No longer trapped: meet Atlanta’s house fraternity, invigorating the American South

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Chicago, New York and Detroit: metropolitan pillars of America’s dance music. Since its birth, the electronic influence has spread both domestically and overseas, simultaneously sprouting new scenes and new sounds. Back home, cities like Detroit deteriorate further – looking on while others benefit from dance culture’s success – and in New York, young up-and-coming producers can no longer afford the city’s monumental financial prosperity. Enter Atlanta. Known mostly for being the heart of the South’s thriving trap and hip-hop scenes, it has now become the new lay-low for producers and DJs of house music. With cheaper rents, a thriving nightlife and plenty of venues to boot, it was only a matter of time until someone saw its potential.

That mantle goes to Kai Alcé. Raised in New York and in Detroit for his teenage years, he moved to Atlanta for school and says it was certainly not in tune with the Mid West cities of the time. “I got here in the early 90s”, Kai recounts, “there were two major DJs here, Ted Patterson and Ron Pullman. They were the only ones here playing underground house music. And somewhere in the early 90s they both left, within the same year.”

Speaking also with Byron Baylock (better known as Byron The Aquarius), the young hyper-talented producer out of Birmingham, Alabama – now based in Atlanta – it’s clear that the gap left by Patterson and Pullman has not only been filled by Kai, but paved over and resurfaced. “Kai and his friends, they started the house scene”, insists Byron, “because, at first in Atlanta, there wasn’t no house scene. It was just trap.”

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Kai cites his motivations on the back of simply being passed the torch in a very non-direct way. “Ted Patterson went to New York and I think Ron went to Denver. So I just found myself, where, if I don’t make an effort to make something happen, there really won’t be much deep house music in Atlanta. At the time, breaks was huge and rtance music, Sasha, that kind of stuff.”

Having spent many of his teenage years at the Detroit’s Music Institute (started by Chez Damier and Alton Miller) his connections to both Detroit and New York still endured, and would become useful in his own exploits back home. “There was really no one here playing deep house,” he says, “so I used my connections to Detroit. I brought Chez down and then I might have brought Ron [Trent] down, or Ron might have came with Chez.” Throughout the early 00s, Kai kept up with bringing friends down from New York and Detroit, steadily setting up another home from home for US DJs and producers. “I held the flag up for deep house. There were some other people like DJ Kemit, who came back to Atlanta and was surprised that I had people dancing to house music.”

Atlanta had, according to Kai, been lacking in prominent house DJs and producers that were native to the city. “Chris Brann is from Atlanta,” he says, “he was a huge producer but he wasn’t a DJ. He’s just one of the few producers that I can say were here since the mid 90s.” Steadily, more and more made their way, leaving the unsustainable rent prices of New York or the destitute lots of the Motor City. “I think it’s just easier living”, he speculates. “I think most people move here for a better life”, he continues, adding that Octave One and Reggie Dokes have both moved here from Detroit. “It’s definitely easier to live here than in some of those other big cities.”


For many years Kai held it down, DJing, producing, bringing friends down to play and, in 2008, he started his record label, NDATL – New York, Detroit, Atlanta. “I just caught up with different musicians. There’s one keyboardist named Richard Corey, who was on some of smy older stuff. Later I ran into Stefan Ringer (below), who’s a huge young guy from Atlanta.”

Having been in the city for 24 years, Stefan is a vindication of Atlanta’s current house music scene. “It’s not huge, but it’s growing”, he tells me. “Two new clubs have opened up in the last year or so. There are also some main clubs like Sound Table and Alleycat that are house and techno or all around dance focused.” A major contribution to Atlanta’s house scene has been the annual House In The Park event, attended by a mind-blowing 10,000 people traveling the length and breadth of the country. Equally amazing is that 2016 will be the 12th annual edition of the Atlanta Weekender. “HITP transcends just a house party”, Stefan says, “it’s really a feeling as well as a family affair. So many families and friends come out to dance and just fellowship in the park.”

Kai echoes the sentiments of HITP upholding strong family principles that cut across the generations. “I’ve seen the grandmother, the daughter, the kid and they’re all out there dancing together,” he states proudly. “My parents come, my friend – who I started it with – his parents come. So that’s probably our greatest event that’s really culminated here.” Could you even imagine a house-orientated festival being attended by three generations of the same family in the UK, and still retaining its credibility for over a decade? Moreover, what house festival would be so inclusive as to attract the Furry patrons from the nearby ComiCon?

Photo: Jonathan Phillips Darryle Clarke (center) dances amidst the throngs of people during House at the Park at Grant Park in Atlanta on Sunday, September 6, 2015.

