[17 July 2011]
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.
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.
It’s worth noting that Dirty South doesn’t really engage in defenses of individual songs or albums. It offers more of an abstract defense of rap from the “South”. Yet, while framing the issue in terms of “the East and West Coasts beating up on the poor, underappreciated South” probably does reflect some actual geography-based attitudes, it is by no means the whole story.
For one thing, it doesn’t account for other factors that might be driving a Southern backlash. How much of the current regionalism relates to ageism, in which older fans of any region, including the South, might be trumpeting the merits of the “golden era” and disparaging current radio trends dominated by Southern artists? That dynamic is definitely in play with respect to Ice-T’s disdain for Soulja Boy. This isn’t to say that “older” hip-hoppers are incapable of understanding the music of the youth, as is commonly alleged. It does, however, suggest that certain aesthetic criteria (i.e. lyrical acumen, gravity of subject matter, seriousness of presentation) might be more relevant to certain listeners, depending on age, gender, personal taste, and exposure to specific particular styles—all in addition to location.
Those who see hip-hop as a culture have always worried that hip-hop’s autonomy, specifically as it concerns the music, will be co-opted and compromised by outside forces, be they the whims of record executives or mainstream attention. In my opinion, hip-hoppers ought to be more worried about what’s happening internally with the generational divide. If we’re not careful, the worst sort of schism can occur along the fault line of age.
Another way that the “Coastal/Southern” perspective inhibits analysis is by downplaying the collaborative projects between regional artists. Dirty South‘s introduction mentions Fat Joe as an enthusiastic collaborator, but it’s not consistent on this point. For instance, the book highlights Jay-Z for his 2009 song “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune), which takes a “confrontational” stance against “everything he deemed soft in hip-hop”. But back in the ‘90s, Jay-Z “invited” the Port Arthur, Texas duo Underground Kingz, or UGK, to guest on his song “Big Pimpin’”. Westhoff says the pair thought the song was kind of “soft”, but it became a big hit for them nonetheless.
Now, is Jay-Z a Southern sympathizer who invites rappers to work with him, or is he the dude dissing T-Pain at a summer jam concert when he says “Good riddance!” to Auto-Tune and leaves without shaking T-Pain’s hand? Maybe he’s both, but the point is: it’s not so easy to place people in categories. Simplicity helps us articulate answers, but complexity helps us figure out what questions to ask.
Strangely, we actually oversimplify and complicate issues when we break the hip-hop map into so many locales. As it pertains to Dirty South, the question becomes, “What exactly is the South?” This is a difficult question geographically but also musically. In Dirty South, Westhoff discusses the careers of artists as geographically diverse as 2 Live Crew’s Luke Campbell (Florida); Scarface and the Geto Boys, Chamillionaire, and Paul Wall (Texas); Three 6 Mafia and Eightball & MJG (Tennessee); Lil Jon, T.I., and Gucci Mane (Georgia); Master P and Lil Wayne (Louisiana); Nelly (Missouri); and Timbaland, Missy Elliott, and the Neptunes (Virginia).
The “South” covers such an enormous area and so many artistic approaches that any attempt to describe a singular sound for “Southern rap” seems fated for frustration. I live in the South, in North Carolina, and I don’t even think there’s a universal “Southern accent”. People from different states speak differently, to my ear. So too are there stylistic differences in the music, even when the subject matter (i.e., cars, clubs, curvaceous women, going to clubs in cars accompanied by curvaceous women) is the same.
Westhoff acknowledges this in Dirty South‘s eighth chapter, covering Nelly and the St. Louis, Missouri hip-hop scene. He writes, “You may ask why Nelly merits space in a book about southern hip-hop. Saint Louis isn’t the South.” He counters this by noting that Houston, Texas and Miami, Florida are not traditional Southern states but are nevertheless accepted as Southern rap locales. He also aligns St. Louis with the South in terms of sound (“bounce, bass, and buck”), delivery (“Dixie vernacular”), and style (“candy-painted cars”).
Here again, the analogy to “Southern rap” is undermined by the difficulties of ascertaining the physical boundary and musical style of a unified Southern rap identity. I’ve got no issue with including Virginia’s Timbaland, Missy Elliott, and the Neptunes. Richmond, Virginia served as the capital of the Confederacy during the United States Civil War. It doesn’t get more “Southern” than that, right?
On the other hand, I can’t see why North Carolina wouldn’t get a shout-out in Dirty South, discussing the likes of Little Brother and 9th Wonder, Petey Pablo, and J. Cole. And North Carolina, despite the “North” in its name, is generally regarded as part of the “South”. I also wonder if Arrested Development’s music might be considered part of the South’s artistic legacy.
