Since its conception, VICE has been capitalizing on new technology and a shift in the way people consume media to eliminate the need for journalistic credentials, blurring the line between content and meaning. Often times, this gets the media mogul a tremendous amount of flack, such as the recently re-surfaced David Carr rant, but for the most part they can be counted on to produce quality content no other news outlet is covering. Case and point: NOISEY’s new documentary series on Atlanta’s rappers.
For those of you unfamiliar with the web-series, ATLANTA follows VICE reporter Thomas Morton through the thicket of Atlanta’s Hobbesian urban sprawl, introducing the viewer to such legends as Gucci Mane, 2Chainz, ILoveMakonnen (who also performed alongside Father during the ATLANTA launch party at Webster Hall in NYC), and the ATL Twins, while providing thoughtful commentary on the city’s hodge-podge of bizarre urban planning. In one segment, Morton watches Curtis Snow, star of the cult sensation Snow on Tha Bluff, cook crack-cocaine; in another, the journalist has assault rifles pointed at him by Migos in a suburban mansion. It’s a nihilistic and dark look at a city that gave up on itself decades ago, and Morton really does an exceptional job shedding light on a dark corner of the world nobody in the media is currently discussing. Curious to learn more, we sat down with Morton in the East Village for a truly fantastic and revealing interview to discuss Atlanta’s geopolitical makeup, Gucci Mane’s ability to satirize himself, and what it’s like having a gun pointed at you by a rapper wired out on Molly.
How did you first get assigned to host the NOISEY Atlanta series?
It doesn’t really work by assignments like some Spider-Man-esque editor. Me and the series producer, Andy Capper, who’s this British editor and makes films, wanted to do this sequel to the Chiraq series. The thing with this was that I have a very thin interest in hip-hop. I just don’t keep up with it. Andy, on the other hand, was very into hip-hop. I was fascinated with Chicago’s problems and especially what was happening in the South Side and so we worked together and I became fascinated with the hip-hop and he became fascinated with the problems.
The great thing about the series is that it uses hip-hop as this microcosm for Atlanta’s geopolitical problems.
Yeah, the music is a product of its environment and also creates something in its environment.
So you didn’t know that much about trap music going into it?
I had an embarrassingly thin amount of knowledge about trap music. I couldn’t have named a single Gucci Mane song about a couple weeks before going down… and Gucci Mane has recorded, maybe, five thousand songs?
That’s also kind of important though – to have an unbiased perspective going into it.
Sure, I wouldn’t say biased, so much as an outsider’s perceptive; they’re roughly the same thing. I also want to mention that I picked Atlanta, not only because it’s this major hip-hop capital, but also because it’s where I’m from. It was a natural next step after our series about Chicago’s rap scene.
As someone who interviews people, I’m very curious as to how you frame an interview.
I kind of don’t (Laughs). I obviously don’t walk into an interview without having any clue about who the person is or what they’re doing; I try to keep a very healthy base knowledge about that. In the earlier parts of making the Atlanta documentary, because I knew so little about trap music, I would certainly read up on people and listen to their music. Kind of a funny way to do research… listening to five or six rap mix tapes. I try to know what I’m talking about, but at the same time I don’t need to know too much. My whole thing is, and before we did video, I worked at the magazine [VICE]. I don’t know if you’ve ever done video, but when you interview people you don’t necessarily ask questions you want to know the answers to; you basically stage an answer from them.
You get them to say something you know they’re going to say that the audience might find interesting.
And a lot of video producers will do interviews that are entirely that. There’s no sense of discovery. It’s just super frustrating and, like, “what’s the fucking point?”
And then there’s when you have to ask what you know the publicist wants you to ask.
There’s that too. Yeah, it really sucks when it’s in a controlled environment like that. Probably my least favorite thing about doing interviews. I guess what I’m saying is there’s a huge difference between video interviews and print interviews in general. I came from a print background and still haven’t been trained for video. I don’t feel dilatant-esque when I’m doing this shit, but I come at it from the writing perspective by asking questions I genuinely want to know the answers to. I try to keep getting sound bites out of people to a minimum, which is what so much of video is – fishing for sound-bites to the point where people are setting up pre-interviews. What the fuck’s the point of that? You just did the interview, why didn’t you just film that?
Going into the series then, which of your subjects were you most excited to meet?
Oh… (Long silence) I wasn’t excited to meet any of them. (Laughs) I was excited to see everybody’s house.
Were you nervous to meet any of these guys?
No. I wasn’t at all, actually and part of that’s just because I’m socially dumb in that sense, which is a bit of an advantage.