Both Kai and Stefan are quick to acknowledge the wide network of like-minded musicians now living in the city. Barely a week goes by without someone – be it Byron, or any number of musical associates – posting to Facebook a video inside n Kai’s studio, a sweet loop on in the background, likely featuring a Rhodes, Moog or a sax, but always nicely swung drums and almost always a panning over Kai’s hardware. “As time has gone on, I’ve definitely made good relationships with some great musicians,” Kai says, “so if I need a saxophone player I always have two or three people I can call on, so we definitely have a great pool of musicians here.”

Collecting top-tier talented musicians like Pokémon cards, Kai running into like-minded producers and players is a recurring theme. One such name who has stepped out in his own right is Byron The Aquarius (below), a keyboard player from Alabama raised on the state’s own Sun Ra. “People thought he was weird in Birmingham”, Byron says about the Jazz musician, in a way that also mirrors impressions of his own life in music. “You know how it is, the place that you’re from, they always don’t show respect, which is crazy.”

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Byron has been sessioning and collaborating for years, eventually leading up to his debut with Onra in 2007. The two only met for the first time last year, having spent years throwing each other beats from afar. He arrived in Atlanta with the desire to play and produce, ending up on a whole host of work, ranging from Flying Lotus to more conventional pop music. “I was just experimenting, I was doing hip-hop and more of the broken beat type of stuff. I was influenced by Dego and some mainstream music too. I’ve done everything!”

But it wasn’t until Kai approached him at Sound Table (below) – where he works – that Byron’s productions found a new context. “I came to this party”, Byron recounts, “and Kai was DJing. I had my Dr. Dre headphones on – that’s what I do usually, I go to cafés just to make music and be inspired by the crowd. He came up to me and was like ‘what you playing?’ and he took a listen and he was like ‘come to my crib, let’s smoke.’”

Kai himself says it was the sound of Byron’s playing that made him jump. “I was like ‘who’s playing the keys?’ And he was like that’s me. And I was like I need to get you in the studio.” Kai says the rest is history, “now we gotta a little all-star team of everybody just doing there own thing.” What a profound series of events: a musician drawing inspiration from a crowded room, while simultaneously drawing in a musician who would later on inspire him in ways he wasn’t at first familiar. Such affinity.

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The members of this ATL All-Star Team live in friendly proximities to one another, often centralizing around Kai’s studio. “Stefan lives maybe a mile away,” Kai says, when I ask about how much socialising goes down on a regular basis. “Stefan always likes producing so he’s always over like ‘let’s work on a track’. And when Byron’s here, well, we crank-out most of the time he’s here”.

For Byron, this music-centred relationship was the beginning of a whole new set of musical endeavours. “I saw him produce house music and I started playing keyboards on top of it and that’s how we built a chemistry,” he recounts, about his first studio interactions with Kai. We move onto his first house record (below) on Theo Parrish’s Sound Signature, released to critical acclaim. “To be honest, Kai is the one that taught it to me. If it wasn’t for him, I think I’d still be doing some stuff but ever since the Sound Signature thing, everybody started to want to work with me.” Byron talks about Kai with such affection, as a real mentor and instigator of his career and tastes. “I didn’t even know who Theo Parrish was!” he remarks, hilarious when you think about how much his younger self (by only a few years) is so far removed from his present.

In 2016, Atlanta’s nightlife – in parts – is reaping the rewards of what Kai and co. have built. Although thriving, the house scene itself still sits as a small minority within the nest of trap the city is famous for. Being in his 20s, Byron’s experience of the city’s nightlife is observant. “It’s vibrant,” he informs me, “but at first it was just straight trap music. There was this team that I was with called Work Crew and when these guys started coming here, trap started fusing in with house music. But you gotta think it makes sense, because when you think about the rhythm, really all it is is double time.”

In a very defensive way, Byron critiques the current international perception of the city’s musical output. With the rise of collectives like Awful Records, pre-conceived notions about Atlanta only being about trap are somewhat reinforced. “That’s one thing I hate; they espouse ‘yo it’s just trap music in Atlanta’ not showing that there’s other stuff. So when anybody comes looking in Atlanta, or coming from oversees they’re like ‘hey I wanna see the trap music’. I just think it’s not an open exposure for everything else that’s there.” Granted, these things take time, but given how many years have been put into throwing house nights, persuading crowds, and how popular those nights are now, one can understand such a defensive position. It’s a real sign of a scene working for the sake of its survival.

