Our children—our young white children—are in crisis, trapped in the grip of a culture that glorifies drug use and debauchery, slovenly dress, and lack of respect for authority. A culture whose worship of antisocial behavior and debasement is rivaled only by its amoral concessions to the dictates of mammon.
This can largely be attributed to the unfortunate dominance of black popular culture, and—more specifically—hip-hop. In the past, mainstream culture refined raw black cultural materials, resulting in musical zeniths such as the recent neo-swing movement, which briefly presented a viable outlet for young dancers unwilling to subject themselves to the degrading influence of rap and rave music.
Now mass-media-generated standards of behavior have led to the rise of belligerently anti-musical thugs like Jay-Z and tone-deaf caterwaulers like Jennifer Lopez. One must lower one’s standards to even discuss this music (doing so indirectly legitimizes the pseudo-critical doggerel—”beats,” “flavor,” and “skills”—that passes for aesthetic standards in this genre). Most alarming, however, is the extent to which white youth have succumbed to—and in many cases embraced—this nihilistic culture.
This trend is not a new one—see the despicable Eminem, culturally miscegenated sexpot Britney Spears, and sellouts like *NSync and the Backstreet Boys, minstrels who subvert minstrelsy by publicly acknowledging the culture they imitate. The new crop of white Southern rappers, have, unhappily, shown that there is yet room for more nonsense.
Like other white “B-boys,” Southern white hip-hoppers resemble their black mentors in the worship of all that comes from the gutter. The only distinction is the location of that gutter. On his self-titled debut, Nashville’s Jason Winfrey, who calls himself Haystak, feeds from the same trough as black Southern rappers like Cash Money Millionaires and the Geto Boys—reprobates all. His narratives are sexually graphic (he compares his penis to a bottle of Moët), and speak casually of excessive drug use and criminal activity.
On “Car Fulla White Boys” (originally released as the title track of an indie CD that reportedly outsold Eminem’s last album in Nashville), Haystak describes an aimless existence: riding around town, smoking marijuana, sticking up fast-food joints to feed his hunger. On one track on Haystak (Koch), a woman is suitably impressed by his “tattoos and knife wounds.” On yet another, he declares that he “isn’t one of those goofy white boys from the movie,” subtly lampooning white youth who study and stay in school. If one were inclined to judge his rapping “skills,” he would receive a well-above-average grade. He possesses a slightly nasal, heavily inflected delivery—what Eminem would sound like if he had been raised on a diet of corn bread and pot liquor. Haystak’s command of verbal expression carries him through a duet with Eightball, a skilled black Southern rapper, without much trouble. His background music is, by the rather dismal standards, quite functional. Instead of obscuring his “flow” with ornate sonic trickery (more than the usual at any rate), his team of producers provide him with relatively spare, direct “tracks,” whose basslines and orchestral leanings suggest—to their credit—a passing acquaintance with Western music and technology.
One of the more technology-savvy hip-hoppers is Timbaland, who is responsible for much of the music on Bubba Sparxxx’s debut CD, The Dark Days, Bright Nights of Bubba Sparxxx (Beat Club/Interscope). Though his efforts, like those of most members of his genre, tend to sound rough and unrefined compared to the more advanced offerings of his British and French counterparts, Timbaland exhibits a remarkably intuitive ear for sound: See the Eastern ornaments of “Ugly,” the keening violins of “Open Wide,” and the frenetic electronics of “Get Right.” Other producers, like Shannon “Fat Shan” Houchins and the aptly named Organized Noize, manage to distinguish themselves with contributions that, while drawing from the primitive strains of rock, soul, and funk, complement Bubba’s verbalisms. The end result is an album that, despite its obvious generic shortcomings, manages to achieve some measure of musical interest, much in the manner of recent work by OutKast (one of Bubba’s primary inspirations) and the Neptunes, both of whom show signs of sentience among the artistic dreck that is hip-hop.
