Who Says Country Can’t Hip-Hop?

Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash Remixed

Poverty, crime, disenfranchisement, sinning, saving, and no-account women: Stereotypical subjects of the average country song, or the average hip-hop song? While stylistically and culturally these two genres seem to be on opposite ends of the musical spectrum, the truth is that they have more in common than their devotees are likely to admit.

Country and hip-hop owe major debts to the Southern gospel tradition, which was heavily influenced by slavery. The soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? features roots songbirds Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch teaming up on gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away”. Kanye West’s The College Dropout features a cover of the same song, replacing string band strumming with electric organ and church choir harmony. West’s soulful voice, not to mention the song’s placement on the album — in between two tracks of pulsing beats and snarled obscenities — give the song an entirely different feel from the delicate Krauss/Welch collaboration, but the meaning behind the lyrics and the emotion in the vocals is the same.

After all, both hip-hop and country are folk musics, made by and for specific groups of people who were and are often dependent on oral tradition — and what binds a group more closely than another significant element of oral tradition: religion? And despite the different arrangements of “I’ll Fly Away”, Krauss, Welch, and West are all performing the hymn with the intention of singing their God’s praises with a song that has orally been transmitted from white to black, South to North.

Like real estate, hip-hop music is contingent upon location, location, location. West Coast, East Coast, Dirty South: where you’re from is who you are, and the differences within hip-hop music reflect these geographical differences in both dialect and musical arrangement. Country music is equally tied to place; where hip-hop is urban, country is rural. No other forms of American music — with the possible exception of Motown R&B in its heyday — are so dependent on the location of its artists.

Along with this emphasis on location is the associated economic demographic. Poverty was (and is) constantly present from the rural South to the projects, mostly due to lack of educational and employment opportunities, but with the occasional natural disaster (the Dust Bowl and Hurricane Katrina, to name just two) lending a hand. Not only does this lack of opportunity lead to further feelings of alienation and disenfranchisement, it also has a startling effect on crime, which is then represented in songs portraying people putting food on the table by any means possible. Whether it’s robbery, pimping, or simply sucker-punching your boss (Johnny Cash’s “Oney”), the exploited now becomes the exploiter.

Women play nearly identical roles in both country and hip-hop: there’s the lying, cheating, thieving whore (in country music, this is the “honky tonk angel” while rap eschews the cutesy euphemism and sticks with the oldie but goodie “bitch”), and then there’s mama, the angel of the house who can do no wrong and always leaves the porch light on for her lying, cheating, and whoring sons. Country music may lack the explicit language of hip-hop, but the general ideology of misogyny is still there, most obviously in murder ballads, but also in the Madonna/whore dichotomy of country music as a whole.

However, it must be said that the hos in country music have more agency than the hos of rap. Case in point: Reba McEntire’s “Fancy”, in which the eponymous character becomes a prostitute out of necessity and eventually becomes extremely wealthy thanks to her upper-class clients, which include “a king, a Congressman, and the occasional aristocrat”. The hookers of rap music are typically tied to a pimp who takes most of the women’s pay, physically abuses them, and exercises control over all aspects of their lives. The Oscar-winning Three 6 Mafia song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” addresses these very real violent issues: “Wait, I got a snow bunny and a black girl too / You pay the right price and they’ll both do you / That’s the way the game goes, gotta keep it strictly pimpin’ / Gotta keep my hustle tight, makin’ change off these women.” In light of this, Fancy becomes the odd feminist out, becoming economically independent through exploitation of both her sexuality and those who would otherwise prey upon it, while the Three 6 Mafia pimp exploits a girl who “don’t know no better / I know that ain’t right”.

On a more shallow and far less depressing note, there’s fashion. Sure, country and hip-hop seem to be divided into the too-tight versus too-loose dichotomy, but it turns out that twangers and rappers can unite under the rhinestone-studded umbrella of bling. 50 Cent would kill for Webb Pierce’s Pontiac. Again, it all comes down to money. After years of being a “have not”, once the struggling musician lands a record deal, the rapid rise in economic and social status is reflected through bombastic displays of wealth verging on parody: gold chains, platinum grills, flashy Nudie suits, and silver dollar emblazoned automobiles.

