‘Welcome to Atlanta’ is more than a catchy line in a Jermaine Dupri song, it’s conceivably the city’s anthem — since we are the hip hop spot of the world and all. Much like a DJ drops the beat, the hip hop heralds behind A3C (All 3 Coasts) energize movers and shakers in the industry, year in and year out, during their annual festival and conference. A3C’s hustle doesn’t stop at the music. As conscious community connectors, A3C is very intentional about their growth through the community. This includes several social entrepreneurship initiatives, like A3C Action, a pitch-off for creatives hustling for social justice.
Hypepotamus recently sat down with Mike Walbert, Matt Weiss, and Andy Harrison to find out what’s on deck for A3C this fall and how they go beyond the beat of hip hop to build the city of Atlanta. We’ll let them take it from here.
Why did you start A3C and how has it progressed since you first launched 12 years ago?
Mike: We say this all the time, but Atlanta’s biggest export is hip hop. That is our brand across the world whether you like it or not. It might not be the brand Buckhead associates with Atlanta, but globally that’s what people think about when they think of Atlanta. We try to embrace that and make sure it’s a good brand and be an advocate for that brand.
Andy: Back in the day, in the South Bronx, me and my friends got together… we wanted to bridge cultures, through dance and art and music (laughing).
Really, it’s a long and not terribly interesting story of the evolution of A3C – although I guess that’s not entirely true (laughing). So this is year twelve. A3C was originally a regional hip hop showcase in Atlanta that grew out of a record label. One of those guys is still around and I’ve been around since the beginning too as a DJ that was on the record label. That evolved pretty quickly to starting off as three nights in one room, to three nights in multiple rooms.
Mike: It was at the CW Complex which is now Center Stage.
Andy: So year four we went to three rooms there and started bringing more national talent in. Year five we moved to East Atlanta with multiple venues. Years six, seven, and eight were based out of The Masquerade and since then, we’ve been focused more multi-neighborhood, but still focused on a couple of key areas. Mostly around Old Fourth Ward, East Atlanta, Downtown, Midtown.
Matt: I think of the history of A3C in stages and I think they follow the naming. So, it went from the ‘A3C Independent Hip-Hop Festival’ to the ‘A3C Hip-Hop Festival’ in order to cast a little wider net, to the ‘A3C Festival’ or just ‘A3C.’ And we’re really moving into this non-music programming concept and it’s sort of the modern era with the festival and conference as the two major focus areas. The conference is growing at a bigger clip and it’s sort of evolving to become a bigger piece of what we do as we move towards a cultural platform now as opposed to a traditional music festival.
What do you want to accomplish with the Conference and Festival?
Mike: We’ve been redefining ourselves a bit and the inspiration, to be frank, was South by Southwest. Everyone says they want to create a South by Southwest for this or that but seeing what they had accomplished there and the need for that in the hip hop community – a gathering place for discovery and networking and collaboration and content creation. Coming out of that, we have redefined ourselves as we figure out where our niche is and letting our audience help us decide that. We are very receptive and try to work with as many people as possible so it’s not the three or four of us sitting in a room like, ‘this is what we want to do or this is how we’ve done it before.’
Matt: Moving from curator to platform. We curate, curators.
Mike: We try to make cool shit happen by working with people who are doing cool shit. What we’ve ended up figuring out is that we are a platform for the hip hop community. The way I summarize it is by three things – 1) discovering talent or new applications for things, 2) collaborations, bringing creatives together and 3) education. Educating the next generation whether it be on the school to jail pipeline or how music or culture is affecting the larger society to how to use twitter better. We feel a more educated hip hop community, and creative community is going to thrive more. It’s going to create better businesses, and we are going to see better art or more affluent creatives.
We’ve also taken a shift on our conference to focus on music, culture, and technology. We are looking and listening to our audience and deciding the right path. The hip hop community are early adopters in almost all social technology. Atlanta is the most tweeted per capita, Instagram per capita, YouTube views per capita, and Snapchat per capita – the highest in the country. Companies in like the Shade Room – which is like the TMZ for black culture – started two years ago and is now one of the most influential Instagram accounts in the world, and these things are happening in Atlanta.
We are trying to embrace that because when you think of Atlanta tech you think security and fintech. So we are going to play the role of doing some cool shit. We are going through the process of finding those people and really trying to lean in and have cooler, sexier conversations that aren’t just about cybersecurity.
In terms of fostering that, what do you do beyond the Festival and Conference to help keep these creatives connected?
Mike: Rewind four years ago, this was a part-time gig for everyone. I was the first employee and hired myself because I realized that we were either going to fail very quickly or grow this organically. So to put it in perspective, we saw a hockey stick growth about five years ago but from there have built a really cool team that is doing this full-time. Not until 2 or 3 years ago did we have the capacity to do more.
So we’ve built strategic partnerships to build with year round. As three pseudo examples, we are doing a monthly mixer for folks to come connect and hangout. We are launching a series this month building a platform for artists to learn. We launched A3C Action last year which is a platform for us to find and invest in folks using art and creatives. A platform to not only get financial investment but to get business and strategy training.
Outside of that, we are doing things behind the scenes that aren’t like A3C branded…. Whether it’s with the Center for Civil and Human Rights or The Hawks we try to connect people and make things happen. We are constantly scheming. We’re constantly having conversations, emailing people, meeting with people, connecting people. Whether it’s an official big thing or a small meeting, we are just trying to plug people in.
