I run around in a world of creative people. Punk rockers, Knob twiddling noise musicians, anarchist poets, and woke dread locked dashiki wearing types. One thread that runs through all these friends of mine, is their deep seated hate and occasional ironic appreciation for so called Trap rap.I often argue that rap today sounds so refreshingly raw and youthful , that a measure of its originality is that it scares the socks of Hip Hop fundamentalists. Hip Hop today is actually in the world of music apart from Electronic music (Which hip hop kind of is), Hip Hop is one of the most rapidly evolving art-forms. The south has had something to say and hasn’t stop saying it ever since. In a sense the south just can’t and won’t shut up. The south has been so loud that everyone from the East Coast and the West Coast kinda sounds like they are from Decatur Georgia or Houston Texas. The south is by far a lot larger geographically and as far as characters are concerned, southern rappers are the Omega level mutants in the rap universe. Southern rappers like their region are larger than life morally ambiguous and ideologically complex. You have everyone from Gucci Mane’s drug riddled often violent world to Killer Mikes equally volatile but socially informed fire breathing raps. As a universe the south is larger more diverse and when people say southerners ain’t smart, who can deny your favorite rappers favorite rapper “Scarface” or the original boss of rap “Master P’s” famous independent financial moves.
Boss status is an economic idea that would be viewed with disdain by so called pure artists. But for people of color, art is one of the ways that people of color can create an uncompromising product that is all their own, at least sometimes.
The souths first major act came from Miami and the man was non other than the enigmatic Luke Skywalker. A man with caribbean roots that was Dj-ying around Miami with his own sound-system that gradually evolved into a rap crew known to the world as the “2LIVE CREW”.
The Miamians gravitated to the early 808 driven sounds of Afrika Bam and fused it with the soundsystem culture of Jamaica. What started as a DJ Soundsystem evolved into an actual sound similar to how Spectrum City evolved into Public Enemy. A sound driven by call and response, a participatory sound that stressed the interaction of the mc and the audience, in a sense the same way early rap did.
The first major southerners with cross over appeal in urban markets in the mid-west, west and east would be Scarface and Rap-A-lot records and 8 ball and MJG. Both acts where very much shaped by the west and east coast sounds. A lot of early acts from the south went out of their way to hide their southern drawl.
The southern drawl is more prevalent in the music of 8 Ball and MJG and U.G.K than Scarface. Scarface had a monotone dry sound. His southern drawl was not front and center, and I can get why he became an early hit in the east and west. But part of Scarface and the Geto Boys genius is they explained black suffering from a first person psychological perspective, rather than as a collective hell. In particular a personal and individual psychological horror equivalent to suffering PTSD. All tropes that where incorporated by everyone from 2-pac, to B.I.G to Big L.
Their whole sound was driven on a version of the West coast funk that was a lot more sinister. But the south was also economically more independent. The music was not as close to the economic and cultural institutions that where in New York or L.A. So these scenes learnt to be D.I.Y in a way that would make Punk rockers blush.
Lets not forget the inimitable sound and style of UGK a group also affiliated with RAP-A-LOT records. UGK put the drawl front and centre. UGK where stylistically southern as hell.The concept of the Dirty South is first verbalized all the way in 1995 and its a term that delineates time and place. The idea of the south in the wider American imagination is largely a by-product of the American civil war of the late 1800’s.
In the idea of the Dirty South black people are hijacking this idea for their own uses, for their own creation of their idea of a time and a place, in this case the south as a distinctly black place. This goes against the idea of the oversexed and unintellectual space largely defined by the wider mainstream culture. It should come as no surprise that the blues and jazz came from the south, and these older traditions exist very deeply in the southern ideal.
The reason I chose to take on this subject is to highlight how as a rap fan observing rap from the outside America, my idea of rap was to a great extent defined by the East and West coast’s and largely ignored the south and midwest. When I came to the U.S.A I came into direct contact with southern and midwestern raps large presence and influence. I got a feeling for how the art form worked in these regions. In the midwest and in the south groups like the Geto Boys, UGK, Do-Or-Die, Crucial Conflict and Twista were literally folk heroes. These where acts you so performing at some hall in the wall strip club in Toledo Ohio or some dank smoke filled bar in Dayton, where your looking over your shoulder hoping crazy stuff doesn’t pop off. But feeling and seeing how people revered these acts, changed me It forced me to reassess my unfettered allegiance to the rap canon. The rap canon being this cliche list of a who’s who of rappers that are revered without thought and question. But meeting people who loved Nas and Jay-Z but felt Ball and G or Bun-B mattered a whole lot more than the rap behemoths that are worshipped by the hip hop canon worshippers. This made me realize how much time and place make a form of music that much more urgent that much more honest and raw. Matt Miller from emory University emphatically states that
“the stylistic differences between music produced in different places are unavoidable outgrowths of different cultural, economic, political, and geographic contexts. For instance, Jason Berry asserts, “popular music . . . springs from an organic culture: the lyrics, rhythms, and dance patterns reflect a specific consciousness, the values of a given place and time.” More concretely, Sara Cohen writes, “music reflects social, economic, political, and material aspects of the particular place in which it is created. Changes in place thus influence changes in musical sounds and styles.”
The current criticism of so called mumble rap is an extension of the argument that southern rap lacks artistic merits, easily given to East coast rap. This is an argument thats old as time in memorial. When Jazz came out classically trained musicians frowned on it as music lacking artistic merits, the same went for Rock N Roll, the same went for Punk. One of the things that angers people about the new rap culture is its brazen disruption of pre-existing notions of what the rap is. The south in my opinion has always been forced to be highly innovative despite lacking the backing of major labels, and major institutions like MTV or Def Jam, and this spurned a level of innovation thats unprecedented. It allowed the south to carve a path thats unique and inimitable.
