“I can remember in the past closin down at fast foods / Strictly stickin’ to my dreams, but feelin’ like I’d be the last dude / Who can make it in this rap, I thought that they ain’t go see me in Memphis / It was like a time they looked over Tennessee / And didn’t know Hip-Hop was in us…” -MJG, “Paid Dues,” by Eightball & MJG.
After the 57th annual GRAMMY awards aired this year, there were two interesting reactions. A faction of Hip Hop fans let out a collective sigh of relief because Iggy Azalea didn’t walk away with Gramophones for Best New Artist and Best Rap Album. And another group sighed with some mix of disbelief and bewilderment at Kanye West’s ability to repeatedly exhibit less self-control than that drunken uncle at the family reunion who repeatedly finds a way to piss himself, cuss everyone out, and pass out. Somewhere in that mix, Kendrick Lamar won a reconciliatory GRAMMY, but he wasn’t on hand because he was too busy making another awesome album.
I found all of the above funny because Hip Hop had collectively already been here. Before artists were lap-dogging in hopes of a GRAMMY, Hip Hop’s mainstream, commercial titans were throwing tantrums, playing the bully role, and generally forgetting that sometimes groundbreaking Hip Hop is being created in places not recognized by mainstream media—and even places whose existence we ourselves barely acknowledge. All of the above happened at the Second Annual Source Awards in 1995. It was a ratchet, glorious affair that was all ours. As we look forward to the 20-year anniversary of the ceremony at Madison Square Garden’s Paramount Theater, what have we learned in those ensuing two decades?
“And to the radio stations, I’m tired of being patient / Stop being rapper racists, region-haters / Spectators, dictators, behind door dick-takers / It’s outrageous / You don’t know how sick you make us / I want to throw it up like chips in Vegas / But this is Southern, face it / If we too simple, then y’all don’t get the basics…” – Lil Wayne, “Shooter.”
Much like Kanye’s bullshit GRAMMY tirade about artistry (as if our Lord and Savior Beyonce needs someone to lobby on her behalf…twice), it’s easy to let the temperamental outbursts of the 1995 Source Awards fool you into missing the show’s real highlight. Yes, Suge Knight walked on stage and took an obvious shot at Puffy by saying, “Any artists out there wanna be an artist, and wanna stay a star—Don’t have to worry about the executive producer trying to be all in the videos…all in the records, dancing—come to Death Row.” Since Knight seems to be continuing his history of what could generously be called poor decision making some 20 years later, I can’t say we learned anything from his statements. No, the highlight was a brief statement by Andre 3000 made under a cascade of boos after OutKast won the New Artist Of The Year award:
“But it’s like this, though… I’m tired of folks—you know what I’m sayin’—closed minded folks. It’s like we got a demo tape and don’t nobody wanna hear it. But it’s like this. The South got somethin’ to say. That’s all I got to say.”
I think Andre’s statement forced a large portion of Hip Hop to look in the mirror and acknowledge sleeping on an entire region. Groundbreaking music was being made below the Mason-Dixon Line, but much like the GRAMMY committee has done, various critics and fans overlooked innovative material in favor of more popular or commercially successful fare. You don’t need a history lesson to know how things turned out from there. ‘Kast sold tens of millions of albums and inserted themselves into the conversation for the greatest Rap group ever. Today, Southern Rap is still as dominant as ever, and the rearview mirror of history paints ‘Dre’s dignified diatribe as a jumping off point. Is there some kind of way to measure the impact of Dre’s statement? How does one go about trying to measure the South’s influence on Hip Hop at large in the past 20 years?
“But now you’re startin to piss me off, ha ha hah / Oh yesh y’all, Sugah he got that silky Southern drawl / Every tooth in my mouth, got gold on em’ all / I’m ‘eal strong, and we don’t want no bad blood / But it is some, it is some / Nigga think he gotta, better mind frame then me / Nigga really think he got mo’ game than me…” -Cee Lo, “I’ll Fly Away” by Goodie Mob.
When talking about the South’s impact on Hip Hop, I think you’re looking at two things: quantitative and qualitative impact. Qualitatively, if someone says, “The South is running Rap,” and you see a number of high-profile rappers using Southern-based producers like Mike WiLL Made IT, Timbaland, and Pharrell, the idea of Southern dominance passes the proverbial “eye test.” If artists outside the South are wearing grills, using Southern-influenced cadences, and featuring Southern emcees on their albums, this aids the argument, but you still haven’t proven anything. It might be best to look at the South’s impact on itself as opposed to seeing how the South impacted other regions.
