Music News

Shouldering Atllas

Atllas is the phantom of the Phoenix hip-hop scene. Even when you can't see him, he's there, like a graffiti bomber taunting a train in the yard on successive nights.

"I don't sleep," the crazily determined rapper says. "I get to work at 6:30 in the morning. I was out last night 'til 2 a.m. in the morning. Some nights we'll be out 'til 4 in the morning. [My crew and I] are out every day."

Case in point: A late October show by Pokafase and his crew the League at the Bash on Ash in Tempe was a bust, an absolute joke, attracting only around 50 people (at a 600-person club. Awful.). It was supposed to be a local Pokafase blowout. But by showtime, there were as many Atllas fliers and posters there as Pokafase enthusiasts, though Atllas himself was long gone. From behind the fence that separates the stage area from the back bar, it was tough even to see Pokafase onstage. The Atllas posters tacked to the top of the fence obstructed the view.

On work ethic alone, he overwhelmed that show. Clearly, that is Atllas' m.o. -- to overwhelm.

If you've attended a recent Valley hip-hop outing and don't remember the gangly performer or his beatific smile, you probably remember those fliers, which show a contemplative Atllas, dressed in a Milwaukee Brewers hat and baggy tee, gazing out over a railing. Or maybe you remember the four-song CD sampler he put in your hand, or the poster he put on the club's wall. It's generally a safe bet that any well-promoted local hip-hop show I've attended has featured either a hyper, leaping Atllas performance or one by his trio Phoenix Sector. Other rappers and managers and fans in the tiny, mostly pathetic scene consider him its grandfather.

But Atllas is only 24, and he's a real guy. His name is Lloyd Hopkins. He works two teaching jobs, supports a fiancée and an infant son, and, like most other local rappers of note, owns a home down the road from the Crip-infested block in Maryvale where he grew up. And his struggles growing up poor with a single mom and two brothers and surrounded by drugs and gangs have left him obsessed with success. He's deathly afraid of failure.

"You're kind of going to be guilty by association, because you can't help but know people hanging out with [bad] people," he says. "It's how deep you get into it, and I refuse to let myself fall into that. That's short money. I want Bill Gates money! I want to be able to kick my feet up. Ain't nobody I know is making no money like that off no drugs."

And so he pours himself into music, and he does so very well in hopes of eventually making that Gatesian dough. The King of AZ is as self-styled as hip-hop gets in Phoenix, drawing on a lazy, breezy palette of beats that draw on strings, piano and a psychedelic inertia -- tape distortions, deep echoes. The baritone-voiced Atllas, though, attacks those beats authoritatively, flowing like a New Yorker while calling out haters like an L.A. banger. It's a distinctive mix.

Almost delusionally, the album also makes it clear that Atllas thinks he's the guy to finally put Arizona on the hip-hop radar: "Niggas didn't want it so I took the throne/Put this bitch on my shoulders, bring us home," he claims on "Slang, King, Legend."

"In order for anyone to support a movement of any kind, it has to be something they can believe in. I relate it to Martin Luther King," he says, and yes, he's serious. "He started a movement, but what started his movement was that he came with a stance that people believed in and people were willing to follow it. It's the same with music."

Like King, Atllas prefers the subversive route; the good reverend hit 'em with love and conscientious objection, and Atllas wants to hit the folks around here similarly from street level.

"I told myself I was going to do everything in my power to make this happen," he continues. "I was going to attack the labels, and I was going to attack the streets and look at which one started looking like it was going to be the most beneficial."

It's not surprising that The King of AZ does best on the street. But Atllas can't help himself. He wants to be everything, everywhere. Which explains why he attends a November 4 audition for a hip-hop reality show on Showtime sponsored by Interscope Records, home of Eminem, 50 Cent and all of their untalented hangers-on.

Atllas isn't even participating in the taping. It's an eight-rapper single-elimination freestyle battle at a packed O'Mallys Sports, Spirits & Grill in west Phoenix, an audition for an upcoming series based on freestyle rappers called (horrendously) The Next Episode. But Atllas has chosen to let his trusted sidekick Lyricist enter the battle (and finish as the runner-up) instead. He still manages to interject, taking photos with a digital camera for the show's Web site and standing on the podiums alongside his competing peers for crowd shots.

Atllas also makes sure to hit the Interscope reps with CDs, business cards and fliers. For him, though, the perfunctory label schmoozing is only part of the night's game. Another rapper, Seven, wins $250, an X-Box and the right to compete with rappers from other parts of the U.S. for a spot on reality TV -- mostly by spewing brutal homophobic taunts. Though the odds suggest he'll never make it on television past tonight, Seven enjoys his victory inside the packed club ("I'm gonna have Sex-Box with my X-Box," he declares).

Meanwhile, Atllas is outside trading club glamour for grunt work. He's plotting his promotional assault. Surrounded by a fleet of white-and-black SUVs decorated with TV and radio logos, he's got designs on hitting every car in the strip mall lot with oversize fliers (not the little square kind, but ones that take up most of the lower windshield) that depict the cover to his first full-length album, The King of AZ. His mates and girlfriend, visibly tired and grumpy, aren't quite as enthusiastic, but Atllas forges ahead.

And as usual, he'll get to 'em while no one's looking.

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Christopher O'Connor