Music

Five Questions To Ask At Ben Westhoff’s Dirty South Reading

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Tonight, Voice contributor and hip-hop sommelier Ben Westhoff will read from Dirty South, his look at the populist rise of rap music from the southern states, at Williamsburg’s Book Thug Nation. The book focuses on the bigger names to have emerged from the south, with chapters based around Big Boi and Andre 3000’s creative tensions, Lil Wayne’s sensational ascent to stardom, the Geto Boys’ early days, and Soulja Boy’s ability to use a laptop and two cellphones while eating McDonalds (page 237, rap scholars). Here are five prompts for the post-reading Q&A segment, should you want to start a dialogue with Westhoff.

Does the idea that southern rap was always shunned by East Coast elitists and overlooked by the record industry really hold weight?

“New Yorkers have been voicing their strong displeasure with southern hip-hop since the 2 Live Crew.” So contends Dirty South, invoking the common opinion that southern hip-hop artists have always been discriminated against by New York City’s artists, fans, and key record industry figures. But there are plenty of examples of the New York rap scene being open to southern sounds. Houston’s The Geto Boys were signed by New York rap maestro Rick Rubin to his Def American label, and Scarface’s crew didn’t hesitate to stick up for Public Enemy during the furor surrounding Professor Griff’s alleged anti-semitic comments—listening to “No Sell Out” suggests solidarity among hip-hop artists against the wider world, not a specific region. Likewise, U.G.K. icon Bun B has told how KRS-One advised his group that they’d “fucked up” when they became label mates and signed to Jive. KRS’s comments weren’t conveyed in a gloating manner, but in the name of camaraderie.

During the tail end of hip-hop’s golden era, Atlanta’s forgotten pioneers Arrested Development seemed pretty content with their industry lot, scoring commercial hits (“Tennessee,” “Mr. Wendal”), grabbing Grammy nominations, and even becoming critical darlings (3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days In The Life Of… was Pazz & Jop’s number one album of 1992). And as the ’90s moved on, you could hear De La Soul’s Maseo spin radio sets where he’d happily flip from Pete Rock proteges INI’s “Fakin’ Jax” to Goodie Mobb’s “Cell Therapy.”

Sure, fans have always been fond of picking sides and discriminating with gleeful abandon—and it’s an aspect of hip-hop fandom made more pronounced with the rise of the Internet—but casting the south as being wholesale locked out of hip-hop for a couple of decades might be more folklore than fact. Besides, are there rappers from any region who don’t love to blame all their woes on the sour ol’ record industry?

Which event had a bigger influence on inspiring Outkast to mainstream success—being publicly dissed at the 1995 Source Awards or Andre 3000’s relationship with Erykah Badu?

Outkast claimed a bittersweet spot in hip-hop’s story when they appeared at the 1995 Source Awards. The media-provoked East Coast vs. West Coast feud was at an incendiary high, with Suge Knight aiming barbs at Puffy from the podium and Snoop Dogg baiting the New York City crowd. When Atlanta’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi attempted to address the crowd, they were met with wholesale boos—which caused ‘Dre to lament, “I’m tired of folks, closed-minded folks… But the south got something to say, that’s all I got to say.”

As reported in Dirty South, the crowd’s curmudgeonly reaction that night first upset and then inspired the duo, who traded up the quasi-gangsta overtones of their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik—the one with Andre bragging about how his “heat is in the trunk along with that quad knock” and threatening to point his “3-5-7 to your forehead”—for the more experimental and musically adventurous ATLiens and Aquemini sets. Greater critical acclaim followed, including something of an East Coast elitist co-sign when the Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon appeared on the latter project’s “Skew It On The Bar-B.”

While that night at the Source Awards may have spurred Outkast on to greater rap feats, Andre’s relationship with Erykah Badu may have helped to develop the group’s increasingly exploratory styles and radio-friendly hooks. Dirty South tactfully puts it this way: “No one begrudged Andre his relationship with her, but his left-turn rhymes and style overhaul—in a genre still obsessed with white Ts and sagging jeans—provoked a backlash.” Outkast’s debut album may have contained the sprawling, psychedelic “Funky Ride,” but without Ms. Badu’s meddling would they have ever come up with a ditty like “Hey Ya!”?