The musical backing helps offset Bubba’s sometimes soporific delivery, which, while adept, reflects little track-to-track variation. Bubba does, though, seem content with being less thuggish than many of his white contemporaries, presenting himself as a fun-loving ex-jock in a way that endears despite his limitations and social standing. It is this working-class appeal that offsets the nauseating video for “Ugly,” which—through references to pig chasing and car racing—recasts the rich culture of the white South as an object of derision. This video, however, pales in comparison with the alarming self-hatred exhibited by Atlantans Rehab and Houstonian Po’ White Trash.
At a time when drug use among even the best-heeled white youth outstrips that of the ghetto dweller, Rehab’s sobriquet is offensive, to say the very least. Their often uneasy marriage of early-’90s rock and early hip-hop on Southern Discomfort (Sony/Epic) is marginally more appealing than the inbred bludgeoning of Limp Bizkit and their ilk, yet is mired in clichés that barely exceed even the rudimentary standards of contemporary music. The tracks underpin lyrics that reveal an obsession with substance abuse and psychological dysfunction. These gravely serious subjects are fodder for puerile ditties like “My Addiction” (based on a song by rappers Run-DMC): “My addiction makes me piss on floors/ and go home with these scabby whores.” Elsewhere, Rehab declare an attraction to a woman’s underarm hair.
Po’ White Trash, on the other hand, has gained attention through the single “Po’ Punch,” which has made significant progress on the sales charts that deal with rap. Produced by black Atlantan Lil Jon (whose “songs” are noted for their ability to cause youth to simulate sex acts in public), the tune celebrates a cartoonish version of Southern white life: “Bet you drink man, bet you bet you stink man, bet you lie man, bet you high man, bet you fry man.” On Po’ Like Dis (Pocket Change), Trash, a/k/a sometime bartender Roy Thorne Jr., trades in a thinly disguised burlesque, with a manic, shock-jock-ish vocal approach and lyrics that revel in general dissipation. Despite this, Trash is not as “hardcore” as one might expect. He is less sexually explicit than others of his genre. And while his backing music (by the disgracefully named “Trailer Park Symphony”) bows occasionally to the simplistic synthesizer stylings of degenerates like Trick Daddy and Cash Money Millionaire Mannie Fresh, it just as often ventures (in “Hold On,” for instance) into live instrument styles that would not sound out of place on mainstream television.
This canny pop catering reveals a knowingness that, in context, is offensive. Thorne has shown an ability to work the angles within today’s society—he attended predominantly black North Carolina Central University on a minority scholarship. Yet instead of using immersion in this dark world to the advantage of his brethren, he uses it in an ill-advised exercise in white self- flagellation. Seeing such output from an individual who should obviously know better is depressing, suggesting a level of depravity more treacherous than tragic.
Apologists for this sort of swill will likely cite the historical proximity of Southern whites and poor blacks, and assert that that interaction has produced some of our finest music, from country to rock and roll. In Haystak’s words, “There’s nothing funny about the struggle of lower-class people, white or black.” Bubba Sparxxx, for his part, attempts to justify his hip-hop status by similar methods on “Well Water” (“Did you know that they’re closing down the only factory in this town?/And you have the nerve to say there’s plenty work to go around”).
The point about historical proximity is highly debatable. Country is at its best when it disguises, ignores, or disassociates itself from contemporary black cultural influences, as it often did during its great pop rebirth in the early ’90s. And rock’s over-acquiescence to said influences has resulted in the banishment of melody, lyrical meaning, and craft from much of contemporary music over the past four decades.
The argument about lower-class struggle, meanwhile, is only half true. White Americans do, in fact, swell the welfare rolls, indulge in and deal drugs in inordinate per capita quantities, and slaughter one another under alarmingly flimsy pretexts (being made fun of in high school, for example). But the white man’s true burden is not to elevate others, but to elevate himself—to lead not through empathy, but through example. Though this imperative cuts across regional lines, it is the Southerner’s responsibility to rekindle the damaged and enfeebled spirits of his Northern brethren. Haystak is right, but for the wrong reasons: The struggle of lower-class whites is not funny, which is exactly why his, Bubba’s, Rehab’s, and White Trash’s lack of cultural pride is so shameful. Instead of glorifying the worst in us, white artists, Northern and Southern, should magnify the best in us (see Sudhalter’s excellent “The White Contribution to Jazz”). Is that too much, in these times of crisis, to ask?