Dirty Decade: Rap Music and the US South, 1997–2007

Emory University
Published June 10, 2008

During the decade of 1997–2007, rap music produced in cities such as Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, Miami, and Houston transformed the margins into the rap mainstream. These years saw southern artists rise to national prominence, with a related surge in major label interest and investment in southern rap, a process encapsulated and expressed by the idea of the Dirty South. Through an examination of artists, music, promotional imagery, scholarly writing, and journalism, Miller surveys rap scenes in several southern cities. He explores the Dirty South as a geographical imaginary, and examines the widespread appropriation and adaptation of the trope of "dirtiness." Next, Miller turns to the emergence and marketing of "crunk." Crunk, like the Dirty South, is a contested and problematic intersection of musical style and spatially keyed identities. The essay concludes with a foray into the visual culture of the Dirty South, revealing how rap music imagery has affirmed, critiqued, and confounded received ideas of the South. Throughout, musical and visual examples provide contextual support.

Matt Miller
Emory University


Introduced in a 1995 song by the Atlanta-based group Goodie Mob, the idea of the "Dirty South" spread quickly throughout the rap music subculture and industry, and by the early years of the twenty-first century moved into more general usage in a variety of contexts not directly related to rap.

The concept of the Dirty South as elaborated by the Goodie Mob and other rappers and producers in several of the major cities of the South was complex, contradictory, and multidimensional.1 This multidimensionality encompassed ideas of a racist, oppressive, white South historically continuous with slavery; a 'down-home' black South marked by distinctive speech and cultural practices; a sexually libidinous South; a rural, bucolic South; a lawless, criminal South; and a sophisticated urban South. The Dirty South was forged in conversation with older or alternate modes of imagining the South, spanning a continuum from Gone with the Wind-flavored Confederate apologetics at one end to the idea of the South as a unique African-American homeland on the other.

The Dirty South spread from a relatively insular rap music subculture to a wider, popular usage during the late 1990s along with the acceleration of investment on the part of major music corporations in the rap scenes of several large southern cities, including Atlanta, New Orleans, and Houston, as well as Memphis, Miami, and Virginia Beach. The passage of "Dirty South" from the specific context in which it emerged to a wider, popular culture resulted in a significant diminution of nuance in the discourse surrounding it. The understanding of the "Dirty South" and southern rap music generally finds articulation in the already familiar stereotypes of the South as variously backwards, abject, slow, corrupt, communal, down-to-earth, rural, or oversexed.

Master P on the cover of XXL Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 1, 1997.
Master P on the cover of XXL Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 1, 1997.

The emergence of the Dirty South represented a seismic shift in the established geographical imaginary of rap music, centrally related to claims of authenticity and marketability. Before the Dirty South, artists from places like Atlanta, Houston, or Miami were not completely excluded from rap, but seemed compelled to adhere to certain stylistic and conceptual limitations in order to sustain a wider rap music authenticity that would ultimately contribute to their long-term economic prospects within the national market. In a similar manner to 'West Coast' (L.A.-based) 'gangsta' rap, which rose to prominence in the late 1980s, the emergence of the Dirty South involved a combination of participation by previously marginalized participants as well as a shift in stylistic and conceptual conventions.

In this essay, I consider a decade of Dirty South developments. This period saw the substantial growth of major label investment in selected southern cities and the emergence of southern artists into the rap mainstream in terms of sales and exposure. Following a brief review of some of the stylistic and structural developments that have occurred, I explore the widespread appropriation and adaptation of the trope of "dirtiness" that has developed both inside and outside of rap. This is followed by a discussion of "crunk," which, like Dirty South, is a contested and problematic intersection of musical style and geographically keyed identities. Finally, I move to a discussion of the visual culture of the Dirty South, ways in which the use of imagery has critiqued, promoted, and problematized the idea of the South and its rap music culture.

Rap and Place

Perhaps the most remarkable dimension of the Dirty South phenomenon is the way it brings to the fore paradoxical and contradictory ideas about the relationship between music and place. For some scholars, this relationship is more or less "organic" — the stylistic differences between music produced in different places are unavoidable outgrowths of different cultural, economic, political, and geographic contexts. For instance, Jason Berry asserts, "popular music . . . springs from an organic culture: the lyrics, rhythms, and dance patterns reflect a specific consciousness, the values of a given place and time."2 More concretely, Sara Cohen writes, "music reflects social, economic, political, and material aspects of the particular place in which it is created. Changes in place thus influence changes in musical sounds and styles."3

Sports logos and a skyline featuring the famous arch signify St. Louis in Chingy's 2003 Jackpot (Capitol).
Sports logos and a skyline featuring the famous arch signify St. Louis in Chingy's 2003 Jackpot (Capitol).

Other scholars caution against a naturalized or taken-for-granted understanding of "'organic' relationships between music and the cultural history of [a] locale" and argue that participants appropriate "music via global flows and networks to construct particular narratives of the local." This process results in music "styles which are the result of an 'interlocking of local tendencies and cyclical transformations within the international music industries'."4 Others have underscored that music and the people involved in its production and consumption at various levels of scale do not take a passive or secondary role in this process. "Music," writes Martin Stokes, "does not then simply provide a marker in a prestructured social space, but the means by which this space can be transformed."5

Taken in aggregate, these scholarly claims suggest a dynamic and mutually influential relationship between music and place. Connections between a style of music and its place of origin often appear to be organic because of the layered ways in which style and place make meaning through repetition and reinscription, establishing implicit or explicit ties (rhetorical, structural, stylistic, or otherwise) to the history of a social, musical, and cultural context.

From the time of its emergence in the Bronx in the mid-1970s, rap has been centrally concerned with place-based identities. Geography plays an essential part in the conception of authenticity that characterizes the genre, and the history of rap music entails a continual growth of place-based imaginaries. Rap has put places on the map — like the South Bronx or Compton — that the mass media either ignored or portrayed as dangerous and hopelessly blighted. However, the representation of previously marginalized places does not occur in any sort of a uniform pattern — only particular places, at particularly historical moments, are eligible for admission to the canon of authentic rap music places. Understanding the ways that place-based identities change within rap is of central importance.

