The Stories of House Music in Atlanta: A Narrative History

The Stories of House Music in Atlanta: A Narrative History

Photo Courtesy of Earthtone Soundsystem

I moved to Atlanta two years ago from a small southern town, where the goth kids loitering outside the mall smoking cigarettes were the closest thing we saw to a subculture. Six months after moving here, I found the rave scene. It was December, it was cold, and I was depressed, broke, and painfully self-conscious. I was exhausted by the life I had been living and was craving something new. I found it when I was invited to a warehouse party in the West End.

It terrified me. People of all shapes and colors roamed the dimly lit hallways, pausing in a room to dance, then wandering to another in an endlessly meandering stream of bright and boisterous costumes. I had entered another world of beautiful lights and dim corners. People were more uninhibited than I had ever dared to believe was possible. Each room had a different DJ playing a different set. I didn’t know the genres, but I knew I loved the pounding rhythm. I was fascinated by the unapologetic way each person immersed themselves in the music.

That night, something shifted in me. It wasn’t just a party, it wasn’t just a place to come hang out or get fucked up, it was a community. These people truly loved each other, they loved me and they didn’t even know my name. They accepted my presence with no explanation, and I was only as much of an outsider as I made myself. This judgement-free environment was addictive. The music didn’t hook me until later. It took exploring multiple genres of electronic dance music before I discovered its roots in house music. I ventured deeper and deeper, falling more in love with its intricacies with each step.

Keiran Neely at Nomenclature in 1998

As it turns out, my story is the most common of all. Everyone shares the experience: that one party that hooked them, that one DJ who awed them and drove them on to what eventually would become a lifestyle. We know house music was born in Chicago, but the Atlanta scene is special. House infiltrated Atlanta’s music scene subtly, slipping into artists’ decks when they were looking for that extra something, a strange new sound. Here we will explore what the artists and founders of the Atlanta scene have to say about the music that would reshape the lives and landscape of Atlanta’s dance community.

Ron Pullman is called by many the “godfather of house music” in Atlanta. According to him, however, when he moved here from Austin, Texas in 1986, the foundation for the scene was already being laid in the black, gay community. DJs like Al Tolbert, who used to play at the In Between, and D’as Wright and DJ Smash who were residents at the Phoenix, Rod Cole, Stuart Gardner, Hafez Harris and Sa’D (formerly Kool DJ Me) were all DJs who Pullman remembers listening to when he first hit the local dance scene.

Shortly after moving, Pullman was offered a spot playing for “Ritz Boys.” These after hours parties marked the beginning of what would become a lifetime of involvement in the Atlanta house scene. A couple of years later, he moved to Traxx (previously Phoenix) and by 1989 he held a residency there. Where the two DJs Wright and Smash would incorporate house intermittently into their sets, Pullman was one of the only DJs playing the genre exclusively in both the club and underground scene.

Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Walker

Tedd Patterson is another DJ credited with being one of the founding players of house music in Atlanta. He moved to the city in 1981 and began DJing at Weekends, an alternative club in Midtown that attracted a diverse crowd of misfits and even Ru Paul as a go-go dancer, in the mid ‘80s. “I fell in love with Weekends because it wasn’t everything that other clubs were force-feeding you. It was everything else. We specialized in bringing in new music, things that weren’t necessarily commonplace. House sort of filtered in. So, when I was working there in 1985 and 1986 some of the first house records came out like J.M. Silk’s “Music Is The Key” and “House Music Anthem” by Marshall Jefferson. We would play it, but we weren’t playing it because it was house, it was just one of those offbeat kind of sounds.” 

From 1987 until 1991, Tedd Patterson played Tuesday nights at Colorbox in the Virginia Highlands. Those Tuesday night house music parties blew up within the first couple of weeks of their existence. There were lines of people wrapped around the building waiting to get into the packed past capacity club. “The way music was played back then, house was part of your program, it wasn’t all of your program. Grabbing a house record, it was offbeat and kind of weird sounding. It was raw and nasty, it wasn’t this polished, manufactured sound. It wasn’t until I moved that all of these genres happened. When I played at Colorbox I would play soulful house. I’d be playing Ten City with some deeper house like Mr. Fingers, but I’d also be playing Depeche Mode and some acid house. It was all over the place.” Both Pullman and Patterson remember this Tuesday night as one of the first racially diverse gatherings in the scene.

