Atlanta hip-hop would not be what it is today without the Atlanta University Center.
It’s a bold statement, but one that rings true—the roster of artists, DJs, and music executives who’ve graced the AUC campuses is a veritable who’s who of the music industry, and the AUC has been instrumental in molding the fabric of Atlanta’s hip-hop culture.
While the hip-hop scene in Atlanta began its growth in the ’80s through pioneers like Velvetone Records, MC Shy D, and Kilo Ali, it wasn’t until the presence of the Dungeon Family, So So Def Recordings, Ghetto Mafia, and Big Oomp Records that hip-hop spread far and wide—weaving its way through Atlanta’s landscape like kudzu.
Though often overlooked, the AUC played an integral role in Atlanta’s hip-hop rise for one huge reason—for years, the AUC was where you went to break records.
“In the ’90s, the marketing plan for all record labels was the AUC,” DJ Mars, Usher’s official DJ for his Las Vegas residency, confirms. “This was the period when the only time you heard hip-hop on the radio was on college radio. V-103 at the time was not playing hip-hop at all, and Hot 107.9 didn’t exist. I literally saw labels drop marketing plans based on the interest that they got from the AUC.”
The AUC was the perfect focus group—its campus was a melting pot of young Black kids from around the country. When music was brought to campus, it filtered out nationwide as students went back home and introduced it to their friends during school breaks. Mars, who played a big role in shaping the late-’90s and early-2000s Atlanta club scene, got his start DJing sets in Clark Atlanta University’s cafeteria during Friday night dinners. He specifically remembers OutKast’s 1994 LaFace Records debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, being marketed ‘heavily’ at the AUC. Carlton “Big CAC” Green remembers a then-unknown Goodie Mob doing shows on campus while he was a freshman at Clark Atlanta.
Eventually, in 1997, Green and two of his friends, Taiye Samuel and Keinon Johnson, started Four Corner Circle (TEAMFCC), a party-promoting and event-planning company. They also launched RUNCAU, a Clark Atlanta homecoming party, which still takes place today. As hip-hop grew legs in Atlanta, AUC students were branching out too, playing an integral role in shaping the city’s nightlife scene.
“The first club that was really popping for us was nearby at the Warehouse,” Green recalls. “That was like the hip-hop emporium for your introduction to Atlanta nightlife. They had shuttles that would come pick you up from campus and bring you to the Warehouse.”
Green remembers one conversation with a DJ that really opened his eyes to just how influential the AUC was in the late-’90s and early-2000s: “I can’t remember his name, but we were cool and he went to Georgia Tech. He had this moment where he confided in me,” Green recalls. The young man was disgruntled about not getting enough DJ work. “I was like, ‘Well, you know, just work on your craft.’ And he was like, ‘Nah, it’s not really about my skills. I didn’t go to Clark.’”
Maurice “Moetown” Lee has worked in music marketing for decades and is a partner/producer for Atlanta’s ONE Musicfest. He remembers working artists’ records, including the infamously prolific No Limit Records in the late ’90s.
“The AUC was like the number two point of reference when you came down South to promote a record,” Lee recalls. “No matter where you came from, you went to see Greg Street over at V-103, and then you went to the AUC.”
The AUC’s cluster of diverse students—and those students’ ability to act as a sounding board for Atlanta hip-hop’s next big thing—has made it instrumental in the Atlanta hip-hop scene. But, in the ’90s, it was also an incubator for talent.
“The AUC is important, whether it’s actual production of music or whether it’s the marketing and promotions,” Green says. “The last component is actual people working in offices. Keinon started at Priority [Records]. Taiye was at LaFace.” He goes on to mention AUC grads like Cannon Kent-Grant, promotions director at Atlantic Records, and Disturbing Tha Peace Records cofounder Chaka Zulu. “It’s just too many people to name.”
In the late ’90s, Generation Now founder DJ Drama (Tyree Simmons) was a familiar sight on Clark Atlanta’s campus. With a backpack slung over his shoulder and long locs in his hair, he could be seen heading to class, the Woodruff Library—affectionately known as “Club Woody” by students—or to Marco’s Pita. Even after relocating from campus to Ponce de Leon, the eatery, where Drama once worked, was a popular hangout for emerging music tastemakers and young executives.
The AUC is where the DJ group the Aphilliates (DJ Drama, DJ Sense, Don Cannon) was born, where Drama’s infamous Gangsta Grillz mixtapes were launched (Green recalls fronting Drama the money for his first pressing of mixtapes), and where Don Cannon planted the seeds of the megaproducer and executive he’d become, producing hits for Jeezy, Jay-Z, and 50 Cent. On campus, DJ Mars started the Superfriends DJ collective alongside his Clark Atlanta roommate DJ Trauma, who’s now Dave Chappelle’s tour DJ. While the aforementioned DJs got their start on campus, soon they were DJing popular clubs around town, and ultimately spreading the AUC’s influence well beyond the Promenade.
