Back in 2013, SPIN published an exhaustive history of the relationship between rap and country music. It was the time of “Accidental Racist,” when a country star (Brad Paisley) and old rapper (LL Cool J) coming together to talk about the state of prejudice in the American south was momentarily the hottest topic in pop culture—either because you found it productive, ridiculous, offensive, or some combination of the three. The premise of the song was based in part on the idea that there was something inherently novel about a collaboration between a white country singer and a black rapper, but this list showed that, in truth, it was the opposite. The last five years have only further exposed “Accidental Racist” as a farce, with rap and country continuing to mingle in far more interesting ways. The capstone, of course, is the remix to “Old Town Road,” in which two disparate artists from different generations come together to find a very happy place where rap and country can coexist (memes, mostly). In honor of the runaway success of “Old Town Road,” we have decided to republish the country-rap list in its original form, with some new additions to reflect recent history. Read it till you can’t no more.
1927-1978: The Pre-History
If you really explore the pre-history of country rap, you’ll wind up wandering down some unsettling abandoned corridors, leading back to a time long before not only rap, but even country, existed — a time when the racism in American popular music was anything but accidental. To get there, though, you’ll need to start with the talking blues — a rhythmic, rhyming, humorously yarn-spinning spoken vocal style you’ve heard if you’ve heard much early Bob Dylan, or Johnny Cash‘s 1969 “A Boy Named Sue,” or C.W. McCall‘s pop-chart-topping 1975 CB-radio novelty “Convoy” (which itself inspired a long-forgotten wave of country Citizen’s Band raps, only a few years before “Rapper’s Delight”: advertising exec Cledus Maggard‘s “The White Knight,” Johnny Hemphill‘s “The Handles Hall of Fame,” Mac Wiseman‘s “Listenin’ C.B. Blues,” etc.) Talking blues were all over country, and frequently crossed over to pop, in the ’60s and ’70s: “Hot Rod Lincoln” for Johnny Bond in 1960 and then for Commander Cody in 1972; “Big Bad John” for Jimmy Dean in 1961; “Ringo” for Bonanza actor Lorne Greene in 1964; “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died” — as absurdist as anything by Beck — for Roger Miler in 1966. Ex-Dylan sideman Charlie Daniels made a career of out of them, though he never sounded rappier than in his first charting single, the uncharacteristically left-leaning “Uneasy Rider,” which went top 10 pop in 1973 then seemingly went on to inspire the cadence that Southern soul artist turned X-rated proto-rapper (and “Convoy” parodist) Blowfly flew with in his 1980 single “Blowfly’s Rapp.”
Dylan may have nicked his own rap flow from mid-’40s Woody Guthrie or early-’50s Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, but talking blues officially dates back to 1927, when mandolin-wieding South Carolina car mechanic Chris Bouchillon was recording in Atlanta, and an A&R director found his singing skills lacking, so he suggested Bouchillon just talk the words instead. Countless “Talking Blues” imitators ensued: usually white (Coley Jones and “Talking” Billy Anderson were rare black exceptions) and generally “not really blues at all, except in name,” Nick Tosches argues in Where Dead Voices Gather, his 2001 book about the hugely influential second-quarter-of-20th-Century blackface minstrel Emmett Miller (who we’ll return to). According to Tosches, one of the style’s few blues-based practitioners was Herschel Brown, who followed his own 1928 “New Talking Blues” (which, like Bouchillon’s, confusingly discussed not needing to work hard when one has “a gal in the white folks’ yard”) with two records that added an ugly n-word to the title. Which might not be surprising, given where talking blues came from: The form had “likely been around, in songster tradition and on the minstrel circuit, longer than could ever be known,” Tosches writes. “Its age might be measured in centuries.”
