There’s never been a better year for the Atlanta Falcons to ‘Rise Up’
The Dirty Birds mean everything to their city — and a Super Bowl win would literally be ‘for the culture’
Gucci Mane is free at last. Dwight Howard is back home. FX’s Atlanta gave us those lemon pepper wet wings and three new homies in Earn, Darius and Paper Boi. Marvel is giving us Black Panther, and it’s being filmed primarily in the heart of black America. The Migos, with their No. 1 song in the country, are literally doing it for the Culture.
In 2016, Atlanta could not miss. And its football team, the explosively bold yet dark horse Atlanta Falcons, is back in the Super Bowl.
Atlanta’s black music connection to the Falcons runs deep, and includes those in the ATL’s storied hip-hop culture. Atlanta has been running hip-hop and R&B since the early 1990s, with a succession of successful and culturally impactful artists such as Arrested Development, TLC, OutKast, Goodie Mob, Dungeon Family, Xscape, 112, Jagged Edge, Monica, Lil Jon, Ying Yang Twins, YoungBloodZ, Ciara, Lloyd, DJ Toomp, Killer Mike, Lil Scrappy, Crime Mob, DJ Drama, T.I., Dem Franchize Boyz, Shawty Lo and D4L, Waka Flocka Flame and now 2 Chainz, Future, Lil Yachty, 21 Savage, Migos and more.
The day the Falcons advanced to the Super Bowl, a petition was created on change.org with the call to action, REPLACE LADY GAGA WITH THE MIGOS FOR SUPER BOWL LI HALFTIME SHOW. “I like Lady Gaga,” Migos frontman Quavo told students at New York University a week after the petition was launched (it currently has more than 60,000 signatures). He, along with group member Takeoff, hosted a “Culture Class” there, and the North Atlantans were heralded as the leaders of the new school, the Beatles of their generation. “Tell Lady Gaga,” he continued, “to share the stage for the Super Bowl.”
Atlanta’s stars, as well as its football fans, have been waiting for this moment for quite some time — for the Falcons to finally “Rise Up.”
Welcome to Atlanta where the players play / And we ride on dem things like every day / Big beats, hit streets, see gangsters roamin’ / And parties don’t stop till eight in the morning
Jermaine Dupri was more anxious than he’d ever been before a show. He’d performed the hook from his timeless top-down-and-cruise or pop-bottles-and-party 2001 hit “Welcome to Atlanta” hundreds, maybe thousands, of times, but this was a moment he’d actually had in mind for almost 20 years.
Leading up to the Jan. 22 NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers — a game in which Atlanta was the favorite but, boy, were the Packers rolling — the Falcons reached out to the Grammy-winning producer/rapper, requesting that he and multiple-Grammy winner and 2 Fast 2 Furious hero Ludacris bless the home crowd with their ode to the city as the team competed on a historical afternoon for a spot in Super Bowl LI. With the Falcons scheduled to move into the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium next season, the conference championship marked the franchise’s final game at the monumental Georgia Dome.
Dupri and Ludacris obliged, and brought along fellow Atlanta artist Young Jeezy. Right before they went onstage, the Falcons reached the end zone with three seconds left on the clock to take a 24-0 lead over the Packers into halftime. “You can’t ask for a better setup,” Dupri said. “They basically opened for us. That energy, that adrenaline … I got a little nervous again. Like, man, this is crazy.”
For the performance, a stage had been erected midfield, allowing Ludacris a chance to fulfill — to some extent — the scene he pictured when he rapped, I wanna get you in the Georgia Dome on the 50-yard line / While the Dirty Birds kick for t’ree! on his sensual, very Atlanta 2000 track, “What’s Your Fantasy?”
“They always say make your dreams a reality, and that if you can visualize them, you can make it happen. I was close to it. I was on the 50-yard line … performing,” Ludacris said jokingly. “Now, I just gotta make it come true one day. If my wife is down with doing it on the 50-yard line, we can make it happen.”
The DJ dropped “Welcome to Atlanta” as well as Jeezy’s 2008 hit “Put On” while the three MCs, in Falcons jerseys, stunna shades, Air Jordans and gold chains, strutted across the stage, representing the city that, since the 1960s, has been transformed into black America’s cultural mecca. On the sidelines and in box seats, were Usher, Samuel L. Jackson, Gucci Mane, Dwight Howard, Bow Wow and Da Brat repped in the red and black, too, during the team’s farewell to the Georgia Dome.
After the Falcons demolished the Packers, 44-21, “Welcome to Atlanta” dropped again over the stadium’s loudspeakers, as confetti rained from above. Falcons owner Arthur Blank celebrated by jamming to the tune with his signature old-guy dance. “That put the stamp on it,” Dupri said. “That this is the official theme song of the Atlanta Falcons.”
The last time the Falcons reached the Super Bowl, Atlanta didn’t have this song.