“I think Andre set the tone for a lot of Southern artists to really be like, ‘Man, we don’t have to change,’” notes Meridian Mississippi native Big K.R.I.T. “‘We don’t have to change our style. We don’t have to conform. We can do exactly what we want to do and be exactly who we want to be on these records.’”
I would agree with K.R.I.T. and argue that after OutKast, there was a shift away from artists with either direct or stylistic connections to the East Coast like MC Shy D (who was Afrika Bambaataa’s cousin) or Kilo. The shift was toward material that represented what was happening locally. The template for a number of Southern songs were derived from “Drag Rap” (aka Triggaman), which was originally by Queens duo, The Showboys. While “Triggaman” will always be a staple of sorts, regional artists were seeing commercial and critical success with sounds more representative of their respective areas.
I think those commercially and critically successful regional artists are the keys to finding out how much of a quantitative impact the South has had on Hip Hop at large during the past 20 years. It’s not an exact science, but measuring the percentage of number one R&B/Hip-Hop debut albums during a given time period is one way of showing the quantitative impact of Southern Rap. Why? A regional album can go platinum, but common sense and Three Stacks’ statement hints at the fact such albums can still be overlooked. Award shows like the GRAMMYs and the Source Awards reward a higher level of individual commercial success. I looked at Billboard magazine’s top Hip Hop/R&B debuts, because I think a record has to be truly commercially transcendent to be a top-seller when it’s lumped in with R&B albums under one catchall category. In the case of the 1995 Source Awards, that seemed to be the underlying logic of only one of the 16 awards going to an artist not from New York or California.
“And it was easy for you to move through / English class with your own thesaurus / Like one of these days I’m gonna be a rapper / But all my verses gonna be borrowed / So I’ma take from all these Southern artists / That mainstream never heard of / Recycle all of they lingo / And make sure I screw my words up…” –Big K.R.I.T., “Mt. Olympus.”
Since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales data in 1991, there were only four Southern Rap albums to debut at the top spot from 1991 through 1996. Those albums were 1992’s Totally Krossed Out by Atlanta duo Kris Kross, 1993’s Til Death Do Us Part by the Geto Boys, The World Is Yours by Scarface, and ATLiens by OutKast in 1996. That doesn’t mean the South was quiet by any means.
“The door can feel somebody knockin’,” notes MJG. He and 8Ball’s On Top Of The World vied with Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food for the country’s top Hip Hop/R&B album during the first week in November of 1995. “We had been there a long time and had the foundation—us and cats before us like Geto Boys and UGK. All of us came out around the same time. They’re knockin’ and knockin’, and it just had built up at that time. I think that’s the reason Andre had to get that off his chest. We was knockin’, and we was there. And it was like we wasn’t being heard, but it just had built up to that point. I think that was the first real breakout year for the South.”
If you weren’t familiar with Southern Rap, it might have been easy to miss sleeper hits like Big Mike’s Somethin’ Serious, which debuted at the #54 spot on Billboard magazine’s Top 200 albums chart. During the first six months of 1995 alone, UGK, Three-6 Mafia, and Eightball & MJG all spent significant time on the charts. It was ignorance in the most accurate sense of the word. Not only was most media outside the South unaware of regularly charting artists like Mystikal or Eightball & MJG, but they couldn’t differentiate between them and the likes of dismissed platinum Southern artists like 69 Boyz.
It’s tempting to look at the 1995 Source Awards through the lens of revisionist history and say Andre 3000’s statements brought out legions of Southern emcees. But the anecdotal and statistical evidence show Southern rappers were making plenty of ground-breaking, commercially successful music before that Paramount Theater crowd started booing. No one from the South was consistently breaking into the upper echelon of multi-platinum sales like Death Row. The counterargument here is that neither was anyone in the East—including Bad Boy Records. So while the East was revered for their perceived skill, and the West was respected for their commercial sales and style, the South was more or less ignored by most critics. Look back at the 1995 Source Awards and you’ll see nine of the 16 awards went to artists either on Death Row or Bad Boy. The remainder was split between Wu-Tang Clan, Mary J. Blige, OutKast, Mad Lion, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Run-DMC.
“Aw, y’all niggas ain’t ready for me, / But if you want me, who clamps / I’m shell-bound, watch me throw down on my first go-round / Here’s our shit, properly did it and now you’re evicted / Now admit it, fuck that yin-yang, you talkin’ behind my back Mr. Hood Critics…” -Mystikal, “Mr Hood Critic.”