Photograph of Atlanta’s Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz at a local landmark (Ichiban Records, 1997).
Photograph of Atlanta’s Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz at a local landmark (Ichiban Records, 1997).

It is relatively difficult for a particular place to become familiar to wider rap audiences, but once achieved, artists, producers, and record labels from that city enjoy a significant advantage over those from seemingly more marginal places. A place becomes significant to rap geography through a combination of factors. First and foremost, the city must produce rap music which is of interest to outside audiences. For this to happen, creative and infrastructural development must occur on the "supply" side. On the "demand" side of this equation, the music produced in a given locale must accommodate national audiences' sonic, lyrical and thematic expectations in a way that does not push existing boundaries beyond their breaking point.

Music companies and other mediating forces try to identify the ideal blend of novelty and sameness, aware that an overemphasis on either of these two poles entails different risks. While it is not impossible for an artist or record label from a marginal place to become successful in rap, the process of mutual reinforcement favors already-established places. Running counter to this privileging of incumbents within rap music geography are worries about saturation or exhaustion (that a particular place can only produce a limited number of marketable artists) and, to a lesser degree, speculative exploration (that going to obscure places might yield a novel interpretation of the form).

Place-based affiliations can elevate an artist's status. Being able to claim a certain place—one known widely to the African American youth subculture that exists around rap music in the United States—affords an artist leverage to move his or her career forward. Represented at various levels of abstraction, places exist in a nested hierarchy which spans between generalized metaregional affiliations (East or West Coast and now Dirty South) and extremely specific connections to particular black neighborhoods. While establishing a place-based identity can prove profitable for artists and labels, there are less desirable consequences, often in the form of expectations of an intrinsic and monolithic relationship between performer and place that excludes as many artists as it empowers. Ultimately, the attachment of a distinct musical identity to a particular place introduces a paradoxically enabling/constraining dynamic which exercises a substantial effect over all rap music production from that place. The sound of any given place within the national-level rap imaginary is a fluid, contested and necessarily over-simplified idea that becomes more problematic as it achieves larger levels of scale.

The Rap Map Unfolds

From its beginnings in New York's neighborhoods, rap spread first to other large cities in the northeast, then jumped across the continent to southern California, for reasons that had much more to do with the preexisting structure of the music industry than with any sort of monopoly on talent held by the California-based rappers and producers who entered the national rap market in the late 1980s. However, California-based artists and independent record label owners took advantage of the opportunity and in turn helped to develop what would become known as the "gangsta rap" subgenre. This style was characterized by lyrics which emphasized criminality, violence, and rebellious anger, tempered by a celebration of the extravagant lifestyles of pimps and drug dealers.

Within the lyrics of this hyper-masculinized genre, women were infrequently represented. When they were, it was within a schema where the only positive model was that of the older, self-sacrificing single mother. Younger women were scorned as either stuck-up "bitches" or promiscuous "hoes." As in other emergent rap scenes, artists, producers, and label owners in these places were overwhelmingly male, and the emergence of well-known female rappers was a slow process. However, in New York, California, and other places where rap scenes coalesced, women and girls played a central role as part of rap's audience. As Kyra Gaunt argues, "black girls' sphere of musical activity (e.g. "handclapping games, cheers, and double-dutch") represents one of the earliest formations of a black popular music culture."6

Album cover for Third Coast Soldiers by Ghetto Brothers. (Starzmusic, 2003).
Album cover for Third Coast Soldiers by Ghetto Brothers. (Starzmusic, 2003).

Due to their proximity to both the centers of power in the entertainment industry and centers of rap creativity in largely African American communities around L.A., Southern California-based independent record labels and their artists were able to firmly establish themselves as competitors in the national rap market in the late 1980s. This development occurred in a complementary fashion with the collective creation of the idea of a distinctive geographically based style and point of view. While relatively vague and mutable, the conventions of West Coast 'gangsta' rap — which included particular musical, thematic, visual, and lyrical markers — were perceived to be distinctive despite significant areas of overlap with other rap music.7 The emergence of "authentic" rap from the West Coast in the form of acts like N.W.A. or Ice-T led to a steady progression of more pop-oriented rappers who exchanged authenticity for access to wider audiences, as in the case of MC Hammer, Tone Loc, or Young MC.

Until the late 1980s, when Los Angeles emerged as an up-and-coming center for rap music production, New York had enjoyed an exclusive claim on the genre. Two regionally based stylistic spheres began to take hold. New Yorkers still dominated rap in the northeast throughout the 1980s, but as the decade progressed, many rap acts began to emerge from areas outside of the core neighborhoods associated with the genre's early years. New York retained a symbolically and structurally central position, but suburbs like Long Island and nearby places like New Jersey and Philadephia began to be grouped with New York-based artists to form a cultural-industrial bloc called "the East Coast." Meanwhile, the Los Angeles-based scene engendered another regional imaginary, "the West Coast." This metaregional division was used to categorize artists, companies, and audiences and was soon imbued by audiences, critics, and music industry personnel with an understanding of basic differences in style and viewpoint which characterized each contingent.

Hip-hop scholar Murray Forman has noted the correspondence between "the rise and impact of rappers on the West Coast" and a "discursive shift from the spatial abstractions framed within 'the ghetto' to the more localized and specific discursive construct of 'the hood' occurring in 1987-88."8 Did West Coast artists and audiences initiate this change? Or did they simply hitch their wagons to an emerging trend in rap? What is clear is that the considerable influence of West Coast-based gangsta rap along the lines of musical style, lyrical content/, and imagery was paired with a general movement in rap towards an emphasis on "regional affiliations as well as . . . a keen sense of . . . the extreme local."9 As Forman notes, the emergence of a place-based concept of authenticity relates to changes in the conception of rap's narrative voice: "The tendency toward narrative self-awareness and a more early definable subjectivity effectively closed the distance between the story and the storyteller, and the concept of place-based reality became more of an issue in evaluating an artist's legitimacy within the hip-hop scene."10

Promotional image for Everythang’s Gon’ Be Different by Dirty South. (Hard 2 Hit, 2001).
Promotional image for Everythang’s Gon’ Be Different by Dirty South. (Hard 2 Hit, 2001).

