Picture MTV’s Spring Break bacchanals, except instead of a beach in Daytona, Florida, packed with mostly white Midwestern college kids grinding in bikinis to No Doubt, Bush and 50 Cent, you have tens of thousands of mostly black college students flooding the streets, parks and highways of Atlanta for a massive party that grew from a well-kept secret to an uncontrollable blowout.
It was called Freaknik, and for a time in the early ’80s through the late 1990s, it was the hottest party in the ATL, an annual get-down that drew revelers from all over the country for a celebration that had one very crucial, unintended consequence: spreading the gospel of the Atlanta sound across the nation. The rise and demise of Freaknik is the subject of a new eight-episode podcast debuting Tuesday (June 25) called “Freaknik: A Discourse on a Paradise Lost,” which explores what the teaser says began as a “celebratory spring break party started by the glitterati of African American college students over the course of 15 years almost brought ‘The City Too Busy to Hate’ to its knees.”
“I’ve always been interested in Freaknik, but I grew up in a lily white suburb of mid-Michigan and had cousins who lived in Atlanta, so I went down there every summer and it was a whole new world… by the mid-1990s I had tapes of stuff that was shot months before and as an adolescent it was a crazy thing to see,” the show’s producer and host, Christopher Frierson, tells Billboard about how he got interested in creating a podcast about the legendary event. “As an adolescent it was a crazy thing to see because it was so outside of my regular life.”
As he got older, the now Brooklyn-based producer (Dirty Pictures, The House I Live In) became dedicated to uncovering the lesser-known nooks of hip-hop, and Freaknik fit the bill perfectly. “At first I thought about doing a straight doc, but then it seemed like Freaknik leant itself to the podcast format because there’s a lore, a mystery about it and everyone has their own recollections of the truth of it and what their experience was.”
Though the history is a bit hazy, Freaknik (or “freaky picnic”) was birthed in 1983 on the campus of one of Atlanta’s historically black colleges, Spelman, as an end-of-the-year party for the DC Metro Club, a group of students from the D.C. area. What started as a potluck barbecue in Grant Park for less than 200 students continued to grow year-over-year as word got out. In an attempt to pull together all the half-remembered stories, Frierson reached out to artists, students, journalists, business owners and politicians who were there for the pod series produced by Mass Appeal & Endeavor Audio.
UGK legend Bun B heard about Freaknik over in Port Arthur, Texas, and he knew he had to check it out. “I was there for about the third iteration, and it was wild, very raw, but it was just good, clean fun … a lot of girls in bikinis, dudes with their shirts off,” he says of his first Freaknik experience. In those early days, there were some artists who were playing shows in clubs at night, but the beauty of Freankik was that the party was wherever you were. “Anywhere could be a venue to get the party going because you had people from the South, the East Coast, Philly, New York, Chicago… it didn’t matter who was playing in clubs because the streets were so crazy, packed with cars and traffic.”
During a time before social media or phones with cameras, the keepsakes you took home from Freaknik were either on a video cassette or in your blurry memory banks. And, to be perfectly frank, they were not the kinds of images that would fly in a post #MeToo world, as they often depicted tipsy young men urging scantily clad women to twerk, drop it or strip for them. “I remember seeing girls on top of cars and then the next car would come up and they’d want to see her naked, so guys would throw money and she’d get naked and then on the next block she’d repeat it,” he says. “You had gold Benzes from Chicago, white BMWs and Jeeps from New York, and everyone just wanted to see what rims guys were riding on.”
Bun says it was a place to soak up the street culture of Atlanta, as well as the style and attitude of young black America from all over the country. You didn’t have to try hard to find it, since a spontaneous jam could take off on the highway, a park, even a Shell gas station parking lot. “Everyone was coming from everywhere and nobody knew where they were going, so a gas station or Waffle House parking lot could turn into an impromptu party,” he says.
Like Bun, Katrina Fuqua, brand manager for Atlanta’s legendary Magic City strip club, heard about Freaknik and began driving to Atlanta in 1986 to attend from her home in Knoxville, Tennessee. She moved to the city to attend college there in 1989 and went to every Freak until she moved to Texas in 1991. Her experience in the pre-GPS, pre-cell phone days was pretty much the same: driving around looking for a party and joining in wherever one could be found.
“It was just a word-of-mouth thing and one year when I came [in 1996], I couldn’t even get off the highway — downtown Atlanta has six-lane highways on both sides — because they’d closed the exit ramps, so we were sitting there in my girlfriend’s drop-top Jeep and people just started getting out of their cars and talking, blaring music, dancing,” she says, describing a scene out of the first frames of La La Land or R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” video. Also like Bun, Fuqua never made it to an official nightclub party, instead dancing and listening to music in parks and near college campuses, parking garages and anywhere else she saw groups gathered.
Though in later years she witnessed some men being disrespectful to female attendees, Fuqua says in the prime Freaknik years she never felt unsafe, despite the hordes of hard-partying men filming women and egging them on to dance lasciviously and take their clothes off in public. “We didn’t have cell phones at that time, thank God… but I saw some men being respectful, some people were putting hands on girls, but I never saw anything where something was happening to someone [that they didn’t want],” she says.
