Southern Rap as the Double Other (part 1)

Big K.R.I.T. at ACL night show.

Big K.R.I.T. at ACL night show.

This is the first post in a two-part series about Southern Rap. These are excerpts from a paper I wrote for Dr. Robin Moore’s Class “Music, Race, and History” at the University of Texas.


“This is Texas! It’s all southside so we all family, motherfuckers,” shouts rapper Tito Lopez from the stage of The Beauty Ballroom in Austin, TX. It’s a late night show on the first day of the 2012 Austin City Limits music festival and the club is packed with a sweaty, reasonably diverse crowd of mid-to-late-twenty-somethings holding blunts in one hand and Lone Stars in the other. Dancing is almost impossible, but the sea of bodies manages some convincing head bobbing, hand raising, and foot stomping. Welcome to the last stop of rapper Big K.R.I.T.’s tour promoting his most recent album, Live from the Underground.

Like Big K.R.I.T., Lopez is from Mississippi. So is one of the other opening acts, Big Sant. Young Fresh is from Florida, and the DJ for the night apparently used to work for OutKast, of Atlanta, Georgia. The second headliner, Slim Thug of Houston, TX, is joined onstage by fellow Houstonian Paul Wall (wearing a very stylishly appropriate “Houston” baseball cap). All of them proudly pay their respects with covers of Texas’s arguably most popular rap crew, Underground Kingz. The DJ spins tracks of Southern origin all night, while the MCs shout out to the “southside,” and praise the art of “ridin’ dirty” in Cadillacs (the crew’s car of choice).

Since the early days of hip hop in the 1970s, shouting out to one’s hometown has been a defining element of rap music. It is a way of representing marginalized communities, claiming space in the mass media environment. Murray Forman discusses the ways that race, space, and place function in hip hop, fostering valuable community ties and interactions. These representations of space map out the cultural imaginative of black environments; they “identify and explore the ways in which these spaces and places are inhabited and made meaningful. Struggles and conflicts as well as the positive attachments to place are all represented in the spatial discourses of rap.”[1]

Representations of spaces are particularly meaningful to rappers from the Dirty South (a concept with amorphous boundaries, but largely confined to Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Texas, and Florida). Southern rappers experience a double marginalization, since they exist as “other” to both the hegemonic norms of being white, and of being from the American North. I will be seeking answers to how Southern space is defined by engaging with historians James Cobb and Karl Miller. I will also be seeking answers to how blackness is performed and understood, and how space for blackness is claimed in rap in general, by engaging with race scholars Tricia Rose and Imani Perry. All while examining contextual quotes and lyrics from Southern rappers.

As Andre 3000 of OutKast famously said in 1995, while accepting the award for Best New Artist at the Source Awards, to an angry, booing crowd, “I’m tired of folks…close-minded folks. It’s like we got a demo tape and don’t nobody want to hear it. But it’s like this: The South got something to say.”[2]

Slim Thug at ACL night show.

Slim Thug at ACL night show.


History of Southern Rap

The genesis of rap is in the Bronx of New York City. Murray Forman, author of The ‘hood comes first: Race, space, and place in rap and hip hop, claims that this genesis is intrinsically linked to poor city structures, “misguided urban renewal projects (sometimes referred to as “black removal” projects), unscrupulous development plans, and racially and ethnically motivated political struggles,” which led to a “decline of opportunity and quality of life for many people living in the central urban sectors.”[3] These people were, namely, minority youth, and the art that emerged from this decline of opportunity was hip hop. Rap has since changed the urban landscape, becoming a pervasive, “unavoidable facet of the contemporary city.”[4]

Though rap began in New York City, it was quickly adopted by artists in Los Angeles, thus creating a bi-coastal infrastructure. In the 1980s, rappers from cities in the South (such as Atlanta, Miami, and Houston) who lacked large corporate rap representation began producing their own music, creating pockets of local talent and production. It was not until the mid-1990s that rappers started expressing an identity encompassing the entire “Dirty” South (a term coined by Goodie Mob in their single “Dirty South” in 1995). By the early 2000s, around the time local Southern producers Jermaine Dupri and L.A. Reid had become presidents of major record labels Island Records and Virgin, “Southern” rap had become mainstream.