“The impulse to chant with a rhythmic background is probably as old as human culture,” Don Kent notes to the Yazoo Records’ 1996 compilation The Roots Of Rap: Classic Recordings of the 1920s and ’30s, citing church sermons and work songs as well as vaudeville and medicine shows as relevant to rap’s evolution. But minstrel is key: frequently fast-talking country guitarist Jerry Reed‘s funkiest hit, “Uptown Poker Club” from 1974, was actually a revival of Bahamian blackface superstar Bert Williams’ atypically razor-toting 1914 “Darktown Poker Club”; Reed’s top 10 pop 1971 country rap “When You’re Hot You’re Hot” concludes with offensive muttered asides about welfare checks and Cadillacs, just a year after Guy Drake hit the Hot 100 with a disturbingly stereotyped talking blues called “Welfare Cadillac.” Conversely, African-American Memphis funk pioneer and Rabbit Foot Minstrels veteran Rufus Thomas‘ 1964 rap progenitor “Jump Back” (charted No. 49 pop) revived rhymes that date back to white blackface originator Thomas “Daddy” Rice’s 1828 “Jump Jim Crow,” the opening shot of the minstrel era. And in 1936, Emmett Miller— a white Georgia blackface singer whose yodeling falsetto tics immeasurably inspired Hank Williams, Bob Wills, and Merle Haggard — dueted with Gene Cobb on “The Gypsy,” and the way they trade off lines sounds as much like rap music, proper, as nearly anything waxed before 1979. Even decades after America had swept minstrel’s burnt cork under the rug, aging hillbillies like Harmonica Frank (“Swamp Root,” 1951), Cowboy Copas (“Alabam,” 1960) and Hee Haw comedian Junior Samples were making hay with talk-rhyme routines that, consciously or not, clearly channeled rhythms and most likely shticks from the Great Depression, if not the 19th Century.
None of which is to suggest that country rap is inherently racist; just that navigating its origins is a daunting obstacle course. Black precedents are even more elusive, since most white ones were ostensibly mimicking black music in the first place, but maybe these qualify: ska toaster Prince Buster galloping into Dallas in 1964’s “Texas Hold-Up”; Parliament yodeling and yelling through 1970’s “Little Ole Country Boy”; jazz-funk bassist Bad Bascomb tossing square-dance calls in 1972’s “Black Grass”; Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown bluesifying Jerry Reed’s raging-Cajun smash “Amos Moses” in 1975; Isaac Hayes and Solomon Burke introducing their respective covers of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” with soul monologues — in fact, during the years leading up to “Rapper’s Delight,” plenty of R&B artists (Shirley Brown, Millie Jackson, Swamp Dogg, Joe Tex, Bobby Womack) dabbled in both soul-rapping and country, if usually not simultaneously. And those are only the names we’ve tracked down. Back in the ancient unrecorded crevices of time, there are country rappers — black and white — that we’ll never know. CHUCK EDDY
1980: Kurtis Blow – “Way Out West”
The decked-out disco dude that Kurtis Blow describes in this song as wearing “a Stetson hat with a band of gold” would be called, in country parlance, a “drugstore cowboy” — the kind of person whose clothes ain’t got a lick of dirt on ’em cause they never spent any time in the field or on a horse. In hip-hop, though, Blow’s Harlem-reppin’ fish-out-of-water is the coolest, so when he drives westward, he avoids a “showdown” with a Gucci loafer-wearing stranger named Ganamede by rockin’ him on the mic. It’s a classic narrative in the style of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and for people who love to talk about how rap and country aren’t that different, here’s Exhibit A. You can forgive the fact that the “country” guitar is actually playing a classic flamenco riff. JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD
1980: Trickeration – “Western Gangster Town”
Evidently named after some Cab Calloway jive, mysterious B-boy pair Trickeration made only one 12-inch, and that was short by 1980 rap standards — each side fits both songs. “Rap, Bounce, Rockskate,” less than five minutes of rapping slung atop Vaughan Mason’s almost identically titled roller-disco jam, partially concerns a restless country cousin who moves to the city and learns to skate. But “Western Gangster Town,” a mere 3:27, is cowboy rap’s Rosetta stone, and probably the first “gangster” rap (four years before Schoolly D’s “Gangster Boogie”): Disco Rick visits an old-time burg where everybody carries guns; after the clock strikes high noon, he smokes cheeba with a fly young lady in a house of ill repute. When her six-foot-four-inch boyfriend walks in upstairs, Rick presses a heater to his head, but the big guy remembers seeing him onstage in Tennessee “and you’re the baddest MC since Deadeye Dick,” so everybody gets out alive. Then Basic warns city kids about doing jail time for ripping off subway passengers (based on his own personal experience). There’s way more packed in, and the backing groove feels downright earthy, but the disc does its business quick, and it’s as propulsive as old-school — maybe any school — ever got. And though the two teens were barely heard from again, their record jumpstarted Sound of New York label co-founder Gene Griffin’s career, which would stretch from Indeep’s “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” to New Jack Swing with Teddy Riley and Guy to Pastor Troy’s Georgia hip-hop. C.E.