As Adam Krims argues, this "poetics of locality and authenticity can work through sound, visual images, words, and media images together."11 Reference to the local in the lyrics and titles of songs such as NWA's "Straight Outta Compton" or 2 Live Crew's "Miami" offers one way of figuring place. On the more abstract level of musical style, the metaregions of rap are tied to regional flavors. Highly mutable and unstable, differences in musical style relate to the different cultural mix at work in various places, as well as to the efforts of empowered individuals or companies. In L.A., African Americans, some with roots in southern states like Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas engaged with Southern California Latino youth culture, with its mellow soul music and lowrider cars.12 In Miami, another distinct blend formed, as African Americans with roots in the US South formed but one element of a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and heavily Caribbean cultural mix.

Rap artists and companies selling their music profited from the place-based authenticity that association with established centers of production provided. However, the strongly felt and expressed sense of place, combined with economic or artistic competitiveness, led these blocs to become increasingly hostile towards one another — as Kelefa Sanneh writes, "the '90s saw the rise and fall of a bitter bicoastal war, which gave way to an explosion of regional styles."13 Many of the most prominent of these local styles were located in various urban areas of the US South.

Rap Scenes and Styles of the South

Album cover for the single “Let’s Jump” by MC J’ Ro ‘J. (Rosemont, 1988).
Album cover for the single “Let’s Jump” by MC J’ Ro ‘J. (Rosemont, 1988).

For all of its novelty in the areas of vocal performance, narrative voice, and musical backing, rap was strongly tied to previous genres of African American music, a fact which helped make the music accessible to Black southern audiences. In addition to sustaining an interest in and a market for "mainstream" rap produced for national audiences, inhabitants of southern cities soon began the process of creating rich musical subcultures based around locally specific interpretations of the form. Usually oriented towards dancing, these forms were often characterized by a decreased emphasis on lyrical complexity, a prioritization of audience participation and engagement, and certain constellations of musical or lyrical devices. Southern scenes incorporated and absorbed the changes and products of the national rap music industry, accepting or rejecting them according to their own preferences.

For the most part, the development of the rap scene and production infrastructure in the South was not due to major label investment, but was rather the product of the collective (although not necessarily coordinated) efforts of local audiences, artists, independent record label owners, club owners, record or tape sellers, and a host of other microeconomic players whose activities are ultimately essential for the emergence of a larger collective musical culture. The pursuit of local musical preferences in Miami, Houston, Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, and Virginia Beach outpaced the majors' ability to track, exploit, and profit from these emerging markets — a lag due as much to "broader culture formations and practices that are within neither the control nor the understanding" of the major music corporations as to the limitations of technology or corporate strategy.14 Because of their cultural and geographic distance from emergent rap scenes in cities such as Atlanta and New Orleans, major music corporations left these local or regional markets to independent entrepreneurs until their profitability was beyond dispute. In this sense, the majors chose an overly cautious course that resulted in a diminished share of the potential profits. Their investment followed rap audiences inside and outside of the South, whose tastes were being shaped and supplied by the efforts of independent local entrepreneurs. When the majors did arrive on a scene, they sought to ally themselves with these local independents and harness the advantages — in the form of both infrastructural development and the cultivation of "authenticity" — that their established commercial and artistic networks provided.

Rap scenes, styles, and local industries coalesced in Atlanta, Houston, Memphis, New Orleans, Miami, and Virginia Beach. While these urban centers were often discursively subsumed under the rubric of "the South," in reality, the development of rap as a genre in various southern states was a highly uneven process in which certain places became hubs of the emergent industry and style, while others languished in the hinterlands of these cities. Sheer size or the presence of a large African American population alone did not guarantee that a city would become established as a center of rap production, but these factors clearly influenced the range of possibilities in the South generally. Nevertheless, it is incorrect to conceive of rap music in the South as a phenomenon that stops at the city limits of the urban centers that have become known for their artists and scenes — it was and remains a much more diffused process within a hinterland/urban center arrangement. Artists, producers, and record label owners in those urban centers depended upon relationships with other like-minded folks in the cities' hinterlands in order to stage concerts and sell recordings.


With a climate, history, and cultural mix that diverges in important ways from Atlanta, Memphis, Houston, or New Orleans, Miami exists as much within the hemispheric South as it does within the historical US South. Geography and demography informed cultural production from the city — as rap mogul Luther Campbell asserted, "the Cubans and the Caribbean blacks gave this city its personality . . . . The Latin style blended with the black, Caribbean rhythm and colors."15 The city occupies a midpoint between the Caribbean and the urban Northeast, a liminal space of contact between the people and cultures associated with these places and those with ties to proximate states like Alabama and Georgia. These factors encouraged an early adaptation — or even a parallel evolution — of the rap form. A distinctive local interpretation emerged out of the everyday musical culture of the city's poor neighborhoods (including Liberty City, "Miami's most notorious sprawling ghetto, . . . Overtown, [and] some parts of Opa Locka and North Miami") which came to be known as "Miami Bass" in the early 1990s.16

Album cover for Ain't’ It Good to Ya by Gigolo Tony. (4-Sight, 1989).
Album cover for Ain't’ It Good to Ya by Gigolo Tony. (4-Sight, 1989).

Referring to the 1970s, a period "before rap . . . when rap was being created," Luther Campbell observed, "We DJ'ed differently down here." Groups like "the International DJs[,] The South Miami DJs, SS Express, and the Jammers" used turntables to mix records through loud, bass-heavy sound systems in parks, at parties, and nightclubs.17 The Miami style that grew out of this scene involved distinctive techniques (such as "regulating") and distinctive aesthetic concerns — which, as in reggae, centered around the generation and reproduction of extremely low, long and loud bass tones, as well an emphasis on layered, polyrhythmic percussion which can also be productively linked to Caribbean forms, shaped by a variety of fills and breakdowns.