Of course, this relative success is only a recent development. Kai can recount times when the venues themselves were somewhat scarce or, at least, inconsistent. “Between 2006 and about 2010, there wasn’t really any one particular venue that really pushed it” Kai tells me, “so there were a lot of parties just happening here and there. But then Sound Table opened up about five years ago on a street called Edgewood.”

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Currently, Edgewood is the main street for nightlife in the city. On the same block there’s Sound Table, Alley Cat and Music Room, where you would find DJs like Greg Wilson, who was playing the night of our interview. Working at Sound Table has meant Kai can bring everybody and anybody – Kyle Hall, Moodymann, Theo Parrish and Dego – to the venue’s intimate floor. Similarly, Music Room, only across the way, has been there for two years, bringing in house bookings from the same part of the spectrum. On the other end, there’s Alley Cat who bring more of the minimal, German, Drumcode-style parties.

As if to reinforce his connections and roots to the venue, Byron holds Sound Table up as his go-to spot. “That’s where I met Carl Craig and Mike Huckaby. What Kai did, he made a gateway through these parties”. I get a sense firsthand about this “gateway” Byron talks about when, mid way through the interview, Kai had to answer his phone because “Ron was calling”. Who else other than Ron Trent? “He’s in town and wants to get something to eat,” Kai tells me, nonchalantly. You enter Atlanta, and you call up Kai; that’s just how it is.

To add to the reward, Kai’s residencies and Sound Table parties garner consistent numbers. “The residency I do will pull two to three hundred people. Sound Table will pull anything from a hundred and fifty to two hundred,and those are monthly events.” Given the size of these venues, such numbers mean full dancefloors. As Kai puts it, “if you get 150 people in the house, you’re good to go.”

From the early 90s where the city’s only two major house DJs had left the city entirely, to now in 2016 where there is a guaranteed house music night every weekend in Atlanta, there has been one single constant throughout. Kai Alcé sees this line very clearly and now feels he has earned the trust of the city’s listeners and dancers. “I had to figure out a way to express it and make it attractive to the people here in Atlanta,” he says, “I couldn’t come here and just start playing straight house music because they hadn’t grown up on it.” When he first arrived, he was aware of what work was to be done, forced into playing it safe, doing house remixes of more radio-friendly tunes, “but I gained their trust, and now people are a bit more open minded”, he says. Through patience and sensitivity, he’s nurtured people into a position where “whatever Kai plays is cool, so check him out.”

Around Kai, other member’s of Atlanta’s scene express the same content. Stefan Ringer has been throwing parties under Club Security and FMW Entertainment for years, but doesn’t do it often. “When we do I feel like its a breath of fresh air”, he says. “I used to think that it was mostly a gamble, especially when booking bigger names, but now to have a scene that supports and accepts that, and makes me feel good about doing it.”

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Having solidified a Southern hub for Detroit and New York-inspired dance music, Kai hopes Atlanta and his crew will gain more mass as a node of centrality. I ask him what he hopes of the future. “More respect, y’know? More recognition for the city. I think definitely as myself, Stefan and Byron travel more, I think people will start realising ‘okay these guys play a little differently’. That’s all I want is for people to realise the difference, you know? We’re not just bringing the same.” With Byron, Stefan and Kai all consistently delivering great records, there will be no lack of travel, and no quieting the good word of mouth.

As if to quietly (or loudly) acknowledge Atlanta’s musical evolution, Byron and Kai have been booked to share a billing at Dimensions Festival this year. For Byron, it’s part of the craziest year of his life, having never been overseas before May. Now he and his mentor play one of Europe’s most serious dance festivals, exporting and showcasing the sounds of Atlanta: Stefan Ringer, Jay Simon, Curt Jackson, Reggie Dokes, Chris Brann and many more, soon to descend on your town and ears in the very near future.

America’s original pioneer cities now struggle to provide adequate platforms for house music by proxy of inadequate living standards due to soaring rent prices and, comparatively, a lack of opportunity. With house so sorely discarded over many years, Kai Alcé has spent the last 25 building a platform in his own hospitable Southern environment. Atlanta is a city that is still working out its musical character, a complex network of genres, intersecting and interchanging through the many generations and tastes of its local residents. The city will hopefully start to make a wider acknowledgement of more than its last 20 or so years of trap and hip-hop, but equally this acknowledgement must also come from the outside. Atlanta deserves to be a worthy addition to the listings of the great metropolitan pillars of dance music.

Kai Alcé and Byron The Aquarius play Dimensions Festival (25th-28th Aug), with Byron also joining Dan Shake and Cosmic Slop on the STW stage (25th Aug).

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