A lot of the arguments against the southern sound speak to a lack of sophisticated thought about what music is and does. In the East coast in particular a lot of the criticism speaks to the way people are still craving a paradigm that was established in a particular time and place. When people say some one is lyrical the tendency has been to highlight classic stylistic forms like storytelling, messaging, rhyme patterns and flow.
The southern style often stuck to something that existed in the core essence of hip hop, which is moving the crowd. In the south the venues where rap existed and functioned tended to be party driven atmospheres. Atmospheres that demanded that a rapper doesn’t get too caught up in their complex setups and uses of language, but drew the audience into the raps by creating chant worthy flows. Flow took centre stage and even then the predominance of flow is a very recent phenomenon. If you think of Outkast, UGK, and Goodie Mobb these guys could rap with the best rappers on any coast. Despite this their sound always had a very unique and infectious bounce to it.
The rappers tended to straddle the beat in unique ways that stresses flow while obfuscating wordplay and lyricism while highlighting melody, cadence and texture. For all the love the old school gets, a lot of rappers from the golden era had atrocious delivery.The fact that southerners ignored previously established paradigms to me is the exact essence of what good art does. Good art expresses a persons particular world view. The idea that intelligence or creativity can only be connected to the use of four letter words and weaving complicated bars is a very uninspired way of thinking about how art works. I often say that dancehall musicians do and have been doing a lot of what modern day acts like Migos and Young Thug have been doing for decades. Move the focus from saying precise legible things to moving the focus to things that connect because of the feeling they create. If we think about James Brown , he was by no stretch of the imagination a singer songwriters wet dream, but you felt every single song he made. James Browns music reverberated over a longer stretch of time and influence precisely because his music was simple and packed with emphatic feeling. One of the things that befell East coast rap was it fell under the spell of hyper-intellectual lyricism, which can sound very smart on the surface but when one unpacks it isn’t very smart.
Even in the east coast the rappers that went out of their way to sound like PhD’s tended to sound like a clumsy idiot trying to use a tool way too complicated for them to handle. So we fell into the trap of late 90’s East coast lyrical miracle rap. Rappers minning dictionaries for multi-Syallable terms and witty smilies that over used words like Lyrical, Assasin, Metaphsyical, Illspiritual, and Atoms, all very smart sounding words but when used in a clumsy way it just lacked feeling. Often times my favorite rap lines tend to not be the smartest or even the wittiest, but in all honesty the best stuff just sounds and feels good.For me the multi-syllable arms race just became dishonest, because using the word metaphysical in a rap without a sense of how its used in common language sounds kinda stupid. The only time I heard metaphysical used correctly in my life was in the capable hands of a continental philosophy professor who bored me to death. This dishonesty is what makes a lot of super lyrical rappers irrelevant after a few albums. Matt Daniels Polygraph website kinda supports my point, on his website Matt tabulated graphically the rappers with the largest vocabularies and it was no surprise that the best rappers had the smallest vocabularies.
Matt Daniels has a website called polygraph and they created an interesting visual about the rappers with the largest vocabularies. When I checked this out I was amazed to find a lot of the best rappers are not repping the largest vocabularies. Matts website polygraph is a publication that incites water cooler discussion about complex topics. We avoid long-winded essays at all costs, using code, visuals, and animation to construct a different sort of story, one that’s often reader-driven, embeddable, and open-source. FWIW, it’s working. Polygraph projects have been covered by pretty much every major publication on the Internet (I challenge you to find one who hasn’t!). One project was even the setup for an SNL bit (though it went unnamed). This thing is about 1 year old. Shit will probably change. Here’s a bit about why we exist. Easiest way to get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org .
I worked in and continue to work in independent radio for almost a decade. When I was music director we would never get rap from the south we got all the standard under ground indie rap stuff from Rhymesayers, Rawkus (When it was around), Stones throw records, Fondle’Em records (very short lived label love their stuff) and Def Jux, all labels I love to this day. At the time I was a huge underground rap freak and I continue to be an underground rap fan. I listened to southern rap but I never quite respected it. I had the privilege of spending my Christmas holidays in Jacksonville florida and there I was struck by the impact and power of the southern sound. I suddenly understood the way the sound worked and how it was an extension of this place and I fell in love with it. I remember sitting in a huge souped up chevy banging UGK’s riding dirty and looking at the world around me as the bass traveled through my body and having an almost spiritual experience. I felt at one with the music with the time and the place. In my mind it dawned on me that the quality that makes a form of music work or not work, is how well it gives me a sense of your world, your values, your fears and your pleasures. The southern sound is as hot, sticky and volatile as the southern United States. Everything about the sound itself is bombastic and unapologetically hedonistic while also still being rooted in the gothic-religious themes that underscore everything from southern literature to the blues. Southern music confronts ideas in a range of ways from religious and contemplative on songs like “Never seen a man cry until I seen that man die” to unapologetically fun and hedonistic on songs like lil jon and east side boys “BIA BIA”. So for me thats why I unapologetically love the south. Thats why I feel like Young Jeezy’s Thug Motivation is as important to the story of Hip Hop as Nas “Illmatic” or how Rich Gang the Tour is as much of a game changer and arguably more of a game changer than Notorious B.I.G’s “Ready to Die”.
So I unapologetically declare this the era of southern rap, but in many ways the current dominance of the south has actually led to a slow bubbling of underground acts from the East and West coasts.