The Miami style came to be defined by relatively fast (around 125 b.p.m.) tempos, with vocal performances that were heavily rooted in call-and-response and relied upon short, repeated phrases rather than extended narrative raps.18 As in other diasporic forms like dancehall reggae, "vocal and musical quality [were] as important to listeners as [was] the strictly lexical register" when it came to Miami Bass, and the rapidly-diffusing genre introduced a number of innovative and exciting developments.19 The sonic qualities of many of these recordings were reminiscent of the 'electro' style that had briefly flourished in New York around 1982, when artists like Mantronix and Afrika Bambaattaa used futuristic themes and imagery to complement sounds generated with drum machines, sequencers, and synthesizers, drawing heavily upon the work of the German group Kraftwerk.

The first commercial attempts to produce recordings of this local style came in the mid-1980s. Many participants credit 2 Live Crew's "Throw the D" (1986) as the first bass record, but it was joined by efforts from early Miami artists like Gigolo Tony, MC A.D.E., Clay D., The Gucci Crew, and veteran DJ and producer Pretty Tony. Female artists like Missy Mist, Debbie Deb, and Candy Fresh were among the artists who recorded in the formative years of Bass. In addition to Luther Campbell's various record labels, other independent record companies such as Pandisc, Joey Boy, and 4-Sight flourished as the popularity of Miami Bass grew in block parties and teen clubs, as well as "car races, car audio stores, clubs, skating rinks, and even strip clubs."20 The latter formed one of the dominant spaces that informed Miami Bass lyrics and imagery with regard to women. The world of adult entertainment in the city and the emergent rap scene were highly intertwined, as shown in the film Dirty South (1996). While female rappers did not represent any less of a minority in Miami than in other places, many critics viewed the representation of women in general within Bass lyrics and album artwork as hypersexualized objectification. One commentator who supported her argument with many songs and videos by Miami- and Atlanta-based groups observed, "there remains a thin line between sex and sexism, and what's troubling, judging from the videos, is that the women in these clips don't have any clearer a sense of the difference than the men holding the mikes."21 The bass music produced in the city divided into two distinct camps: a raucous, chant-heavy variety oriented towards rowdy nightclub crowds who demanded salacious lyrics, and a more understated style that often eschewed lyrics entirely so that club or car-based listeners could enjoy the booming bass tones without distraction.

Album cover for www.thug.com by Trick Daddy. (Slip N Slide Records, 1998).
Album cover for www.thug.com by Trick Daddy. (Slip N Slide Records, 1998).

Miami Bass flourished in the early 1990s, and much of the groundwork for this growth was laid by Luther "Luke Skyywalker" Campbell, who made impressive strides in establishing the business infrastructure to support the genre and providing a platform for its creative development. At its peak, Campbell's rap empire encompassed multiple record labels and various nightclubs (including a 'teen club' called the Pac Jam). He came to national prominence around 1990, when efforts by Moral Majority-affiliated critics to ban the sale of his bawdy records pushed him into the unlikely role of First Amendment champion. By the time Campbell's legal troubles had wound down, Miami bass was hitting its stride. As a 1994 issue of The Source dedicated to Miami — touted as "hip-hop's hidden hotbed" on the cover — indicated, Bass was enjoying a level of exposure and interest in the rap world that was unprecedented for a place outside of the East Coast / West Coast framework. The production of Miami-style bass music quickly spread to other southeastern cities like Orlando, Jacksonville, and Atlanta.

In the early 1990s, Miami enjoyed a brief moment in the semi-tropical sun as its early start in the rap genre placed it at the head of a group of southern scenes moving towards an intersection with mainstream markets and audiences. A few songs by Miami-based artists, like 95 South's "Whoot, there It Is" (1993), enjoyed mainstream success, but for the most part, the city's exposure declined in the mid-1990s as Atlanta's rose. Bass and similar club-oriented dance music continued to be produced and consumed throughout the South, but the production of these records was no longer limited to Miami. Indeed, Miami artists had to compete with increasingly prominent artists and labels from, most notably, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Houston. By the late 2000s, several Miami rappers, including Trick Daddy, Trina, and Rick Ross, had broken through to national markets, and the Slip N Slide label (distributed by Atlantic Records) established itself as one of several important independent labels in the Southeast. The particular cultural mix in Miami and its geographic proximity to the Caribbean has enabled the rise of a strong presence of 'reggaeton' music, a Spanish language form that draws upon dancehall reggae and rap.

Miami Audio Samples
(Warning: Some of these audio samples contain explicit content.)

Sample from Gigolo Tony, "Smurf Rock," Gold Star Records / 4-Straight Records, 1986. This song by an early Miami rapper shows a playful approach that is strongly rooted in African American vernacular music traditions.

Sample from 2 Life Crew, "Ghetto Bass," Luke Skywalker Records, 1986. The emerging Miami Bass scene is the lyrical subject of the b-side of "Throw the D."

Sample from Missy Mist, "Gettin' Bass," Never Stop Productions, 1989. In this excerpt, the Bronx-born rapper describes the equipment needed to produce a live Bass experience.

Sample from DJ Magic Mike, "The Man with the Bass, " Cheetah Records, 1994. Orlando-based producer DJ Magic Mike crafts instrumental pieces that showcase exceptionally deep and long bass tones.

Sample from DJ Uncle Al, "Uncle Al Mix It Up," On Top Records, 1993. Uncle Al's high-energy vocal style is typical of live performances by Miami Bass DJs.

Sample from Trick Daddy, "In da Wind," Atlantic/WeA, 2002. Trick Daddy is one of the more recent Miami rappers to rise to national prominence.