Dave Angel: Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Walker

By 1988 house had begun to spread from the black, gay clubs to the college scene. Pullman began playing for college parties at Plastic and “Almost Underground Production” mostly from the AU center. Lil Jon, as in Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz, would open the night with a hip-hop and reggae set then Pullman would finish the night with strictly house. Between 1988 and 1991 the college scene thrived. Tony T. started Saturday Night House Party on V103, bringing house music to mainstream radio in 1990. Georgia State’s college station Album 88 also hosted a house show on Friday night. Pullman and Hodge began to throw parties at Excelsior Mill (The Masquerade until recently). Two large, house heavy clubs opened up in different parts of the city, Foster’s in the Buckhead Village and Loretta’s on Spring Street. Rod Cole’s sets at Loretta’s inspired Patterson, eventually leading to a friendship and a mentoring relationship that Patterson cites as one of the leading factors in the development of his love and passion for house music.

1989 marks the arrival of another of Atlanta’s most well-known and influential house DJs, Kai Alce. Alce moved from Detroit where he was inspired by people like Derrick May whose sets he experienced during his time at the Music Institute. He first started spinning at Club Velvet then moved to Oxygen, a large venue in Buckhead (and one of the top five clubs in America at the time) to play Tuesday house nights with DJ Dose. Kai usually shared the multi-room building with a three-piece backing band in one room and hip-hop artists in another.

At this point, a new wave of DJs began to emerge in the scene. Keiran Neely moved to Atlanta from England in 1990 and became immersed in the dance scene. He remembers going to Plastic and Graffiti on Peachtree Street to dance, and listening to Hippy B., Mr. Scary, Richard Cheney, Lil Scooby, Lil Steven and J-Luv play at Madhouse. Madhouse was formerly Weekend Warehouse and nicknamed 688. In the late ‘80s Rod Cole played there for “Friends” parties. The club was adjacent to Yin Yang Cafe and across from Loretta’s as part of the Spring Street square. Keiran began DJing, himself, in 1992.

Rewind Record Store: Photo Courtesy of Keiran Neely

Also, in 1991 a young DJ Kemit, who grew up on Chicago house, visited Atlanta and was introduced to the city’s house scene through Ron Pullman. He then moved to Atlanta in 1993 after finishing his undergrad and immediately immersed himself in the house scene which was on the verge of exploding. The mid ‘90s saw a surge in venues, crowd strength and artists. As the demand for the music increased, multiple record stores and venues opened their doors.

Earwax Records was opened by Jasz Smith in 1993. The mom and pop store was known for being able to get obscure records and having first access to new underground tracks. The store was also responsible for “Second Saturdays,” an infamous party held in the store itself. Pullman, who worked at both Earwax and Satellite, remembers rearranging the store to hold a few hundred people. On these nights local talent played, including Kemit, DJ Doc, Kai Alce, DJ Sterling, Pullman, Jasz himself, and occasionally guests like Ron Trent and Tyron Francis. They played “dusty classics” incorporating house anthems and house classics from the late ‘80s.

In the mid ‘90s another record store was born, named Satellite Records. Scott Richmond opened the Atlanta branch of the New York-based shop in Little Five Points where it quickly became a hub for both established DJs and newcomers alike. The store consisted of 16 listening stations and was filled daily with music lovers who sat cross-legged on the floor, flipping through UK drum and bass, French house or German techno. Local DJs worked in the record stores, forming a community of artists who would go onto to play with one another.

Photo Courtesy of Earthtone Soundsystem

Jeff Myers came down to Atlanta with Tommie Sunshine in 1995 where the two were eventually joined by Greg Adamson, Michael Scott and Brett Abramson in the list of Satellite employees. Myers went on to throw hundreds of parties in Atlanta and owned his own record store called Jazz Space and Bass. Tommie Sunshine became a tastemaker and musical shaman to the electronic music community. Myers credits him with having a deep influence on everyone who came into the store. “He inspired a lot of people by the records he put in their hands. He gave Atlanta an opportunity to get all the records that were coming to New York. Thats kind of what broke the drum and bass scene too.”

Cullen Cole, a resident DJ at MJQ who helped run Satellite Records remembers the cooperation brought about by the close confines of the stores. “All the people who got along and all the people who didn’t get along were forced into the same room, to listen to the same records next to each other and you learned and you figured out how to work with each other.”