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In this clip, Westhoff talks to Scarface about his time in a mental hospital.

Are southern rappers guilty of exaggerating negative southern stereotypes in order to further their own careers?

As mentioned in Dirty South‘s introduction, Nas’s 2009 YouTube spot “Eat That Watermelon” took aim at the stereotype of modern southern rap. Nick Cannon and Affion Crockett played blackfaced characters while Nas waffled on about “the ever-mounting forces of ridiculous dances, ignorant behavior, and general buffoonery.” Overlooking the small matter of Nas himself putting his name to “Oochie Wally,” there’s a detectable trend of some of the South’s more successful rappers trading in the type of imagery they might take umbrage at: Despite the high-profile deaths of DJ Screw and Pimp C, sipping syrup is still glorified; pimping is a key part of the vernacular, whether used as a broad slang term or literally; and, as Dirty South puts it, Three 6 Mafia have been fond of “playing up country bumpkin stereotypes, specifically on their MTV reality TV show, where their assistant peed on Jennifer Love Hewitt’s lawn.”

Exaggerated regional identities are all part of hip-hop’s rich tapestry of images—New York’s mid-’90s thug rappers! The Bay’s animated hyphy kids! Those mean-mugging Compton gang-bangers!—but maybe we shouldn’t get too defensive when so many southern rappers have been complicit in propagating the southern stereotype. Let’s be honest: When Lil Jon was throwing his Chicken & Olde English parties in Atlanta, he wasn’t doing so in the name of hip irony.

Why did Lil Wayne eventually emerge as the biggest superstar out of the Hot Boys?

Lil Wayne is one of rap’s modern megastars, but when he first joined the Cash Money fold in the mid-’90s he was somewhat of an outside bet to strike out as the label’s lasting success. Juvenile was earmarked as the breakout star of the teen-rap quartet the Hot Boys, graduating from amassing local fame through “Bounce For The Juvenile” to national attention with his “Ha”-era hits; B.G. coined the term “bling bling”—according to his own myth-making, it originated after seeing the light reflect off a diamond ring during a studio session with Cash Money’s in-house producer Mannie Fresh. But Weezy’s star has gone on to shine brighter, longer, and more brilliant than all of his former associates combined. As Dirty South notes, he’s survived wantonly giving away stashes of his music for free, and participating in undiscerning collaborations with Enrique Iglesias and Shakira that would have seen other rappers mercilessly shunted into the sell-out section. That’s not to mention frequent allegations about the orientation of Weezy’s private life. Is it simply the 2Pac factor at work at large, where an artist’s ability to play like a drama magnet and act out a reckless lifestyle breeds mass interest, or is there more behind Weezy’s stratospheric rise?

Has southern rap already peaked, creatively and commercially? Where can it go next?

Dirty South ends with a chapter on Gucci Mane, a rapper who went from bickering with Young Jeezy to hitting the hype heights with his own mixtapes in 2009. Now, of course, Gucci has settled into being known as the man who got an ice cream cone tattooed onto his face. (It’s probably not even Van Leeuwen!) There’s a growing suspicion that southern rap, as a broad genre, has similarly passed its creative peak. The trap-rap sound mined by Jeezy and T.I. has proven that it’s effective on a commercial level, but it now offers little intrigue—it’s becoming as predictable as much of the New York thug-rap scene that still adheres to a template forged in the ’90s. And on a pop culture interest level, West Coast internet idols Lil B, Odd Future and Kreayshawn have surpassed Soulja Boy in the online promotional japery stakes.

Summing up southern rap’s appeal, Westhoff concludes, “Unlike the bulk of coastal hip-hop being made these days, it doesn’t take itself seriously, and it has got character (and characters) to spare.” So, which rappers will add their names to the second edition?

Ben Westhoff reads at Book Thug Nation at 7 p.m.