Houston also had an embryonic rap scene by the mid to late 1980s. As Atlanta-based journalist Roni Sarig notes, while the Fifth Ward was one of the city's oldest black neighborhoods, it was in South Park, a newer black neighborhood that "encompasses both hard-core slums and middle-class streets" that some of the city's earliest rap music emerged.22 The group Real Chill released a single in 1986, and along with groups like Triple Threat or Royal Flush was part of the first generation of artists and producers to rise in Houston. But what made Houston into the South's early capital of rap was the 1986 founding of Rap-A-Lot Records by James Smith (later known as James Prince), "a young black salesman of used luxury cars," in partnership with Cliff Blodget, a white software engineer from Seattle.23

Album cover for Car Freak by Ghetto Boys. (Rap-A-Lot, 1987).
Album cover for Car Freak by Ghetto Boys. (Rap-A-Lot, 1987).

Smith worked on building a roster of local artists, eventually putting together a group called the Geto Boys. The group's exposure to the national market depended upon the intervention of New York-based producer Rick Rubin, who signed the Geto Boys to his Def American label and produced a hard-hitting album of sample-driven material (understandably consistent with the dominant New York aesthetic) to support the group's gangsta rap lyrics. Stylistically, the album was consistent with the dominant trends in the New York- and Los Angeles-based rap mainstream. The only thing "southern" about the Geto Boys was their origin, which, in keeping with the moment, was perceived as an anomaly rather than a central feature of their ability to produce credible rap music for national audiences.

Regardless, The Geto Boys was nothing if not controversial — as one critic observed, it "was so verbally abusive that Geffen severed all ties with Def American, which never worked with Rap-A-Lot again."24 The notoriety gained by these events no doubt helped propel their next album — 1991's We Can't Be Stopped, distributed by California-based independent Priority Records — to national prominence, cementing Rap-A-Lot's (and by extension, Houston's) reputation as "a central entity in the southern rap scene, . . . [and] a beacon for many southern rap artists who were geographically or culturally distant from . . . New York or Los Angeles."25

The group that rose to prominence in the early 1990s was the most recent of several attempts by Smith to put together a "Ghetto" or "Geto" Boys. The biographies of the group's principal members speak to the lack of a unified tie to place — while both Willie D. and Scarface were from Houston, they grew up in different neighborhoods, separated by geographical distance as well as social class. The diminutive Bushwick Bill had family roots in Jamaica and had moved to Texas as a teen. This incarnation of the group was described in 1992 as "the hottest music figures to come out of the Houston area since Clint Black."26 Rap-A-Lot continued to release music by Geto Boys veteran Scarface ("the label's biggest star"), as well as the significantly less angry Odd Squad, and found regional support for subsequent efforts by Odd Squad member Devin the Dude and a variety of Houston-based artists, including Ganksta N-I-P and The Fifth Ward Boyz.27 In 1995, Smith broke with Priority and negotiated a deal with Noo Trybe/Virgin to distribute Rap-A-Lot. While its centrality in the Houston scene declined as other independents rose to prominence, "the label's rags-to-riches story continues to exert a strong influence on Houston rappers."28

Promotional image for 8-Ball’s triple CD Lost. (Suave House, 1998).
Promotional image for 8-Ball’s triple CD Lost. (Suave House, 1998).

Other labels and artists added to the momentum Rap-A-Lot had initiated. Rapper Bun B and rapper and producer Pimp C had grown up in Port Arthur on the Texas-Louisiana border, but as UGK they gravitated to Houston's rap scene. Their 1992 debut on local label Big Tyme Recordz caught the attention of Jive Records, who released several albums by the group, including the highly acclaimed Ridin' Dirty in 1996. UGK's sound featured slower-than-average tempos and live instrumental backing music or sampled equivalents playing bluesy grooves, a style that came to be known as "Texas funk." Despite their status as "one of the key acts defining southern hip-hop" in the mid-1990s, UGK was not able to fully capitalize on their popularity.29 Five years passed before they released another album, and in 2002, Pimp C was sent to prison for aggravated assault. Though "few listeners outside the South" heard UGK's music during their heyday, their growing reputation further elevated Houston's profile.30 Suave House Records also played an important role in the continuing expansion of Houston's rap scene in the 1990s. The label was founded by Memphis native Tony Draper, who brought his hometown's hottest rap duo 8-Ball & MJG with him when he relocated to Texas.

Innovative artists and stylistic approaches continued to emerge from Houston — in 2005, critic Kelefa Sanneh claimed that the city "has been producing some of the country's best and weirdest rap since the late 1980s" — and the local subgenre called "screw" played an important role in this process. The genre was pioneered and named after DJ Screw, whose homemade "screw tapes" presented a technological reworking of rap songs which involved playing the song at half-speed (producing extra-deep bass and percussion and groaning vocals) and repeating small portions of the song in a technique called "chopping." Screw's music turned out to be the perfect soundtrack for another emerging local scene, based around the consumption of narcotic cough syrup (called 'syrup' or 'lean'). Screw has been cast as a reflective outgrowth of this drug scene, but Sanneh finds that connections between the musical style and "the city's slow, rambling speech patterns" or "the region's thick, muggy climate" are no more compelling than the argument that screw tapes were simply the perfect entertainment for a highway-happy city where you might spend more time driving to the club than being there. Whatever the connection between screw and the environment from which it emerged, screw has defined Houston's identity within the national rap music culture, and has formed a central part of locally-felt local rap music identity: "Just about every new album or mixtape from Houston is still available in two versions: regular or slow."31

Lil Flip in an advertisement for Houston jeweler Johnny Dang, 2004.
Lil Flip in an advertisement for Houston jeweler Johnny Dang, 2004.

While DJ Screw overdosed on cough syrup in 2000, the genre has been carried forward by other local labels and producers (such as Swishahouse's Michael "5000" Watts). Elements taken from or inspired by screw tapes have also formed part of the local identity of Houston artists who are working in more commercial formats. The 2004 song ''Still Tippin','' by Mike Jones with Slim Thug and Paul Wall, featured elements drawn from or insired by the screw style and represented a breakthrough for national awareness of the Houston subgenre. Along with Lil Flip, who "got his start rhyming on DJ Screw's tapes," these artists represent the vanguard in a scene that has managed to retain its prominence in southern rap even as Memphis, New Orleans, and Miami have slowed considerably since the Dirty South heyday of the late 1990s.32

Houston Audio Samples
(Warning: Some of these audio samples contain explicit content.)