“Southern hip hop has come a long way,” says Master P, founder of New Orleans’ No Limit Record Label, in a 2000 feature article in Washington Post about Southern Rap. “Awhile back, you couldn’t imagine a Southern record being sold in New York or Chicago or D.C. or L.A. Now the game has changed.” New Orleans’ Cash Money Record’s youngest rapper at the time, 16-year old Lil Wayne, chimed in that, “Back in the day, people didn’t really listen to music from the South. It wasn’t no popular part of music. But they listening to us now. And we showing ’em how we been doing it all along.” Cash Money producer Mannie Fresh added that, “We always did have tight songs coming from the South, but the West Coast and the East Coast never acknowledged them. Probably nobody would be paying attention to the South still if things had stayed the way they were. But then you had the East Coast and the West Coast beefin’, and while they was beefin’, the South was steadily coming up.”[5]

Cash Money and No Limit are examples of the “systems of extremely close-knit local affiliations, forged within particular cultural settings and urban minority youth practices” in which rap is characteristically produced.[6] This is particularly true for the beginnings of Southern rap, where locally owned record labels and crews popped up such as Houston’s Rap-A-Lot and Atlanta’s LaFace and Organized Noize. Here, groups of friends got to trade ideas and skills as rappers, producers, and talent scouts. Living in cities without a major label rap infrastructure allowed such crews to maintain total creative control, while getting a greater return on sales and growing a local community.

Another good example of such a community is Luke Skyywalker Records (later shortened to Luke Records), founded by DJ and party promoter Luther Campbell in 1985 to promote and support the burgeoning Miami booming bass sound. Miami music was defined by the pumping bass created by 808 synthesizers and soon became closely associated with two things: first, women with big booties (bottom-heavy music becomes connected to an obsession with bottom-heavy women), and second, the act of listening to music in loud car audio bass systems. Whereas in the northeast, one travels primarily by public transportation and subways, in the South and California, travel by car is almost a necessity. In fact, in places with warmer climates like Florida, cruising is an activity in and of itself.

In 1987, a controversy broke out in Miami over five policemen beating black motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie and subsequently being acquitted by an all-white jury. Riots ensued and Dade County state attorney Janet Reno was blamed. Reno did the best possible thing and went to visit the black neighborhoods that were blaming her for being negligent, listening and taking into account their concerns, eventually becoming a local hero. There was even a song released on Luke Skyywalker Recors called “Janet Reno.” In 1988, when conservative Christian lawyer and Republican Jack Thompson challenged Reno and lost, a bitter Thompson started making trouble for Luke Record’s most popular act, 2 Live Crew, launching a crusade against their recent release, As Nasty as they Wanna Be. Nasty was, indeed, nasty and easy to take to court. Eventually U.S. District Court Judge Jose Gonzalez ruled the album as officially obscene.[7]

On June 25, 1990, rapper Ice Cube published a short piece in the L.A. Times called “Black Culture Still Getting a Bum Rap,” in response to the 2 Live Crew controversy:  “It’s the people who don’t understand the music or the culture that are creating problems. 2 Live Crew has been around since the mid-eighties, but as long as black kids were buying their records, nobody said a thing about obscenity. As soon as white kids in the suburbs started buying them, and MTV started playing them, now suddenly we’ve got a controversy. That hypocrisy makes me mad.”[8] Later in 1990, on November 5th, Luther Campbell also wrote a response in the L.A. Times: “Either there’s a double standard regarding rap music and other entertainment or the Salem witch-hunt has returned, and I have been labeled the head warlock…I hope that these people who are pointing fingers are really standing up for the First Amendment and are not using the American flag to hide behind racist motives. I own and operate one of the largest independent recording companies around, and that could be why I was singled out.”[9] This is to say that, whether through practical, political, and legal battles, or through lyrical content, Southern rap is heavily tied up in a discourse of racism.

2 Live Crew - As Nasy as they Wanna Be

2 Live Crew – As Nasy as They Wanna Be


What Defines Southern Rap?

Since Southern rap started as individual movements in different cities, it’s hard to say that there are singular defining elements to the genre. Atlanta, New Orleans, and Florida have all been associated with bass-heavy, dancey “bounce” music. Roni Sarig, the author of the chronicle of Southern Rap history Third Coast, has compared Houston’s Geto Boys’ album We Can’t Be Stopped, with its nightmarish invocations of serial killers, slasher movies, and psychopaths, to Flannery O’Connor’s and William Faulkner’s articulations of Southern gothic.[10] And on the total opposite end of the spectrum from the Geto Boys, Gipp of Atlanta’s Goodie Mob is said to have once complained to fellow Goodie Mob member Cee-Lo, after the debut of their smart and challenging album Soul Food, that they were getting a reputation for being too socially conscious:“Damn, we doing this goodie two-shoes shit. We on every panel, every college discussion, we at children’s schools, we taking all the righteous steps, but we ain’t reaping the same benefits.”[11] At its most bizarre, Southern hip hop once united with country music in Nashville to create “hick-hop.” In 2005, rapper Cowboy Troy released his debut album Loco Motive on Warner Bros, which included the fiddle and banjo driven single “I Play Chicken with the Train.” It even reached number two on the Billboard country chart.[12]

