also told Adams to hire him as a DJ, since the only source of ambience was a CD player.

For the next 12 years, Young was best known as DJ T-Roc from Poole Palace. He hosted open mics and spun music recorded at Toe Jam, which would launch the mid-2000s snap music craze. Think D4L’s “Laffy Taffy,” one of the longest-running number one songs in hip-hop history. Travis Denson says the upbeat sound of snap music helped boost residents’ morale during George W. Bush’s war presidency, so they didn’t “feel like a lost cause.” But at the time, the calls to dance in “Laffy Taffy” seemed too goofy for hip-hop to take seriously.

“Club owners only wanted radio music,” T-Roc says today. “If you didn’t have your record deal with major labels like Atlantic or Virgin, then you were just out of luck.” The definition of “radio music” would soon change.

The driving force behind Bankhead’s impact were locales like Toe Jam and Poole Palace, which became a pipeline for the city’s music scene and made the neighborhood a destination.

• • •

In Poole Palace’s heyday, the nightclub was like Cheers. “Shawty Lo, you could play his song, and half the crowd in the building is either related to him or got a kid by him,” T-Roc jokes. But in late 2005, T-Roc recognized a face in the crowd who he knew wasn’t from the neighborhood: music executive Mike Caren.

Caren was on his way to being promoted to executive vice president of artists and repertoire (A&R) at Atlantic Records; he’d also brought another rap star who’d claim Bankhead—T.I.—to the label.

Caren hadn’t wandered into Bankhead by accident, and T-Roc was warned by peers that major record labels were taking notice. Before Dem Franchize Boyz became the first group from the area to have a snap hit chart on Billboard, they were featured on Toe Jam’s mixes and T-Roc’s Poole Palace sets. T-Roc also gave steady rotation to tracks by Ben Hill Squad (“Do Yo Dance”), DJ Unk (“Walk It Out”), and the Shop Boyz (“Party Like a Rockstar”) before their songs took over radio.

Meanwhile, Toe Jam boasted its own indie label, Strictly Bizness Records. Its roster of local producers included London on da Track, who went on to make work with Drake, Rich Gang, Summer Walker, and Ariana Grande.

Toe Jam also started adding UPC barcodes to its proprietary mixes like the Poole Palace series, so that sales could be reported and factored into bestselling music charts. Toe Jam sold their mixes like The 30318 Project (named after Bankhead’s zip code) through retailers.

“That’s how Mike Caren got involved,” Toe Jam’s Travis Denson says, “because we sold so many CDs. It was all new songs that were coming out and T-Roc was playing in the club. That was actually the start of what I call snap.”

The tastemakers behind Poole Palace and Toe Jam eventually scored major deals of their own. Caren paid T-Roc finder fees to scout up-and-coming artists for Atlantic to sign. In 2006, Toe Jam’s founders inked a development agreement with Lil Jon’s BME Recordings. Yet, amid this gold rush in Bankhead, not even they could compete with major labels scouting their own neighborhood’s emerging talent. “I’m busy DJing and breaking records,” T-Roc says, “and they’re busy signing artists.”

And while Toe Jam’s Kevin Denson managed “Laffy Taffy” producer K-Rab, D4L, the group behind the record, ended up signing with another label. Jermaine Dupri scooped up Dem Franchize Boyz for So So Def. Toe Jam might have successfully emulated the success of Master P’s No Limit Records, though as Atlanta was still establishing itself as a hip-hop capital, Strictly Bizness as a label faced stiff competition.

“Instead of believing in ourselves,” Denson says, “they ended up going with what they thought would work. Which they did, though they didn’t benefit financially long-term.”

Toe Jam didn’t shutter until 2017. But its end had been in sight: The music industry had transitioned from physical to digital releases, which meant that the role of brick-and-mortar stores was diminishing. And in 2009, the Atlanta Housing Authority bulldozed Bowen Homes across the street, dispersing the residents who were Toe Jam’s customers, collaborators, and community.

“Toe Jam was a culture,” Richardson says. “Everyone would come there and network. We brought people over here who probably weren’t even coming nowhere near here. They knew that we had the hottest music. We kept it live for the community until they started gentrification.”

