As Southern hip hop rose to popularity nationwide, it refused to simply concede to the overbearing assumptions of non-Southern listeners who attempted to consider all Southern rap as a single genre.
The notion of the “Dirty South,” as conceived by Goodie Mob and several other mentions by rap groups has transformed and further characterized itself as a hip hop schema. The South paved its own path separate from the interdependency of East and West coast rappers during the peak of coast wars. Through a reinterpretation and reclamation of Southern stereotypes assigned by the rest of the United States, Southern hip hop commodified traditional assumptions of ‘Southern hospitality’ while adding a realistic spin regarding independent city cultures. Furthermore, Southern hip hop differentiated itself strongly from both coastal rap scenes through this emphasis on individual experience, exemplified by the rural viewpoints of Outkast juxtaposed against the urban perspective of DJ Screw and his collective.
In Matt Miller’s essay, “Rap’s Dirty South: From Subculture to Pop Culture,” he analyzes the rise of Southern popularity in the genre as a response to nationwide perceptions of the South. Rather than characterizing cities — just as the stark differences of New York City and Los Angeles were defined — to better display the talents of Southern rappers, America’s hip hop audience viewed their work through the lens of centuries-old Southern stereotypes. As a result, Southern rappers became accustomed to and even celebrated their paradoxical existence, “as the forces that have helped to marginalize them are the very same ones that can now make them distinctive (and marketable) within the context of the rap music industry” (Miller 284). From this realization, Southern rap was able to diverge into the cultural subgenres of individualism in Southern experience tied into a city, most clearly defined by artistry in Atlanta, Georgia and Houston, Texas.
The emergence of Atlanta into the rap scene and the rise in popularity for hip hop duo Outkast went hand in hand as a critical stage for the creation of Southern hip hop’s collective voice. While it could be argued that many of Outkast’s hits are inspired by and utilize the success of West coast g-funk elements, what sets the duo apart from the coasts is their emphasized slang, swagger, and style — all derivative from stereotypes of the South, and all evident in their production and lyricism. A major case in point is their song “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik,” the title track from their 1994 debut album, in which Big Boi and Andre 3000 entertain traditional perceptions of Southern life, refuting some and legitimizing others to further add to their artistic aura. For instance, Dre contends, “No, my heart don’t pump no Kool-Aid” in an effort to separate himself from the racist stereotypes of African American soul food as an extension of their personality, instead indicating that he’s not as sweet — as Kool-Aid — as outsiders may assume. However, Dre also feeds off of the stereotypes that had once degraded Southerners as he portrays himself and Big Boi as a variation of the pimp: the “Southern hustler.” Although they have soul “like collard greens and Hoecakes,” Big Boi reminds listeners that any disrespect to their city and culture will cause them to be “served with some Southern hospitality.”
Besides their lyrics, Outkast’s sonic quality and vocal stylings in this song lend themselves to the outsiders’ interpretations, since both rappers perform with subtle drawls atop the traditional g-funk beat. The occurrence of the ‘drawl’ in Southern rap has always been prominent, as Miller connects it to a politicized phenomenon through the description of New Orleans rapper Juvenile: “People love my accent because it’s so different…You like, ‘Damn, he 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 the country, and the language our ancestors had to learn wasn’t our language. So we will never speak correctly” (Miller 284-285).
The cultural subgenre of Atlanta rap is characterized by the aforementioned slang, swagger, and style of Outkast. Rather than working from the established hip hop themes of growing up on city streets, Outkast fashioned their persona as ‘Southern hustlers’ further by featuring visual elements of the rural South in their songs and appearances. Big Boi and Andre 3000 popularized this hustler aesthetic through their fashion as seen from music videos to red carpets. The duo were extravagant in style, simultaneously transforming traditional pimp wear to combine baggy, outlandish apparel that they associated with the South. Dre in particular built upon nationwide perceptions of the ‘Southern gentleman’ in his looks; he almost always donned a bowler hat or newsboy cap, and he adorned himself in colorful, preppy suits, undermining what was seen as appropriate attire for white and black men.
