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The state of hip-hop in Atlanta after the death of rapper Takeoff

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Black men deserve to grow old. This idea, or some version of it, reverberated on social media this week after the news that the rapper Takeoff, one-third of the Atlanta trio known as Migos, was killed early Tuesday morning in Houston. He was 28 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CASPER")

TAKEOFF: (Rapping) Decided what I'm going to do today. What? I'ma (ph) ghost ride the Wraith - ghost. I'ma ghost ride the Wraith. I want to look at the stars today - ghost.

SUMMERS: Takeoff, or Kirshnik Khari Ball, is being remembered as the glue that kept the North Atlanta family music trio together. Law enforcement is still investigating the killing, and a suspect has yet to be identified. We wanted to talk more about who Takeoff was, what he meant to Migos and to Atlanta. And to do that, we're joined by Jewel Wicker, an Atlanta-based entertainment and culture reporter.

Welcome.

JEWEL WICKER: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: Many of us know Takeoff's music, but I would love for you to share with us. What was he like?

WICKER: You know, I never got to interview Takeoff directly, but earlier this summer, I spoke to Quavo, who is obviously another member of the Migos but also Takeoff's uncle. They are not just group members. This was an uncle and nephew dynamic, but really, they were raised more like siblings. They were a couple years apart, grew up in the same house, right? And Quavo told me that Takeoff got his rap name from the fact that he could record his rhymes, even back then as a child, in one take and didn't have to rerecord them often. So I think he just was known as not liking a bunch of the spotlight but being really the backbone and the glue of the group and really being influential even if he wasn't the most "famous," quote-unquote, of the three.

SUMMERS: Now, I am familiar with Takeoff and his music. But for those who are unfamiliar with Migos, I'm hoping you can just talk to us a little bit about the music, about this group's rise within hip-hop and their imprint on the culture.

WICKER: Yeah. So I think their biggest moment was obviously "Bad And Boujee."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD AND BOUJEE")

MIGOS: (Rapping) We came from nothing to something. Hey, I don't trust nobody. Grip the trigger - nobody. Call up the gang, and they come and get you - gang. Cry me a river. Give you a tissue. My b**** is bad and bougie - bad.

WICKER: But people here in Atlanta and even die-hard fans elsewhere know that the Migos over the past decade have really cemented their status as kind of a really influential rap group. They're known for this kind of triplet flow...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VERSACE")

MIGOS: (Rapping) Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace. Whoa. Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace.

WICKER: ...That they popularized. And, you know, if you talk to a lot of music critics, they'll tell you rap didn't sound the same after the Migos, right? That flow was adopted not just by other local Atlanta rappers, but, you know, it was taken on by global superstars like Drake...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VERSACE")

DRAKE: (Rapping) Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace. Word in New York is the Dyckman and Heights girls are calling me Papi. Woo, woo (ph). I'm all on the low. Take a famous girl out where there's no paparazzi - flash.

WICKER: ...And other artists as well. I mean, I think it's really not an overstatement to say they changed the flow of rap in the era that they came up in. And I think that's really significant.

SUMMERS: Now, musicians often are beloved in their hometowns, but Atlanta is the kind of place where people just really love on their own, and the music culture there is like nowhere else. How big of a role did Migos play in that culture and that distinct Atlanta sound?

WICKER: Atlanta has a way of transforming itself every couple of years - our sound and, you know, bringing out these new rappers that are kind of leading and in the forefront. And for that era, it really was the Migos, right? And I think that's really significant because Atlanta doesn't just do it locally, but that local sound really reverberates nationally and globally as well. And so I think what the Migos was able to do on a local level with early songs like "Versace" through "Bad And Boujee" - but even, you know, Takeoff and Quavo just put out a new album this year, and I think it really spoke to how skilled they still were as rappers and as hook-makers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOTEL LOBBY")

TAKEOFF: (Rapping) I call him twin 'cause that be my brother. We got the same Rollie. He matching me - nah, for real.

QUAVO: (Rapping) Water on me the sauna, some karats, some pointers. All these commas - I won't fumble.

SUMMERS: But they also had a relevance beyond music. I mean, they were fixtures during the NBA All-Star Weekend. They were sensational in James Corden's Carpool Karaoke. How did that impact ripple beyond the world of hip-hop and rap?

WICKER: I mean, it's true. I mean, I think there was a moment Donald Glover called him out when he won his first Emmy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD GLOVER: I couldn't be here without Atlanta, like, and I really want to thank the Migos not for being in the show but for making "Bad And Boujee." Like, that's the best song ever. So...

WICKER: They became cultural icons in the way that a lot of Atlanta rappers do - in the fashion world, amongst athletes. And again, Takeoff was more behind the scenes. He was the quieter of the trio. But I think he was still significant in that Migos as we know it - their sound, their style, their rap flow - it just would not exist without Takeoff.

SUMMERS: I want to revisit something that we began our conversation with - the idea that Black men deserve to grow old. We are now yet again thrust into what is a familiar and, frankly, incredibly sad conversation about the intersection of gun violence and rap and hip-hop culture. The list of names of hip-hop artists who have been killed in acts of gun violence grows again. How has that part of this conversation been playing out?

WICKER: I think it's a really difficult conversation because, you know, we can have conversations about lyrics and that as an art form. But I also - I would argue that the gun violence that we've seen that has claimed the lives of so many of our beloved rappers is a microcosm of the gun violence and the endemic violent issue that we're seeing throughout America in general, right? These rappers are a part of the local communities that are a part of the United States that is experiencing an increase in guns and violence. And so is it shocking that they are being impacted? I'm not so sure, right? I think when we talk about it, I want us to be careful to not make it seem like it's a, quote-unquote, "rap issue" because I really think it's a systemic, cultural issue.

SUMMERS: Before I let you go, I'd like to ask you, since you've heard the news of the killing of Takeoff, is there a particular Migos song or Takeoff song that comes to mind that's been sitting with you?

WICKER: For me, I am a Georgia girl and Atlanta girl. I went to college here during the rise of the Migos, and I remember hearing "Fight Night" when it came out. And that was one of Takeoff's first, most prominent hooks. And I remember thinking, oh, wow, these guys are something special.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT NIGHT")

MIGOS: (Rapping) If you know me, know this ain't my feng shui. Certified everywhere - ain't got to print my resume. Takeoff. Talking crazy, I pull up. Andale. R.I.P. to Nate Dogg. I had to regulate.

WICKER: I really, really love that song. And if you asked me even before this week what my favorite Migos song was, despite "Bad And Boujee" and all of the other big hits they've had, I would tell you it was "Fight Night" because of that Takeoff hook.

SUMMERS: Jewel Wicker is an entertainment and culture reporter based in Atlanta. Jewel, thank you so much for being here.

WICKER: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGOS SONG, "FIGHT NIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.