“Southern music has that street vibe with that soulful feel,” says Dre, short for Andre Benjamin, in the Washington Post feature. Dre, who now goes by the name Andre 3000, was half of the Atlanta superstar rap duo OutKast,. “You listen to East Coast music, it’s got a kind of rhythm. You listen to West Coast, it’s got its own kind of rhythm. You listen to Southern music, it’s got kind of like a bouncy feel to it. It’s soul. That’s what it is. It’s soulful music with more instrumentation.” Speaking about OutKast’s recent hit “Rosa Parks,” which featured a break that sounded like a “country hoedown, all knee-slappin’ and whoops and hollers and a blues harmonica player Dre borrowed from his mother’s church,” Dre says that “I don’t think you can get more South than that song. That’s a South song ’cause it got an old-time, country back porch feeling. The breakdown in the middle? You wouldn’t catch anybody from New York doing that.”[13]

“My style is ghetto, project, off-the-porch flowing, that’s what I call it,” says New Orleans rapper Juvenile. Nostalgic ideals of Southern-ness, such as front porches, fried food, and Cadillacs, tend to abound in Southern rap, along with the “drawl.” Juvenile claims that, “The way I rap, my accent is a must. People love my accent because it’s so different. I’m from the South, and you from way up north, and you hear the way I talk, that flip you clean out. You like, ‘Damn, he just rappin’ like that, it’s all ghetto and he don’t say his words right, and I don’t care.’ Because black people was brought to this country, and the language our ancestors had to learn wasn’t our language. So we will never speak correctly.” Dre agrees, saying that, “I think it’s harder for somebody from the South to rap, you really have to work your mouth. We never say the whole word, so it’s hard to understand sometimes, especially if you’re rapping quickly. A lot of people still don’t know to this day what we’re saying in ‘Rosa Parks.’ Sometimes when you’re really feeling it, and you just don’t give a damn, that’s when you really play it up. You just get a real draaaawwwwwl.”[14]

Another important icon of Southern rap is money. Obnoxious displays of monetary wealth. Though obsessions with money are common throughout rap in general, southern rappers take it to an extreme (everything is bigger in Texas). In 1999, the second half of the OutKast duo, Big Boi, had taken so many trips to the strip club during the writing of their new album Stankonia that he decided to install a stripper pole in his personal playroom, the “boom boom room” That same year, Atlanta producer Jermaine Dupri held a “weekend-long, million-dollar, multi-venue twenty-seventh birthday bash, which he called ‘Can I Live.’”[15] Alona Wartofsky of the Washington Post reports that, “Like most of the Cash Money crew, Bryan Williams (known mostly as Birdman) has a gold ‘grille’–a mouthful of platinum teeth, eight across the top, eight across the bottom. He wears two chunky Rolex watches, both platinum. His earlobes sag from the weight of 10-carat diamond studs. A Cash Money medallion–diamond-encrusted dollar sign in the middle–hangs from his neck. The label has made up about seventy such medallions at a cost of approximately $10,000 each.”[16]

Juvenile and his Grills

Juvenile and his Grills

[1] Murray Forman, “Representin’: Race, Space, and Place in Rap Music,” That’s the Joint! The Hip Hop Studies Reader, 2nd Edition (2000): 268.

[2] Roni Sarig, Third Coast: OutKast, Timbaland, and How Hip-Hop Became a Southern Thing (2007): 134

[3] Murray Forman, The ‘hood comes first: Race, space, and place in rap and hip-hop (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002): 45.

[4] Forman, The ‘hood comes first: 71.

[5] Alona Wartofsky, “Hip-Hop’s New Direction: Rap’s Latest Wave is Called the ‘Dirty South,’ and It’s Already Starting to Clean Up at the Cash Register.” Washington Post (5 Mar. 2000): G1.

[6] Forman, The ‘hood comes first: 174.

[7] Sarig, Third Coast: 24-26.

[8] Ice Cube, June 25, 1990. “Rap’s Dirty South: From Subculture to Pop Culture.” In Rap on Rap: Straight Up Talk on Hip-Hop Culture (1990): 159.

[9] Luther Campbell, “Today they’re trying to censor rap, tomorrow…” In Rap on Rap: Straight Up Talk on Hip-Hop Culture (1990): 171.

[10] Sarig, Third Coast: 51.

[11] Sarig, Third Coast: 181.

[12] Sarig, Third Coast: 247.

[13] Alona Wartofsky, “Hip-Hop’s New Direction: Rap’s Latest Wave is Called the ‘Dirty South,’ and It’s Already Starting to Clean Up at the Cash Register.” Washington Post (5 Mar. 2000): G1.

[14] Alona Wartofsky, “Hip-Hop’s New Direction: Rap’s Latest Wave is Called the ‘Dirty South,’ and It’s Already Starting to Clean Up at the Cash Register.” Washington Post (5 Mar. 2000): G1.

[15] Sarig, Third Coast: 187.

[16] Alona Wartofsky, “Hip-Hop’s New Direction: Rap’s Latest Wave is Called the ‘Dirty South,’ and It’s Already Starting to Clean Up at the Cash Register.” Washington Post (5 Mar. 2000): G1.


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