What's The Deal With The Gun-Filled, Womanless Trap Music Scene In Atlanta?

Photo: Courtesy of Noisey Atlanta.
Thomas Morton will be the first one to tell you he has zero street cred. Yet, he spent three weeks on the streets of Atlanta anyway for his latest project for Noisey, Vice's music site.

Morton's project is an investigation of trap music, a subdivision of hip-hop that's described in the videos as the "soundtrack to the streets." The documentary-style series is broken up into digestible 10-minute episodes. Each illustrates the subculture that is "the trap" — a niche and sometimes violent scene that lends itself to a form of music. You may not be familiar with the term, but you know its artists: Migos, 2 Chainz, Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane.

In this immersive look at the trap, we see a world that seemingly exists only in a small part of the country and for a select group of people. (Morton relied on the reputation of several trap artists to make his way through neighborhoods, including one man referred to as "The Devil" who functioned as his "hood pass.") 

Noisey Atlanta goes inside the studios where trap music is made, and the trap houses where rappers live and spend their time. For a viewer unfamiliar with this environment, it can be a bit jarring. Trap houses often have barricaded front doors. Inside, they're all decorated in a similar fashion, using guns, women, and drugs as its peripherals. Insert Morton — a short white guy with glasses who's visiting from Brooklyn — and you can see just how out of place he is. 

I spoke with Morton about navigating the trap, the role of women in its culture, and why everyone needs to see these episodes.
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What made you want to do the Atlanta series?
"We did Chiraq, which was surprisingly popular with not just white Internet kids, but actual Black people in Chicago and kids in the neighborhood — people who watched the video on WorldStarHipHop. A much broader spectrum of young folks than I expected. So, that kind of pushed us to keep doing the rap stuff. It was a little experimental.

"Atlanta's basically the capital of the hip-hop industry — Black Hollywood. I'm from there — I mean, I'm suburban. I'm from Marietta. So, it made sense as a natural sequel [to Chiraq], and I had a personal attachment to it. [Atlanta] was a lot more fun — Chiraq was sort of depressing. It was such a mess. It was nice to see a place where the problems were at least the people's own creation versus systemic."

You've been with Vice for nearly 11 years. And, in Atlanta you were actually recognized by people as "that Vice guy." What was that like?
"Weird. Never not weird. A baseline of awkwardness that you can sink to and only go up from there. You don't get recognized from writing articles like 'Hey, you're that byline.' One of our old editors use to compare it to — I probably shouldn't say this — but it's like jerking off into a sock. You make something and you just let the Internet take it. Occasionally some asshole writes something in the comments, but otherwise you don't know who saw it, who thought it was good, who hated it, and why. So it's reassuring to actually get feedback, and a lot of it's overwhelmingly positive, which makes me suspicious more than anything."

Suspicious as in you think people aren't telling you the truth?
"Suspicious as in 'When's the backlash gonna happen?'"

Reading the Twitter reactions to the episodes, one person said you must have a lot of street cred to roll up as a white person in the trap. What do you think about that?
"I have zero street cred. Basically I'm like E.T. right when Elliot finds him. I'm completely foreign to their world, but I'm also entirely unthreatening to it. I almost feel like I'm an exchange student, the way they usually receive me. I think my height works to that advantage, too. For a lot of people it shaves off the years a little bit. This is the first time I thought about it. It really is like being an exchange student. Where you'd expect them to be hard and uptight, everyone's excited to show you how things work, tell you what slang terms mean. People are friendly."

It felt like a reverse tokenization, watching you there.
"For sure. The number of times I've been called Jewish — which I think they just think means 'wears glasses' — is astonishing. Heavy tokenism. There's a certain way to talk about race that's super forboden amongst middle-class white people that just goes on all the time in Black communities. It's not nasty at all, it's just pretty matter-of-fact. That's why I think me being not just white, but very fucking white, kind of plays into that. I think it was appreciated."

You're pretty much surrounded by guns the whole time you're there. Were you ever scared?
"The only time I got scared was when I got too stoned and couldn't understand what people were saying. I was more worried than anything that I was gonna answer something wrong and piss people off. But, everything's really chill there. A lot more than Chicago. There were a couple of moments in Chicago where things got tense. In Atlanta, they're a lot more lax about that. And, I just think it's slightly slower [down there], so you could see if things were gonna be a problem. But, they never were." 
Photo: Courtesy of Noisey Atlanta.

Why is the Atlanta series important? What's the end goal here?
"I don't know that it is important. I think it's fun, though. I think what it contains right now is good for the people involved in its careers. It's a good publicity tool. What I hope though is that 20, 30 years from now — provided there's still YouTube and shit like that — it will be a time capsule of Atlanta. The reason I do music [stories] in video [format] is [because of] all those old scene docs, like punk documentaries from 1982. All those little music docs may not be great or good, but you don't just get a sense of the bands, you get a sense of the period."

An accurate portrayal as opposed to a whitewashed, retroactive telling.
"Exactly. Like actual artifacts from the time. Authentic. So, I hope its importance is that it's a lasting document of what Atlanta was like in this moment amidst these cliques. I'm not trying to do a definitive explanation of hip-hop in Atlanta, or hip-hop in general, or Atlanta in general. That's why we do it with me as a host — to kind of ground it in our own subjectivity. Play it straight."

The trap felt like a really political place. Can you speak to that? 
"Well, it's weird because it's kind of like gentleman's-club politics. People definitely have issues with each other and beefs and rivalries, but it's a small town. Everybody's in the same place, so they have to get along. They're also dependent on one another to get by in the industry. I've never been involved in an old-boy, cigar-smoking, Oak Room, back-slapping network, but that's almost the sense you got from the way people dealt with each other. People are very reluctant to talk shit about each other, which is hilarious because that seems like what hip-hop is founded on. It's what rapping originally started as, people insulting each other. The trap people, at the very least, have a well-preserved facade of congeniality between everybody. It's some real Southern shit, though. Everybody puts on a real nice face for each other, and then you talk shit when they're not around."

