Another Atlanta style shakes up the charts

Boston Globe, January 22, 2006

If you listen to urban music at all, chances are that you can’t get “Laffy Taffy” out of your head.

With its goofy refrain (“Shake that laffy taffy”) and barely- there synthesized beats, the infectious first single from the album “Down for Life,” by Atlanta band D4L, is topping charts and scoring relentless radio play nationwide.

“Laffy Taffy” marks the national breakout of snap music a style that’s been percolating within the Atlanta scene and yielding a string of lesser hits: “White Tee” and “Oh I Think Dey Like Me” by Dem Franchize Boyz, D4L’s earlier “Betcha Can’t Do It Like Me,” and popular street compilations by prominent Atlanta DJs.

Snap features party lyrics that are lewd but rarely scandalous. Its beats are as minimalist as hip-hop has known in two decades yet geared for the dance floor. Gentlemen perform a debonair dance punctuated by finger-snaps while the ladies, well, shake that laffy taffy.

“It’s music for everybody,” says Fabo, D4L’s madcap frontman. He then launches into a philosophical discussion of snap as compared with crunk, the intense, growling, bass-heavy music that’s epitomized by Atlanta’s Lil Jon.

“You know, if you hear a loud clap, that’s crunk,” Fabo says. “Everyone’s sweating. And the girls are going to go home with the [players], who’ve just been hanging in the corner. But when you’re snapping, you don’t sweat. So you can dance with the girls and they’re going to leave with you.”

The focus on dancing is typical of Atlanta, where new dances the Ragtop, Tweaking, the A-Town Stomp, and the Bankhead Bounce are constantly coming up, says Atlanta culture writer Maurice Garland. “Atlantans love to dance and have their own music to dance to.”

Critic and Southern hip-hop expert Bomani Jones sees snap as an heir to Miami bass (in the tradition of 2 Live Crew), Atlanta bass, and Memphis Crunk only without the thunderous bass.

Jones was at the Morehouse University homecoming concert last fall when “Laffy Taffy” came on. “The entire crowd started snapping its fingers, popping their wrists and jumping up and down until I felt the floor get wobbly,” Jones says.

As an Atlanta phenomenon, snap goes back a couple of years. Locals trace its beginnings to a hole-in-the-wall club called the Poole Palace, in the Bankhead neighborhood on the city’s west side.

“It wasn’t really called snap until MTV came down and didn’t have a name for it,” says Garland. “Basically everyone called it that Bankhead [stuff].”

Snap’s path from there to the national airplay of “Laffy Taffy” is a case study in how urban music is produced now. Today, all it takes is an inexpensive beat machine to set up a home studio and record tracks.

“Just like crunk, it came from street kids having the technology to create beats, pretty much with access to a set of speakers and a computer,” says J. Warren, owner of Vibes Music & More in Decatur, Ga.

With their creations burned onto CDs, aspiring artists can seek out DJs to test out their tunes at neighborhood clubs and an important cog in the local music machine at Atlanta’s African- American strip clubs.

“Strip-club DJs break the record in the club,” says Bem Joiner, an Atlanta music marketing consultant. “It’s like watching dominoes fall. All eyes are on the stripper not just because she’s naked but to see how she reacts to the song. If she moves to it, and other strippers are like, `yeah!’ and guys got their money in the air and everyone’s having a good time, then the song may be ready for radio.”

Once it passes these tests, the song is on the map and major labels take note.

“Atlanta has a very good track record at hipping the rest of us to the new sound,” says Todd Moscowitz, the head of Asylum Records, the Atlantic Records unit that signed D4L. “They’ve always tried new sounds, and more often than not they’ve been looked at sideways by the traditional music community.”

Snap, he says, is a case in point. “It may not be recognized so much outside Atlanta, but inside Atlanta there’s a movement.”

Some Atlantans, however, wonder how long snap can last, given its simple beats and limited subject matter.

“Snap isn’t so pervasive that crunk is passe,” says Warren. “They’re sharing that 15-minute stage. But I can’t see [snap] as having much longevity.”

Besides, not all of the hip-hop community has thrown open its arms to D4L. Many critics have turned up their noses, and hip-hop message-boards teem with accusations that the dance-happy group is insufficiently “real.”

And in another hip-hop commonplace, Joiner says a “stupid debate” has broken out between D4L and Dem Franchize Boyz over which crew originated the style.

“But I’m hearing from the streets that it’s neither one,” he says.

Still, the genie is out of the bottle. Half a million digital copies of “Laffy Taffy” have sold since its November release, including a record 175,000 last week. Now playing on several radio stations and thousands of cellphone ringtones near you, snap is having its day while Atlantans look on with a combination of surprise, embarrassment, and pride.

“A lot of people are baffled,” says Joiner. “I’m surprised I’m talking to you. It was almost meant to stay here, but Atlanta is a place where the music industry comes to find trends.”