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Before The South Had Something To Say: How A Region Discovered Its Voice

Much like the culture it originates from, Southern hip-hop is going to continue to grow and redefine itself as artists live, people move and neighborhoods change.
Jahdai Kilkenny for NPR
Much like the culture it originates from, Southern hip-hop is going to continue to grow and redefine itself as artists live, people move and neighborhoods change.

"What you n***** know about the Dirty South?" When Cool Breeze and Goodie Mob posed that question in 1995, they weren't really looking for an answer from anybody in particular because obviously, they already knew it — not a gotdamn thing. The question came up just three months after André 3000 declared "the South's got something to say" as audience members booed after OutKast won the Best New Group trophy at the Source Awards. It's hard to believe that just 90 days later, anyone was going to reply to Breeze's query with a raised hand and an emphatic "oooh oooh, I know something!"

You really can't blame people for not knowing. Up to this point, the "Dirty South" or "Southern Hip Hop" wasn't necessarily a thing, let alone a movement. With so many different accents, dances, identities and sounds coming from different places, it didn't really make sense to lump everyone into a monolithic moniker. There were dozens of DJs, producers, rappers and MCs from Southern cities making music that defined their area codes, but the idea of Southern hip-hop as a whole was a puzzle that hadn't been put together yet.

In the early 1990s, if you drove from Atlanta, bumping Kilo Ali's "Cocaine" or "Do You Hear What I Hear," to New Orleans for the Bayou Classic and saw DJ Jubilee performing "Do The Jubilee All" at halftime, you were not going to think those songs had anything in common. Houston's Ganksta N-I-P and Memphis' Gangsta Pat shared similar namesakes but their content (Ganksta, one of founding fathers of "horrorcore" hip hop, rapped about killing children and eating body parts) and sound (Gangsta, a producer and son of Stax Records drummer Willie Hall, started out a DJ Quik doppelganger) were even further apart than the 500-plus miles between them. An Edward J & the J-Team tape from Decatur, Ga. did not sound like a Jam Pony Express tape from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and depending on your age and address, a DJ Magic Mike song was either the soundtrack for the skating rink or the strip club. In hindsight, such diversity can be credited to Southern hip-hop's constant regeneration.

So when did it happen? When did Southern hip-hop start to get recognized as an entity? When did it become an umbrella term to describe anything south of Kentucky and east of Dallas? Was it when UGK dropped its first-ever project and called it The Southern Way in 1992? Did it start to happen when Dre bucked on an arena full of New Yorkers in 1995? Did it pick up steam when Cool Breeze branded it dirty or when Master P put together the Down South Hustlers compilation later that year? Maybe it was when Pimp C declared that he and artists like him weren't making hip-hop at all and demanded that his music be referred to as "country rap tunes" in 2001. To quote CeeLo from his solo sermon at the end of Goodie Mob's "Fighting," the answer ain't far, matter of fact it's right under our nose. It starts when two things happen simultaneously: one, artists embracing their Southern identities; and two, they actually begin working together.

Some of the earliest Southern rap leaned heavily on outside influences — Atlanta's MC Shy D sounded like Run DMC on Miami Bass beats; P.A., the first Dungeon Family group to release an album, sounded like Das Efx. The styles and the artists themselves didn't come together until producers like Pimp C began to incorporate church organs and blues guitars instead of jazz loops (East Coast) and funk samples (West Coast) in his production on UGK's 1994 album Super Tight and Big Mike's "Havin Thangs"; or DJs like Greg Street began to play music from all over the South during his radio shifts in Dallas and Atlanta, or when 8Ball spit bars like "all respect to west, big up to the east / South side representing, blowing up like yeast" in 1995 or when Goodie Mob made "Fly Away" in 1997. Suddenly, trips up and down I-10, I-20, I-75 and I-85 didn't seem so long anymore. Concert venues, mom & pop stores, studios, radio and television stations in cities like Baton Rouge, Birmingham, Jackson and Tampa, in addition to the bigger Southern markets, gave artists their own chitlin circuit to thrive in when they found themselves too far from or shut out of Western and Northern counterparts. Album covers, whether they were Pen & Pixel masterpieces or simple photographs, began to highlight similar tastes and lifestyles; artists' logos even started to show kinship to each other. And at its boldest, artists like MJG, Lil Jon & the Eastside Boys and André 3000 dared to use the Confederate flag to show just how Southern they were. Where New Yorkers would jokingly call Reebok sneakers "chickenheads" or "54.11s," residents of New Orleans and Atlanta proudly rocked them, calling them "Souljas" and "Classics" respectively, with the shoemaker eventually recognizing each of the allegiances. These connections revealed artists and their fans' proximity to each other in not only music, but art, fashion and culture.

