2003 Year End Thoughts
The Athens Scene Inside and Out
he year 2003 witnessed the long-overdue DVD release of the seminal 1986 college-rock documentary Athens, GA: Inside Out.
It was also the year I figured out just what that title truly meant.
Having moved here in November of 2002, it was my first full year in Athens, a perennial indie-rock hotbed ever since the early-80s emergence of the B-52s and R.E.M. helped an underground music movement ferment into a model of organic scene-building and creative communalism.
Those original pillars of Athens indie-rock have long since outgrown grassroots self-promotion and word-of-mouth idol worship, but the town's music scene continues to thrive. Earlier this year, Rolling Stone crowned Athens the ultimate college-rock Mecca in its feature on "Campus Scenes That Rock," the town's first place finish quite impressive when you consider the competition from Austin, Cambridge and Chapel Hill.
Making good on that heady acknowledgment, Athens delivered yet another great year of music in 2003. I was lucky enough to be at the forefront of all this excitement thanks to my writing gig with the local newspaper, the Athens Banner-Herald. Interviewing bands, reviewing CDs, covering different aspects of the scene, I tried my best to literally know Athens music inside and out, and was rewarded with a year's worth of brilliant, wildly eclectic albums and wonderfully memorable concert performances.
In fact, three of my top 20 albums this year were products of my adopted Deep South home (shit, five if you allow for the stretch to Atlanta and include Outkast and Prefuse 73). Amped-up archivists Drive-By Truckers proved that 2001's epic Dixieland deconstruction Southern Rock Opera was no fluke with the bitter travelogue Decoration Day, while country-ass grammarian Bubba Sparxxx proved that his breakthrough hit "Ugly" was a fluke, recording a more mature, more deeply troubled follow-up, Deliverance, that filled in the dark spaces of that down-home caricature. Lastly, there was largely unknown but certainly not unworthy folk-rocker Matthew Houck, who records under the name Phosphorescent and delivered an album, A Hundred Times or More, of beautifully blasted waste land poetics and divinely fixated fury.
While there's no question that Athens delivered its fair share of legacy-shoring music this year, it would seem that the idea of a tangible, bound-together Athens "scene" has become a creative anachronism. Of course, if you consider the dissipation of the scene as the natural byproduct of the emergence of so much singular, idiosyncratic talent, then it doesn't seem like such a sacrifice, but the fact remains that only the loosely-affiliated Elephant 6 collective of the mid-to-late 90s has even come close to refashioning Athens with an indie-rock identity.
Athens might remain a de facto indie rock town regardless of its nebulous self-definition, but there's an alternate history being written in the form of underground, independent, collective-minded hip-hop, which finally emerged in 2003 not just as a credible local artistic outlet, but as an actual cohesive Athens scene.
Personally, I was pretty much ignorant of Athens hip-hop when I was assigned earlier this year to write a large, comprehensive feature article on the scene for the Banner-Herald. It proved to be perhaps my most revelatory "moment" of the year.
It was immediately evident when I began interviewing local emcees, event organizers, producers, and heads that there existed in the underground hip-hop scene an across-the-board standard of professionalism and dedication to the craft unmatched in most indie-rock circles. Whereas I've had to pry, prod, and cajole countless indie-rockers into expanding on their one-word answers to my questions, I found a uniform willingness on the part of the hip-hop community to engage in passionately enthusiastic discourse on their commitment to the lifestyle and their love of the art itself. Rather than treating music like a passable place-holding alternative to getting a Real Job or perhaps even as a moonlighting diversion from post-graduate office drudgery, these cats eat, sleep, and breathe hip-hop 24/7, tirelessly determined to spread the word and undeterred by the twin obstacles of working inside of a lily-white artistic heritage in staunchly indie-rock Athens, and right next to a vastly more popular, world-renowned hip-hop empire in the capital city of crunk, Atlanta.
Right now, the overall thrust of the scene seems to corroborate with the backpacker ethos of social consciousness over street cred and a love of the game over a love of the bling. Even in that smaller undie universe, Athens hip-hop isn't nearly on par with the Anticons and Def Juxes of the world just yet, but the scene already boats a few potential breakout emcees and up-and-coming producers who very well might put this formerly indie-entrenched town on the hip-hop map in the near future.
I'm not holding my breath for a Neutral Milk Hotel comeback, but I damn sure can't wait for local emcee kingpin Ishues to drop his official solo debut next month, which might just define Athens inside and out in 2004.