Sample from Geto Boys, "Do It Like a G.O," Rap-A-Lot Records, 1990. The Geto Boys were the first Houston group to break through to national audiences.

Sample from Mr. Scarface, "I'm Black," Rap-A-Lot Records, 1990. The Geto Boys were the first group to break through to national audiences.

Sample from Odd Squad, "Coughee," Rap-A-Lot Records, 1994. The work of the Odd Squad embodies a soulful and less aggressive take on the Houston rap style.

Sample from Underground Kingz, "Front, Back & Side-to-Side," Jive Records, 1994. This Port Arthur-based duo delivers a funky 1994 ode to low-rider cars.

Sample from Eightball & MJG, "Boom Boom," Suave House Records, 2001. One of Houston's top rap acts moved to the city from Memphis in the early 1990s along with their record label.

Sample from Lil' Flip, "Game Over," Sony, 2004. Lil' Flip became one of Houston's newest stars in 2004.

Sample from DJ Michael 5000 Watts, "Weight a Minute Freestyle," Swishahouse, 2004. Elements from Houston's "screw" style have influenced other rap being produced there, as in this track by Michael "5000" Watts featuring Archie Lee.

New Orleans

Rap music culture and practice grew in New Orleans throughout the decade of the 1980s thanks to the efforts of DJ groups like Denny Dee's New York Incorporated and the Brown Clowns. The first rap record released by a New Orleans-based group was "We Destroy" (1986) by the Ninja Crew, tellingly, on a Miami-based label, 4-Sight. The New Orleans rap infrastructure was still largely nonexistent. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, artists like Bust Down and the rapper/DJ team Gregory D. and Mannie Fresh recorded and released records on local labels, but forged connections with independents in other cities (Dallas and Miami, respectively) in order to expand their careers. A local infrastructure began to take shape, with producers, engineers, and label owners from previous generations being joined by younger aspirants. Releases by MC Thick and Bust Down (originally on local labels Alliv and Disotell) were picked up by majors for national distribution in the early 1990s.

Album cover for Mind of Mystikal by Mystikal. (Jive, 1995).
Album cover for Mind of Mystikal by Mystikal. (Jive, 1995).

The New Orleans rap scene incubated in concerts, nightclubs, teen clubs, house parties, and block parties throughout the city, as well as through radio play and recording sales. It drew upon qualities already in existence, including a fractionalized urban geography of neighborhoods, housing projects, and wards that often structured business arrangements and formed an axis around which artistic and commercial competition could revolve. The city's highly-developed traditions of expressive culture — represented by Mardi Gras Indians, brass bands, and "second line" parades — provide analogues to the emerging rap scene in terms of the intensity of creative engagement and the strong sense of competition driving the efforts of rival groups or factions. These two central features — the city's relative isolation vis-à-vis the centers of rap music industry and its deeply rooted traditions of expressive culture, including those related to carnival — profoundly influenced the development of the New Orleans rap scene and style.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the rap scene slowly expanded and took root in New Orleans. A variety of artists — including 39 Posse, Tim Smooth, and Warren Mayes — rose to local fame. In late 1991, the New Orleans scene and style changed dramatically due to the impact of a song called "Where Dey At" by MC T Tucker and DJ Irv. The duo hastily recorded a version of a song they had been performing at a nightclub called Ghost Town, with lyrics consisting of various phrases repeated and chanted in a rhythmic manner, backed by music taken from a recording of "Drag Rap," a 1986 song by New York group The Show Boys. "Where Dey At" took New Orleans by storm, selling hundreds of copies and receiving play on local rap radio.

Album cover for F**k Bein’ Faitful by Cheeky Blakk. (Tombstone, 1996).
Album cover for F**k Bein’ Faitful by Cheeky Blakk. (Tombstone, 1996).

A similar release by DJ Jimi in 1992 helped establish a distinctive sound, and a vital scene coalesced around the new style of music soon christened "bounce." Local independents like Cash Money, Parkway Pumpin', and Pack supplied the growing demand with releases by Juvenile, Lil Slim, Magnolia Slim, Pimp Daddy, Everlasting Hitman, Silky Slim, Cheeky Blakk, and dozens of others. Grounded in a participatory approach to performance and composition, the style that these artists helped to create relied upon a dance orientation, vocals structured by call-and-response, and lyrics featuring local references. Chanted phrases which often unfolded in basic melodic patterns formed part of the polyrhythmic layering of the music along with elements such as handclaps and highly-inflected bass drum patterns similar to those in second line parades.

Bounce dominated the New Orleans market, but the city also saw the rise of a number of artists who did not fit neatly into that category. West Coast gangsta rap acts like N.W.A. and Tupac Shakur had always enjoyed popularity in the city, and Cash Money and Big Boy Records released many records that were either within this genre or that mixed it with ideas drawn from bounce. Mystikal, on the Big Boy label, became one of the earliest artists from the Crescent City to break nationally, possibly due to the fact that he eschewed the bounce sound almost entirely. His rapid-fire, animated lyrical style helped convince the established independent label Jive to sign him in 1995.

Soon after Mystikal's signing, New Orleans' profile in the rap world received another boost when Master P's No Limit Records signed a lucrative deal with California-based independent Priority records. Building upon his "underground" success with minimal marketing and radio support, Master P leveraged a $30-million deal with Priority in 1996 in which he retained the rights to keep his master recordings. Throughout the late 1990s, he released a string of platinum-selling albums, earning a reputation as one of the top new rap moguls in the country. While Master P used several producers with long histories in the New Orleans scene, his engagement with local artists diminished as his success grew. His 1995 compilation Down South Hustlers: Bouncing and Swingin' (the first double rap CD) featured a host of prominent local New Orleans artists, but by the late 1990s his roster had narrowed to a few members of his immediate family and the fading star Snoop Dogg.

Promotional image for Juvenile’s bounce-flavored song “Ha!” from 400 Degreez. (Cash Money Records, 1998).
Promotional image for Juvenile’s bounce-flavored song “Ha!” from 400 Degreez. (Cash Money Records, 1998).