In 1994, Yin Yang Cafe (now Apache) was opened by Reggie Ealy, Andre Zarka and Paul Sobin and hosted “Chocolate Soul” on Thursday nights and brought Kemit in from his place touring with Arrested Development to play. The intimate venue became known for a neo soul vibe and hosted late night parties ignoring capacity limitations and sneaking people over the back fence.

MJQ also opened in 1994 in the basement of a hotel that sat on Ponce de Leon Avenue. George Chang opened the club with the intention of creating an atmosphere that served an eclectic group of individuals and provided them with a plethora of genres to listen to. The club has since become a staple of the Atlanta music scene. Alce, Kemit and Cole all held residencies at MJQ. They hosted “DEEP,” a night that Alce remembers as being the most successful house night to this day in Atlanta. “Everybody came through there at some time. That was the golden era.”

“DEEP” ran from 1997 until around 2006 and hosted artists like Steve “Silk” Hurley from Chicago, Rich Medina, and Atlanta’s own Tedd Patterson. Atlanta’s scene had begun to attract outside attention.

Earthtone Soundsystem Halloween in the Park: Photo Courtesy of Keiran Neely

The dance music scene wouldn’t be much without the dancing. Jason Comstock of Ralph and Louie first took an interest in rave dancing when he first saw it at Madhouse in 1994. Dance-offs and circles were common occurrences at parties and Comstock believes this has influenced the current mainstream dance scene. “Urban dancing in general, a lot of it looks like rave dancing. The way the body language works, it’s different, of course. But there is a sort of borrowing from that.”

1994 and 1995 marked the beginnings of Earthtone Soundsystem. The brainchild of Gary Johnson, Earthtone served as an outlet, for lack of a better term, straight white males who did not feel like their specific sound had a home in Atlanta. Earthtone consisted of Hutch Jones, Jim Shropshire, Eric Zheno, Josh Hughey, Marty B. Phil Kovacs, Eric Shiva and Adam Thome. Their first party was held at Yin Yang Cafe before Keiran joined. They are best remembered for Sundays at Piedmont Park. The parties ran from 9 a.m.- 6 p.m. and would host a few hundred people every week. They also had a 10,000 sq. ft. warehouse in the West End where parties went until noon the next day. Keiran remembers walking out into the sunshine and seeing the herd of goats that lived next door eating on the grassy plot adjacent to the building. The group also “took the rave on the road” and toured in a school bus around the Southeast and visiting various festivals and picking up a following.

Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Walker

After spending years in the scene as a music collector, Karl Injex began his career in 1994 DJing for a party called “Koool” with Kai Alce. The two remained friends and Injex went on to play parties at Kaya, Yin Yang, and the original MJQ.

Starting in 1992, Liquid Groove (now Liquified) began throwing major events in Atlanta. They were followed by Jennifer Walker’s events, Pleazure, in 1995 when both of the promoters became the powerhouses within the Atlanta party scene. These events set a new precedent for the Atlanta dance scene, drawing crowds in the thousands and bringing in DJs from across the globe exposing the local music scene to some very influential artists.

Liquid Groove brought Sasha and John Digweed to Atlanta in 1996. This was the first time the UK-based artists, and now progressive house legends, had toured in the states. The Nike Pavilion, The Chamber (now Jungle), and The Church are just a few of the venues that welcomed the legendary parties thrown by Liquid Groove.

At the same time, Pleazure was introducing Atlanta’s mainstream to Chicago house names by bringing in Felix da Housecat and Derrick May along with English techno and hip-house DJ, Dave Angel. “I took it upon myself to kind of educate people on techno and house and that’s how I carved my niche.” Walker explains.

Photo Courtesy of Keiran Neely

Rivalry amongst promoters was sometimes quite bitter, resulting in acts like calling the police on one another to bust parties or setting off the fire alarms. Each promoter had their specific genres, venues, and crowds that they preferred to work with. This led to heavy segregation between parties, but also kept them somewhat out of each other’s way. Outer Limits promotions group stuck mostly to funky house and breaks, bringing in guys like Bad Boy Bill to play. Liquid Groove featured trance, prog house and techno and was generally more diversified than Outer Limits. Pleazure focused on house and techno, particularly Chicago house.

