A decade later, things have changed. A lot. Terms like “bling-bling” have become part of the pop culture vocabulary. The shiny, pimped-out rides that have become hip-hop staples have their roots in southern auto culture.
The south is home to hip-hop’s hottest style — the crowd rousing “crunk” sound. Pop stars looking for sure-fire hits travel to Virginia, the home of superproducers the Neptunes and Timbaland. It’s been a long road from pop poverty to opulence, and “Dirty States of America,” (Image Entertainment and Lyricists Lounge) the first documentary story of southern hip-hop, puts it into perspective. The DVD/CD package includes interviews and clips of artists from all phases of the Southern hip-hop story: James Prince, whose label introduced the notorious Geto Boys; Memphis pioneers 8 Ball and MJG. Modern stars like Lil Flip and David Banner. Along the way, it covers topics ranging from the influence of the strip club culture to regional dances (some of which have been assimilated into an unsuspecting mainstream culture) to the origins of “bass” music (the hyperfast style popularized by 2 Live Crew and the hit “Whoomp! There it is”).
“There is no style of music in America that didn’t originate in the south, “ said writer/historian Charlie Braxton, who has followed the southern hip-hop scene since the beginning. “Hip-hop is the only one that didn’t. But so much of the music hip-hop was built off — James Brown drum breaks, old school soul — is southern. So in a lot of ways, hip-hop is returning to its roots.”
Getting hip-hop to acknowledge those roots has always taken some effort, said 28-year old James “FLX” Smith, who conceived, directed and produced the video. Hip-hop was born in New York, which is where nearly all the music media in the country are concentrated (Vibe, Spin, XXL, Rolling Stone and the Source are all based in Manhattan). Given that situation, it was easy to see how tunnel vision developed. Even today, some northeastern hip-hop heads still don’t see the South as a legitimate inheritor of the hip-hop cultural heritage.
“I remember coming up and seeing people like Master P. and Baby and Lil Jon, and wondering why they weren’t household names like they were in the south,” said Smith. Why did people consider Biggie more important than 8Ball and MJG (who, as indies, once sold 250,000 records in their hometown of Memphis alone, with no radio support). To me it was to see the area get the respect it deserves.”
It all starts with Master P
Most observers point to the late '90s success of New Orleans’ impresario Master P — who released a string of independently produced gold and platinum records — as the beginning of southern hip-hop’s rise. Braxton, however points out that the South had been rising for a while. P was just the center of a commercial breakthrough. Hard as it is to believe, when southern rap first started out in the late '80s, everyone wanted to act like they were from New York. Artists like the Geto Boys started out imitating the dress and styles of northern stars like Run-DMC.
“You have to understand that hip-hop is a cultural phenomenon,” Braxton said. “And it didn’t take southern artists long to realize that to really get New York hip-hop, you had to live in New York. I remember listening to Rakim rap once about how the “mic was like a third rail”, which meant nothing to me, because I lived in Mississippi where there were no subways.”
The music started to develop its own voice in the early '90s, fueled by the bass-heavy sounds of Miami, and the groundbreaking influence of the Geto Boys hit single, “Mind Playing Tricks,” which set a first person account of stress-induced madness to the sweet sounds of southern soul. Southern rappers started referring to their own neighborhoods — Houston’s Fifth Ward, New Orleans’ Magnolia Projects, speaking in their own slang, and playing up a dizzying array of regional accents. Which made them wildly popular among southerners, and almost unintelligible to Northerners. Outkast’s arrival on the scene in 1994 signaled the beginning of a regions most creative phase. Between 1994 and 2000, hip-hop produced some of the pop worlds most recognizable names: Master P, Cash Money, Missy Elliott and Timbaland.
And there is more to come, said hip-hop writer/historian “J-Dogg” Shaw, who helped in the project’s production. “There are a lot of places that we still didn’t get to in the video — Arkansas, Kentucky. And there is a big “backpacker” (or alternative) hip-hop scene that we didn’t get to. But that doesn’t take away from this video. It says exactly what needed to be said exactly when it needed to be said.”