The Blandification of Southern Rap

Local pride has fueled some of the best hip hop in history, but as one region's profile has risen over the past decade, its identity has been watered down.

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Big K.R.I.T. (Facebook)

Rapper/producer Big K.R.I.T. is an immense talent from Meridian, Mississippi, a relatively unmarked swath of the hip-hop map. His distinguished mixtape career features music that offers a rare mix of introspection, soul samples, and twang-enhanced swagger. The reviews for his first commercial LP, Live From the Underground (out last week) have been strong, with Billboard calling it "a stirring triumph" and XXL praising "the cohesion of verses, songs and, in turn, the album." But while the acclaim is largely warranted—the topics K.R.I.T. tackles are certainly more diverse than those typically found on a major label rap album—to my ears, something is missing: a sense of place. Over and over, K.R.I.T. mentions his Mississippi roots and proclaims his love for the South, but the record, like so many ostensibly "Southern" rap records these days, feels like nowhere.

Now that the South rules rap, stagnation has set in, and the track where rappers tell us about their low-riders and nights at the strip club is stuck on repeat.

The first rappers came from places that were supposed to be silent and invisible. When the Cross Bronx Expressway slashed through New York City, residents who were displaced and disregarded got the message: Their communities and lives were worth less to the government than commuters who needed to expedite their trips to and from the suburbs. This pattern of urban "development" came alongside the depletion of industrial jobs in urban centers, the Reagan administration's slashing federal aid to cities nationwide, and a turn to mass incarceration as form of social control in American ghettos. From the mid-'70s through the '80s, representing one's neighborhood and city to the outside world through hip-hop was more than an expression of local pride: At its most powerful, it was an affirmation of humanity in the face of stereotypes and governmental neglect.

In what came to be known as "The Bridge" battle, KRS-1 and Boogie Down Productions produced "South Bronx," perhaps the classic example of local representation through rap. Prompted by a song from Marley Marl's Juice Crew about Queens, KRS recounts hip-hop's origins in the Bronx, where "power from the streetlight made the place dark," and yet pioneers like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and legions of forgotten DJs and b-boys created a vibrant party culture in the midst of poverty and violence. The music matches the mood of the lyrics, and the unapologetic boom-bap of the track meshes perfectly with KRS's New York straight talk.

The Juice Crew provided KRS-1 with competitive motivation, but the goals of representing extend beyond besting opponents. Describing home has become one of the key means to establish an identity. Ice Cube's anthem "It Was a Good Day" conjures an alluring yet ordinary non-Hollywood Los Angeles through Cube's matter-of-fact narration and a laid-back beat built from an Isley Brothers sample. Lesser-known jams, like Lauryn Hill's "Every Ghetto, Every City" and Common's "Reminding Me (Of Sef)," describe growing up in New Jersey and Chicago with local references unfamiliar to most listeners. But the cumulative impact of these earnest, sometimes obscure descriptions is a profound sense of each artist's native habitat.

Provincialism occasionally morphs into intense rap competition with higher stakes than "The Bridge" battle. In a few cases, musical turf wars have mixed with the more dangerous toxins of masculinity and impoverished ghetto life, and violence has ensued. In the '90s, personal clashes were amplified by record companies and media outlets into regional beefs with tragic consequences, and the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. still serve as cautionary tales about blurring the lines between art and life.

Despite these tragedies, putting it down for one's hometown remains resonant, in part due to New York hip-hop's historical centrality and elitism. Throughout the late 20th century, when rap acts from outside New York made it big, they validated not only artists' individual talents, but their city or state's stature as a place worthy of hip-hop respect. The commercial success of groups from Los Angeles forced national recognition of the diversity and richness of hip-hop in California and the Pacific Northwest. In addition to West Coast hip-hop, the 1990s brought national attention to "third coast" cities like Houston (Scarface and the Geto Boys), Atlanta (Outkast), Miami (2 Live Crew), and New Orleans (Master P's No Limit Records and Cash Money Records).

New York hip-hop style, including sparse, grimy beats and rough and rugged rhymes, continued to set the standard for what was considered "real" rap into the early 2000s. Soon, though, New York began to face real challengers to its claim on the center of the hip-hop universe. Today, anyone who denies the spectacular regional variation in quality American hip-hop is living in the past. And perhaps the most surprising development in hip-hop's evolution is the triumph of "the South" as hip-hop hegemon. The influence of giants like Scarface and Outkast is complemented by the overdue respect now paid to Southern veterans like UGK, 8ball, and MJG, and the recent commercial viability of Lil Wayne, T.I., Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, and others.

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Michael P. Jeffries is an assistant professor of American Studies at Wellesley College and author of  Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America.

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