Suddenly Atlanta’s house scene was no longer exclusively underground. House was being played in every major club and party across the city. By the late ‘90s, the scene was huge and Atlanta’s nightlife was nationally recognized. Midtown was known for the Crescent Avenue club district. The owners of Yin Yang Cafe opened Club Kaya in 1996, an intimate venue two doors down from Earwax that featured Mark Farina as a regular headliner. Nomenclature Museum opened in 1997 and regularly booked J-Luv and Kevin O. This venue wanted to appeal to the authentic underground and was inspired by the vibe of the original MJQ. Crescent Room opened in 1998 in a basement space, then Eleven50 (now Opera) opened in 2000 in an old building from the 1920s which was formerly a theater.

Buckhead Village has been likened to Bourbon Street in its intensity and density with Tongue & Groove, a club that opened in 1994 and has been featured in the New York Times and USA Today. Odyssey, Fosters and Oxygen were but a few of the extensive list of venues partying and hosting local DJs. The central hub of these different corners of the Atlanta nightlife was a 24/7 gay dance hall in Midtown called Backstreet.

Photo Courtesy of Keiran Neely

A legend in and of itself as the largest gay club in the southeast, Backstreet was the main 24/7 club in Atlanta. It first opened its doors in 1975 and is credited with being a major influence in making Midtown the “gay mecca” of the southeast. This two-story club was home to a basement dance floor, a giant disco ball and was always the place to be after 4 a.m. As the biggest and boldest all hours party spot, it drew people from every scene. Gay guys, straight guys, kandi kid ravers, the Buckhead dance scene, the BDSM crowd, black, white, young and old. Everyone converged on Backstreet to dance until they stumbled out into the mid-afternoon sun, went home to get some sleep, and recharged to do it again the next night. Backstreet was the place of lovers, renegades and the lost souls who wandered adrift from time and space hoping to exhaust their demons by feeding them rhythm and bass.

Photo Courtesy of Keiran Neely

During this time the mainstream and the underground co-existed and partygoers transitioned between the two. Club events would become late night after parties by pretending to close on time, then sneaking their patrons back inside through back doors to dance until the sun came up. Legitimate promoters and DJs would throw warehouse parties, breaking in and using generators to run their equipment. Ravers would go to a map point party with thousands of people, become hooked on house music and dig deeper to find the smaller parties with more intimate vibes and local DJs. Karl Injex believes this relationship is what caused the scene to grow so strong. “The scene really solidified when the rave scene and the house scene merged. You had house DJs playing at raves and vice versa, you had even more progressive DJs playing at house parties.”

In 1999, an online magazine sprang up to review the growing party scene. Lunar Magazine served as a place for artists and audience alike to read about their favorite events or to chat about various subjects on their forum page. Also that year, Future Foundation laid the groundwork for Atlanta’s forthcoming festival landscape. The house scenes, both the underground and the mainstream, were flourishing; but then all of a sudden, things began to shift.

Photo Courtesy of Keiran Neely

The residential districts in Atlanta existed in uneasy discomfort with the raging nightlife but the growing unrest climaxed when two young men were killed in an altercation with Baltimore Ravens player Ray Lewis and his friends outside of the Cobalt Club. Lewis plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstructing justice and his friends were found not guilty. This drew a large amount of negative national attention to the Buckhead party scene. The result was an immediate demand for a major crackdown on nightclubs all over Atlanta. It was the beginning of the end for many venues, especially the 24/7 clubs.

Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Walker

The next year an incident occurred when a young girl crossed state lines to go to one of James “Disco Donnie” Estopinal’s parties in New Orleans. She overdosed and died and the DEA cited the federal ‘crack house’ law to prosecute Estopinal. This set a precedent of going after club owners and promoters for illegal activities performed by their patrons, making parties and events a much more complicated and expensive process.

In 2004, Walker stopped throwing parties under Pleazure Promotions. Earlier in the year new legislation was passed making it illegal for any club or bar serving alcohol to stay open past 3 a.m. This led to the closure of Backstreet and many other venues that were unable to adapt under this new, strict standard. Club after club shut down or changed hands. The new legislation, the rise of hip-hop and trap, and the deepening cultural rift combined with the new flood of sub genres to divide the subculture, making it appear to an untrained eye that the Atlanta house music scene was all but finished.

Good music and good people, however, are impossible to keep down. In 2005 Kai Alce and Ramon Rawsoul began House in the Park at Grant Park. The event is nationally recognized and loved as a place for house heads from all walks of life to congregate and commune. Attendees show up to hear Salah Ananse, DJ Kemit, as well as its two founders (Kai and Ramon) play house music from sunup to sundown. The festival attracts over 10,000 attendees with numerous vendors and is a beautiful gathering of people dancing shoulder to shoulder under the covered pavilions, or just camping out with their families and friends in the shade.