It really is. It really is though. It goes back into being an outsider. I interview people all day who I haven’t heard of.
You have to learn about them. And it works on the other end too, especially with sub-cultures. People are a little more receptive I feel like. It’s like you’re an exchange student and they’re happy to explain everything with what the slang means; they don’t expect you to know all that shit already.
What goes through your head, when you’re this outsider in this strange section of the world and you’re surrounded by all these rappers with firearms and hardcore drugs? Several of them pointed guns at you throughout the series… What are you thinking when Migos is aiming an assault rifle at your head?
Well, it’s like the most severe cast of the church giggles you can ever imagine. Once you’ve been through it once, you realize it’s very much just for show. Nobody’s going to shoot you; that’d be really fucking stupid. You have a camera pointed at them and you’re in their house! That’d be like the worst case of shitting where you eat existing on record. The only thing that’s iffy, and this isn’t unique to Atlanta but you definitely see it more in Atlanta, is that the brandishing isn’t worrisome. To a degree, it’s a little cute. Boys and their toys! What’s different in Atlanta versus, like Chicago, or a city where they’re a little more strict about gun laws and what you can and can’t have out, is that they’re really lose with the gun safety. Sometimes it’s cool and it’s all posturing for show, but other times you’ll see a finger go over to the trigger. A camera guy flipped out on a dude for that. Considering they’re all pie-eyed on molly, it’s certainly not a good combination.
They’re all on drugs. You see them smoking throughout, but were they on anything harder?
No, that’s what they sell.
Well, they were doing cocaine. In one scene, the ATL twins were railing coke.
Oh, Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. (Laughs) The only other thing that goes up your nose like that is way worse. There’s a lot of harder drugs around, but there’s not a lot of use. There’s a lot of weed smoking. Lean is really big; it’s a weird status sort of drug.
What is that?
Lean is a promethazine-based cough syrup. What else? It’s lean! (Laughs) I think it’s also known as “purp” or “purple drank.” It’s like an opiate cough syrup. It’s fun if you like painkillers. It’s a little tricky to get a prescription and everybody’s really fixated on the purity level of it. They’re basically lean snobs like it’s fucking brandy or Kentucky bourbon. Everybody’s on these weird systems for how you test the strength. “The bubbles come up this way!”
That’s kind of just…
Yeah… And you really don’t see coke there. And having grown up in Atlanta, and going back there for holidays and shit like that, coke in Atlanta fucking sucks. It’s because that’s not where it’s meant for. It’s a transit point. Whatever’s there is being moved to a bigger city or moving up the coast or has fallen off the trail.
So if it’s moving to a bigger city, why wouldn’t it necessarily be good coke?
Because they’re moving the good coke to New York to sell it to richer people. It’s like… UPS is there but they don’t have all the cool stuff. Sorry, that’s a really dumb comparison.
These rappers are making hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of them millions, why don’t they just take the money and continue making great songs? Why do they have to continue selling drugs and leading these very dangerous and violent lifestyles when they’re making so much money?
Most of them, once they are successful, do quit. The illegal activities are just the seedbed for their lyrics and street cred. That’s also their seed money. BMF may not have had a number of artists signed, but indirectly helped foster a number of careers just by having that much cash left over in need of being moved through a number of levels of transactions: laundering. I don’t know, are you thinking of, like, Trouble? Trouble, I can’t remember if this was in the edit or not, but the ATL Twins were like, “This dude… rapping is just like his hobby.”
No, that was left in.
Yeah, okay. Good. I didn’t want to fucking throw that in if it didn’t come out.
You got to be careful, I get it.
Well, you do. It is a touchy subject matter. I would probably dispute the millions except for folks like Migos and maybe Gucci Mane. I think the rapping part of it only can be as lucrative? But it’s not as easily. I don’t know… If you come up doing that, that’s what you do. But I do think Trouble is a little bit of an exception and I think most people move from getting in trouble to rapping about it.
I don’t know if Migos still sells and I don’t want to be on record saying that, but they all have guns though. Will their lives always be in some type of danger even if they stop selling?
Sure, but do you know about the Migos feud with Chief Keef?
I saw the documentary episode. I don’t know the specifics.
I don’t really know it either.
I saw he Instagrammed the chain.
Yeah, the chain wars can get really heated, really quickly. Although I like to think about it like it’s almost this mythic struggle. It’s like Norse Gods competing for each other’s chains or like Irish mythology.
I hadn’t thought of it like that.
Especially with the one between Jeezy and Gucci, the really famous incident after “Icy;” we heard so many different versions that ran the full canon of mythic elements. Like, he was caught with the shovel digging the grave. Like, he was dead for a moment and then came back to life.