1982: Malcolm McLaren – “Buffalo Gals”
The original “Buffalo Gals” was a blackface number from 1844; Mark Twain called it “rudely comic,” and it proved geographically flexible (listed as “Charleston Gals” in 1867’s abolitionist-assembled but misleadingly named Slave Songs Of The United States). And it never went away: Homer Simpson even sang it once. Malcolm McLaren, the P.T. Barnum of punk rock, typically passing off hucksterism as anthropology sometime between appropriating mbaqanga and Madame Butterfly, borrowed the ancient minstrel standard’s title in 1982 as a frame for conflating the World Famous Supreme Team’s turntablism with square-dance calls: Go ’round the outside, do-si-do your partners, all that scratchin’ makin’ you itch. On his 1988 compilation Buffalo Gals: Back To School, McLaren says he’d personally discovered hip-hop in 1980 by running into Afrika Bambaataa (“Huge black guy — massive man”), who was wearing a Sex Pistols shirt on a Harlem street. Who knows if that’s reliable; what’s undeniable, though, is that more than 100 records have sampled “Buffalo Gals” since: Beastie Boys, Neneh Cherry, Cypress Hill, Eminem, J Dilla, Madlib, Schoolly D, Skee-Lo, Snoop Dogg, “Weird Al” Yankovic, on and on to the break of dawn and then some. C.E.
1982: Disco Four – “Country Rock and Rap”
After lush singles like “Move to the Groove” and “Do It, Do It,” Harlem quintet(!) Disco Four decided their next move was to be “kings of the barnyard swing.” Pumpkin, the mysteriously named arranger and multi-instrumentalist to the old-school elite, had worked up a disco-ready version of Bad Bascomb’s 1972 single “Black Grass” — itself a jazz-funk-gone-hayseed stepping stone to hick-hop’s future. But the recipe for “Country Rap and Rock” was right in the lyrics: “We slowed down the pace / Jazzed up the bass / And put the banjo in the guitar’s place.” And that banjo was played by the same guy who played it on Bascomb’s record, according to Disco Four’s Greg G. “We kept trying to play it, but it wouldn’t work, so we got the real banjo player,” he told The Foundation blog. “I went and looked at the credits, and I called the company and he came, and he played it live for us.” With fly banjo in place, the crew moved forward “yippee-ay-aye”-ing, do-si-do-ing, and doing the funkiest hip-hop hee-hawing this side of Missy Elliot. CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN
1985: Rappin’ Duke – “Rappin’ Duke”
John Wayne reimagined as a hip-hop originator who only rassled cattle part-time seems like a far-out concept, even for an era in which a Hollywood actor was elected president and fashion was going through a ’50s-loving movement so weird they termed it “Cowboys and Poodles.” Rappin Duke clearly had something going on when he name-checked “Suwanee River” and riffed “‘Retha Franklin, wanna rock ya ‘Retha Franklin!” for a good part of the song, because something definitely clicked — this little novelty single was later name-checked in Biggie’s iconic “Juicy.” But for 30 years, the Duke has felt misunderstood. In 2004, he told thestateofyo.com, “I wanted to make people aware of President Reagan’s indiscretions at the time. Of course, I didn’t happen to name any of these indiscretions and I had some superfluous mentions of Aretha Franklin and Scooby-Doo, but I intended for it to be a political record. Really.” We believe you, Duke, because nothing else could explain it. J.E.S.
