A3C Festival & Conference Unveils Lineup, Executive Director Mike Walbert Talks 1996 Throwback Stage

Dustin Chambers 
Mike Walbert

The A3C Festival & Conference is returning for its twelfth year to Atlanta, celebrating the city's cultural significance and hosting a special tribute to 1996 with its lineup. Incorporating a throwback lineup (which will share sets hosted by BET and Master P's No Limit on the main stage) with a region-spanning set from veterans like Bun BBone Thugs-N-Harmony and Too $hort, the fest will also host performances from Rick Ross, Royce da 5'9 and Stalley

There will also be a slew of informative panels including a discussion with Bad Boy's Hitmen Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie, Nashiem Myrick and Sean C & LV at the Pro-Audio Center and a tribute to OutKast's seminal 1996 effort ATLiens with a live band and a conversation with key contributor Mr. DJ. Spotify executive Troy Carter, rap mogul Master P and esteemed photographer Jonathan Mannion will also speak at the A3C Conference. 

Before A3C brings the noise to ATL from Wednesday, Oct. 5 through Sunday, Oct. 9, the festival's executive director Mike Walbert spoke with Billboard on setting up a 1996 stage, how the festival plans to give back to the vibrant city with A3C Action and Atlanta's hip-hop legacy. 

How did you decide to incorporate a 1996 stage? 

Each year, we try to look at cool editorial stories and themes that we can bring to life. We were doing some research on this in January and stumbled upon an article about 1996 and really just dove into it. We were kind of like, 'Wow, this just goes deeper and deeper like the amount of music that came out and the amount of significant things that happened in '96 then from the Atlanta perspective, just thinking about what 1996 meant for this city. We literally made a point where we can’t have a festival this year without 1996 in some way and it just grew bigger and bigger.

The first thing we thought of obviously just getting a bunch of artists that we really liked from different regions to represent on the main stage so Bone Thugs-N-Harmony are from the Midwest, Too $hort from the West Coast, Def Squad and Redman are from the East Coast, and Bun B is from the South so all three coasts incorporating this giant hip-hop story on one stage. Then we’re doing a tribute to ATLiens and putting together a really dope live band accompanied by Mr. DJ, who produced and actually cut records on the project. Then we’re bringing up new emcees, some old emcees and some artists that were influenced by ATLiens who will be performing a tribute from [the whole album] on the main stage.  But then they even said they’re even conferencing for audio. Jerry Wonda is coming in to talk about producing [The Fugees'] The Score, one of the most significant hip-hop albums of all time and he was a significant production figure behind that album. It’s really endless the amount of things you can do with ’96 just ‘cause it spreads across so many different cultural components. 

How will the festival help bridge the gap between younger and older hip-hop artists?

I think we played an important role in creating a space for new and, I would call legendary and iconic artists. We’ve never been about more old school, we’ve kind of been about showing an overall array of talent. I would say it’s almost paramount to what we do. I think it gives the young artists a chance to meet some of their icons and some of the people that influenced them, and it gives some of the older artists a chance to connect with some youth and the up-and-coming next generation. Coming out of A3C, we see a lot of collaborations, people connecting and making music together so we’re really proud to play a role in connecting the generations.

Discuss the role of A3C Action in the festival's mission. 

We doubled in our applications this year so we put out a call to action, through our networks and through our partners of the Center of Civic Innovation and we said, "If you are an organization or activist using art, music and culture for civic innovation, social change and social justice, send us your ideas, tell us what you’re doing." We had nearly 150 applicants submit their ideas, what they’re working on and through a pretty rigorous process, we were able to pick seven [applicants]. What we do once we pick the seven is we bring them to Atlanta and we put them through two days of business and pitch training. For many of these people, it is their first time asking for money and doing fundraising so you get these great ideas and amazing and passionate people, and you see this tremendous growth over the two days. They are invited to mixers, taken out to dinner and lunch by their mentors, who can help them specifically with what they’re working on. It’s cool to see the range and depth of the some of these people with amazing ideas.

It's A3C's twelfth year putting together the festival and conference. How has the planning changed since its inception?

It’s night and day. [Laughs] One thing that we’ve kind of kept is this "artist first" approach. We try to be a festival that serves performers and provide them with tons of networks that have opportunities. You also get a three-day concert. When I first started [in 2009 as the artist director], the A3C festival was three days and maybe 150 artists performing in three to four venues so it’s almost unrecognizable in the scope of what we do but also, there was no conference component. I would say where the festival was 100 percent of what we did in 2009, it's 50 percent now; we go 50 percent conference and 50 percent festival. We take the conference component really seriously because I think in terms of providing the hip-hop culture with opportunities, we have to look beyond the artist themselves and look at the graphic designer, the audio engineer, the producer, the manager, the booking agent, the video director, technology and the role it plays in our lives -- everything that goes into the hip-hop culture has a role at A3C.