Friday, June 27, 2008

A (Kind Of) Brief Personal History of Southern Hip Hop

Note: I very much welcome dialogue regarding the failings of my logic, history, or track choice here. Please let me know what I'm missing or where I've fallen off my analysis.

A month ago or so I was in Philly visiting my man Sam, and we decided to go to one of these crazy Pennsylvania Saturday night hip hop shindigs I'd heard so much about. The music was frighteningly underwhelming, but it was a pretty ok time anyway, largely because the ridiculous decision on the part of the DJs to play numerous blocks of songs by one artist. We were treated to "A Milli", "Lollipop", and that Baby song with the video where they're playing basketball, all in a row. And then "What You Know" and "Rubberband Man". You get the idea. There were more, but the only thing the crowd, as a whole, was into was southern hip hop. Camron did ok, but other than that everything was a mixed bag.

Sam was perplexed by this because of his previously expressed lack of interest in hip hop from the south. This development though, necessarily made him rethink things. I said I'd make a mix to help him along with coming to terms with his demons and here it is.

Click here for the mixtape or look here for the tracklist.

  1. UGK w. Outkast - International Player's Anthem

  2. Young Jeezy w. Manny Fresh - And Then What

  3. Lil Wayne - Hustler Music

  4. Ludacris - Southern Hospitality

  5. Three Six Mafia - Stay Fly

  6. DJ Screw - 8 Ball & MJG - Playa's Nite Out

  7. T.I. - Rubberband Man

  8. Bun B - Draped Up Remix

  9. D4L - Laffy Taffy

  10. Geto Boys - My Mind Playing Tricks On Me

  11. Z-Ro w. Lil Flip & Paul Wall - From the South

Now, for an explanation. First, the track order is backwards. This is my first stab at using Muxtape, and I did not realize that the order they put the songs in follows the M:TG rule of FILO - first in last out for the uninitiated, or for those who have blocked that part of their life out of their concious memories. Thus, the Z-Ro track which was understandably supposed to lead this shit off, ends up last. I still think the logic of the mix holds up, but I'm gonna handle it the way I first intended - moving forward in time from the Geto Boys to Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne.

Second caveat: as you can see in the title, this is purely a personal history. I would have liked to do more research, I would've liked to include more underground tracks, or even way above ground tracks that are just hard to find without heading out to the store. Some real 8 Ball and MJG shit would've been perfect on here, but the bottom line is I haven't ever heard "In Our Lifetime" and not only can I not find it for free, shit isn't even on iTunes. I'll head out and buy it soon, but til then this stands as a pretty good document of how I understand southern hip hop.

And here's the point, the thesis of the mixtape if you will - southern hip hop has been the most important and vital emerging genre of popular music in the 21st century so far. Trying to prove something like this through a personal history is fucked up and probably impossible, but here goes. I'd like to try and trace the music from it's regional roots to the point we're at now, where southern hip hop is the preeminent commercial and artistic force in the genre on a national level. Let's take this track by track.

Z-Ro w. Lil Flip & Paul Wall - From the South

This really could've gone either at the beginning or the end of the mix. It stands as a summation of the whole thing as I understand it. As you can tell, Texas is a pretty over-represented on the mix, even by my estimation, but I still think that Z-Ro, Lil Flip and Paul Wall on this track sum up, in general, what southern hip hop is about better than anyone else.

Diamonds in the mouth, yes. Diamonds elsewhere, yes. The subject matter here is pretty standard hip hop - displays of wealth, regional superiority, keeping it real - but how it's delivered is essential. Terminology is key to any regional music, and southern hip hop shines here. It's a fucking primer - "grills", "candy", "trill". If you didn't know anything about southern hip hop this is a wonderful place to start. Plus it's got that screwed up vocal sample and guitar line on the hook which is fucking awesome but more about that later.