1986: The Bellamy Brothers – “Country Rap”
Shamelessly harmonizing Florida sunbelt-billy siblings Howard and David Bellamy might not have been the only country act to rap in the ’80s, or even the first — check out, for instance, most of 1982’s The Bird by Jerry Reed, though to be fair he was already pretty much rapping before rap existed. Ricky Skaggs’ 1985 “Country Boy” video even featured kids breakdancing to bluegrass on a New York subway (not to mention Ed Koch lip-synching). But the Bellamys were more blatant about it: “Country Rap” wasn’t just a No. 31 country-charting single; it was the title track to their No. 21 country-charting 1986 album. Hey, why not? They’d already had a hit called “Get Into Reggae Cowboy,” right? And their rap had a tangible backbeat, albeit not far from the swampy one Jim Stafford had stuck under his huge pop version of David Bellamy’s “Spider And Snakes” in 1973. They rhyme about what they know, or pretend to know: farm animals, soul food, pickup trucks, redneck girls, rowdy bars, cows for sale. “An unlikely hybrid,” Walter Carter opined in the notes to the Bellamys’ 1989 Greatest Hits Volume III, “combining the traditional country concept of ‘recitation’ (rapping) with a decidedly hip urban form.” Well, sort of. C.E.
1988: Sir Mix-A-Lot – “Buttermilk Biscuits”/”Square Dance Rap”
Seattle’s big butt man did not come from the South, but he sure sounded like it sometimes. Even beyond the hick shtick, these two tracks from his debut album Swass are the kind of late-period cartoon-voiced robo-rap usually associated with Miami. Sir Mix is repeatedly called a “cotton picker” (evoking not just the South, but the plantation), and we are told the following locations “rock”: Seattle, L.A., Miami, D.C., Carolina, Houston, London, and Your Mama. Before that, and before a B.B. King sample and some human beatboxing, but after complaints about “everybody rappin’ ’bout welfare line,” a yee-hawing yokel instructs us to grab our partners’ derrieres where the sun don’t shine and do-si-do. The likewise hillbilly-toned “Buttermilk Biscuits” recommends grabbing some lovin’ while said biscuits are in the oven, eating them with KFC, and, most audaciously, “From L.A. to Carolina / Drop them suckers in Aunt Jemima,” thus referencing in one fell swoop both breakfast syrup and one of America’s most enduring racially stereotyped figures — a full 99 years after Missouri newspaper editor Chris Rutt heard the probably African American-composed minstrel song “Old Aunt Jemima” performed in red-bandana drag by a blackface duo, whereupon he trademarked the name for his pancake mix. C.E.
1989: De La Soul – Three Feet High and Rising
Although it was your overeager college roommate who first informed you that Johnny Cash was, like, as hip-hop as it gets, it was De La Soul who first put him on a track, borrowing a line from “Five Feet High and Rising” — a record pulled from the collection of Dave “Trugoy” Jolicoeur’s dad — for the end of their single “The Magic Number.” There, the Man in Black found himself in conversation not only with Plugs 1 through 3, but with Eddie Murphy, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the Fatback Band, and Schoolhouse Rock. “I can hear four individuals who didn’t give a damn about the rules and just went in and had a good time,” Jolicoeur would later say of the record. And the Plugs really threw out the rules when they laced the album’s “Potholes in My Lawn” with actual yodeling, which came from Parliament’s 1970 hick-hop precursor “Little Ole Country Boy,” wherein the young funkateers toyed with jaw harp, slide guitar, and yodel-oh-ooh-hee. NICK MURRAY
1989: Special Ed: – “Hoedown”
Yes, as in “pimps up…” On the B-side to his iconic 1989 single “I Got It Made,” Brooklyn rapper Special Ed straddled a banjo riff and rode it off into the sunset of the most obvious joke imaginable: “This hoe was low down / And this is the hoedown.” More artful, however, was the use of a country-fried drum-and-banjo loop pulled from jazz-funk bassist Wilbur “Bad” Bascomb’s 1972 single “Black Grass,” a track known for its inclusion on the very first volume of sample bedrock series Ultimate Breaks & Beats. “Hoedown” does what hip-hop, in all its grab-from-anywhere glory, can do like no other music: forging connections between seemingly disparate cultures: It’s a B-boy jam that found the perfect beat in an obscure bassist creating a twisted mutation of bluegrass. In doing so, Special Ed and producer Hitman Howie Tee implicitly made the point that line-dancing ain’t all that different from breakdancing. BRANDON SODERBERG
1990: One Cause One Effect – “Country Rap”
High-octane shout-dance duo One Cause One Effect was one of many artists signed to Hammer’s Bust-It Records imprint in the post “U Can’t Touch This” pop-rap boom. Unfortunately, they are remembered about as well as Ho Frat Ho!, B Angie B, and the other artists who didn’t exactly pull an Oaktown’s 3.5.7. and get immortalized in a Biggie freestyle. If One Cause One Effect’s short MTV run was any indication, they were out to end American drug abuse through enormous pants and songs like “Up With Hope, Down With Dope.” The 125-second chaser to their lone album, Drop the Axxe, is a giddy goof called “Country Rap,” full of drowned-out freestyling, chirping turntables, moist beatboxing, a stuttering sample of Southern child James Brown, and some barnstorming acoustic guitars — actually an 8-bar blues played after they shout out Chicago blues artist Muddy Waters — but the country vibes are certainly felt when they spell M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. C.W.