• • •

Inside a hair salon off Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, Richardson is taking orders for a different mobile operation: Majical Burgerz, where he personally cooks and delivers beef and turkey burgers.

Richardson is still in touch with friends-turned-shakers from Atlanta’s snap era but insists that his music industry background is of an increasingly distant past. “I’m just the link,” he laughs. “I sell burgers.”

A barber shop occupies the building west of the salon where Toe Jam used to be. The building that once housed Poole Palace, and later another nightclub, is now empty.

“If you didn’t sell wings or have a liquor store or a gas station, you weren’t going to be able to survive over here,” Richardson says. “Dozens of Black businesses failed because they moved all the Black people to the outskirts of the city.”

When Bowen Homes was demolished in 2009, Atlanta Housing Authority (AH) executive director Renee Glover said it was the end of an era, and that “warehousing families in concentrated poverty will cease.” Music keeps the memory of that era alive. In fact, there are two songs named “Bowen Homes”—one from Shop Boyz in 2007 and another by the late Bankhead native Marlo a decade later. It’s as if the demolition never happened.

Perhaps in this citywide effort to decentralize poverty, AH didn’t take into account the cultural significance of Bowen Homes and the music that made the housing project a source of pride. This explains why past residents want to see the music recognized, amid AH’s current plans to redevelop the now vacant site.

Among other proposals to incorporate mixed-income housing and parkland, the building where Poole Palace used to be could face new sidewalks and bike lanes along James Jackson Parkway. AH also envisions a “small grocery site” where Toe Jam used to be, nearby stormwater gardens, and other commercial development.

Brooklyn Dorsey is a curator who has worked with TSW, the firm that’s redesigning the old Bowen Homes site. Dorsey has family who once lived in Bowen Homes, and he has surveyed past residents; he suggested murals on the Bowen Homes site honoring victims of the Atlanta Child Murders, lives lost during the Bowen Homes Daycare Center explosion, and former residents-turned-artists. Dorsey cites Atlanta rap pioneer Kilo Ali for how he “inspired a lot of people who came up out of that project to want to make music.”

Dorsey says the site needs to better prioritize affordable housing. (Before Atlanta Housing pushed redevelopment back “until a later date,” the initial phase included 750 housing units, a third of which would be affordable.)

And past residents need to be more involved. He wants to see hundreds of people weigh in on the future of Bowen Homes in the same way they show up for Bowen Homes Day, the annual block party commemorating the projects, or the way community members celebrated Shawty Lo’s life. Bowen Homes needs to be regarded for its history, not its potential market value.

“It would help in changing the mindset of how people of color see gentrification,” Dorsey says. “It’s gotten so bad to where people see this gentrification and give up, feeling like there’s no hope. But you just have to come together and show people that hey, this is historic.

Whatever AH decides would only underscore how culturally significant Toe Jam and Poole Palace have been, long after these Bankhead locales have shuttered. Today, it’s impossible to imagine how Atlanta rap—and, therefore, hip-hop at large—would sound without Bankhead as a lyrical and stylistic inspiration. Its influence appears in Kilo Ali’s “Cocaine.” Dem Franchize Boyz’s “White Tee.” T.I.’s Trap Muzik. The 1995 MTV Video Music Awards, where Michael Jackson did the Bankhead Bounce. The Formation World Tour, where Beyoncé honored Shawty Lo. The Saturday Night Live debut of onetime Bankhead Courts resident Lil Nas X.

Of course, Toe Jam’s founders wouldn’t mind the recognition. “Kilo Ali Street. Toe Jam Boulevard,” Travis Denson says, imagining the possibilities. He’s half joking. “What you think about Vincent Richardson Boulevard?” he asks Richardson, his business partner, smiling.

“I’m pretty sure you’d have a lot of people who would be grateful for something like that,” Denson adds. “And they probably wouldn’t put up too much of a fuss because everyone’s gone on about their lives. Things have changed. It’s different now.”

This article appears in our June 2022 issue.

Advertisement