You can’t accurately talk about Atlanta’s Hip-Hop legacy without mentioning Big Oomp Records.
The first indie label in the city, the imprint helped pave the way for Atlanta’s rap dominance—culturally, stylistically, and musically. Officially founded in 1995 by DJ Jelly, MC Assault, and Big Oomp (Korey Robinson), the label’s beginnings stretch back to the early 90s, when Atlanta mixtape legends, DJ Jelly and MC Assault, began flooding the city with their tapes.
“The mixtapes basically were like the radio because Hip-Hop wasn’t on the radio in the early 90s,” says Jelly, who also founded the influential crew, Southern Style DJs alongside MC Assault and DJ Montay, whose gone on to produce for Flo Rida (“Low”), Unk (“Walk It Out”) Ne-Yo (“Money Can’t Buy”), and Shawty Lo (“Foolish”), among others.
A St. Louis native, Jelly first came to Atlanta in 1989 to attend college at what’s now known as SCAD (the Savannah College of Art and Design), and he quickly found himself buried in Atlanta’s music scene. His first stint was as an intern at Bobby Brown’s studio, before he was fired. But by 1990, he’d been hired by DC of Tag Team at Atlanta’s flagship strip club, Magic City. He says that’s when his career really started. Not much later, a friend connected him with MC Assault, and together they started making mixtapes, and helping to break local and regional artists in the process.
“Our mixtapes had more of a production approach, what the kids call mash-ups, combining different genres and eras,” Jelly explains. “That’s how I was actually breaking music of the artists at the time— from OutKast to Triple Six Mafia.”
The tapes were so popular around the city, they drew the attention of Big Oomp, who offered to finance the pair’s venture. It didn’t take long for them to dominate, partially propelled by the influx of people who would head to Atlanta for Freaknik, where they’d flood people with their projects. But things really picked up with MC Assault suggested the the three of them start a label.
“The mixtape movement is really what influenced us to say, okay, since w’re breaking artists, why don’t we just get a couple of people who are around us and create this label?” Jelly remembers.
The label officially launched in 1995 with MC Assault’s project, Major Bank Streets of the ATL. However, it really gained its footing when Atlanta underground rap legend, Hitman Sammy Sam, joined the roster, bringing his charisma and street tales to the label, and giving it an air of authenticity that was specific to old Atlanta, before mass gentrification. Propelled by Atlanta classics like the gritty-bouncy, “Intoxicated” and the grimy-crunk “Ridin’ With Some Killaz,” Jelly says Sam’s presence “set the label off.” Even more, Sam’s music was a clearer indication for where Atlanta’s sound was headed. Sam arguably helped set the foundation for other rappers like Jeezy, T.I., Gucci Mane, and later Migos and Future, to follow.
“Sam was straight up from the streets. In the late 80s, he was one of the first set of Atlanta rappers that jumped off when you talk about the lineage of Atlanta music and the Hip-Hop scene," Jelly says.
"Sam was hardcore, and he had a big following from the west side. Everybody respected him because he was one of those people who rapped about what he did. People respected him. He’s clever.”
The other aspect that made Big Oomp Records different was that they had their hand in every aspect of the business. Already, Assault and Jelly’s mixtapes were flooding the streets, giving them a leg up in terms of presence and credibility. Adding to that, Jelly had the first Hip-Hop radio show in the city on Hot 107.9, The 5 o’clock Traffic Jam, which was groundbreaking because he was introducing rap to the city on a broader, mainstream scale. And rounding out Oomp’s dominance was their retail presence. Big Oomp Records operated a slew of record stores around town and at flea markets and local malls, where they sold their own mixtapes, along with music from underground Atlanta rap artists that you couldn’t find anywhere else. Jelly had previously worked at popular music store chain, Peppermint Music in Atlanta, and so he understood the retail side of things. If you wanted to find a local, indie rapper whose music wasn’t available in big retail stores, chances are, Big Oomp Records carried it—from Pastor Troy’s debut We Ready I Declare War to T.I. and P$C’s self-released mixtape series, In Da Streets.
“It all kinda blanketed together into the label— but it all started from the mixtapes,” Jelly says. The label was also pushed by their authentic connection to the streets and the communities their sound represented.
“We looking at labels like Death Row and No Limit at the time, and we were like ‘we gotta compete with them and get out there.’ They had their cities on lock and we felt that we had Atlanta on lock because we had retail stores, mixtapes and the radio game. We had all these relationships with people in the streets and the artists, and they liked us because we were organized. I’d be on the road and I’d have my crew on the road, and we’d put people up on our label. People respected that. No other label was doing that, not in Georgia. We had all those different platforms to make it happen for us.”
In the mid to late 90s, Atlanta was a hodgepodge of culture, and naturally, the sound coming out of the city was eclectic and diverse. If the Dungeon Family’s sound was outerspace and red clay, Big Oomp’s sound was asphalt and kudzu, wrapping around the city and helping to define Atlanta’s inner street culture.
“It was dope because everybody knew each other,” Jelly says, adding that he was one of the first DJs to break OutKast’s music, so they always had love for one another, even though they were bubbling around the same time. “They were doing their thing, and we were doing our thing, and it was no problem because we supported them,” he says. “That’s what people got to understand. During the early 90s, people would be like, ‘Well Big Oomp and Jelly have all these things going on, they don’t mess with nobody,’ which to me was so wack because we actually broke a lot of Atlanta’s music through what we did. We always had a good relationship with Rico and everybody.”
Although the label is too frequently overlooked in discussions about Atlanta’s rise to become a dominant force in Hip-Hop, Big Oomp Records played a major part in fostering its sound, and broadening Atlanta’s reach.
Oomp became the place where, not only their own artists like Sammy Sam and Baby D shined via the label, but where you could find hot new underground music, be it from the mixtapes the label produced, the tapes Big Oomp Record stores carried, or the artists who appeared on the TV show they later launched, Oomp Camp Live, which ran for 10 years and showcased Atlanta artists like Lil Jon, OutKast, Future, Goodie Mob, Pastor Troy and Ludacris.
“We influenced a bunch of new generations that followed after us, especially on the production side,” Jelly says, adding that they continue to keep their hands in music with their steaming site, Mixtape Mobstaz. He also says that Big Oomp Records has recently been re-launched.
“We had the hard core gritty street sound that just influenced a lot of producers—from Lil Jon to Shawty Red,” Jelly says. “When you look at our artist, Baby D, he was the cover model for a lot of the trap artists that’s out now—the way he looked and his swag. You see that in Travis Porter to Gunna now. From musically, visually, to being a business model for labels that followed after us, you can feel our influence.”
As for Big Oomp Records’ legacy, it’s guarded by their genuine love for Atlanta and the music and the culture its cultivated.
“We’ll continue to be involved with every generation,” Jelly says. “We always have given artists opportunities and platforms. We’re like true gatekeepers, true record breakers, and true influencers.”