1991: Son of Bazerk – “Change the Style”
The twisted, sample-slammed, head-banging product of the post-“Terrordome” Bomb Squad and some high-energy Long Island pals, Son of Bazerk’s 1991 album Bazerk, Bazerk, Bazerk is a singular piece of golden-era noise-funk — if Public Enemy were the “I’m Black and I’m Proud” James Brown of 1988, Bazerk were the “Hot Pants” Bobby Byrd of 1991. Their Yo! MTV Raps staple “Change the Style” was basically an ADD-damaged flip though an imaginary radio dial — at the drop of a dime, the crew dives into Yellowman-style reggae, a syrupy doo-wop ballad, and an uncut blast of smoking-hot, snot-rocketing California hardcore punk. But the whole thing starts with eight seconds of country twang — actually a riff borrowed from the Temptations’ not-really-country-at-all 1966 “(I Know) I’m Losing You” — but don’t tell that to the group, who seem to have filmed the first moments of the song’s video at the “Whip It” ranch, plucking banjos, chewing straw, and wearing cowboy hats, overalls, and bandanas. C.W.
1996: Crucial Conflict – “Hay”/”Ride the Rodeo”
Coldhard, Kilo, Never, and Wildstyle — Chicago princes of the Box video era — liked wearing overalls, and they hit biggest (No. 18) with “Hay,” which was about visiting Granny’s house and craving collard greens with pinto beans, but even more so about blazing blunts in the back of a barn — a theme its video accentuated by picturing a desolate urban neighborhood seemingly reverting to rural. Hometown fans insisted that they sounded like Twista; everybody else figured Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. But either way, whatever hay they were smoking didn’t prevent them from rhyming really speedily and dexterously. Their follow-up single, “Ride The Rodeo,” went nowhere, but did expand on their favored western motif: Its video started with men in cowboy hats playing poker in a saloon, including an old white guy with a Lone Ranger mask who starts seeming very creepy by the end. The bridge featured a lady friend chanting “giddy-up” a lot. C.E.
1997: Imani Coppola – “Legend of a Cowgirl”
The Lilith-era ’90s fostered a slew of quirky yet radio-ready woman-power anthems, and Imani Coppola’s whiskey-swilling midnight marauder was one of the best. “Pecos Bill couldn’t hang so long,” she sang, “a female legend with a song.” Thelma-and-Louise wanderlust informed Coppola’s America-traversing character, a woman gettin’ free off her own chutzpah to a Donovan-jacked slide guitar. The singer actually played Lilith Fair (and was embroiled in a small fracas after telling a reporter that she thought Sarah McLachlan was “boring to watch live”), and she still plays and tours, though she’s never again approached the peak of “Cowgirl.” Her latest single, from 2012’s The Glass Wall, is an angsty, sub-bass-centered rock track called “Ave Maria,” no rapping included. J.E.S.