Liquified (formerly Liquid Groove) never stopped throwing events and remains one of the biggest promoters in Atlanta. Eleven50, now Opera, still hosts huge events, with house and techno DJs but is more well-known for bringing in progressive and trap artists. Wiggle Factor, Project B., NDATL, Cardio, and Q/Q all rose to address various needs in the party scene. “Tambor” started in 2009 and in 2010 DJ Pierre moved to Atlanta bringing the Afro Acid name to the Atlanta scene in a move that helped to revitalize national interest in the city. Pierre reminisces, "Atlanta is a hidden gem in dance music. I remember coming here in the ‘90s and noticing the vibe and positive energy when it came to house music and that's what stayed with me about Atlanta. So the decision to move here seven years ago was very easy for me. There is a lot of new talent here and I definitely want to do my part to help create avenues and outlets through the record label, the Afro Acid studio, radio show, plus the venues and promoters we work with. I've been blessed to have those outlets throughout my career and I'm trying to make the path easier for others to get there. I most certainly want to see Atlanta as a contender in the worldwide scene."

Karl Injex and Jeff Myers opened the Sound Table in Edgewood in 2010. Keiran Neely opened Speakeasy in 2012, and then took over Music Room in 2014. Venues continued to change owners and the city’s vibes changed along with it. Karl explains, “A lot of new musical expression and culture came into the scene. Most people who had been involved in it began engaging in other musical activities or outlets.”

The house scene continues to grow as artists, club owners and promoters strive to encourage followers to embrace the principles upon which house music was founded. When The Warehouse opened in 1977 in Chicago it was unique. It brought black, white and hispanic people under one roof to share a love which unites us all, music, the universal language. In “Jack’s House,” an anthem that has become known as the manifesto of house music culture, it is said, “No one man owns house because house music is a universal language spoken and understood by all.”

 

“It takes a special crowd to have big minds.” - Tedd Patterson
 


“In the '90s they would play everything. You’d play some really soulful stuff, then you’d play something that sounds a little more techy, you’d play something that sounds a little more afro then you might play something that sounds a little beat. You’d move around.” - Salah Ananse
 


“I was amazed by the music. I was sitting there in the back of this warehouse and my friends are telling me we have to go and I’m like I can’t leave, this music is great. I ended up getting a ride home in some guy’s trunk because his car was full. He dropped me off a couple of blocks from my mom’s house.” (On his first party at 18-years-old) - Brian Dotson
 


“The single greatest downfall of this scene was learning how to name shit.” - Greg Adamson
 


“This girl walked up to me in the middle of my set and kissed me. And I thought, this is it! I want to do this forever.” - Corey Von Waters

 

“Kemit, Karl Injex and Kai Alce are the demigods of house music. Those are my heroes.” - Jonathan Moore

 


“Over the past five years Atlanta has been put on the map. Atlanta has become a force to be reckoned with. I’m very proud of that. I’m proud of what the DJs and the promoters and the producers that are out here now, no matter what style it is they are doing. I’m proud that people recognize that there is a strong house scene here.” - Ron Pullman

 


“We should be that last thing that becomes unaccepting." - Jory Johnson



“This genre of music is a lot about culture, community and history. That’s why they call it deep house, it’s got roots to it.” - Hernan Piraquive



“It was magical here in Atlanta. It was an adventure.” - Ronnie Raskal


Special thanks to the following. Without you, this piece wouldn't exist. Thank you and keep spreading the love. 

Hernan Piraquive, Brendon Rosenbaum, Nathaniel Pierre, Jennifer Walker, A.J. Jones, Dee Washington, Jonathan Moore, Kai Alce, Brian Tedder, Salah Ananse, Sid Reflux, Alex Jones, Kevin Owens, Jay King, Mike Bradley, Alex Lucas, Adam Hagen, Karl Injex, Jeff Myers, Jory Johnson, Michael Scott, Robbie Randall, Tedd Patterson, Ron Pullman, DJ Kemit, Michael Robinson, Dwayne Maultsby, Corey Von Waters, Greg Adamson, Keiran Neely, Brian Dotson, Jason Gerry, Cullen Cole, Ronnie Raskal, Bryan French, Leonard Roy, Dave Angel, Jason Comstock, Ricky Corey, Yusef Terry, Michael Walsh

History of House Release Party photos at The Music Room can be viewed HERE

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