Inside the Mind of the Dirty South
HIP-HOP BLOG: Author Ben Westhoff trades ideas with SPIN columnist Brandon Soderberg.
Ben Westhoff’s Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop is the kind of patient, considered music book that rap fans are rarely blessed with. In a series of profiles, Westhoff hangs out and gets behind the scenes with a select group of Southern rap heavy-hitters — 2 Live Crew’s Luke, in a strip club; Houston legend Trae the Truth, navigating his hometown in an “inferior” Hyundai — rather than attempt a hedged, pseudo- comprehensive overview of the scene.
For guys like me who spend their days thinking stuff like, “Hey, that third Nappy Roots album was kinda slept-on,” the book’s a great reminder of the artists who actually matter. And for people unaware of the music, it’s an excellent, accessible, introduction to Southern rap. Full disclosure: I am quoted in Dirty South — rather appropriately, in the section about rap bloggers being a little too overzealous in their love of Gucci Mane.
Last week, Westhoff and I e-mailed about the past decade’s most popular and most polarizing rap subgenre with a special focus on his no-bullshit approach to anti-Southern rap bias. His attitude dovetails with what I discussed in my “Death and Rebirth of Conscious Rap” series. Namely, the idea that preaching to the converted is the killer of smart, interesting hip-hop, and the fact that chart success is not antithetical to quality rap music.
BRANDON SODERBERG: You begin Dirty South by framing the overall distaste for Southern rap as an “ideological battle and culture clash.” Most of the derision tossed at the genre was coded with references to a lack of intelligence and sophistication, but it’s surely more complicated. Even OutKast were booed at the 1995 Source awards. Was your agenda to defend Southern hip-hop?
BEN WESTHOFF: I wanted to dispel those commonly held notions, like, “Southern rap is dumb,” or that “gangsta rap is immoral.” As I lay out in the book, Southern rap is a widely varied thing that runs the gamut from fiercely intelligent (Scarface, OutKast, Yelawolf) to more party-centered music, the best of which is fresh and innovative. Coastal rappers (and coastal rap fans) are often angered by Southern rap on a deeper level than just the aesthetics of the sound, or Southern MCs’ “abilities.” Though, of course, the earliest hip-hop was party music; in the “Golden Age,” this idea that rap should be “about” something came to dominate.
BS: My response to the lack-of-sociopolitical-messages spiel has always been to say that the simple act of rapping was once a political act. It didn’t even have to be “The Message” to be important. Rap existed and its voice was de facto political! I think, in a sense, that’s the same thing happening in the ’90s and 2000s with Southern rap. Here is a region often looked down upon, or outright mocked, that’s developing a very specific, soon-to-be-popular sound. Isn’t that enough?
BW: There was indeed a bit of defiance in Luke Campbell’s booty jams; he said that New York hip-hop’s four elements had little to do with folks down in South Florida. “We didn’t write on the walls in Miami, we booty-shaked,” he told me. In fact, the broadest stereotype of Southern rap is that it’s about appealing to your body, instead of your mind. Though I personally believe there’s defiance built into that philosophy, saying it’s political is probably a stretch. But, still, in those early days, I wouldn’t say there was a contrarian impulse — or even an attempt to give the people what they needed, rather than what they wanted. Perhaps that’s another definition of conscious rap.
BS: That’s certainly what I was getting at in my “Death and Rebirth of Conscious Rap” pieces: The scene’s a little too focused on giving people what they “need” rather than what they want. I’d stretch that, though, and I think that in a lot of cases, Southern rappers smuggle in the “need” part, rather than exclusively focusing on it. OutKast seems like the best example.
BW: It’s hard to overstate the importance of OutKast, and many have spent a lot of words doing so. But one of the things I find most amazing about them is that they tore down this idea of what a rapper “is.” They showed you can dress and talk however you want. You can be a vegan or effeminate, you can experiment with sound and still have mainstream success. To me, every rapper since then who has pandered to the mainstream is just lazy, scared, or untalented.
BS: It’s interesting that you note how much praise OutKast has received because Dirty South seems focused on carving out a place for the less critically accepted Southern rap, especially the so-called “trap rap” of the mid-to-late 2000s. All those coke-selling anthem guys like T.I., Jeezy, Gucci Mane…
BW: Southern gangsta rap strains such as trap rap are not nihilistic or psychopathic; rather, they speak to a social order in which the law-breakers (drug dealers, criminals) are providing for the society, rather than the government providing. You don’t have to believe that drug dealers are good for low-income neighborhoods to understand that it’s a method of survival.
BS: You also spend time on figures like T-Pain and Soulja Boy, who are even more polarizing than Jeezy. Can you break down why you think they’re important?