Then, of course, on the radio, was Christopher “Chris Luva Luva” Bridges—now known as Ludacris—on the city’s first hip-hop station, Hot 97.5, with Clark Atlanta alum Chaka Zulu serving as the music director. Not to mention music video directors including Fat Cats (Eric Williams and Randy Marshall) and Bryan Barber—who graduated from Clark Atlanta in 1996, and directed videos for 2 Chainz, Justin Timberlake, OutKast, and more. Barber also directed OutKast’s 2006 film, Idlewild.
Singer/songwriter Terrence “Scar” Smith has worked with OutKast, Killer Mike, Janelle Monáe, John Legend, and more. He thinks back on the AUC campus as a breeding ground for talent and a place to make lifelong connections.
“I met Janelle via the AUC,” he remembers, adding that he wrote her first song with Wondaland Records, “Cloud Nine.” The two eventually landed on Big Boi’s Purple Ribbon label together for a while.
Just a few blocks away from the AUC, in the West End Mall, was Peppermint Music. Smith worked there for a short stint while attending Morehouse College. Being so close to the AUC campus, Peppermint wasn’t just another record store. It became a prime spot for music promoters and future executives to hang out and talk shop, further cementing its role in Atlanta’s music evolution. Both Lee and Mars remember hanging out at Peppermint Music, often talking with store manager Rico Brooks, another Morehouse grad, who went on to become a leading music executive working with everyone from Jeezy to Yung Joc and Sonny Digital.
“You never knew who you’re gonna see walk in there,” Brooks remembers of Peppermint Music.
Smith says Peppermint and the AUC introduced him to superproducer Bryan-Michael Cox (Mary J. Blige, Aaliyah, Ari Lennox, et al.), with whom he eventually formed a musical relationship. “[Bryan] went to Clark, and I was at Morehouse, and he’d come into Peppermint every now and then. That’s how we got to know each other,” he remembers. “[Working there] also helped me get on the street team and start interning at Organized Noize.”
That internship blossomed into a working relationship, which eventually led to Smith cowriting OutKast’s single from Idlewild, “Morris Brown.” Yes, Smith went to Morehouse, but says Andre 3000 wanted to record Morris Brown’s band and incorporate it into a track, hence the song’s title—yet another ode to the AUC.
This August, Billboard released its 2023 R&B/Hip-Hop Power Players list. It featured several AUC alumni, including DJ Drama and Don Cannon, cofounders of Generation Now, home to rap stars Jack Harlow and Lil Uzi Vert. Also featured was Keinon Johnson, who’s now the senior vice president of urban radio promotions for Interscope.
“So many of Atlanta’s preeminent music executives and artists cut their teeth in the AUC,” Johnson says. “The AUC has always been fertile ground for creativity, opportunity, and community building. Many of us took the relationships we made in the AUC into the world of business and arts and have been able to build upon the foundation that people like Jermaine Dupri, Dallas Austin, as well as L.A. Reid and Babyface, pioneered here.”
Phylicia Fant, a Spelman alum and head of music industry and culture collaborations at Amazon Music, shares the same sentiment. Fant is passionate about acknowledging the AUC’s influence, and that means when it comes time to get things done, she loves supporting other AUC grads.
“We continue to feed each other, to give back to each other, to be this community of AUC grads that say, ‘What’s up, what do you need?’” says Fant, the former head of urban music at Columbia Records, as she lists off a bevy of AUC alums who work all over the industry, including Pandora, MTV, major record labels, and more. She also cites her working relationship with Six Degrees, an Atlanta-based full-service creative marketing agency founded by a Morehouse alum.
“You start to look at all the relationships that fuel Atlanta, and it’s almost your duty to make sure that you are giving back to that community,” she says.
But the AUC is about more than name-dropping. It’s ultimately about community and embodying the spirit of authenticity and connectivity that makes HBCUs so attractive in the first place.
It’s a point that Johnson drives home. “Although many of us grew up outside of Atlanta, we carry the city’s legacy and influence with pride into every room we walk into,” he says. “We want to be the best representation of our shared experiences born out of the AUC.”
In the end, it’s simple, says Green. “You can’t mention Atlanta, or hip-hop and Atlanta specifically, without mentioning the AUC. The relationship between hip-hop and the AUC has had a 30-year run. The numbers don’t lie.”
This article appears in our October 2023 issue.