Another thing she saw was all those guests being exposed to the burgeoning, about-to-explode Atlanta hip-hop scene. With acts like Outkast, the Dungeon Family, Goodie Mob and T.I. on the rise during the years when Freaknik was exploding, the city’s previously well-kept secret didn’t take long to get out. “A lot of people still looked at the South as country bumpkins… people from the North were like, ‘We thought y’all still had outhouses,'” she says. “But they were exposed to the people, the city and that helped fuel where Atlanta is today. It brought black kids down here to go to school and everywhere you went there was music playing and blaring from drop-tops and people would just start dancing.”
The event also spread the gospel of Magic City, which opened in 1985 and soon began popping up in the lyrics to dozens of rap hits, getting shout-outs from local artists, with the club later credited with helping to launch the careers of Future and Migos, among others.
Oakland, California-bred rapper Too $hort has never had a problem finding the party and he also went down to Atlanta in 1993 and 1994 to see what the noise was about. “I went down on my birthday weekend and it was the most amazing thing that ever happened to me,” says $hort, no stranger to a good time. “Nobody really knew about it until 1992 when the word got out that it was a bomb-ass event and people were like, ‘I’m going next year,’ and I was one of those people.”
Though booty shorts and twerking are ubiquitous in 2019, $hort says those things were “exclusive” to the South at that time, something he learned when he traveled from California to play shows in Atlanta. After watching the party in 1993, $hort booked a few shows in 1994, though the memories are a bit blurry, if he’s being honest, since it was more about the party than the paycheck. “There were so many women and so much sexual energy,” he recalls.
The year before $hort relocated to Atlanta, he and 10 friends went down — with some of the men shipping their cars to the ATL so they could look their best on the street — in 1993, with one group of 18 cramming into an RV that they drove from Oakland. “They took the hotel sheets off the beds and tacked them on to the side of the RV and sprayed ‘Oakland’ on the side and they were riding on the roof, hanging out the door and on Saturday that camper ran into a parked Ford Mustang and their door fell off and they rode home, all 18 of them, with no door, through rainstorms, cold and hot weather,” he laughs.
That’s how badly they wanted to attend the event $hort called “a state of mind.” He says you could be in a room with multiple Freaknik attendees and none of them will tell their story the same way. He remembers the later years being “infested” with celebrities who were also there to check the festivities out, and the impression clearly stuck for him as well, making its way into his 1993 track “Just Another Day.”
“Having fun and you just can’t stop me/ I did a show in Birmingham, Alabama/ Then caught an airplane in Atlanta/ I heard about the motherfucking freaknick/ Popped that pussy ho, fuck that weak shit/ You shoulda seen all the bitches on the street,” he raps. The notoriously raunchy MC says he made some of his best friends for life at Freaknik when he met a group of men across the hotel hall from Detroit and Cleveland who shared his X-rated state of mind. Another big Freaknik booster, 2 Live Crew’s Uncle Luke, was such a fan he cut footage of the ’93 event into the video for his song from that year “Work it Out.”
As Frierson notes in the podcast, 1992 was legendary, but by 1993 everything changed, and though the party reached its peak in 1994, by 1995 some “undesireables” began to turn the vibe in a darker direction. And unfortunately, by 1996, the party got out of hand, with a rougher element descending on the now 200,000-plus crowd, resulting in reported robberies and assaults and other violence that caused the city to crack down and call an end to the revelry, pushing the party outside of city limits, where it eventually began to fade in prominence. By 2010, then-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed banned any Freaknik-related events within city limits.
“By then you didn’t have people coming to the party, they were just coming to see how they could take advantage of it,” says Bun, whose last visit to Freaknik was in 1993. “It was a different element and the highways got so congested that one time I got out of my car and walked 25 minutes to secure our hotel room and I didn’t catch up with my buddies for a day.” $hort also has vivid memories of men getting aggressive, and disrespectful, with scantily clad women in 1995, and by 1996 it was just a “disaster,” he says.
“I watched it go down the drain, the guys were being too horny… I remember clear as day car-after-car of guys hanging out the windows thinking they’re having fun, no chicks participating,” says $hort. Despite the grim end, $hort swears there will never be anything as legendary as those peak Freak years, especially because it helped usher in the rise of the Down South crunk sound and the emergence of Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def label.
“It just became the place where bigger artists like Bun and Too $hort from around the country heard about it and the underrepresented Southern rappers got a chance to shine,” says Frierson. “If I’m an aritst in Houston and I know 50,000 kids are gonna hear my demo and I can play a party, that’s the place to be… pre-internet it was a breeding ground because college kids from all over the country were coming there and that guy in your freshman dorm at Michigan State went to Atlanta and heard UGK or Outkast and went back to his dorm in East Lansing and told all his friends.”
Though all agree it could never happen again like it did, there was a Freaknik of sorts that took place this past weekend, on June 22 — an all-star, family-friendly show at Atlanta’s Cellairis Amphitheatre featuring Project Pat, Uncle Luke, Da Brat, Foxy Brown, Kilo Ali, Bun B and Pastor Troy. That’s not the Freaknik that Frierson explores over eight episodes of his podcast — available wherever you get your pods now — which features remembrances from Bun, $hort, Rico Wade, Big Gipp, Mr. Collipark and many other original attendees. “This couldn’t have happened in any other city and we try to unpack why that is,” he says.