For her project in the Dirty South Studio, Liz Teston looked at the world of hip-hop in relation to city of Atlanta. Her explorations began with mapping the locations described in a number of songs from local rap legends. Freya Schlemmer and Cynthia Smith interview Liz about Atlanta's musical history and her construction of a Rossi hut in front of JJ's Rib Shack.
Cynthia Smith: What made you choose hip-hop as a theme unique to Atlanta?
LT: What could be more symbolic of Atlanta than hip-hop music? Today, the city is a major player in American Hip-Hop culture. Beginning in the early 1990’s, southern rap was considered an outlier, distinct from the intellectual lyrics of New York hip-hop and the gansta rap rhymes from California. While Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. were battling with Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan in east coast/ west coast rap battle, Dirty South rappers like Outkast and Goodie Mob established their footing on the music scene. Their choice of place-specific lyrics meant taking deliberate ownership of their Southern roots creating a particular position for Dirty South rap in the world of music.
Freya Schlemmer: Through your research what did you hope to discover?
LT: The foundation of the Dirty South rap empire was constructed atop the vernacular. In an effort to determine if there was a geographic shift over time, I researched the locations mentioned in six albums distributed over two decades. In Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994) and Soul Food (1995), hip-hop icons Outkast and Goodie Mob, lyrically describe their neighborhood– Campbellton Road and Southwest Atlanta. Internationally known Atlanta rappers, Jermaine Dupri and Ludacris, rap about their exploits along I-75/85 in Instructions (2000) and Word of Mouf (2000). Gucci Mane and the Ying Yang Twins give credibility to East Atlanta with their shout outs to the neighborhood in Trap House (2005) and U.S.A. (United State of Atlanta) (2005).
CS: What is the significance of all this talk about place?
LT: In Goodie Mob’s Soul Food album, everyday places, like Optima Staffing, 1365 Wichita Drive, JJ’s Rib Shack, Appletree Townhomes and the Campbellton Road Texaco were given as much significance as other rappers gave upscale areas of Atlanta. Each specific location in the song situates the listener within the cultural identity and collective memory of this Atlanta neighborhood. Referencing these ordinary places on their album says, “this is my neighborhood, I am one of you and you are one of us.”
FS: How does this function in relation to architecture?
LT: Aldo Rossi said, “In order to be significant, architecture must be forgotten, or must present only an image for reverence, which subsequently becomes confounded with memories.” Architecture is memory; memory and cultural identity are inextricably linked. The architecture of the city is an artifact, a part of our collective memory, whether it is fantastical or mundane. So, that gives ordinary buildings like a Texaco gas station a status that not always noticeable. But, for the residents of Campbellton Road in Southwest Atlanta, JJ’s Rib Shack is as canonical as Portman’s atrium hotels.
CS: How did this overlay of Rossi and the idea of memory-infused place inform your next steps?
LT: There is a dialectic opposition in Southwest Atlanta's architecture and identity. On the surface, it appears to be a typical declining suburban condition. But, with a closer look, you find a community that supports its small business owners. When considering the dramatic nature of this dichotomy, Aldo Rossi, and theatrical illusion in architecture became very relevant. Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo at the 1979 Venice Biennale spoke of ephemeral drama. This work linearly activated the Grand Canal in the way I hoped to treat Campbellton Road and its hip-hop landmarks. To do so, I endeavored to bring Rossi’s sketches of the Cabine d’Elba to life. These drawings were metaphors for cultural identity, symbolic of the beach cabins that lined shores in his childhood vacation spot that were imbedded in his subconscious. What better way to celebrate the contingent nature of things not being as they seem than to build a monument to the Dirty South using Rossi’s mnemonic icon?
FS: These historical precedents of memory and drama are particular to place. How did you make real the Rossi hut metaphor and adapt it to this contemporary context of 20th century Southwest Atlanta?
LT: I spent a few days in the woodshop building a full scale replica of Rossi’s Cabine d’Elba out of donated polyethylene sheets, 2x4 wood studs and a reclaimed shipping palette. I included a set of free maps that described the relationship of Campbellton Road to the music and an old boom box with a CD of hip-hop beats and a blank tape in the hope that someone would stop by and record something. Everything was modestly constructed, a nod to Southern hip-hop’s homegrown legacy. While no one recorded anything on the boom box, the Southwest Atlanta’s Cabine d’Elba (affectionately known as “the hut”) certainly made an impression.
CS: Where did you decide to install the hut? What were the reactions on-site?
LT: The plan was to install the hut at various locations on Campbellton Road: JJ’s Rib Shack, Texaco, U-Haul, Church’s Chicken and 1365 Wichita Drive, places called out in Goodie Mob’s Soul Food album. The first site was JJ’s Rib Shack at 2979 Campbellton Road. The owner, Alex Jackson, some guys from the smoke house, and others from the nearby bus stop all helped with the installation. All parties was curious about the meaning of this hut and the significance for putting it here at JJ’s Rib Shack. I went by each day to document the condition of this Cabine d’Elba. Surprisingly, it was not damaged or vandalized. The men that live at the bus stop protected it. In fact, by their account, someone tried to steal the boom box, but they stopped the theft. I was amazed that they were so interested in preserving the monument with no personal advantage. After a week at this location, I moved the hut down the street to the Texaco at the intersection of Campbellton Road and Fairburn Road. People there pumping gas recognized it from its first location and yet again, people on-site helped with the install. A few guys even asked to have their picture taken with it. They were excited as I told them that it was a monument to the Dirty South and Goodie Mob. But, here, there was no one to protect the hut and it was stolen after a couple days.
FS: Stolen? Really? Why do you think that happened?
LT: Maybe because someone loved it and wanted it for their own? Or maybe because they thought it was an eyesore and didn’t think it had any meaning? It's a mystery I hope to solve, and perhaps the answer would shed light on the constantly shifting condition of architecture and memory in relation to Dirty South hip-hop.
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