Southern hip-hop part two: culture’s silent investor

At the turn of the century, the South started to make hip-hop bigger than music by advising the mainstream in a way no subculture ever had before.
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Image via Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown

Last week we explored how hip-hop as a music genre was hugely influenced by the South, yet often forgotten about. In part two of our exploration of Southern hip-hop we’ll explore how the South made what started as an expression of the black experience accessible to the rest of the world. Like jazz in the 20s and punk rock in the 80s, hip-hop became a culture with the help of an aesthetic created by southern artists.

The look

In the 80s and early 90s hip-hop had a specific look and it was dominated by New York fashion trends. Adidas track suits, Kangol hats, and overalls with one strap hanging loose dominated spaces frequented by the young black audience hip-hop was made for. Out of this and other fashion trends, brands like FUBU, Rocawear, and Sean John were born. But in the mid to late 2000s hip-hop consumers where ditching their K-Swiss and cross-colors and donning long tees and jean shirts. While New York rappers were sporting Yankees hats and West Coast rappers had their shorts and knee high socks, Southern fashion was about making anything seem gangsta. From Spongebob to Pink Panther, rap videos were filled with long white tees featuring airbrushed pictures of cartoon characters with iced out grills and gold chains.

Videos for songs like “Still Tippin‘” and “Still Fly” served as a visual representation of what it meant to be from the South. You either drove a brand new Escalade, a blacked-out Hummer, or an old school Chevy with bright candy paint or you didn’t fit in. And best believe what you were driving had “24s” with spinners. This imagery made one of the worst cars made in the last two decades, the Hummer, extremely popular and inspired the association of high-end brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci with hip-hop, but these weren’t paid endorsements.  The notion that “if it’s in a rap video, its marketable” gave rise to the trend of overt product placements we see in music videos today.

The culture

Even if not for the music and the fashion, southern hip-hop may have still made the largest contributions to pop culture in general out of the three geographic zones. The south has produced the most dance crazes alone with sensations like the dab and shoot dance most recently joining the ranks of crank dat, stanky leg, lean wit it rock wit it, that motorcycle dance from “It’s Goin’ Down“—the list goes on and on.

Dance crazes aside, southern hip-hop artists are contributing to the mainstream. For years, Lil’ John made it impossible for people to simply ask, “what?” or say “okay” without gross exaggeration. The popularity of Cardi B’s bird-like okurr even brought the rapper’s phrase back to the national forefront. After Dave Chappelle brought black culture and hip-hop to TV across America in the early 2000s, the success of his show opened a door for hip-hop to have a strong influence on what would become the reality tv revolution with the South leading the charge.

For example, out of the four wildly successful Love & Hip-Hop franchises, half are filmed in southern hip-hop hubs Atlanta and Miami with the talks of a fifth franchise potentially being based in Houston. Bravo hit show The Real Housewives of Atlanta has featured notable southern artists or their families mixing and mingling alongside the peach holders and other networks are casting shows centered around hip-culture with shows like Growing Up Hip-Hop Atlanta, R&B Divas, Sisterhood of Hip-Hop and others are re-introducing mainstream audiences to southern artists they didn’t realize they were familiar with.

Movies like Drumline, ATL, and Hustle & Flow became popular movies that saw success outside of black audiences. Hustle & Flow alone might be the entire reason Fox’s Empire was such a success and garnered Three 6 Mafia an Oscar for best original song. Yes, that means that the first African-American rappers to win an Academy Award are from the South.

Southern charm is the key

Recently, Qrewcial published a series of articles autopsying the decline of rock as the most popular music genre and like some have hypothesized over the past few years, hip-hop’s emerging cultural relevancy might be partially to blame. But just like southern folk music mixed with blues to create what would become rock and roll, sounds and culture specific to the South are what pushed hip-hop to the top so it’s hard to digest when critics sum up musical works like Solange’s latest efforts (or the last two of her sister’s for that matter) as experimental or gimmicks when southern hip-hop might be the most driving force of what the genre has become.

It’s moments like when Drake (I’m sorry to mention him again) puts out songs like “Practice” from his sophomore album that sample the very song which might be indirectly responsible for the career path he’s on that are key. The reason full circle moments like that are even possible is more than just large sample libraries and creative producers. It’s the variety that makes southern hip-hop what it is and ultimately gives hip-hop the flexibility that it has. Hip-hop lends itself to other genres like pop or country so easily because those genres have similar roots to the eclectic influences of southern hip-hop. It’s the trap style that clubs here and abroad are using as blueprint for house music. It’s the bass heavy 808s that Katy and Ariana borrow when they want street cred. It’s a versatility hip-hop lacks when only exploring the east and west coasts. Simply put, the South made hip-hop cool.

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