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The South Is Rap's Past, Present And Future

The South Got Something To Say
Joelle Avelino for NPR

It's a famous scene by now: André 3000 in a purple dashiki, Big Boi in an Atlanta Braves jersey, the pair ascending the steps of the stage at the 1995 Source Awards to accept the trophy for New Artist of the Year amid a flurry of boos from a less-than-pleased audience. In retrospect, it's hard to imagine OutKast catching jeers in any room of self-proclaimed hip-hop lovers. Yet here they were, just over a year removed from their debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, still underdogs, still unwelcome, still outcasts. There's a saying that history is written by the victors, and André 3000 foretold a million stories that night when, on enemy territory, he proudly issued a proclamation, or a prophecy: "It's like this, the South got something to say."

To understand the fire in André 3000's belly in that moment is to understand the ways in which Southerners, particularly Black Southerners, have been scorned and ostracized. It's to know what it is to walk into rooms thousands of miles from home and heart carrying centuries' worth of collective projected shame and have to decide whether to turn it up or off. The election year attitudes that have emerged about Black folk in the South — like their counterparts in the Midwest — reveal how they are often othered or erased in mainstream imaginings of the region until suddenly they're seen, called on to produce or help produce a desired result. Get it "wrong," and you will learn what the rest of the country thinks of you.

The notion of "coastal elites" has taken on a particularly loaded connotation in the Trump era, but the lack of acknowledgement of the ways in which life differs outside the progressive East and West corridors is real. That tension comes to bear in hip-hop, much the way all facets of life, for better and worse, are exposed and exaggerated within music and the mechanisms that power it. There's long been a dismissal of Southern rap that's rooted in a kind of respectability politics that mirrors that of anti-Black racism and white classism — Southerners, and by extension their contributions to rap, are often treated as though they are anti-intellectual and unsophisticated. It's rarely considered that Southern rap sounds the way it does as an aesthetic decision rather than due to inability, and its practitioners are saddled with the burden of disproving that assumption rather than the privilege of showing up on their own terms. Their effectiveness is measured by their ability to mimic the sound of somewhere else — to be something other than what they are. Those who win respect often do so on the basis of exceptionalism.

For decades, the East Coast's cultural hegemony, which delineates the rap South as inferior, has been upheld and largely uninterrogated, most quantifiably by the media. In the '90s and early 2000s, when the Source was held as the bible for all things hip-hop, only two Southern artists ever received the coveted 5 Mic rating — OutKast, for Aquemini, and Scarface, for The Fix. The magazine's 1998 list of the top 100 albums included only four Southern releases. A 2011 XXL special edition covering the 250 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of the '90s included only 26 from the South. A 2012 Rolling Stone list of the 50 Greatest Rap Songs featured four (a 2017 update of the 100 Greatest Rap Songs only turned up 11 more); a 2017 Complex list of the 90 Best Rap Albums of the '90s managed 15; a 2019 XXL list of the 50 Best albums of the 2000s yielded 11; the results of a 2019 BBC poll of 108 critics about the 25 best rap songs turned up four. At some point, these things aren't just coincidence or a matter of some sort of objective measure about what is and isn't great or is and isn't important. It's bias and erasure begetting more bias and more erasure — not unlike what women in rap (and women in music as a whole) continue to face.

How do we come to place so much worth and power in the people and institutions that decide we have little? How was it that, for so long, the story of hip-hop — a genre prized for its ability to make visible those who have been rendered invisible — has involved largely writing off and out the section of the country that houses the highest percentage of Black people? And how is that anything other than a deliberate devaluing of a people's stories, language and expression?

Yet 25 years removed from OutKast's win, a significant portion of popular rap comes from or sounds like the South. Those dark 808s, sharp snares, speeding hi-hats and moody minor-key melodies — all staples of trap music. It's been this way for the past 15 or so years, since around the time Nas named his 2006 album Hip Hop is Dead and set off a tsunami of finger-pointing and finger-wagging about who killed it. (The Queens rapper has said on several occasions that the title wasn't intended to shade any particular region, artist or trend, but his clarifications did little to mitigate the fury of those who did believe the genre was falling as Southern styles like snap and trap arose.) Popularity, though, doesn't portend respect.

A microaggressive term like "mumble rap," which has been applied so broadly it barely means anything at this point, or the cliche phrase "real hip-hop" are all ways of discrediting the artistic merits of some styles in order to prop up others. It's no secret they are most often deployed against rappers from the South. And the thrust of the intra-cultural conversations still moves the same — from Source Award resentment, to the way No Limit and Cash Money are cherry-picked as quintessential hip-hop success stories only after their empires were built (but Hypnotize Minds is still somehow excluded), to the way Trina (and all Southern rap women this side of Missy Elliott) remain under-acknowledged, to the way Soulja Boy was made a punchline as if he didn't revolutionize the way the genre could exist on the Internet, to the way Gucci Mane was shrugged off for years before a rebrand effectively rewrote history, to the way Rae Sremmurd wascriticized for daring to have a good time and make music accordingly (Slim Jxmmi'squery of "why we gotta rap about 'momma couldn't pay the bills,' and s***?" still needs an answer) to the initial reduction of Young Thug into "post-language/post-lyrical" sounds rather than an advancement of the tradition. The message is clear: Rap that doesn't take into account bicoastal sensibilities is not rap worth taking seriously or possibly not rap at all. That is, until it reaches a fever pitch, and the conversation becomes moot, the backhanded dismissals just another distant memory. When those who steer the larger cultural discourse let the pattern repeat without confronting the structures it upholds, we are tricked into buying the illusion of inadequacy; time has been the greatest source of redemption and truth.