Matt: And we are very strategic with who we partner with. We are a very inclusive company, so not only do we reach out to creatives, or our communities, or artists, but in addition to that, we reach out to other festivals or events that are like us. We are a unique event sure but we generally like to know what everybody is doing and try to help everybody out. It’s a very Atlanta-based idea… that we are all part of this together.
Mike: We don’t think this is a zero-sum game at all and we say this kind of cheesy, but Atlanta is our headlining artist and speaker every year. People are coming to this city to hangout, learn and network. We couldn’t do this anywhere else because not only is it easy to get here because of the airlines, but people want to come. Artists want to perform here. Speakers want to hangout here.
Matt: Everybody’s got a cousin in Atlanta (chuckling).
Mike: Everyone’s got a couch so as much as we say, “Come see all these people” it’s like, “come see all these people in Atlanta, Georgia!” The more cool stuff happening here, the more people live here and the more business we can bring here – and the better off everyone is.
Speaking of initiatives and your mention of A3C Action. How was your first year?
Mike: It was a leap of faith because this is something we’ve wanted to do for a very long time. It was a capacity issue and not knowing how to do it. We didn’t want to just put our hand into something, so when we met Rohit at CCI [Center for Civic Innovation] that really gave us the understanding of how we can make an impact. We thought, ‘Should we start a nonprofit? Should we try to create something and build something up?’ And it’s like, no. There are so many nonprofits already doing cool things out there. There are so many people that need help, doing really cool shit that we can help with. So that’s our model of engaging people and creating a platform. We applied the same logic as we do with our festival and conference through A3C Action. Let’s democratize this, let’s get as many applications in as we can.
So, last year we got 75 applications in a month. We spent two weeks going through those with 15 judges and learning this process the entire time with CCI kind of holding our hand. We move so fast all the time and the amount of scrutiny and fairness that they applied to the judging process – weighing people’s applications – for us, it was like, ‘Rohit, what the fuck’ (laughing). But we were just blown away. What happened over the three days, seeing these five organizations going through pitch training and business development and from the starting point seeing their first pitch and being like, ‘oookkaaay’ and then seeing what they did on the final pitch was night and day.
For many people, this was the first investment they ever had. It was the first time they had ever pitched for money and I think everyone came out of it with a new energy and excitement and more tools. Two of the groups that won have gotten more money since then and have taken that next step. So there are some immediate, tangible things we can point to and say, “A3C Action did this, this and this” – not just, “oh we gave this much money away.”
Matt: What was really amazing to me too, as Mike said, when you go from a sheet of paper to an actual event, you’re working so hard at all the minutia for it all. Then you get to see it reflected back to you when you hear someone like Ming’s story. Where they were like, “yeah, we got forwarded an email, we signed up, and now I’m in Atlanta a month later and we won this thing.” To see the rollercoaster from the other side and their perspective was just fascinating.
Mike: As we got bigger we felt a really strong burden to give back. It became louder and louder every year. More and more people coming to a bigger and bigger event. It would be on our whiteboard every year – how do we give back? How do we create a difference? How do we make a change? And then every year we’d get so busy that it’d get lower and lower on the to-do list. After 10 years we were like, ‘this has to be a priority for us which means we have to put money behind it.’ So we have to put money and time and team energy behind it. This is now not something that’s tangential to the festival but it’s something as part of what we do.
How has CCI and the Atlanta community helped cultivate A3C? Have you had any pushback over the years?
Andy: We are very vigilant with the city and making ourselves as accessible as possible to as many industries as we can. Whether it be the Downtown Improvement District or with the Mayor’s office or directly with the entertainment board. We’re always scheming on ideas and pitching them on ideas in different ways.
Matt: And they’ve been very receptive to us I would say. Some more than others…
Mike: I would say, for the most part, people are very excited about what we are doing, more so in the last two to three years. We had a lot of learning curves and learning growth. To cut through some bullshit, throwing a hip hop festival in any city has its complications. Whether it be racial, or just straight up, “we don’t like hip hop,” or “this is not the energy or vibe we want” to, “we love what you guys do.” We’ve thrown a safe event for 12 years. We’ve engaged influencers and changemakers that lead this culture and generation and we are very proud of that.
Some people don’t care and no matter how good a job we do, or how much business we bring, we are going to face challenges of stereotypes and racism to be completely frank. We’ve been in very uncomfortable meetings and we’ve had some leaving warm and fuzzy. So we’ve been on both sides. By and large, an overwhelming majority of the city is super happy about what we do. For some people who have misconceptions or feel another way, we’ve realized that we will never change those people’s minds.
It’s not our job to make everyone like us. It’s our job to throw an amazing and safe experience and they can decide what they want. Matt has completely transformed this event and how we communicate with people. He’s now used as an example for how to throw events, and how to overly communicate with the neighborhood association. We aren’t just throwing an event for five days, we are part of the community and lending our time and energy.
Matt: We don’t want to just come and leave. We want to be part of the fabric of that neighborhood good and bad. It has it’s pitfalls without a doubt, but as long as we do our job, we can sleep at night knowing we throw the best event.
Ready to snag your tickets to A3C? Buy your passes here, and get the scoop on social justice by applying to A3C Action. While you’re at it, stay connected with the crew on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and their Social Club.