John Poole for NPR
Brook Carter, 29, tends bar at Kamal's 21, an Atlanta strip club. She used to work as a stripper herself at Magic City. She says typically she'll have heard a new track playing on the radio at least a month earlier at the club.
Brook Carter, 29, tends bar at Kamal's 21, an Atlanta strip club. She used to work as a stripper herself at Magic City. She says typically she'll have heard a new track playing on the radio at least a month earlier at the club. John Poole for NPR
"How do you feel about strip clubs?" That was their opening line. My colleagues Sara Sarasohn and Zoe Chace wanted to know if I’d be willing to go to Atlanta to report on how hip-hop records are broken, or launched, in strip clubs. Truth is, I'd never been to a strip club. But I figured, it's always good to stretch. So I said, "Yes." You can hear the full story I reported by listening above.
The first strip club I visited was Magic City, supposedly the Holy Grail of Atlanta strip clubs on Monday nights. That's partly because all of the others are closed Mondays. The only reason I got in to Magic City – and was allowed to record – was because I was with LuQman, the founder of Pure Pain Records, a label currently breaking a song by the rapper Roam Bad Daddy. In hip-hop, how you're treated depends a lot on who you're with.
Magic City was dark and loud. It looked like any club except for the dozens of nearly naked women and the two tall poles in the middle of the room. The dancers wore heels, jewelry and thongs, so I didn't see any actual stripping. The Magic City dancers put on quite a show, especially a quintet called The Snack Pack. Those young women do some amazing tricks on those poles. And they are tipped well for their work. When I saw dollar bills scattered all over the floor and on the stage, my first thought was that someone had dropped a purse. Like I said, I'd never been to a strip club before.
Hip-hop producers have been breaking records in Atlanta strip clubs for a long time now — at least as far back as 2003, when Lil Jon was doing it with songs like, "Get Low." He's been quoted as saying "the butts don't lie," meaning if the strippers can dance to it, the song has potential. In Tamara Palmer's book, Country Fried Soul: Adventures in Dirty South Hip Hop, Lil Jon says "Get Low" had a slow start: the dancers "didn't feel it at first." But eventually it grew on them and several dancers at different strip clubs asked the DJs to play it during their stage sets. "Get Low" took off — in mainstream clubs and on radio and TV across the country.
What attracted us to this story was that the strippers seemed to have a lot of power in the hip-hop hit-making process. Obviously they are the focal point when a new song is being played. As DJ Scream told me, "There's nothing like seeing a woman dance to a record. There's records that I hate and when I see a woman dancing I think, 'It's not that bad.'"
Another reason strip clubs are the perfect place to test out a song is the clientele. In Atlanta, I'm told nobody thinks twice about going to strip clubs for a bite to eat or just a night out. They're so popular that some of the dancers are treated like local celebrities.
On any given night you might find record label execs and radio programmers, other professionals, college students and couples watching the booty shake.
The dancers have an incentive to make a song exciting: They get paid when the patrons 'make it rain,' or throw money on the stage while they're dancing. I asked Sweet Pea, one of the main dancers in the Snack Pack at Magic City, if she'd ever refused to dance to a song she didn't like. She made it sound as though that just doesn't happen. "If it's got a good beat, you can dance to it," she said. In other words, even if she doesn't think a song has potential, she'll give it a try because she knows the folks from the record label will make it rain extra hard when she's dancing to their song.
As for the strip club DJs, they get paid when the dancers tip them at the end of the night. So it's in their best interest to keep the dancers happy and play whatever songs they request. Record label executives usually spend a lot of money on those nights they're trying to break a record, not just on the dancers but on drinks and food. When the song is working, and the dancers are happy, it might rub off on the patrons who — it's hoped — will spend even more money. So the strip club owners fully embrace the process. Sweet Pea says, "It's like a little promotional circle." One DJ told me, "We're all just hustling each other."
The strip club/hip-hop partnership has a seamy history. Several people I interviewed mentioned the "BMF era." BMF stands for Black Mafia Family, a drug trafficking ring that had hubs in Detroit, Los Angeles and Atlanta. During the early 2000s, the BMF invested heavily in hip-hop. Money flowed in the strip clubs. Luxury cars filled their parking lots. At least one man was killed in a lot when he apparently found himself in the Family's way. In a three-part series in Creative Loafing Atlanta, reporter Mara Shalhoub detailed "Hip-Hop's Shadowy Empire" of violent crimes, lavish parties, secret codes. In a battle for street cred, the Dirty South could easily hold its own against the East and West Coasts. When the BMF was busted and its key players went to jail, strip club dancers and DJs missed a lot of heavy rain.
Veteran promoter Nick Love says strip club DJs used to get roughed up by artists who were angry when their songs weren't getting played. Love recently started a coalition of strip club DJs to help make sure that doesn't happen again.
There's another reason strip clubs work well as launching pads for hip-hop hits. Wendy Day, of the Rap Coalition, a company that helps broker deals between artists and record labels, says rap is such a "male-dominated art form" that it makes sense to test out new songs in man's "natural habitat."
Man's natural habitat. I don't know about that. But Lil Jon was right. "The butts don't lie," especially in a downpour.