Geto Boys - My Mind Playing Tricks On Me

I guess this is already pretty much acknowledged as a classic. The Geto Boys will probably be better known for "Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangster" but this is pretty obviously a better song, and the sort of song that any regional music needs to validate it to people who care about artistic validation. This is more what you'd expect to see from underground music in terms of subject matter - paranoia, pain, the bad side of the drugs. But this isn't underground music, really. The Geto Boys were pretty huge in their day and this was their agreed upon masterpiece. What is it to southern hip hop? The groundwork, I suppose. A statement of context for everything that came later, perhaps. And, more than anything else, a touchstone and a high water mark for all MCs to come.

Juvenile - Ha

Oh man, listen to this track. This is a god damned hot track. Juvenile was one of those guys who stayed so intensely regional but managed to get national recognition without watering his style down or paying lipservice to more mainstream hip hop trends. "Ha" sounds really odd. He doesn't ride the beat, some would say "at all", but I'd say "in any conventional way". The structure of his flows are crazy, and his perspective is so street level you're not really sure where the speaker stands. Does he like this guy he's talking about? Does he admire the fact that he's "remaining a g" or is he satirizing it. This is a brilliant song and jarring example of how awesome and out there New Orleans hip hop was in the late 90s when Lil Wayne, who's in the video for this song, wasn't old enough to drive, smoke, or anything - but I think we can assume probably did anyway.

D4L - Laffy Taffy

Fast forward. Not sure why I put this one here, really. Here we have a pretty sweet example of snap music, which I thought this mix would be lacking without. This is obviously really different from the Texas style, almost to the point of being unrecognizable. At this point, this is what, 2004, 2005? we have the Atlantic seaboard, mainly Atlanta, producing this minimal party shit, which gets some national attention, but mainly as a novelty. For the most part, this stuff stayed put and burned out, but it also got incorporated into other forms of southern hip hop and hip hop at large, eg. the Ying Yang Twins "Whisper Song" and even Beyonce's "Get Me Bodied". D4L, though, is still intensely regional to the point of sounding alien.

Bun B - Draped Up Remix

At the beginning of this track you hear "man, he got the whole Texas on this motherfucker." I'm not sure whether this is on the original track, or just a DJ shoutout on the one copy of the song that I have, but I think it sums this up pretty well. This track came out in something like 2005, but in my opinion it's still an example of the regional period of southern hip hop rather than a more culturally assimilated, national track. Like the man said, it's Texas, and it's a banger. Bun B, along with Scarface, is one of the OGs of this shit, and this is a good example as to why. Not only because of his contributions to the track, but the sort of talent he's able to easily gather around himself. You can hear a community on this track - or at least I can.

T.I. - Rubberband Man

T.I.'s first hit, the best beat David Banner ever made, and a manifesto for the sort of personification of Atlanta T.I. would become. You get it both from his flow and his lyrics here. It's party music, but it's still a little introspective. At this point it also seems like T.I. is content with how far he's come, which is why I think of this as being a real regional track. It sounds like T.I. doesn't expect or especially desire a movement to the next level of stardom. He's riding the beat here like he's on top of the world - he's not gunning for Jay-Z like he would be later, or even Ludacris or Jermaine Dupri. He's on his shit and it just doesn't matter. This sounds like a victory track, but the game wasn't even over yet.

DJ Screw - 8 Ball & MJG - Playa's Nite Out

DJ Screw pioneered the screwing (slowing down) and chopping (staggering) of records. This is a particularly violent example of the style. Really slow, but also really disorienting, especially if you're not familiar with the original track, which is a pretty awesome one from Memphis, Tennessee's greatest. Again, this is a Houston track, but the screwed sound (the chopped sound less so) has become an integral part of the south's contribution to hip hip at large. Not to get too much into drug culture, but yeah, you'd tend to listen to this after having drunk a bunch of malt liquor and codeine. That screwing has gone kind of mainstream, at least in the sense of slowing some shit down and the song on the JT record with Three Six Mafia, but purple drank hasn't is sort of odd to me.