Webb Pierce’s Pontiac Bonneville at the Country Music Museum and Hall of Fame (Photo via flickr)

Let’s also consider the shared element of the Screwed-Up Genius Who Died Before His Time, a figure that populates all genres of American music, but seems to hang over country and hip-hop like a specter to a far greater extent than, say, Buddy Holly does for rock ‘n’ roll. In country, it’s Hank Williams, who at the age of 29 drank and drugged himself to death in the back of a Cadillac on the way to perform at a New Year’s show in Ohio. Despite his short recording career, Williams was responsible for writing some of country music’s most lasting songs, including “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, “I Saw the Light”, and “Cold Cold Heart”. For hip-hop, the specter is Tupac Shakur, whose violent and unsolved murder and thug-life influence pervades hip-hop music 15 years later, as he remains the bestselling rapper of all time, with an estimated 75 million records sold.

While hip-hop and country will always be separate entities, the genres are blending in odd ways. Who can forget the atrocious collaboration between Nelly and Tim McGraw? (Seriously, if you have found a way to forget other than “DIY lobotomy”, let me know.) Big and Rich used the hip-hop format on their hit song “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)”, and covered the Beastie Boys on a recent charity record, though perhaps a more charitable decision would be for these two crapmongers to quit making their brand of “music” entirely.

Furthermore, part of their “Muzik Mafia” entourage is no-hit wonder Cowboy Troy, a black rapper and self proclaimed “hick-hop” artist, clothed in Western wear and spitting lyrics such as: “See me ridin’ into town like a desperado / With a big belt buckle / The cowboy Dorado.” Troy’s music lacks the pathos of quality country music and the social consciousness of quality hip-hop. In short, he’s the worst of both worlds, and his recent fade into obscurity is entirely deserved.

Also jumping on the country bandwagon is former Detroit rapper, ex-Mr. Pamela Anderson, current hack Kid Rock. He’s attached himself to fading star Hank Williams, Jr. who in between re-recording stuff for Monday Night Football performs and records with Kid, whom he refers to as his “rebel son”.

Toby Keith experimented briefly with rap rhythms on the chanted chart topper “I Wanna Talk About Me” back in 2001. Former House of Pain rapper Everlast has been mixing country, hip-hop, and blues for over a decade as a solo artist. His most recent album Love, War, and the Ghost of Whitey Ford delivers a gritty cover of “Folsom Prison Blues” (complete with throwback “Jump Around” sampling) and “Friend”, a sparse ballad featuring rustic acoustic guitar.

There are some country/hip-hop blends that are wonderful, such as the delightfully infectious bluegrass cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”, recorded by the Gourds and reportedly loved by Snoop himself. Speaking of Mr. Dogg, he has repeatedly expressed admiration for original gangsta Johnny Cash, recording the tribute song “My Medicine” and working with Cash’s son, John Carter, on Johnny Cash Remixed. Southern rappers Nappy Roots went platinum with their 2002 album Watermelon, Chicken, and Gritz, which features numerous rural vignettes reminiscent of country music at its hardscrabble best:

Now fire up the weed, cause one day I’m gonna probably burn

The Ten Commandments in life, never my concern

Thing on my mind was ‘get ’em, ‘fore they get you’

Thing on my mind was ‘stick ’em fore they stick you’

That’s why niggas know, I’m ’bout the game before peace

Cause being free-hearted that’s where it leave you deceased.

Country and hip-hop are probably the two most polarizing genres in music today, fiercely beloved by fans while disparaged by detractors, so I’m expecting a fair bit of hate mail from both sides decrying the other as hillbilly or thug music. Nevertheless, the similarities are there, and refusal to acknowledge the shared musical history of country and hip-hop is mere ignorance. I’m not asking for everyone to run right out and listen to Gangstagrass, but with a little bit of effort and understanding, fans of both can live together in disenfranchised, stick-it-to-the-Man harmony.