1997: Spearhead ft. Joan Osbourne – “Wayfaring Stranger”
“The Wayfaring Stranger” is a 19th-century folk standard, beloved by country artists like Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash, which tells the story of a narrator who travels through a world of woe to meet his Savior. In the mid-1990s, Michael Franti’s travels brought him to a fellow occupant of MTV’s Buzz Bin, “One of Us” singer Joan Osborne, and they collabo’d on this track from Spearhead’s ’97 sophomore bid Chocolate Supa Highway. Franti, with an impossibly deep voice and flow-impaired delivery — he sounds like a proto-Tyler, the Creator — references both Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac,” Dizzy Gillespie’s twist on another iconic spiritual of the American South. Osborne, a Kentucky native, actually sounds a little more at home singing this twangy melody than she has on her many barroom pastiches of soul music. AL SHIPLEY
1998: Everlast – Whitey Ford Sings the Blues
In 1998, Erik Schrody was a 29-year-old has-been. His first second chance, as leader of iconic mook-rap crew House of Pain had ended after years of failing to reproduce the success of their 1992 hooligan spazz-out “Jump Around.” Strapping on a guitar and self-deprecatingly taking a nickname from ’50s Yankees pitcher Edward “Whitey” Ford, he pulled off an unlikely multiplatinum reinvention after his twangin’-and-bangin’ No. 13 single “What It’s Like” carpeted the airwaves. What’s surprising about the album was that “Whitey Ford” actually doesn’t sing most of the time: Outside of the one megahit and its follow-up single, “Ends,” the album was more rap than white blues or country; at times, you could close your eyes and pretend you’re listening to an Xzibit album. “It’s a hip-hop song, dude,” Everlast said of “What It’s Like” in a 1999 SPIN cover story. “But all these rock stations had to fool themselves into thinking it wasn’t so that could play it.” Still, tunes like “Death Comes Callin'” revealed Everlast’s ear for melody, showcasing his skills as a grizzled old balladeer, which a heart attack and industry-career drama turned him into before he hit 30. A.S.
1998: Kid Rock – “Cowboy”
Though his career arguably bridges the two genres more than anybody’s, Kid Rock has rarely tackled both country and rap at the same time. “Cowboy,” one of his first and funniest charting songs (No. 82), might come closest. But even here, C&W sonics are limited to a just vaguely Southern-rockish riff, and the West that Michigan’s son heads out to is Hollywood, “where real women come equipped with scripts and fake breasts” (no authenticity fetishes for this guy), and maybe Heidi Fleiss’ll help him “start an escort service for all the right reasons.” A piano sample comes, appropriately, from the Doors’ “L.A. Woman.” On the other hand, he does request that we call him “Tex” and “Hoss,” and in the video wears rhinestones amid wanted posters and a burlesque-sideshow, little-people wrestling match between Joe C and Gary Coleman. Lyrics reference Falco and the band Kansas, and Kid calls himself “the real McCoy” just as Cowboy of Grandmaster Flash’s Furious Five once had. Climactically, he delivers this self-deprecating white-trash statement of purpose: “I ain’t no G / I’m just a regular failure / I ain’t straight outta Compton / I’m straight out the trailer.” He’d finally figured out how to make his star rise, and sounds like he knew it. C.E.
1998: Pras Michel ft. Mya and Ol’ Dirty Bastard – “Ghetto Supastar (That is What You Are)”
Mya’s indelible chorus on this No. 15 mega-hit is actually an interpolation of “Islands in the Stream,” a duet written by the Bee Gees and popularized by country icons Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. It’s a pretty brilliant flip, actually, turning the lyric “from one lover to another, uh huh” into “from one corner to another, uh huh” to support Pras and ODB’s lyrics about their rise to hood fame and beyond. Mya and Parton performed on the same bill at a Billboard benefit in 2003, but so far the only way to hear them together on record is on the million mash-ups made in the early 2000s. Maybe it’s better that way. J.E.S.
1999: Mr. Lif – “Farmhand”
The tangy, twangy banjo riff anchoring Mr. Lif’s “Farmhand” clearly conjured up images of barns and tractors for the Boston rapper, inspiring the title of the song, if not the lyrics, which are Lif’s usual internal-rhyme soup about microchips and earthquakes. He adopts an odd accent at some points, but if anything it’s more Slick Rick than Hee Haw. The pickin’-and-grinnin’ sample — imported from the U.K. of all places — is a slowed-down loop borrowed from “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” a side-four annoyance from the Who’s rock opera Tommy, and one of the few songs in their catalog composed by Keith Moon. A.S.