What’s up with all the hate for “Southern rap”? When any style or subgenre becomes popular, it’s understandable that a certain amount of backlash would develop. Sometimes, the issue isn’t “hate” at all, but merely a matter of personal preference. Some people, for whatever reason, just don’t enjoy particular, styles, or artists. Yet, as far as hip-hop goes in the United States, detractors have called “Southern rap” buffoonish, vulgar, a fatal blow to vitality of hip-hop culture at large, and a minstrel show that resets the clock on the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s.
Gosh, the way some of us disparage Southern rap, you’d think rappers like Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame had recorded a record dissing Kool G. Rap and Big Daddy Kane.
Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop
(Chicago Review Press; US: May 2011)
Ben Westhoff’s Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, and the Southern Rappers who Reinvented Hip-Hop tackles the beef people seem to be having with Southern fried rap. Westhoff takes something of a gonzo journalist approach, along the lines of Hunter S. Thompson. Traveling across the Southern United States to meet rappers and producers directly for the real scoop, Westhoff taps into his skills as an investigative reporter. Dirty South speaks to the contributions of Southern rap artists through personal interviews woven into a contextual narrative. It’s a good read, and this aspect of Westhoff’s approach humanizes the artists, even if it doesn’t convert you to the music.
In fact, it’s probably better not to bother with racking up converts. The book flows smoothly when it emphasizes the context of the music rather than advancing defenses for the music. You either like the music or you don’t, so the book is a little weaker when Westhoff tries to be an advocate. I will, however, admit that I was sympathetic to his characterization of Nelly as an artist who could sell his abilities but couldn’t garner proper respect from his peers, and sometimes didn’t get the treatment he deserved in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.
Of course, the first step is to explain why Southern rap needs defending in the first place. Dirty South‘s introduction sets this up through Westhoff’s discussion of “Fry That Chicken”, a song by Ms. Peachez. The song caused a stir as it became increasingly popular. The “Fry That Chicken” video “went viral”, depicting a “jive-talking, cartoonish drag queen” who sports a blue wig, wears a T-shirt showing a huge peach, and quite literally fries that chicken.
Enter the hate…
Westhoff quotes a Washington Post columnist who felt that, compared to D.W. Griffith’s pro-Ku Klux Klan film The Birth of a Nation, “Fry That Chicken” “seemed mild”. Wow.
With the scene properly set, it’s time to bring in the “antagonists”.
Some of Dirty South‘s “antagonists” are critics “who tend to be based in the northeast and engage in little actual reporting.” Mainly, though, Dirty South‘s “antagonists” are “coastal” rappers, and the book quotes New Yorker Ghostface Killah calling popular radio rap “bullsh*t” and Californians like Ice-T claiming that young rapper Soulja Boy “single-handedly killed hip-hop.”
Dirty South does defend the heroes (there aren’t any she-roes, although Mia X and Trina are mentioned a couple of times). Four of these defenses are as listed below. For your thought-provoking reading pleasure, I’ve taken the liberty of also sharing my thoughts on these defenses.
Defense Number One: Southern rap must have something going for it, because people are buying it and dancing to it. Southern rap, Westhoff says, “has been tremendously adept at giving people what they want.”
Me: Popularity isn’t a bad thing. In describing Southern rap as the “true populist music of its time”, Dirty South aligns the rapper’s role with the mechanics of supply-and-demand. There’s nothing wrong with giving people what they want and, therefore, what they expect—that’s good business. But giving people what they didn’t know they wanted until you provided it—that’s good business, too. In both cases, there’s great art to be made. I get the impression from Dirty South that making “great art” isn’t always on the Southern rapper’s radar—Outkast, T.I., UGK, and Scarface are the names that generally pop up, in the book and in the world at large, as examples of Southern hip-hop reaching for greatness. No problem, except I don’t think it’s “hate” when someone says making “great art” should be an artist’s aspiration.
My worry is that this “populist” argument renders artistic viability too vulnerable to the whims of the audience. If people buy a song, that doesn’t necessarily make it “good”. If a song doesn’t sell much, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “bad”. It means people either bought it or they didn’t. It’s still worth critiquing that piece of art to determine its merits.
Defense Number Two: Thanks to Southern rap’s hustle and “do-it-yourself spirit”, the genre has “reshaped the idea of what it means to be hip-hop artists and businessmen, and may have just saved the genre from obsolescence”.
Me: Aside from the idea of Southern rap saving hip-hop, it’s unassailable that Southern artists displayed tremendous resolve in bringing their music to their communities and, ultimately, to the wider audience. While hip-hop artists from other areas have advanced their careers by building support at the grassroots level, Westhoff makes a strong case for Southern rappers affecting the traditional relationship between artist and label and, most significantly, the usual workings of major label deals.
From mixtapes to the inclusion of live instrumentation, from mass radio play to Oscar wins, Southern rappers have found creative ways to ensure a path to a larger market, and they often found success in spite of major label support. If you thought there was some sort of conspiracy by multinational conglomerates to use Southern rap as the Trojan Horse that would destroy the soul of hip-hop culture, Dirty South is telling you to put that notion on pause. Don’t call it a conspiracy. These rappers had to work for years.
Having said that, let’s remember that working hard to promote your worko doesn’t guarantee the quality of your material.
Defense Number Three: Southern rap might sometimes be “nonsensical” or “preposterous”, but it’s fun, unpretentious, and “always concerned with hitting your pleasure centers”.
Me: I can definitely ride for music that’s fun and unpretentious (I mean, hey, I dug Biz Markie). When Dirty South challenges the “prevailing notion” that hip-hop “should—nay, must—be something bigger than self-expression or having fun”, Westhoff claims the notion was created by “overeducated men” who substituted “golden-era music” for their “baseball cards and Dungeons and Dragons sets” and “would rather sit home with their vinyl than go out and party in a coeducational fashion.” That describes a distinct and narrow segment of the listening population. Also, I think “self-expression” and “fun” can be significant goals in their own right. Actually, if you take away “self-expression”, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot left for musicians to do.
Another angle to the “bigger-than-fun” philosophy is that some hip-hop listeners really do take the genre and the culture seriously, which is at odds with the fun and frolic Dirty South often describes. You’ll find some folks who feel like they were “raised” on, and by, hip-hop culture, and they learned to think about the world differently as they absorbed the rhymes. I don’t think these listeners are overanalyzing hip-hop. I think they’ve seen the transformative effect of the music at what they consider to be its best. Anything less, to them, might be enjoyable but ultimately falls short of the genre’s highest marks.
Defense Number Four: Southern rap speaks “to black folks in a more exclusive way than the alternative—which is not to say that it doesn’t speak to plenty of other folks as well.”
Me: I don’t understand what this means, so I have no response. If you find it persuasive, I’m good with that.