Three Six Mafia - Stay Fly

Which segues nicely here - Three Six Mafia and 8 Ball and MJG on what will probably be remembered as the biggest Memphis hip hop track ever. At this point the mix starts to chronicle the mainstreaming of southern hip hop, and this track, and the video, was huge. I remember seeing replicas of that skull shirt Juicy J wears in the video on the street in New York and kinda flipping out. What's odd is you listent to this track and compare it to things that were'nt nearly as big, and you're like, what changed? The beat is skittering 808 hi hats, the topics are the same shit - lean, southern weed culture, etc. - I think the difference here is just how fucking good it is, and the fact that the world was ready for it. Ludacris, T.I., Lil Wayne other younger, more radio ready MCs with less baggage had paved the way for the old guard to get their chance and they fucking took it. This song soundtracked 2006 for me.

Ludacris - Southern Hospitality

I mentioned Ludacris and baggage? Ludacris was great cause he was never regional. As much as he tried to play up his Atlanta roots, the guy always had his sights set on the national market. He did what he needed to do to grease the southern style of his tracks and his flow into your ear. I'm pretty sure this is a Neptunes beat, which goes to show. It still sounds southern even if he's hitting all the right buttons for a national hit. Luda's voice is largely responsible for this, I guess, but he's got the screwed up swagger on too if you look close enough. The bottom line is that Luda's a maverick of sorts - he's his own thing but I think he helped warm the national hip hop climate to the idea of commercially viable hip hop simply by repping it in his own way.

Lil Wayne - Hustler Music

And here we have the emergence of southern hip hop's first geniune national, and possibly international, superstar. Lil Wayne grew up on the New Orleans cash money camp, and was growing into his style at a time when Jay-Z was collaborating with UGK, Juvenile was having some mainstream success, and southern hip hop was starting to look like just hip hop. Thus, no taboos for Lil Wayne, no baggage. He's able to tap in perfectly to a situation where the regional styles he grew up with are becoming less distinguishable from the general sound of the genre. "Hustler Music" is just a straight up bomb - this is the baby of early southern hip hop culture and mainstream money and acceptance.

Young Jeezy w. Manny Fresh - And Then What

This tape wouldn't be complete without a straight Manny Fresh track. That descending scale on an 808 snare drum roll that you hear in like every track these days, yeah, that was him, and yes this track has it. This is also Young Jeezy's best track to date, and I doubt if he'll really ever top it. "So Icy" is a better verse, but this is a better song. I had a lot to say about Young Jeezy at one point but I forgot most of it. Basically, he's an easy symbol for the commodification of southern hip hop. He comes out of Houston, which has probably the most developed, nuanced, and recognizable regional style of all southern cities, but you can't see it in his tracks. He's become a "southern MC", something that wouldn't have been possible a few years before this track came out. Add to that the fact that Jay-Z was the man who brough him to Def Jam, it's almost too easy to paint him as the new vanguard. Too many people have focused on his lyrics about drugs, and his position at the forefront of "drug rap", but leave that to the Clipse. Jeezy doesn't really care, the snowman was just an easy, and pretty effective, marketing image.

UGK w. Outkast - International Player's Anthem

And here we have the end of it all. When the original masters can produce a track as critically accepted and commercially big as this, and when the best thing New York can put out is MIMS, southern hip hop has officially made it. Compare UGK's career to Jay-Z's, Nas's, Dre's, any of the east or west coast stars who came up in the 90s, really UGKs contemporaries, you see totally opposite trends. This is how a career builds, and how a style becomes dominant. Southern hip hop is staying around, man, and this song is living proof. R.I.P. Pimp C.

This is obviously incomplete, so I won't bother trying to complete it at this point. Maybe I'll do another one later. In any case, expect a 5 day series on the search for the 2008 Summer Jam next week.

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