The Dirty South: Why It’s on MY Pop Culture Radar

My students, and probably some friends and relatives, would be surprised to learn that I am a fan of southern hip hop.  What, pray tell, would a 40-something white woman know and enjoy about music from the Dirty South?  Well, to answer that I’d have to go back to the days of my youth.  Way back.

I’ve long been a fan of rhythm and blues, and when other kids my age in my native Huntington, West Virginia, were listening to the Osmonds, I was loving the Jackson 5.  The very first album I ever owned, in fact, was the Jackson 5’s Third Album. Later, in the 1970s, after my family moved to North Carolina, I enjoyed listening to songs on the radio by the Ohio Players and the Isley Brothers.  And I can say that I was as much a fan of Soul Train as I was American Bandstand.  In high school, I remember vividly when the Sugarhill Gang came out with “Rapper’s Delight.”  It was funny watching my white classmates, male and female, doing their best to rap to this song.  What I’ve enjoyed in listening to R&B, rap, and then hip hop is a combination of infectious beats and often smart and clever lyrics.

photo: Dirty South Customs & Motoring, Charlotte, NC, used with permission (and no, that is not the author in the picture)

So, it’s not a huge leap for me to find enjoyment in southern hip hop.  It has the slang and twang with which I’m familiar and a regional hue that can also be observed through the music videos shot in southern locales.  As fans of the music know, different cities across the region are known for producing hip-hop artists—Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, Memphis, and even Virginia Beach where Timbaland and Missy Elliot got their start.  Even where there are no established urban outlets, artists like David Banner from Mississippi and Petey Pablo from North Carolina (a.k.a. North Cackalacka) have also had success.  White artists, too, have staked a claim to the genre—from rural Georgia’s Bubba Sparxx to the more successful Paul Wall from Houston.

There’s a broad range of talent and styles in southern hip-hop.  One of my favorite artists is Ludacris from Atlanta, some of whose songs are not only performed with rapid fire delivery, they also reflect his rapier wit, and many of his videos are equally humorous.  Outkast, also from Atlanta, and who along with Goodie Mob is credited with bringing southern hip hop into the mainstream, is also a fave (Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean” used to be my ringtone).  The music of mega-talented and gritty-voiced Lil Wayne, the most successful of artists from the Dirty South and a New Orleans native, has shown as much diversity in his music as there are hip-hop artists, all of which is made more amazing because he doesn’t write his lyrics on paper but creates them free form in the recording studio.  He’s also credited with adding the word “bling” to our cultural lexicon.

All this being said (because I’m sure people are wondering) I’m not a fan of the sexism, homophobia, and even racism found in the lyrics of southern hip hop, but as an observer of popular culture and a fan of the style one cannot help but take notice of the impact of southern artists on hip hop and popular culture more broadly. To illustrate:  since it’s awards season, it might be worth mentioning that only a few years ago the Memphis group Three 6 Mafia won an Oscar for its song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” which accompanied the film Hustle & Flow.  This year, Cee-Lo Green’s song “F*** You” received a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year.  Green, some will know, was a founding member of none other than Goodie Mob.

I’m still waiting for someone to take up the mantle of Missy Elliot among female southern hip hop artists.  Even though Nicki Minaj signed with Lil Wayne’s label, and is an amazing performer, she doesn’t count (unless you include her Trinidadian roots as part of the American South). So, I’m just going to have to stay tuned, because the Dirty South is, after all, on my radar.

Karen L. Cox is associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the author of the forthcoming Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture as well as Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, which won the 2004 Julia Cherry Spruill Prize for the best book in southern women’s history. You can become a fan of Dreaming of Dixie on Facebook.