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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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SIEGEL: Atlanta is home to some of the biggest stars in hip-hop and R&B, from OutKast to Usher and Lil Jon.

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SIEGEL: Since the 1990s, though, the city has been nurturing a different scene, a scene independent from the music industry and a scene that grew out of the spirit of the civil rights movement.

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SIEGEL: Today we begin a series on local music scenes with this story from Joel Rose, who went in search of Atlanta's independent soul.

JOEL ROSE: A tour of Atlanta's soul scene begins, oddly enough, in midtown - in the shadow of high rise condos and generic office towers.

Mr. JAMAL AHMAD (DJ): I'll show you the corporate headquarters, the global headquarters of Coca-Cola.

ROSE: That's where they keep the secret formula?

Mr. AHMAD: That's where they keep the secret formula, man.

ROSE: My guide is Jamal Ahmad, a radio DJ at Clark Atlanta University's WCLK, and about the closest thing there is to an historian of the scene.

Mr. AHMAD: Georgia Tech right here. This is the heart of Atlanta right here.

ROSE: Ahmad turns left into the parking lot of the Varsity, a landmark burger joint.

Mr. AHMAD: It still has the kind of '50s motif where they bring the food out to you. People come from far and wide just to eat their burgers.

ROSE: Most of those people probably have no idea they're a few hundred feet from the birthplace of Atlanta's independent soul scene.

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ROSE: Yin Yang Cafe opened its doors in 1994 in a former laundromat on a dead-end street. The club helped launch dozens of local artists, including India.Arie.

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INDIA.ARIE (Singer): (Singing) I'm not the average girl from your video, and I ain't built like a supermodel. But I learned to love myself unconditionally because I am a queen. I'm not the average girl from your video. My worth is not determined by the price of my clothes. No matter what I'm wearing, I will always be India.Arie.

(Speaking) We all felt like we didn't want to do what was considered regular R&B at the time. This was before anyone was saying neo-soul. We knew that we wanted to have control over our music and try alternative routes of getting our music out there.

ROSE: Arie burst onto the national stage in 2001 when her debut album earned seven Grammy nominations. But when she started singing at the Yin Yang Cafe, she was just another songwriter with an acoustic guitar. Before long, Arie and some of the other performers got together to form an artists' collective called Groovement.

Jamal Ahmad was a member, too. He says the collective felt empowered, in part by the legacy of the civil rights movement.

Mr. AHMAD: The civil rights movement instills, like, this sense of greatness amongst the young African-American community. Me being from Atlanta, that was something that was always instilled in us - in school and through our parents, because our parents were part of that protest generation.

ROSE: The music of Groovement members looked back to the classic soul singers of the 1960s and '70s - Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway.

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ROSE: But the Groovement artists also drew on the international sounds they heard on WCLK - acid jazz and new soul from Europe, and remixes from Japan. They brought all of those influences to the tiny stage at the Yin Yang Cafe.

Mr. ANTHONY DAVID (Singer/Songwriter): It was really the incubator for all of us.

ROSE: Singer and songwriter Anthony David says the club was a hole in the wall that could barely hold 300 people. But it gave young musicians a chance to get up in front of an audience.

Mr. DAVID: I didn't play music when I started going there. I would just go and watch. But over a period of five years, I went from not playing to playing.

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Mr. DAVID: (Singing) You really do seem to think that you can just do anything you want to do.

Unidentified Man #1: I'm just patrolling the area...

Mr. DAVID: (Singing) You're protecting us from crime, but who's protecting us from you?

ROSE: Anthony David and India.Arie say indie soul drew packed houses at the Yin Yang.

INDIA.ARIE: It was like we were already stars because you had an audience of people who were there, singing all the words to your songs. It was like you had music on the radio, and it really helped to boost all of our confidence.

ROSE: But inevitably the new scene went through some growing pains. Jamal Ahmad and Anthony David quit the collective. India.Arie signed to a major label. And perhaps most painful of all, the Yin Yang Cafe closed, not because it wasn't successful, but because the landlord wanted to sell it.

DJ KEMIT: It was like you could hear a needle drop.

ROSE: DJ Kemit stood behind the turntables for hip-hop pioneers Arrested Development and the Yin Yang's house band, the Chronicle.

DJ KEMIT: Once Yin Yang was gone, it was kind of like everybody was caught with their pants down and looking around, like, where are we gonna meet, how are we gonna do this?

ROSE: Kemit says a few promoters put on occasional shows around town. But he says the scene lost its center, and a lot of artists retreated to the solitude of their studios.

DJ KEMIT: It hurt the scene. And at the same time, I guess it allowed different musicians and producers to go into our little caves and hone in and really, really get our craft to the best of our ability.

ROSE: Kemit says it went on like that for more than two years. But now the soul scene in Atlanta seems to be rising from its own ashes - kind of like the city itself.

Mr. AHMAD: Jazz, 91.9. We are the jazz of the city. I'm Jamal Ahmad and you're checking out the soul of jazz on this Thursday afternoon here in the city...

ROSE: WCLK is playing more indie soul now. The room that used to be the Yin Yang re-opened as the Apache Cafe, and a handful of new clubs are presenting indie soul.

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ROSE: On Thursday nights, the jam session is at the upscale Harlem Bar, where a beer and a bottled water will cost you $12, and the kitchen serves fancy soul food until 2:00 in the morning.

Vocalist Julie Dexter, sitting in with the house band, singing to a well-dressed crowd ofAfrican-Americans, most of them under 40. Dexter says she had to move here from London eight years ago.

Ms. JULIE DEXTER (Singer): Never been to a place where I've seen black people at all levels, not just in sports and music, but lawyers, business owners, rich neighborhoods where black people live that have beautiful houses and cars. That was new to me coming from England.

ROSE: The most ambitious of Atlanta's new soul clubs is called Sugarhill. It's co-owned by Freddy Luster, who used to own the Yin Yang. Luster says Sugarhill is doing fine, though not quite as well as the hip-hop club he co-owns.

Mr. FREDDY LUSTER (Club Owner): So we joke, this is the love, that's the money. I mean, this place pays its bills, don't get me wrong. I mean, it's doing well. But the model is different, you know what I mean? This is a true reflection on who we are, the other place is a profit center.

ROSE: There's little doubt that Atlanta is a hip-hop town first and foremost, and that soul occupies a smaller niche. But to some, the intimacy of the Atlanta soul scene is one of its charms. Far from traditional music industry towns like New York and Los Angeles, singer Julie Dexter says artists here can afford to experiment.

Ms. DEXTER: Here I find that people give you more of a chance to grow, get to where you're trying to get to. I feel like in New York you got to be where you're supposed to be before you can step out. Go and shed somewhere else. Atlanta is a good place to develop, grow, get your groove on. Find out what your voice is.

ROSE: With a little luck, that voice will also resonate beyond Atlanta.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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SIEGEL: You can hear performances from the Atlanta clubs and read a personal essay about the music scene there at npr.org. It's in the music section.

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