Southern hip-hop part one: the underrated champion of music

The oft-neglected sub-genre of hip-hop might just be its most influential. Here's why we can't sleep on Southern hip-hop.
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Outkast / Ashley Mar via

It’s clear that hip-hop culture has become an integral part of the mainstream zeitgeist. Kendrick won the Pulitzer. Missy Elliot was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And festivals like Coachella and Woodstock 2019 are featuring hip-hop artists as headliners over rock acts. The list goes on and on, but in sum: the genre that New York DJs and poets created at the height of disco has become a global phenomenon.

That being said, like most cultural offerings that were pioneered by black creatives, plenty of innovators have gone unrecognized. And in hip hop specifically, the most neglected-yet-prevalent sub-genre might just be its most influential; southern hip-hop. Undoubtedly, the South is what helped hip-hop become the mainstream genre that it is.

You don’t have to look far to see the injustice in context. At this year’s Superbowl Halftime performance, headliner Maroon 5 brought out rapper Big Boi to liven up the show with a killer entrance and performance of “I Like The Way You Move” with the assistance of Sleepy Brown. While some viewers were disappointed by the lack of Andre 3000, that didn’t keep thousands from expressing their excitement at the return of Outkast.

Obviously, the duo has massive cultural significance when the inclusion of just one of their songs gets largely heralded as the highlight of the show (not to mention that whole Polaroid thing) but without Andre 3000, you don’t have Outkast. For viewers to see one half of the duo and react as if they’re seeing the whole is a testament to how under-appreciated Andre 3000 and Big Boi are individually. Or maybe it was just a case of white people mixing black people up again, since you know…we all look alike.

The neglect of southern hip-hop goes further than mistaken identities though. Throw a dart at a list of the biggest hip-hop songs of 2018 and you’ll mostly likely hit something with a southern influence. Take for instance Drake, who had 3 songs in the top 10 of Billboard’s most recent year-end Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.

The Sound

There’s no denying that Drake is talented but one thing he is known for is adopting sounds from other artists or sub-cultures and making them his own. Although when you’re from Toronto, you may not have any other options. Regardless, his music and especially his singles go viral almost instantaneously, top charts, and garner Genius articles about how he’s changing the game. Drake is a great artist, and the spin he puts on these sounds is always pleasing to the ear, but the foundation he builds on is not his own.

Barring some hits like “Controlla” or “Hotline Bling”, many of Drake’s samples are littered with southern influences. “Nice For What” may overtly scream ‘Lauryn Hill’ to the uninitiated, but it’s the first words uttered on the track that signal its southern influences. That memorable opening line of “I wanna know who mothafuckin’ representin’ in here tonight / Hold on, hold on” belong to New Orleans Bounce Queen Big Freedia. Unless you’re from the surrounding areas or a fan of the unique New Orleans bounce sound, you may only know Big Freedia from her cornbread and collard green fame featured on Beyonce’s controversial track “Formation”. But Big Freedia, along with other bounce artists, are just a fraction of hip-hop influences coming out of the south. “In My Feelings”, yet again another Drake hit, is built around Magnolia Shorty’s bounce remix of “Smoking Gun” by Jadakiss.

New Orleans isn’t alone in this under-appreciated inspiration but it may have been how the south became the silent investor of mainstream music that it is.

Historically, hip-hop has had an east coast/west coast dichotomy with southern hip-hip getting few mentions and this might be due to the fact that southern hip-hop isn’t just one sound. From the trap beats of Texas to the Latin infused 808s of Florida there’s a wide range of eclectic sounds, all of which are creating legacies that rival those of New York and Cali, especially in the last 20 years.

While the 90s belonged to labels like Bad Boy, Def Jam, Rock-a-fella, Death Row, and Aftermath, the early 2000s saw a major shift where music groups based in the south started to gain popularity and sell records with the same street smarts that guided the likes of Diddy and Dr. Dre. This big bang can be traced back to what might be the most recognizable intro to any hip-hop song in the past 25 years. He may not have known it but when Juvenile said “Cash Money Records taking over for the ’99 & the 2000” he meant it. And what ensued was a revolution, not only for what would become hip-hop powerhouse YMCMB but for other brands who had been making local noise.

The success of “Back Dat Azz Up” introduced the general population to a different section of hip-hop that wasn’t born out of the rap battle culture of the east or the in your face attitude of the west. Southern hip-hop was about one thing and one thing only; the club. While committed artists were known for their lyricism and word play, if it didn’t make you dance then it probably didn’t gain any traction on radio and Mannie Fresh knew this when he produced the Juvenile hit.

He told Genius in an interview celebrating the song’s 20th birthday “I would say the way I produce is definitely from a club DJ’s perspective because I like it when people dance. I like it when they move. I notice certain sounds, the way certain drops happen in songs, and the way they format it made a difference on the dance floor.”

“Back Dat Azz Up” served as a gateway drug to the various cultures of the south and it wasn’t long before songs just as raw and unfiltered were topping the charts. 1999 saw songs like “Nann“, “Watch For The Hook“, and “It Ain’t My Fault 2/Somebody Like Me” dominated rap and hip hop radio. By this time Atlanta had already become known as the “The Motown of the South” and up and coming rap and hip-hop artists used the city to get their music to rest of the country. TLC, Outkast and Goodie Mob where popular representations of the culture and their success meant more opportunities for everyone else. New found mainstream success put labels like Cash Money on the map.

In Texas, Houston became a cultural arena shining a light on music groups like Swishahouse. Artists like Paul Wall and Mike Jones (who?) introduced the laid-back, repetitive riding music that Texas had cultivated and made the chopped and screwed style of trap an often imitated but never duplicated facet of southern hip-hop. In Louisiana Master P’s No Limit Records was doing similar feats after an unsuccessful run in California, cranking out lengthy albums that showcased collaborations by many of the label’s artists. This helped cities like Houston and Atlanta become launching pads for music artists. All of a sudden it wasn’t LA or New York that young talent was rushing to in hopes of making it big. That had a lasting impact on the industry.

By 2003, rappers were vying for the title “King of the South”, a thrown previously uncontested because it didn’t hold much weight in hip-hop. The moniker, now famously associated with rapper T.I. is the legitimate result of Myspace polls and hip-hop magazine articles alike, many of which pitted him against rapper Lil’ Wayne for top spot. The challenge alone goes to show that southern hip-hop was becoming a recognizable subculture worth claiming. That’s all without the mention of artists like T-Pain, The-Dream, Lil’ Jon and Jazze Pha who were either writing, producing, or singing on the most popular tracks of the aughts, and not just within the confines of hip-hop.

Once the south solidified it’s place in hip-hop and the larger music industry, the genre expanded in ways it hadn’t since the 80s. Hip-hop is more than just the music, of course. In part two, we’ll explore the other facets of southern’s hip-hop’s sway over the scene and how it made hip-hop as a whole, the number one genre.

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