From this, we should understand that when it comes to “Southern rap”, as least as far as Dirty South goes, we’re talking about areas of the United States where artists, for one reason or another, have had to fight for attention, acclaim, and, most of all, legitimacy. It follows, then, that the overarching issue isn’t about physical location as much as it involves notions of authenticity and artistic license.
At this point, you see the irony, right? You’d think hip-hop, with all of its past and present struggles with mainstream American culture, would be the last genre whose artists would restrict the artistic freedoms of those similarly situated. Having disagreements with specific artists is one thing; dismissing an entire category of the culture is quite another.
With this in mind, Dirty South is at its best when the focus is on the personal narratives of the rappers. Indeed, Westhoff explains, “I love uncovering details about these artists’ lives, their breakthroughs, their dark moments.” With each chapter dedicated to a particular artist or group, and sometimes to a series of related groups, there isn’t much space for Dirty South to be a comprehensive treatise on Southern rap in its approximately 270 pages, excluding much-too-short Recommended Listening and Reading lists and an adequate index. I don’t think it purports to be that type of resource, although its subtitle’s assertion that the South “reinvented” hip-hop is a bit heavy handed, since by the end of the book Westhoff is equating Southern rap with the “race records” of the early 20th century and the music of Ma Rainey. “Reinvigorated” might have been more apropos.
Dirty South‘s strength is that it’s a collection of anecdotes from a genuine reporter who cares enough about the music to go knocking on the doors of some of rap’s most intriguing artists. Using context and culture to paint an engaging Southern rap portrait is the best defense against the naysayers. As he’s focusing on specific individuals, it becomes, for me, less about wondering why he left out some artists (such as Big K.R.I.T., Yelawolf, Little Brother, B.o.B.—and anybody remember Poison Clan?) and didn’t expand on others (such as David Banner, Killer Mike, and Ludacris). It’s more about enjoying the artists he actually chose.
He sets the scene, incorporating relevant and related musical acts as necessary. He skillfully uses his prose to zoom in on certain personalities while knowing when the story needs to pan out to capture the wider musical environment. Better still, his first person accounts manage to keep the spotlight on the rappers, and then only as far as their personal details impact their music. For instance, the book sheds light on Scarface’s musical influences and lyrical references by mentioning Scarface’s background as a bass guitar player and his admission that he’d endured a stint in a mental ward after a suicide attempt. Westhoff sparingly makes his own presence felt, which keeps his voice from becoming intrusive to the reading experience.
In the acknowledgments, Westhoff thanks “everyone who read this book”, and invites readers to share their favorite chapters. I have three. First, I liked the chapter on Trae and DJ Screw, outlining the technique of slowing records down “to a snail’s pace.” It’s a freaky technique, actually, that is still employed, although it was pioneered in the ‘90s (check out the “chopped and screwed” versions of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). The part I like is how Westhoff details the ritual of making “drank”, or cough syrup mixed with soda, also called “syrup”, “sizzurp”, and “lean”. “Here’s how you do it,” he says, “though you shouldn’t do it.” There’s something alarming yet really delightful about reading a “sizzurp” recipe. Despite DJ Screw’s death in 2000, his Screwed Up Records & Tapes continues to sell his mixes.
Another favorite is the chapter about T-Pain. Mainly, it’s interesting how the invention of a device using sound waves to detect oil underground was repurposed for bending notes so they could be matched to music. From this, Auto-Tune was born, originally used for pitch correction and later manipulated to “otherworldly” effect.
Finally, I enjoyed the chapter on Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell and 2 Live Crew, from Westhoff’s unscheduled meeting with Campbell (“One Spring evening at the Atlanta airport, I find myself stalking Luke Campbell”) to Westhoff’s outing at a club with Campbell and his entourage. As women take the stage for a negligee-stripping and tongue-wrestling contest, “Luke begins pouring tequila from a bottle of Patron directly into their throats”. “Uncle Luke” seems engaging yet enigmatic, serious enough about his work to take his arguments to the Supreme Court when authorities tried to ban his music in the ‘80s, but silly enough to do whatever you’d imagine might be done by the guy who masterminded the 1989 hit “Me So Horny”. The idea of partying with him is just plain surreal, so Westhoff gets major cool points for that. Because, yo, if you’re willing to follow Luther Campbell to a club, you must be pretty serious about this rap stuff.