Atlanta has been giving the Hip Hop game hell for 20 years. The Southern city’s current command of rap music is headed by numerous familiar names found all over the radio dial. However, the shift in A-town’s rap culture could also be attributed to one rhymer that may not be getting overwhelming love on the national level just yet.
The rapper/producer who goes by the moniker Key! has served as a leading figure in Atlanta’s underground scene for several years. So much so, the Eastside representative believes more high-profile artists have mirrored his style.
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“I’ve been out too long. I guess everybody’s like, ‘He ain’t gonna pop, so his swags for free,’” Key tells AllHipHop.com. “I hear it from a majority of the music from young, up-and-coming artists. These artists that just became major who were underground artists last year.”
The indictment of theft is not hard to believe. An 18-year-old Key first began making considerable noise around town back in 2009 when he co-founded the Hip Hop collective known as Two-9 along with Curtis Williams.
Key eventually broke off from Two-9 to pursue a solo career. The group went on to sign with Mike Will Made It’s EarDrummers Entertainment, but the camaraderie among the original members still holds until this day.
“We made it up, so no matter what the situation may be in the music industry, those are still my brothers,” says Key about his lyrical kin.
The Key/Two-9 alliance was recently renewed on the tracks “Lord Help” and “Over” off the October29 EP. The latter song was heavily influenced by the famous New Orleans foursome of the Hot Boyz (Lil Wayne, Juvenile, B.G. & Turk).
Cash Money Record’s late 1990’s breakout stars played a major role in providing the prototype for a generation of rappers raised below the Mason–Dixon line. The hook for “Over” even pays homage to Wayne’s debut solo single “Tha Block Is Hot.”
“That’s what we listened to growing up. That’s all we had. That’s what we loved. It’s just that’s literally all we had,” recalls Key. “In Atlanta, the Hot Boys were like Gods. When we were super-young, Lil Wayne was the one we could relate to.”
Some of Key’s earliest memories are of his youth growing up on Memorial Drive. The DeKalb County locale would only serve as a temporary home as he and his family relocated throughout the metropolitan area. The constant moving did provide a unique perspective for the future performer.
“I got to see a lot of stuff that a lot of people where I’m from don’t get to see. A lot of people from Memorial Drive don’t go off of Memorial Drive,” says Key.
His start in making music began around the age of 15. Key (a pre-rap nickname given to him by his grandmother) had dropped out of school, so he used his free time to craft beats. Once he got bored with that task, the teenager started focusing more on putting words together.
It took nearly a decade before Key found himself on a single that expanded across the internet and beyond. That moment happened last fall when the OG Maco (now Maco Mattox) collab “U Guessed It” exploded.
The Brandon Thomas-produced turn-up anthem went on to collect over 12 million SoundCloud plays. While his appearance on “U Guessed It” shined a light on his growing movement, Key is not a fan of the Give Em Hell cut.
“It was corny. I don’t even listen to that song like that. I like my verse. [laughs] When we dropped it, it was just a party hit. That’s the only time I would listen to that song – at a party or when we performed it,” states Key.
Maco actually is not that fond of being solely connected to the song either. The 2015 XXL Freshman relayed to AHH in August, “I was never going to be the ‘U Guessed It’ rapper. My music before ‘U Guessed It’ was expansive and lyrical. My music after ‘U Guessed It’ was expansive, but it’s like they don’t want to see that. People just don’t want to accept more than what got you to a certain place.”
Even though their initial hit has apparently worn thin for both of them, Key and Maco maintain a musical association. The duo recently reconnected for a day in Los Angeles where they recorded some more songs together. The session generated the new collaboration “Street Fighter” which is expected to appear on Key’s upcoming album Screaming Dreams.
“Street Fighter” is one of over 400 tracks Key recorded for his debut studio album. His time in LA has comprised of making 4 to 5 songs a day. Key’s team is now assisting him in reducing the number of songs down to fit on an LP, but the recording process is complete.
“Imagine having 400 songs, and you have to pick 12,” says Key. “This is my first album. We want to make it to where I do numbers independently, before I even talk to the majors.”
Presently, Key is building his brand as an indie artist. He is interested in possibly entering into a partnership with a major label, but nearly every component of the Key enterprise is controlled by the artist at the moment. The entertainer sets up his own bookings and runs his own business email account. Anything posted on his social media pages were uploaded directly by Key.
While Key’s ascension took place during the Digital Age, his approach to using Twitter and Instagram is not the same as many of his celebrity peers. A combined 44,000 users follow him on the two sites, but Key follows exactly zero people. So what is with the lack of follow backs?
“I just keep up with what’s going on with me. That’s all I should be focused on right now,” explains Key. “I feel like everybody in Hip Hop is focused on the wrong thing. It’s really gay that they focus on each other so much. They act like they’re on Twitter for b*tches, but they’re on Twitter just to watch each other.”
A lot of eyes are starting to watch Key’s career, and a lot of ears are getting introduced to his projects such as Mothers Are The Blame, Fathers Are The Curse, Screaming Dreams Prelude, and Give Him Hell 2 with ManMan Savage. Besides his Screaming Dreams LP arriving in the near future, another mixtape titled Martin Luther Key is set to drop on December 25.
The newest gift for his fans arrives in time for Christmas, but Key is still very conscious about how other rappers seem to prefer to take more than they give. In his view, the rest of the country uses the Atlanta Hip Hop environment as an open lot where they go to lift sounds, fashion, and lingo.
“I don’t feel like they’re just taking my swag. I feel like they’re taking all of Atlanta’s swag,” expresses Key. “There’s so many n*ggas that sound like Future. There’s so many n*ggas that sound like Bankroll Fresh. It’s n*ggas that sound like Curtis Williams. When we were younger, we used to say Curtis sounds like Wiz [Khalifa], but now it’s to the point where Wiz sounds like Curtis.”
From forging the Two-9 crew to freeing a tape inspired by his hometown’s most iconic civil rights leader, Key holds down the ATL to the fullest. And the rising rhymer feels he is just at the cusp of his full potential. The ultimate end game is to have his jersey hanging from the rafters.
“The G.O.A.T. The greatest of all time,” says Key! about how he sees himself. “There’s so much in store. I can’t even explain. Every season that comes about is going to bring more momentum to the situation.”
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Read other installments of AllHipHop’s #ATLRiseUp series here.
Key!’s Martin Luther Key is scheduled for release on December 25.