Though he’s still on the sunny side of 40, Black Atticus is already a venerated elder statesman on Knoxville’s hip-hop scene. One of the founding members of seminal local hip-hop outfit the Fluid Engineerz in the early 200s, Atticus went on to the short-lived but promising Loose Leaf, then spent a few years in the popular Knox rap/rock crossover act the Theorizt, which he fronted along with fellow emcees J-Bush and Courageous.
Strange to consider, then, that his upcoming project, “The Black Doom Mixtape,” will be his first proper solo release, a tribute to, and reimagining of the work of MF Doom, an underground British hip-hop artist with a penchant for theatrics and clever wordplay.
“He’s one of my favorites, a true all-around hip-hop artist,” Atticus enthuses. “He has some of the most intricate rhyme schemes ever. He’s sort of the mad scientist of hip hop.
“I’m taking his music and doing all kinds of things with it, taking it in directions I’ve never heard anyone else try. My motivation was to do a southern voice over an MF Doom projection.”
The latter observation is key; because for all of his diverse influences — from an early love of the Fresh Prince and the Beasties Boys, to his later delvings into the realms of spoken word and slam poetry — Atticus self-identifies as a southern hip-hop artist. It couldn’t be any other way.
“I appreciate so much hip hop,” he says. “But no matter how much I draw from other sounds, my story is a southern story. That’s the root of my voice, and I can’t leave that behind. There’s a pressure sometimes to do things that are trendy or more popular. But I believe that real recognizes real. I can’t fake it. I have to be real.”
In a nutshell, Atticus’ hip hop story began when he was still an East Knoxville teenager back in the 1990s, trading off parts on a Method Man song with his best friend, and teaching himself to free-style during long walks home from Austin East High School.
“There weren’t a lot of people freestyling in Knoxville back then,” he says with a chuckle. “I’d just do it with myself as I walked home. I didn’t realize in those moments that it was something that one day, I’d be doing all the time.”
But Atticus’ cultural education truly went into overdrive when he went off to school at Miles College in Fairfield, Ala. in the late 1990s. At Miles, he sampled a broad selection of liberal arts classes — “I had some idea when I went off to college that I wanted to learn to do these things, ‘how can I learn to push words around?’ — and was introduced by friends to the town’s vibrant slam-poetry and spoken word scene.
Atticus proved to be a quick study. In quick succession, he won the college’s Apollo Night talent show performing one of his early works “Step Into the Land” — even though friends had admonished him that “poems never win” at Apollo Night — and then got expelled from school for publishing a poem that was critical of Miles’ administrative policies.
“I guess that got someone charged up,” he says. “It got me kicked out of school. It also got me addicted to poetry.”
Unbowed, Atticus came home to Knoxville, teamed with fellow Fluid Engineerz founder Franke Caver, aka Dynamic. Though the two men were close in age, Caver/Dynamic was a huge influence on Atticus, exposing him to a new world of underground hip-hop artists. “Dynamic remembered everyone; he was so hungry for the culture,” Atticus says.
“Some of the stuff he played me was like Latin to me at first,” he continues. “It was a different type of hip hop, not really dance-y or poppy, but with excellent lyrics. I’d never heard lyricists use words that well, or use meter that intricately.
“I think Dynamic saw something in me, and that’s why he introduced me to the things he did. He has great vision.”
Now a de facto dean of Knoxville hip-hop, Black Atticus is one of the founding members, along with J-Bush and others, of the Good Guy Collective, a coalition of local emcees, producers, poets and enthusiasts banded together to support hip hop in Knoxville. Several of Atticus’ Good Guy brethren, including former Theorizt DJ Wigs, are taking part in the “Doom” mixtape.
Atticus is also working with several other Collective members on a documentary about hip hop in Knoxville. “There are a lot of important underground southern hip-hop artists who have come out of Tennessee,” he says. “I don’t think people realize how important a role the state played in southern hip hop.”
For more information on Black Atticus and “The Doom Mixtape,” see the Black Atticus Facebook page. Black Atticus will open for The Palmer Squares on Wednesday July 27 at Scruffy City Hall.