Even though 100 million Youtube views may say different, today it's not a huge deal to see Atlanta's Lil Baby link up with Charlotte's DaBaby to record "Baby" and shoot the video in Miami. Twenty-five years ago though? Southerners were ecstatic to see Port Arthur, Texas' UGK hook up with New Orleans' Master P to make "Playaz From Da South" and shoot a video in a random studio because s*** like that didn't happen often, if at all. Think about it. You can count on one hand how many fellow Southern rappers you heard on Eightball & MJG's first albums, and they were likely already signed to Suave House. Three 6 Mafia didn't really start working with other Southern artists until the turn of the century when they recorded songs with Hot Boys, Pastor Troy, Big Gipp and UGK. Can you name any non-Atlanta (or non-Dungeon Family, really) features on 'Kast's or Goodie's first two albums? Houston's Rap-A-Lot pretty much had the fourth-largest city and second-largest state in America all to themselves, but in the early 1990s, its biggest star, Scarface, who is considered the Godfather of Southern hip-hop now, had more in common with and was more likely to be on songs and magazine covers with fellow "reality rap" cohorts Ice Cube, Kool G. Rap, MC Eiht and Spice 1 than with rappers from his own city let alone region.

Acts that had moderate profiles from buying ads in The Source or getting videos on Rap City were in a position to carry the torch, but countless other rappers from the South, whether it be the aforementioned cities or other states, were getting overlooked in a movement that was just starting to formulate. For every OutKast video on BET, there was a Ghetto Mafia song only spinning on local radio. For every Dungeon Family member getting a taste of national notoriety, there was a local Big Oomp Records or Raheem the Dream show that was packed. For every Scarface, there was a K-Rino who inspired him. For every UGK, there was a Royal Flush first. For every No Limit and Cash Money, there was a Big Boy Records before them. For every recognizable Three 6 Mafia member, there's a DJ Spanish Fly, Tommy Wright III, DJ Squeeky, Criminal Mane, Skaface Al Kapone and Kingpin Skinny Pimp who are considered Memphis legends. For such artists, coming together as a regional formation may have been considered, but it couldn't have been a real priority if they were busy flourishing or trying to gain traction in their own cities. Fortunately, as the bigger names continued to blow up, fans and record labels alike began to figure that there had to be more where that came from — and they were right. And in some cases, the vets were ready and willing to bring it to them.

In 2000, Scarface used his new position as president of Def Jam South (a label that Def Jam created to capitalize on Southern hip-hop specifically after seeing what was brewing) to sign a little-known Atlanta radio personality Chris Lova Lova who had recently rebranded himself as a rapper named Ludacris and eventually gave "Southern Hospitality" a new meaning for the new millennium. A couple of years later, Baton Rouge-based label Trill Entertainment scored a Pimp C co-sign for its breakthrough release, 2003's Ghetto Stories, which formally introduced Boosie and Weebie to the Southern movement before their follow-up, 2004's Gangsta Muzik introduced them to the nation and eventually propelled their solo careers.