At the end of the 1998-99 NFL season, the Atlanta Falcons made the Super Bowl for the first time in its then-33-year history. Both Dupri and Young Jeezy made the trip for the game. And as much as they remember “the excitement of people from [Atlanta] going to Miami, and basically taking over, and turning it into Atlanta,” Dupri said, they remember the disappointment. The Denver Broncos beat the Falcons, 34-19, to win Super Bowl XXXIII. The team wouldn’t make it to the Super Bowl again until now.
“Everybody was hype, man,” said Young Jeezy via phone. “And when we didn’t bring that win home, it was like, ‘We were so close.’ ”
The Falcons didn’t fully reach the promised land, but the ’98-’99 season meant something, particularly for the culture of the city and its team. During the regular season, Falcons running back Jamal Anderson sparked a trend with a celebration dance that’s since been regarded as one of the best in NFL history.
“We were in New York about to play the Giants and we were trying to figure out a way to generate some hype for the team,” Anderson said in 2011. “We were talking about ways we could celebrate big plays or sacks or touchdowns … I just started doing it. Obviously, it caught on and people got thrilled about it, so we went from there.”
The side-to-side hops and flapping elbows became known as the “Dirty Bird,” and it resonated with fans so much that they began referring to the entire Falcons team as the Dirty Birds. Anderson’s antics on the field inspired the movement Dupri was cooking up in the studio.
While writing “Welcome to Atlanta” with Ludacris, Dupri wanted to create a tribute to the city reminiscent of Frank Sinatra’s 1979 version of “New York, New York,” but with a kind of hip-hop flair, like on Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre’s 1995 “California Love.” What stands out in Ludacris and Dupri’s quest for anthem success is their deep connection to the city’s sports teams. They hoped Atlanta’s music and sports cultures would rise, parallel to the other.
“We knew sports would be a part of the movement,” said Ludacris, who will be seen in April in Fast & Furious 8. “Whether it’s the Hawks, the Braves, or the Falcons, it’s kind of like we all represent each other. We all stand behind each other. That’s what’s so powerful. It’s like Southern hospitality. Even with artists working together so much. That’s what Atlanta represents, and I think that’s what a lot of other places really admire about us.”
“Football was a very big part of the movement,” said Dupri. “If you watch the ‘Welcome to Atlanta’ video, that’s all we got on is football jerseys.” Another prompt perhaps came on April 21, 2001, six months before “Welcome to Atlanta” was released. On that day, the Falcons selected left-handed, smooth-running quarterback Michael Vick with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.
Vick elevated the team to heights it had never been able to reach. Plus, he was Atlanta and he was hip-hop. It was Vick’s jersey that Dupri wore in the “Welcome to Atlanta” music video. Vick appeared in T.I.’s video for his 2003 track “Rubber Band Man,” and the quarterback’s name found its way into verses spit by nearly every Atlanta rapper making music in the mid-2000s. We don’t talk on the phone cuz it might stick / Gotta play for the 7 call it Mike Vick / Dirty Birds… we play with the Falcons rapped Young Jeezy on his 2005 track “Gangsta Music.”
In six seasons in Atlanta, Vick earned three trips to the Pro Bowl, a Madden cover and led the Falcons to two playoff appearances. He never reached a Super Bowl, though. And in 2007 he pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges and was sentenced to 23 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring, ending his Falcons career.
“It wasn’t just a football moment, or a sports moment. It was a full-on cultural moment,” Vick recently wrote about his time playing for the Falcons in a letter for The Players’ Tribune. “It was Atlanta sports, and Atlanta music, and Atlanta movies. And they were all just sort of coexisting, and feeding off 0f each other, and making each other want to be great, in this really special way.”
It’s been 10 full seasons since Vick last played in a Falcons uniform and Atlanta is again experiencing a cultural moment. This time it’s more about Donald Glover’s Atlanta, the buzz around Black Panther, and “Bad and Boujee,” but it’s a glowing time for the ATL creative scene once again.
As a bonus, after missing the playoffs three years in a row, the Falcons are in the Super Bowl, with a NFC South division title, the NFL’s most prolific offense, and a league MVP candidate in quarterback Matt Ryan.
“The excitement around the city now is much-needed,” said Young Jeezy. “The energy is crazy … And we’re talking since Vick, when he first stepped on the field. Being Super Bowl champs — and I’m calling it — I just think that’s our destiny. It was written. It’s what it feels like. Once you have the sports and the movies and you have the music down pat … That’s something that doesn’t happen very often, and I think it’s our time. We’ve been grinding for a long time, and I think we need that.”
If the Falcons — or when as Dupri, Jeezy and Ludacris have all prophesied — defeat the New England Patriots on Super Bowl Sunday, they’ll surely receive another call from the Falcons, Blank himself, or maybe even Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed. A parade will be had, and entertainment will be needed. It’s only right that one song plays when the Vince Lombardi Trophy is ushered into Atlanta’s city limits for the first time.
“If this team wins a Super Bowl, that’s an introduction to a world of people that probably never believed this could happen,” said Dupri. “So, welcome to Atlanta.”