Ben Westhoff presents his audience with a smorgasboard of experiences that are often overlooked in conversations about hip-hop culture.
"It is officially a new day, I am officially the new mouth, and these are the emcees of a new South!"
–Killer Mike, “Reakshon”
After receiving Ben Westhoff’s new book Dirty South: OutKast, Lil’ Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers who Invented Hip Hop I immediately went into defense mode. As in rapper Pastor Troy “We Ready” defense mode. All too familiar with the dismissal of the South and southern hip-hop I waited, albeit a bit too readily, for Westhoff to say something, anything, that would set me off.
I put away my armor.
Westhoff weaves a humorously awkward yet honest narrative about some of the voices that frame what Americans know as the 'Dirty South'. Whether commenting on the slight discomforts of partying with “Uncle” Luke Campbell – “as married, STD-free man, neither option bears much appeal, but all I can do is laugh noncommittally” – or interviewing an apparently edgy Soulja Boy – “Robbing Soulja Boy hadn’t been on my list of the day’s priorities” – Westhoff presents his audience with a smorgasboard of experiences that are often overlooked in conversations about hip-hop culture.
Very apparent in Westhoff’s understanding of southern rap music is the hustle, an entrepreneurial pursuit to get paid. Varying degrees of the hustle trope intersect throughout Westhoff’s musings which speak to the murky intersections of contemporary hip-hop with mainstream American culture. From the personal hustle to set up and execute interviews with initially unwilling rappers to the corporate hustle of interviewees like Mr. Collipark (AKA DJ Smurf), industrialism seeps throughout the book. In some passages, however, the hustle metaphor plays into standing (dis)beliefs about the inability for southern rap to assimilate into a hyper-capitalist culture. The nod towards southerners’ hustling of their mixtapes as “grassroots”, for example, re-enforces the separatist notions that Westhoff sets out to disavow.
I most appreciate Westhoff’s attempts to combine both nationally known southern rappers with more regionally appealing acts like Houston’s Trae the Truth. Westhoff flexes his investigative journalism skills, here, he’s done his homework. As I continued to read, however, I searched for something deeper than the work of a journalist and his collected stories, I sought a more critical approach to how hip-hop shapes and challenges our understanding of the South after the Civil Rights Movement. The attempt to situate one’s self in a newly integrated social network, the search for a discourse in which to speak to these changes, and, finally, “integrate” into a broader American community are some of the peculiar challenges post-Civil Rights era southerners continue to face. Borrowing from rapper Andre 3000, “the South [still] got something to say!”
It's apparent in Dirty South’s introduction that there's discord with how to include the South in the contemporary (black) American experience. Looking at hip-hop as the latest and most appropriated manifestation of African American culture to date, Westhoff battles the accusatory meme of southerners being unable to contribute to a ‘movement’ like hip-hop. He tackles this issue through interweaving his quest to find Ms. Peachez, a Louisiana “rapper” whose track “Fry that Chicken” is an internet sensation, and commentary of veterans like Ice-T, RZA, Nas, and Raekwon.
For added measure, Westhoff relies heavily on popular commentary from journalists like Kaleefah Sanneh, yet sprinkles a few academics like Mark Anthony Neal throughout for balance. While the introduction briefly touches on historical complexities of the southern black experience – many of Ms. Peachez’ critics consider her to be a minstrel figure – there's ample room left to consider how these characterizations impact southern black folks in the 21st century. Aside from considering southern rap music as a “largely grassroots movement”, little more is discussed in regards to how hip-hop's cultural production and southern interpretations complicate understandings of southern blackness, and ultimately Americanness, today.
While Dirty South can certainly be valued as a significant scratch on the surface of southern rap music studies, there are oversights that situate this work into similar lines of previous hip-hop commentary: the serious lack of women emcees (what, we can’t rap?!), little attention to the contribution of southern rappers from Mississippi and North Carolina, and the lack of rural rappers from hubs outside of the celebrated sites of southern urbanity are glaring. The recommended listening and reading appendices, spaces to redeem some of these omissions, are short in scope and length.
Although I understand that Dirty South is not intended as an academic read, the power in its collected narratives could be re-emphasized by contextualizing them to reflect their place in the trajectory of hip-hop and southern cultural discourses. While I disagree that the core of southern rappers Westhoff chooses reinvented rap music, I do agree that their bodies of work complicate hip-hop’s presence and force both critics and advocates of hip-hop to reconsider how it is shifting to reflect this current moment in American social-cultural history. Dirty South provides an intriguing and enjoyable framework to initiate that conversation.