In lieu of high-powered co-signs, other artists found their own ways in, even if it was controversial. In 1999, with Y2K hovering over the world, Pastor Troy had to have been thinking that the world was going to end anyway when he boldly threw rocks at the No Limit tank, dissing Master P on his independent debut "No Mo Play In G.A." While the move didn't necessarily dent No Limit's armor (the label still sold more than four million records from that point to the rest of the year), it revealed that Southern hip-hop was actually getting big enough to have room for dissing and torch-taking when torch-passing didn't seem to be an option. This became even clearer a couple of years later, when T.I. declared himself the "King of the South" as he was promoting his debut album, 2001's I'm Serious. Not exactly sure statements like that are what Dré envisioned when he said the South had something to say, but T.I. did do his part to earn the title by relentlessly touring Southern HBCUs and hood spots with his In Da Streetz mixtapes, while collaborating with the likes of Atlanta's Attic Crew and Huntsville, Ala.'s Slow Motion Soundz creating underground classics along the way until he branded trap music in 2003 — another thing he considers himself king of.

By the time of trap's rise, Southern hip-hop was definitely a solid, identifiable entity. So much that even Dré himself brought light to how "it's cool to be from the South right about now." Southerners could rap and sound like whatever they wanted to be because they now had an identity and an economy that would support them. They also had other artists wanting to get some of what they had. The last 20 years offered proof of power, as Southern hip-hop launched crunk, snap and trap — three sub-genres that have taken turns dictating and dominating the sound of popular music. Crunk gave us organic collaborations like "Get Low" and Usher's "Yeah" as well as "oh s***" moments like Jadakiss & Styles P appearing on a Lil Jon album and "what the f***" moments like Nas & the Braveheats trying their best to make their version of it in "Quick To Back Down." The same can be said for snap, where we got dope collaborations like Monica and Dem Franchize Boyz or E-40's verse on "Snap Yo Fingers" and cash grabs like "Snap & B."

Trap, Southern hip-hop's once rough but now melodic spawn, lives at the top of popular music charts most days of the year now. We've seen Three 6 Mafia co-founder Juicy J build a second career in it while Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry flocked to it when they needed a good look. Compton's Roddy Ricch is on record sayingAtlanta's Young Thug is one of his biggest influences, and an artist like the late Chicago rapper Juice WRLD didn't name Future as an influence because he's a second generation Dungeon Family member, butbecause of content, be it the drug references or the melodies. Likewise, Mike Will and Metro Boomin aren't getting tapped by Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd for the specific sounds they gave to Gucci Mane and 21 Savage — it's for a trap sound that happens to be pop now. Such staying power and ubiquity makes you ponder where Southern hip-hop is headed now and if there will be such a thing in the future.

After all, even after two-and-a-half decades of innovation and domination, every artist from the South isn't constantly preaching about their Southern roots or wearing the evidence of them on their sleeves — especially if they don't have to. Sure, J. Cole is from Fayetteville, North Carolina, has signed Atlanta artists Earthgang and JID to his Dreamville label and even rapped over a KP & Envy sample, but when Jay Z put him on, he didn't make a song about letting Scarface down. Even though rap nomad Jay Electronica proudly claims New Orleans as his place of origin, frequently calls out northerners for their hip-hop hypocrisies and has made songs with the likes of Curren$y and Paul Wall, he's still mostly recognized for his Jay Z and Just Blaze affiliations. For the most part, both Cole and Jay Elec have been accepted into the same New York doors that were once shut off to rappers where they're from.

As present, Southern hip-hop is more nebulous than ever. Not many people can actually define it when asked what it means or what it sounds like — some may even use that old cliche people say about pornography, "you know it when you see it." And as accessible as the Internet has made music now (instant digital and mobile platforms have erased the borders that plagued physical distribution and out-the-trunk methods) Southern hip-hop has found itself at another crossroads where the term and style may not be as identifiable. The sonics will continue to grow and be redefined as artists rise, people move and neighborhoods change — a space fluid enough to not just be about where you're from, but also where you're at. Still, history has shown that the "Southern" heard and felt in the music came from specific sounds, accents and attitudes. It was a feeling born at the crossroads of personal pride and outsider denial, something that belonged to you that other people couldn't just borrow from or mimic so easily. Even as the South reigns, in 2020, the phrase "Southern hip-hop" may just be as autological as it was when it first started getting uttered.

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Maurice Garland