Except for Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy, who have this fabled feud in the trap scene.
"That's almost like mythology. [Gucci]'s completely exalted for it. The story about him almost having his chain taken and ending up killing the guy who'd come to rob him and maybe kill him? There are so many versions of that, it's literally like a legend. [In one version] he was burying a body when the cops found him — had a shovel in his hand. [In another version] he was sleeping with a girl with the gun behind his pillow. All this shit."

Something I noticed about trap music is that there's a sense artists don't want to sign with a major label. Migos was very clear that it doesn't want to do it as long as it's making money. How does trap music mark its success if not by that?
"I think part of it is that Atlanta is unique. It's its own weird little musical universe where you can become a major-label-level star completely on your own, just by getting your song played at the right strip clubs. It completely undoes the typical strain of production of mainstream music, where you start with strippers dancing to your song, then it gets on the radio, then it catches the eye of someone at Interscope or something. So that encourages people, and a lot of them get burned by major label involvement. They see it as anyone from the outside is just raping their culture."

Usurping it?
"And, watering it down. Once it leaves town and their hands, it runs the risk of becoming tacky and shitty. Like ILoveMakonnen is purely via the Internet. The old major-label system is super obsolete at this point. So Migos are major-label rappers. They're the equivalent of someone who should have a deal with Def Jam or Interscope, but they're doing it on a smaller, local scale, because that's what works. You don't need those other shlubs. Major labels are bloated, weird, crappy enterprises that exercise a lot of groupthink on things that suck the life out of musicians. There's been a backlash to it."

I'm glad you brought up ILoveMakonnen, because he's so different from most of the people we meet in the trap. Namely, his opposition to guns, which are a key fixture in the trap. Does he signify a changing attitude about guns in trap music?
"I don’t think [his attitude] is gonna change anything, because everyone loves guns. And, guns and rap music...it's like trying to keep blues musicians from keeping their cigarettes behind the frets of their guitars. It's just an essential element of it. At the end of the day, you have to remember that it's music that comes from a very violent street culture. There's a reason everybody's carrying these guns, other than they're fun to flash around.

"Makonnen's a unique case, because he's seen first-hand how a gun —not a person — murders somebody. He actually was in a car when a gun [accidentally went off and killed his friend]. It's a great point to hear, but I don't think it's gonna carry much weight. He's such an oddball. He's very much on the trap music vs. the trap [environment]. He's an outlier, and that opinion is very outlier. Because, it's Atlanta — unlike Chicago or New York or L.A. — you can carry [guns] around. It's not illegal to just have it sticking out of your pocket when you go to the grocery store. That encourages people to be exceptionally lazy with gun safety, which is scary as shit. Makonnen's got a great point in that people are fucking sloppy with their guns. It would be very wise to heed Makonnen's words about it, but I think he'll end up the Cassandra of gun safety in the trap scene."
What's the role of women in the trap? The ones we see don't speak, really.
"It's a total boys club. There's a shocking paucity of ladies around. Even in a male-dominated field, you'd expect the girlfriends to be hanging out, but it's dudes hanging out with dudes all day long. You definitely don't see any women around. They're there — dudes are getting texts from them all the time, but they don't hang out."

Well, they are there. They're in the backgrounds, not talking, or just sitting around in lingerie. They seem to function more as currency than anything.
"There's a thing called 'switcharoo,'  which Peewee Longway sings about. It's just basically trading girls. It's a real soulful song… That's kind of an unfortunate reality of the way they look at folks."

Did you try to talk to any of the women?
"We did a little bit. We spoke to a really good female hip-hop artist named Speakerfoxxx in Atlanta. But, there came a point when we were filming where we all turned to each other and [realized] we hadn't talked to a single female in days, and we certainly hadn't put one on camera unless it was someone sitting in the background of a studio or a trap house checking their phones. Those are the only women we saw, for the most part. It was not a choice on our part to exclude any women from the cameras. They just weren’t around. Which isn't to say there aren't any great female hip-hop artists, but it is a pronounced minority."

But, even the women hanging around in the studios and houses, did they ever have anything to say?
"They seemed bored as shit, just lost in their phones. We tried to talk to them, but they just weren't at all interested in what was going on. It was like they had somewhere else to be later and were waiting for their friends. Even at the club, it was all dudes. Just a packed VIP area of dudes just standing. It wasn't even that they weren't talking to women, it's that there weren't any women." 

At face value, the trap seems like a violent, somewhat undesirable place to live. Did it seem like any of the people wanted to leave the trap?
"I'd say the whole trap mentality is more about changing the trap, which isn't necessarily for the better, in social terms. The trap's rough, but it's also an ultra-competitive environment where people who know how to hustle can do very well for themselves. It's similarly deprived as Chicago's South Side — in Chicago the term is 'eatin'.' You're eatin', you're just trying to fucking survive, whatever that means. If you're dealing drugs, robbing people, a stickup artist — it's all about survival. In Atlanta, the term is 'finessing.' It's an art form, getting by and getting rich. Coach K made a point of saying Jeezy was a millionaire before he ever touched a microphone. As ugly and impoverished as the trap looks to us, it's also a very vibrant business setting. And, it's a dangerous game, but some people really thrive and get really rich. The only person, and again he's an outlier, is Makonnen. It's less about getting away from the streets. His thing was getting out of Atlanta. Wherever you are, there's the trap, too. It's more of a mentality than it is a specifically shitty part of town."

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You can watch Noisey Atlanta episodes here every Tuesday. 
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