If OutKast—arguably the greatest Hip-Hop group of all time—should be praised for something, it’s ushering in a distinctly unapologetic brand of Southern Rap that was commercially successful without being pop that nor rooted in New York B-Boy culture. That’s no small feat. As it concerns drawing Hip Hop’s collective attention to what was happening down South, I don’t think any one particular party can claim that act. I think the South’s emergence was attributable to the perfect mix of timing, opportunity, a national platform, and unprecedented commercial exposure.
“Master P did it,” Mystikal noted in a June 2002 issue of VIBE. “He believed in it so much, he brainwashed everybody. He promoted it so much that you had to go with him. It’s just like an ugly guy trying to get a girl. Persistence, drive, and determination can get you victory.”
Larger labels like No Limit and LaFace provided the mainstream push and distribution, and they were aided by the likes of Rap-A-Lot and Suave House. Andre articulated what millions of fans raised on UGK, Geto Boys, 8Ball & MJG, 2 Live Crew, and Three-6 Mafia felt. And by taking parts from all of the above and co-opting them for mass consumption (remember who recycled the Dungeon Family’s “Hootie Hoo” into a single of the same name) Master P moved 15 million albums between 1996 and 1999. So what exactly did Andre’s statement do?
“It finally gave a clear-cut incision from New York wannabe-ism,” noted Killer Mike in VH1’s ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game. “It was a great thing that they were handled in that way, because it finally cut the umbilical cord saying, ‘We don’t have to impress you. We don’t have to be influenced by you in the same creative way. We’re gonna show you.’”
“To all the radio, T.V., and even the press / That’s been hatin’ on the Sizz-outh like we ain’t fresh / Y’all think we came here to play, say man we came in the stay / Y’all shoulda listened to Andre, bitch we got somethin’ to say…” -Pimp C, “Quit Hatin’ The South,” by UGK.
Maybe the ultimate legacy of Andre’s 30-second sound bite is just that simple. If you’re the type that begrudgingly doesn’t want to admit Kris Kross and Geto Boys were the first Southern Rap artists with number one debuts in the SoundScan era, OutKast forced everyone to recognize the South in a different light.
“When Dre made that statement, it opened the doors for people to pay attention,” explains Young Buck. “Dre is a big voice, and at the time, with the abundance of success they had, it was almost like handing another coast an alley-oop. He kind of throwed that alley-oop to the South.”
If it wasn’t an alley-oop, it was certainly a Dion Waiters-styled waving and flailing of the arms to indicate being open. Correlation is not causation, and you can’t see an immediate flood of Southern influence. In fact, you wouldn’t see another Southern Rap album debut at the top spot on Billboard’s Hip Hop/R&B chart until 1996 in the form of Geto Boys’ The Resurrection and OutKast’s ATLiens. The proverbial doors would open a year later when nearly one-third of the number one debuts on Billboard’s Hip Hop/R&B chart were from the South. By then, the likes of Master P and Missy Elliott were not only creating their own commercially successful albums, but they were influencing and recruiting artists from other regions and molding their respective sounds. When Jay Z is lobbying to be on a regional hit-turned-national smash like Juvenile’s “Ha,” and Jodeci’s DeVante Swing is popping up on releases from Death Row, it’s safe to say people finally started recognizing.
“Sold CDs double platinum, met more execs / Southern niggas, independent label, real killers / Know the business, ran Tennessee for years, now they chillin’ / They had the coke game something crazy / Sold music out the trunk of they car, that shit amazed me,” -Nas, “Get Down.”
Saying one should pay attention to Southern Rap in 2015 is a patently straw man argument. But the same lessons of 1995 can be applied today—not in terms of geography, but in terms of Hip Hop’s sometimes insular, top-down mentality. In 1995, there were all kinds of evidence showing great music was being made in basements from Port Arthur, Texas to the College Park section of Atlanta, Georgia for anyone willing to look. Personal agendas, monetary considerations, internal cultural elitism, and a host of other factors pushed talented artists out of the discussion in favor of the same handful of familiar, popular artists. At a time when we’d like to tell ourselves the Internet has been the great democratic equalizer in Hip Hop, hopefully, we’re not still tricking ourselves into forgetting important, groundbreaking Hip Hop is always being created in places not recognized by mainstream media and even places we don’t always recognize. If so, we might not be lucky to have someone who was originally an afterthought on a Christmas album remind us we’re wrong.