In 1998, New Orleans' second remarkable partnership formed between major labels and a local independent. Cash Money Records, a label headed by the Williams Brothers, with Mannie Fresh as in-house producer, established itself in the early 1990s as the top-selling local label with releases by Pimp Daddy, Kilo G, Ms. Tee, and UNLV. While the Williams brothers had largely parted ways with most of these artists by the time they sealed a multimillion dollar deal with Universal in 1998, Cash Money retained several promising artists, including B.G. and Juvenile, whose 1998 song "Ha" brought the New Orleans sound to national audiences. Members of the label's roster continued to defect, however, until Lil' Wayne represented the only Cash Money artist receiving national attention.

No Limit and Cash Money began to decline in terms of relevance and market share as 2000 approached. However, the local "bounce" scene, which had experienced a lull in the late 1990s, was reenergized around 2000 by the emergence of several gay male "sissy" rappers, including Katey Red and Big Freedia, and others. Along with other artists like Hot Boy Ronald, Josephine Johnny, and Gotti Boi Chris, they produced music for small independent labels that was well-received in the local market and bore a strong New Orleans stylistic imprint. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina dealt this grassroots rap scene a hard blow. While some artists and producers have returned, New Orleans rap may never re-establish the pre-Katrina level of neighborhood participation and enthusiastic popularity. The areas most affected by flooding were also those which provided the most consistent support for the local rap scene.

New Orleans Audio Samples
(Warning: Some of these audio samples contain explicit content.)

Sample from MC Gregory D & DJ Mannie Fresh, "Where You from?," Uzi Records, 1989. In this song, MC Gregory D & DJ Mannie Fresh celebrate the distinctive culture of New Orleans.

Sample from MC T. Tucker & DJ Irv, "Where Dey At," Charlot Records, 1991. This song kicked off the "bounce" genre and catalyzed a conceptual revolution in New Orleans rap.

Sample from Mia X, "Da Payback," Lamina Records, 1993. This bounce song by New Orleans' most successful female rapper responds to the misogyny and sexism of local male rappers' efforts.

Sample from Skull Duggery, "Darkside," No Limit Records, 1995. Gangsta rap has always been popular in New Orleans, as seen in this gothic tale spun by Skull Duggery and released on Master P's label.

Sample from Mystikal, "Y'all Ain't Ready Yet," Jive Records, 1995. With an idiosyncratic style and athletic delivery, Mystikal became one of the earliest New Orleans-based rappers to move from regional to national markets.

Sample form Juvenile, "Ha!," Cash Money Records, 1998. Juvenile's hit song brought a local New Orleans flavor to national audiences.

Sample from S.W.A., "We #1," Kwik Burn Records, 2002. Gay male "sissy" rappers have achieved local popularity in recent years.


The rap scene in Memphis developed gradually over the late 1980s and early 1990s. Cool K's 1986 "I Need Money" is reputed to be the city's first recording, and formed part of the early scene along with club DJs like Soni D and Spanish Fly. The first local rap record to receive radio play was the 1989 song "Ain't Nothing like the Bass" by W-Def. Many of the rappers to emerge from Memphis have been tied to South Memphis and the Orange Mound neighborhood, the city's oldest African American community. The lyrical and philosophical perspective of Memphis-based rappers is often described as "dark and menacing," qualities that could just as easily be linked to the haunting Delta Blues that once flourished in the area, as to the bleak economic circumstances faced by many Memphians in this majority African American city.33 Memphis' history as a center for black popular music in the Southeast helped it achieve some degree of rap prominence, but the city was not positioned to compete with larger regional centers like Houston, Miami, New Orleans, or Atlanta.

Promotional image for Murder She Spoke by La’ Chat. (Koch Entertainment, 2001).
Promotional image for Murder She Spoke by La’ Chat. (Koch Entertainment, 2001).

The Memphis rap scene began to take off in the early 1990s, when a local dance craze began based around samples from the 1986 song "Drag Rap" by the New York group The Show Boys (also highly influential in New Orleans). As one commentator notes, "the song was probably the driving force behind a dance which . . . spread throughout Memphis and the surrounding area, [and] became known as the 'gangsta walk.'"34 Releases by artists such as SMK, Romeo, and Gangsta Pat (who soon became the first Memphis-based artist to secure a deal with a major label) were spawned from this trend, which kicked off a decade of significant Memphis scene development. Memphis-based Select-O-Hits, a distributor with roots stretching back to the 1970s, handled many of these releases regionally, and the company continued to be an important resource in later years.

In 1992, Memphis rap was still largely self-contained and unknown in wider circles, a fact which led the city's top rap act, 8Ball & MJG, to depart for greener pastures in Houston with Suave House label owner Tony Draper. Other early- to mid-1990s artists such as Al Kapone and Kingpin Skinny Pimp formed points around which the local scene grew. Several of these artists recorded for local independent On The Strength. Their popularity was further fueled by frequent appearances on mixtapes released by local DJs like DJ Squeeky, "an Orange Mound DJ who got his start spinning at the neighborhood's Club Memphis."35 Another pair of mixtape DJs, DJ Paul and Juicy J, began producing original material using local rappers, eventually forming a crew called Triple Six Mafia (later Three 6 Mafia). This group, led by DJ Paul and Juicy J and featuring male rappers Lord Infamous, Project Pat, and the female rapper Gangsta Boo, became known for compositions featuring "spare, low-BPM rhythms, simplistic chants . . . and narcotically repetitive, slasher-flick textures," features which were instrumental for the emergence of the crunk style.36 Their first releases came out on their own Prophet Records, but with independent success, Three 6 Mafia signed with Sony's Relativity, and in late 1997 released their first record under the new arrangements. In 2000 they changed their label's name to Hypnotize Minds. With releases by the group and protégés like Project Pat, Three 6 Mafia came to be the most successful Memphis rap enterprise during this decade.

Promotional image for Da Unbreakables by Three 6 Mafia. (Sony, 2003).
Promotional image for Da Unbreakables by Three 6 Mafia. (Sony, 2003).