We arrive here, on the anniversary of André 3000's call to battle, with everything different and yet unchanged. But that is not the place where our history begins. That honor likely goes to the Sequence, the group comprising Angie Stone, Cheryl "the Pearl" Cook and Gwendolyn "Blondy" Chisolm from South Carolina, and its 1979 song "Funk You Up," the first rap hit made by women and by a Southern rap group. This is no small feat, but with Black, woman and Southern all working against them, they have largely been made a footnote. In an illuminating Rolling Stone story about its legacy, the trio outlines how it was treated at the 2016 VH1 Hip Hop Honors, which was dedicated to women. "[VH1] tried to change history and say a lot of people don't remember Sequence," Stone told the publication. "They didn't make a significant enough contribution, and we were devastated." That's the trouble with awards shows and criticism and, indeed, the trouble with canons as a whole: People get written out with the wave of a pen, a rushed vote or a subjective decision made to adhere to a subjective set of parameters. Arbitrary judgements are made — like the one that excluded the Sequence from even this list due to just how early and pioneering the group was; it would take another decade, where we begin, in 1989, for the momentum to catch up — and suddenly it's as if a person and their art didn't exist.

What's been made here is a corrective drop in a poisoned well. Women, queer people and trans people are largely absent because the process of digging up what has been systemically buried — in this music, in all music, in society as a whole — is a lifetime's work; it's hard to see what has been cast into shadow. The proposition of any sort of rubric is also tainted, requiring a conscience and willful effort to work against the common consensus, to unlearn many of the standards that weren't made with your people in mind but were forced upon you nevertheless. That, too, is a lifetime's work.

The act of canon-making is difficult no matter the parameters. To make one for Southern rap is an especially Sisyphean task that begins with the arduous exercise of defining the region's borders — this one's stretches from Texas to Southern Virginia and points in between but largely skirts the Midwest (namely Missouri) and the Mid-Atlantic (namely DC, Maryland and Northern Virginia). It ends with defining its equally amorphous sounds — from Miami bass to New Orleans bounce to Memphis buck to Houston chopped-and-screwed to Atlanta trap and derivatives thereof. From a geographical perspective, the South covers more square miles than any other rap hub; from a sonic one, its expansive swath of styles account for the predominant sound of the genre over nearly the past two decades, simultaneously creating and continuing infinite dialogues.

The South Got Something To Say: A Celebration of Southern Rap called on Southern critics, scholars and writers — representing the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana and those ever complicated mid-Atlantic states Virginia and Maryland — to bring their unique experiences and voices to the table. Then it asked the impossible of them: to whittle down their childhoods, their teenage years, their college years and their presents to a handful of albums and songs. The task was specific enough to inspire enthusiasm even in its challenge and vague enough to leave room for each to determine for his or herself what constitutes Southern rap and what constitutes a canon. In emails, group chats and video calls, we still never really decided. What was determined, however, is that this list would not be ranked; that the South, which for so long had been pitted against the rest of the world, would not be pitted against itself. The quest was never about finding the best Southern rap album or song but about presenting the region for all that it has been and given to us: country, gangsta, political, silly, somber, confrontational, artful, ratchet, sexy, brilliant, ignorant and, at our very best, every last one of those things all at once.

Perhaps the most important takeaway here is that the South is no more a monolith than rap is or Black people are. Each state and city therein is alive with its own rhythm and culture, intertwining to create this glorious gumbo of pride, ingenuity and craft. We are unified by the magical light we conjure out of the dark shadow of the Confederacy, the Klan and Jim Crow. At its core, Southern rap is nothing more than the collective convictions of hip-hop articulated in another language, marching to a different beat. Crunk and buck music are the sound of righteous indignation unmuted; trap is the sound of finding something glamorous in all that struggle; snap is the sound of delight simply for the sake of. So much of what is divisive about these modes is their refusal of neutrality, geographic and otherwise. The refusal to tone down or silence that Dirty South dialect and swagger. The refusal to be inoffensive to less imaginative sensibilities. The refusal to be erased. But what is more Black and hip-hop than survival by joy?

New York will always be the birthplace of this beautiful culture; that is a fact that no one can change or take away. But infinity is the South, the genesis of all popular music mounted on the spirituals and blues of those who built this country. It is an injustice to be rendered additive when one is, in fact, foundational. To reorient rap around the South — or, at least, to acknowledge that its creative impetus has long been concentrated around the region — is to make room for possibilities. It's to begin to bring into focus that which has been distorted. It's to reject sanitization and shame in the name of fully embracing Black people and not just those which have been deemed valuable by respectability and faux ideas of liberation. To play Southern rap is to hear hints of a path forward.

So maybe this isn't a canon at all. Canon implies authority, sufficiency, finality or an unimpeachable quality, and this is none of those things. Maybe it's more an honoring or a witnessing, a way to see ourselves and be seen by others. Ideally, it's a continuation of the work that has already been done by so many of the writers involved and plenty of others and an overture to a critical realignment. The South no longer needs defending. It's here, and it's long had something — many things — to say; the question now is: Are you willing to listen?

Briana Younger is a contributing editor for NPR Music's The South Got Something To Say and a music critic whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Rolling Stone, The Fader, Pitchfork, EW and others.

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Briana Younger