Outkast became storytellers to audiences unacquainted with the South through their music videos. This is exemplified by their video for “In Due Time” featuring Cee-Lo Green from Goodie Mob, in which the three men cruise around rural Georgia, playing off established assumptions of life in the South. Scenes flash of train crossings, underprivileged yet happy children playing in the streets, and black men shoveling up dirt as Green sings, “Strugglin’s just a part of my day.” At the 2’29” mark in particular, however, Outkast displays a typically unsung characteristic of the rural South: African American gospel music and its roots in slavery. Southern blacks have faced stereotypes for nearly every other aspect of their cultures, disregarding the complex question of how slavery has influenced these communities and cities. As the working black men of the video rhythmically sing their struggles under the watch of a white sheriff, Outkast brings attention to a common influence of Southern hip hop in the traditional working song with gospel intonations.
While Outkast and other Atlanta artists framed their work through a rural, sometimes stereotypical lens of the South, Houston rappers such as DJ Screw and E.S.G. transformed the state of Southern hip hop in the 1990s to more directly derive from urban cultures of the South. With Houston as the setting, DJ Screw united the established features of both Bronx and Compton urban rap with Houston’s subculture of purple drank in the club scene. In his famous 1996 freestyle “June 27th,” DJ Screw employs his musical technique of ‘chopping and screwing,’ a method of remixing and slowing hip hop music similar to the effects of purp and other popular drugs at this time. Ironically, the sampled and slowed hip hop record for “June 27th” is Kris Kross, an Atlanta duo, displaying a mutual working relationship between Southern cities. The freestyle itself presents many instances of urban characterization of the South and Houston in particular as an equivalent to the ‘streets’ of the East and West coasts, such when Big Moe melodically raps,
I’m comin’ down playa made, and ya know I’m real
I’m down out the South, down to pop me a pill
I’m rollin’ wood grain, down that South main.
Big Moe proclaims Houston life to be another example of ‘realness’ in hip hop, a complex aspect of black communities as they become self-aware of outside, white impressions of ‘thug’ behavior in blacks, strikingly similar to the self-commodification of Southern hip hop artists to fit into the stereotypical molds that have singled them out for so long.
Besides the lyrical representation, DJ Screw’s collective, the Screwed Up Click, emphasized Houston as a hip hop cultural landmark, and in doing so, worked to maintain its image of ‘realness’ as showcased through style and music videos. Houston’s hip hop fashion was almost directly derived from the Chicano culture of Texas, with rappers wearing loose flannels, dickies, and gold chains. Furthermore, music videos such as “Swangin’ and Bangin’” by E.S.G., another rapper descended from DJ Screw and the Screwed Up Click, personify the Houston streets as tough, wild, hypersexualized, and even hyper-commodified. As Outkast and Cee-Lo Green cruised the streets of Atlanta, E.S.G. drives down Houston suburbs with his crew into the city for a crazy party — promoted as a daily routine for an ‘urban pimp’ lifestyle.
As Southern hip hop rose to popularity nationwide, it refused to simply concede to the overbearing assumptions of non-Southern listeners who attempted to consider all Southern rap as a single genre. With the collaborative efforts of Outkast and DJ Screw, hip hop artists across the South decided to identify their art with a sense of individualism and pride for their hometown. Whether rural or urban, Southern hip hop artists could make a conscious decision to commodify and reclaim the stereotypes once placed on them, as ‘hillbillies,’ ‘gangsters,’ and the like, but it would all be in celebration of the self-proclaimed “Dirty South.”
DJ Screw. “Freestyle ft. Youngsta, Big Moe, Big Pokey.” June 27th. Screwed Up Records & Tapes, 2010.
E.S.G. “Swangin’ and Bangin’ – screwed.” Sailin’ Da South, Priority Records, 1995.
Miller, Matt. “Rap’s Dirty South: From Subculture to Pop Culture.” That’s the Joint: The Hip Hop Studies Reader, Second Edition, Routledge, 2012.
Outkast. “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.” Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Organized Noize, 1994.
Outkast. “In Due Time.” Soul Food soundtrack, LaFace Records, 1997.