Urban legends. As you said, mythology.
It exists in a lot of music. Take “Dance with the Devil.” In some sense the whole point of musical cultures is to be an outlaw, not just in appearance and façade, but in reality.
And it’s about marrying fantasy and reality.
I don’t see too much difference between Migos and Gucci’s images with like David Allan Coe or Merle Haggard’s images in the 70s or any metal band in the 80s.
What do you think the surrounding communities think of these rappers and the lifestyles they live?
Most of them are hometown heroes. Most of them are the stars of their neighborhood. Migos are kind of a rare example of ones came to the suburbs, so it’s not like they’re living in a rough neighborhood in Atlanta and they are an extreme example, an outlier case, of success; they’re fucking big. Most of these guys live where they grew up or where they dealt and don’t seem to have nicer dwellings; they’re living an otherwise similar lifestyle to the one they did before.
But then you have the single mother struggling to raise her kids or the father whose son may have been killed by a violent gang. Some young kids in these neighborhoods might look up to rappers like this because they don’t have the proper role models, but then others watching in horror, asking themselves, “what has America become?”
Sure. You’ve also got a massively corrupt and failing school system in the city under a thoughtless police department who’s had its SWAT team disbanded because they kept shooting up wrong houses on raids. Like, there’s a lot of shit going on. [These rappers] may not be the best role models, but they’re not supposed to be: they’re rappers.
What do you think then went wrong with Atlanta?
Well, after the segregation period Atlanta was touted around as this model example for what it did with integrating the public school system.
The New South.
Yeah. Briefly, it was looked at like this supreme example. I think JFK was even scheduled to fly down there and give a talk on how well the city was doing. But then immediately afterwards, barricades started going up between individual communities.
From the start, and not to blame it all on Sherman, but Atlanta was super de-centralized. Wiping out the city at that moment in time basically allowed for all these midland, individual communities to pop up, so it’s got this huge organizational problem. The central authority originally covered a very small place, and after Civil Rights, when the segregation fights hit, the tax bases were completely de-valued in the city and made all these edge cities on the perimeter, where I grew up. There are like ten huge prep schools there that are all EST 1954, very obviously created to avoid having the financers and developer’s children mixing with the people who live in their developments. It’s a microcosmic example of what went wrong in most major cities in Atlanta; white flight is one of the biggest culprits. What’s really unique about Atlanta, and I think Tom Wolfe nailed this in A Man in Full, is the developer runs the show. I just wrote a piece for the magazine [VICE] about doing a city guide based on police zones because neighborhoods there don’t mean shit. Neighborhoods can be torn up, moved around, re-named on a whim. And that’s the reality you grow up with in the city; your sense of place is always really weirdly detached, which is good and bad. It’s bad because it’s easy to distance yourself from a community you’re really not tied down to, but it gives you access to other places. Chicago you have that super fractious gang system, block to block. Kids can’t walk across the street to a store… because that’s someone else’s turf. And in Atlanta, turf doesn’t really exist. It’s really looser. People just move around constantly, both day-to-day to go to different neighborhoods, but also just to literally move.
With a geography that’s so fluid, do you think Atlanta’s problems are currently more racially based or class-based?
I think that those two are so thickly intertwined that it’s pretty naïve to talk about one versus the other. I think they’re super racial, but it’s interesting because Atlanta, and this gets into Southern regionalism, if you were to look at it up from space, the top half is white and the bottom half is black. African Americans aren’t a minority; both races interact with one another constantly. It’s way worse in Boston… people are way more racist there.
Winding down a little bit… people have this habit of satirizing rappers like Gucci Mane. They look at the ice-cream cone face tattoo and view it the same way that they do the violence, like throwing a woman out of a car.
Well, with the ice-cream cone Gucci Mane is satirizing himself. One evidence of racism there is to consider that he doesn’t realize that is an absurd, reputation-defining oddity.
I get that. But at the same time, he’s killed people.
He threw a woman out of a car. People satirize that. Like we said earlier, marrying fantasy and reality. Why do people have a habit of making fun of such violent things like that?
We’ve always done that. Like, depictions of hillbillys or Al Cap. There’s domestic violence in there. Even with The Honeymooners, there’s domestic violence in there and it’s shitty. And there’s a lot of dodgy shit and it’s no different from all the dodgy shit that’s been in pop culture as far back as I know.
What do you want people to take away from the Atlanta series?
I don’t have a takeaway I’m trying to push on anybody. Honestly, I hope it’s a nice little portrait of this scene that stands up and people can watch it in twenty or thirty years and find interesting.
What do you want people to take away from your reporting?