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Want to catch the next Hotlanta name before they break the Top 20? Apache Café is the city's newest breeding ground for its next wave of hip-hop talent.
BY ASHLEY HESSELTINE
It's the eleventh hour at the café's weekly Sound and Lyrics night, where a professional band jams while aspiring rappers, hip-hop artists and R&B singers take the stage in an open-mic format.
A cool, city crowd lounges at tables and banquettes in the intimate, art-filled space, clapping with conviction and grooving to the music.
A fedora-flaunting, 21-year-old crooner named Travis Starr performs his original song, "Cakes," with both a presence and pipes reminiscent of R&B star Ne-Yo in his early days. Then, a Lupe Fiasco-like artist, Aaron Taylor, raps about finding love. The band erupts into in a full-on improvised jam session — just one sound at first, then, as each musician joins in, the group creates complexity, note by note, until it's s0 intricate you'll never find anything like it on iTunes.
So far, it's a typical Apache Tuesday, with fresh faces gracing the stage with equally fresh beats. But the night takes an unexpected turn when Will.i.am from The Black Eyed Peas emerges from the shadows for an impromptu performance. Apparently, this very stage was the first he ever performed on in Atlanta, during a 1998 tour (at the time, the club had a different name and ownership). Camera phones light audience members' faces with their eerie glows as the band begins again and Will.i.am freestyles like it's 1998. Again, the crowd reacts in kind.
Appearances like his aren't uncommon at Apache, establishing it as the premier breeding ground for up-and-coming mic magicians. Local superstars like Janelle Monae, B.o.B and Alabama-born rapper Yelawolf were all regular performers at the venue long before record deals and red carpets, so they often pay homage when passing through.
Like confidently crooning Travis Starr, B.o.B — who has had six Grammy nominations — was a kid taking advantage of an open mic just a few short years ago. "Apache Café is where a lot of artists in Atlanta come to showcase their talents, including me," says B.o.B. "Hearing that name reminds me of how I was trying to be heard just a moment ago."
"It's dope," Will.i.am says. "It's great for new artists because they have a band behind them and can be creative."
So what makes this still underground spot such a star-maker? "You have people who want to sing," says Apache co-owner Asa Fain. "From the individual with a 9-to-5 who has always wanted to get up on stage with a band, to a background vocalist for Erykah Badu, to big artists who are in town and drop in."
Apache Café has a secretive vibe that's part of its appeal, especially for the celebrities who are often seen lurking in its nooks and crannies. Tucked away on a dead end of a street there's no stumbling upon Apache; patrons show up with a purpose. But while it may seem isolated, it's not in an untraveled part of the city — Atlanta landmarks like the fast food joint Varsity and the Olympic torch are within pebble-lobbing distance.
Fain and his wife, Karen, opened the café 11 years ago, hoping to create the kind of place they'd want to hang out in. As a drummer, Fain had played at the venue over the years as it repeatedly changed hands. When it became vacant, the couple jumped on the opportunity.
Since then, the space has provided a starting point for urban artists, where they can test their chops before a discerning audience instead of faceless YouTube masses. As such, Fain and Apache booker, JeffJohnson, are at the epicenter of the city's music industry. Apache stage survivors like rapper/producer Ethereal, soul/pop/R&B singer-songwriter Gwen Bunn and rap duo The Wheeler Boys are tipped as the city's rising stars.
Garrett and Sean Wheeler are Atlanta natives who have been in the rap game for more than a decade. They were recently signed to Zac Brown's label, Southern Ground (a primarily country music label), and released an EP in April, which they distributed for the first time at Apache Café. They've performed at the venue dozens of times and plan to keep doing so, no matter how high their star rises. "We started going to Apache [10 years ago] on Tuesday nights when it was beat battle night," remembers Garrett. "The who's who of the industry was there; we built relationships, even with a couple of producers we still work with today."
"Atlanta is a weird city," says Sean. "It's the mecca of hip-hop, but there's not a thriving hip-hop concert scene. Artists come to get record deals and get famous, but not many places support the spectrum. If you went to Apache every night in a week, you would see everything that's happening on the scene — beat battles, amateur acts, established artists. It's the only place like that."
Tuesday nights are open mic for the hip-hop and rap artists; Wednesdays feature a live band led by renowned keyboardist Al Smith and welcome jazz, soul and R&B artists, while other nights include spoken word, art shows and concerts by well-known performers.
"If you're a musician, poet, artist or rock star, [Apache] is one of the stages you must grace," says B.o.B.
It seems like the type of place that would be bursting at the seams with eager music fans every night of the week, and while that does happen, Apache still remains unknown to even many locals. "I look at it as a hip-hop social club," Sean Wheeler says. "There's no membership, but it feels like there is. There are people who don't know what Apache is about. People who take hip-hop seriously know." www.apachecafe.info
See tomorrow's top talents at home.
As if moving into a former grocery store wasn't unusual enough, Matt Arnett had to take it one step further, turning his living room into a popular and often packed concert venue.
Upon moving into an old grocery store in Atlanta's historic Grant Park, the music lover's first thought wasn't, "where should I put my couch?" It was, "I should have concerts in the living room." His friend Ben Sollee, an unsigned artist who has collaborated with bands like My Morning Jacket and played at Bonnaroo, was coming to town and Arnett wanted to introduce his friends to Sollee's music. Thus, Grocery on Home (named for its location on Home Street) was born. Since that show in November 2010, the Home has hosted mostly non-local acts (to help artists without Atlanta connections) up to four times a month in a unique, intimate setting.
Friends of Arnett, friends of friends, and those few in the know learn of shows via Facebook or word of mouth and must RSVP to reserve a spot. The room holds 50, so seats fill up fast.
Grocery on Home is a place where connections are made, where artists talk to the audience like best friends before blowing them away with their music, and where VIP attitudes are checked at the door.