BW: T-Pain helped permanently infuse rap with R&B. Remember when Ice Cube dissed R&B (“You can New Jack Swing on my nuts”)? Can you imagine a mainstream rapper doing that now? He also helped unite the Florida crew that includes Rick Ross and Lil Wayne [who has a studio in Miami], and has been quite dominant for the past half decade. Pain’s stuff is also some of the most tuneful and infectious music of our generation, in my opinion, though folks’ knee-jerk hatred of Auto-Tune blinds them to it.Continue reading Brandon Soderberg’s conversation with Ben Westhoffon page 2 >>
BS: T-Pain’s “Sounds Bad” by T-Pain is a go-to mixtape song for me, so I know what you mean. Soulja Boy’s even included in the title of the book, which I thought was awesome because presumably it’ll upset some people.
BW:: Putting Soulja Boy in the title was very risky, and probably turned off a lot of readers, if Internet comments are any indication. I could have included, say, T.I., instead, but it was important to me to be true to one of the goals of the book — to defend important but widely disparaged Southern artists. Soulja Boy helped tear down the studio system by making and marketing his own music, and he brought a new generation of hip-hop fans into the fold.
BS: Soulja Boy’s independent, Internet savvy also seems like an update of the “out the trunk” model you discuss in the book. Could you characterize “out the trunk” as an approach to distributing music?
BW: As I say in the book, Southerners have long excelled at selling their music “out the trunk”; that is, not just literally from their cars’ trunks, but in local mom-and-pop stores, to their friends and families, out on the street, etc. As Ludacris told me, this has helped many of them become savvy businessmen when they sign their deals. It also helps them build a more organic fanbase that will last longer. 8Ball and MJG never became household names, but they’ll always be able to tour on the Chitlin Circuit, and I suspect Yelawolf and his brethren will have the same opportunities.
BS: Let’s talk about Yelawolf and this “new South,” which I see as also reinventing the conscious rap scene. They’ve all come from the blogosphere, but they’re mostly developing a specific form of smart, edifying gangsta rap. None of these guys are superstars, but they’re doing alright.
BW: Yeah, rap as a whole seems to be wanting for superstars right now. And this new crop of Southerners might be simply embracing a niche segment of the market, one based around blogs and smaller clubs. I would be shocked if Yelawolf went gold on his Shady debut, for example. Even if these folks don’t become superstars, this is a smart approach. It’s one way of guaranteeing a long career.
BS: This new South also owes a great deal to the past, especially groups like OutKast and UGK. One thing that’s unimpeachable about the South is how they don’t forget about older artists. New rappers let the old guys stick around. It’s another way Southern rap has created its own support system.
BW: Yeah, that’s a good point. It’s important to note that most of Southern rap doesn’t ignore its history; in fact, just about every single Houston artist gives props to DJ Screw, even if their music sounds nothing like his. And I’ve rarely talked to a Southern rapper who doesn’t shout out 8Ball & MJG, even though rap fans from other parts of the country might not even know who they are. But there’s a difference between paying respect to your elders and demanding respect for your elders, like KRS-One does. It becomes even more disingenuous because KRS is basically one of those elders himself.
BS: Not to pick on East Coast rap, but, well, let’s totally pick on East Coast rap. All of KRS-One’s complaining hasn’t done much good, it seems. East Coast legends don’t show up on songs and they’re mostly shouted-out in fairly perfunctory ways.
BW: I was talking with Ross Scarano at Complex the other day about how rock’n’roll worships its founding fathers, while DJ Kool Herc has to raise money from fans to pay for his kidney-stones surgery or whatever. And while East Coast hip-hop has this problem, the South (and the West Coast, for that matter) totally pay respect to the folks who blazed a trail. You pretty much have to pay homage to folks like Too $hort in Oakland and Goodie Mob in the Southeast and [UGK’s] Bun B in Texas, which I think explains why Bun B still shows up on so many songs.
BS: The East Coast also lost something, in particular, in the late ’90s. All the stupid beefing between the coasts didn’t help, but really good Golden Age rap always had a catchy hook, or even some phrase that could worm its way into your head, simply by having a bunch of dudes shout it at you. And then that got lost at some point.
BW: That’s a good point about the catchiness in the Golden Age rap; besides the message, there was also a premium on sonic innovation, with producers like Prince Paul and the Bomb Squad, which I would argue fell off around the time the South started to take over. Southern rap prides sonic innovation above all; there have been dozens of subgenres over the years, from bass to bounce to crunk to buck to snap, each unique and identifiable. How many subgenres of East Coast hip-hop can you name?
BS: Southern rap has those body-appealing beats, but it’s not like the raps were always mindless. A song like Juvenile’s “Ha,” which you spend some time on in the book,shows that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. That, to me, defines the “conscious” aspect of Southern rap.
BW: There’s less complaining, for one thing. I prefer existential conscious rap to political conscious rap, largely because I believe that the dogmatically political artists often don’t know what they’re talking about. The strain of conscious rap you hear in UGK, OutKast, and Scarface, not to mention Kanye, has that existential quality, and it almost never gets into KRS territory. Let’s face it, no one knows how to solve the problems of the world we live in, and I’m more comfortable listening to someone who doesn’t pretend otherwise, who focuses on fixing himself first.