Memphis Audio Samples
(Warning: Some of these audio samples contain explicit content.)

Sample from SMK, "Da Gangster Walk," Brutal Records, 1991. This song instructs listeners on the dance and associated style of music that took Memphis by storm in the late 1980s.

Sample from Three 6 Mafia, "Hit a Muthafucka," Relativity, 1997. The work of Memphis' best-known rap group is marked by extreme imagery and sonic constructions that figured centrally in the "crunk" style's emergence.

Sample from Kingpin Skinny Pimp, "Where Ya From?," Basix Records, 2000. In this excerpt the rapper lists a variety of labels, cliques, and places related to the Memphis rap scene.

Sample from Project Pat Featuring La Chat, "Chickenhead," Relativity, 2001. Project Pat and La Chat engage in a humorous exchange of insults between the sexes.


Atlanta's status as the Dirty South's capital rests upon two interrelated features: its status as a growing population center and symbolic "mecca" for African Americans, and its role as the economic and transportation hub of the Southeast. Largely a satellite of the Miami Bass scene in the mid- to late-1980s, by the 1990s, Atlanta was one among several expanding southern urban rap centers. By 2000, the city's rap prominence far outstripped that of Memphis, Houston, New Orleans, or Miami. It seems unlikely that any other southern metropolis will be able to catch up with the investment and expansion that have solidified Atlanta's position as the rap capital of the Southeast.

Album cover for Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik by OutKast. (LaFace Records, 1994).
Album cover for Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik by OutKast. (LaFace Records, 1994).

Like other cities covered in this essay, the rap scene in Atlanta did not begin to build any sort of significant momentum until the late 1980s. Early rappers like Mojo and the club DJ known as King Edward J attracted local audiences, but remained obscure outside the city. The earliest rapper to develop any degree of more-than-local prominence was Peter "MC Shy D" Jones, a transplanted New Yorker who built a career rapping in Atlanta and Miami. At first, the dominance of Miami pulled Jones to work with Luther Campbell, recording and performing with 2 Live Crew. "In the late '80s," writes Roni Sarig, "Atlanta became a sort of colonial outpost of Miami hip-hop."37

As Atlanta's rap scene began to gain momentum, a generation who took rap as their primary frame of musical reference came of age. Club DJs/producers like Kizzy Rock and DJ Smurf began to cement the city's reputation as a source for uptempo dance music that could hold its own against Miami Bass. Atlanta artists like Kilo, Success N Effect, and others released recordings on independent labels like WRAP/Ichiban or Black Label, but few recordings made it outside the city. In a prelude to the expansive years, the early 1990s saw a number of national chart-climbing, "one-hit-wonder" releases from Atlanta-based or -connected artists, including D-Roc's "Bankhead Bounce" and Duice's "Dazzey Duks." The Atlanta scene's roots lay in the city's black neighborhoods, including the sprawling Southwest, East Point, and Forest Park near the airport, the areas surrounding the Atlanta University Center's cluster of historically black educational institutions, and "east side" neighborhoods like Decatur.

Goodie Mob on the cover of XXL Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 3, 1998.
Goodie Mob on the cover of XXL Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 3, 1998.

In early 1992, Arrested Development was the first group associated with Atlanta to attract the attention of national audiences and critics. Composed of college students who for the most part had grown up outside of the South, but who were able to exploit the stereotyped expectations of national audiences about what a southern rap act should properly look and sound like, Arrested Development's imagery evoked a black South in which poverty and rurality figured centrally. A sample-heavy, "East Coast" production style and a lack of references to club life, partying, and dancing signified the group's disconnection with local aesthetic and thematic priorities, and while their first album achieved critical acclaim and high sales numbers, their long-term effect upon the local Atlanta scene was minimal.

Considerable investment by major labels began in 1989 when Antonio "L.A." Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds moved to Atlanta and founded the Arista-backed LaFace Records. Along with their best-known act, OutKast, the label released rap music by female rap group TLC, Goodie Mob, Cool Breeze, and Witchdoctor, as well as a wide range of artists working in the R&B genre. LaFace's most prominent success story and the rap group which has become most closely associated with Atlanta — OutKast — was, in many ways, atypical of the Atlanta club music scene that prevailed in the mid-1990s. OutKast became the standard bearers of southern rap, but they were initially chosen to record by their producer Rico Wade because of their ability to render complex and non-repetitive raps ("no hooks"). In both musical and personal style, "they weren't no ghetto Atlanta niggas — no gold teeth. They were hip-hop."38 The statement shows how musical and visual style, social class, and regional affiliation could all be tied up in the same equation of rap music authenticity.

Album cover for United States of Atlanta by Ying Yang Twins. (TVT Records, 2005).
Album cover for United States of Atlanta by Ying Yang Twins. (TVT Records, 2005).

Jermaine Dupri, a producer who founded the So So Def record label in 1992, represents another important node in the Atlanta rap network. Dupri grew up in the College Park area of Atlanta. He became involved in the music industry at a young age, thanks in large part to his father, an executive who helped organize the first touring rap concert in the early 1980s. Dupri achieved enormous commercial success as a songwriter and producer before the age of twenty with teen rap group Kris Kross. He went on to produce commercially successful artists like Da Brat, and in 2000 he became a vice-president at Arista.

Image of Atlanta rap slogan “‘We Ready’ ATL.” on a basketball jersey. Photograph by Matt Miller, 2007. Courtesy of Matt Miller.
Image of Atlanta rap slogan “‘We Ready’ ATL.” on a basketball jersey. Photograph by Matt Miller, 2007. Courtesy of Matt Miller.

Not only did an increasing number of Atlanta-based artists — including Ludacris, T.I., Bonecrusher, Gucci Man, and Young Jeezy — find national audiences, but the exposure of stylistic subgenres associated with Atlanta far outstripped that enjoyed by other cities in the South. As detailed in a later section, "Get Crunk," Atlanta's position at the center of the southern rap spotlight made it easier for artists like Lil Jon or D4L to pitch their approaches to making music as a subgenre of rap (crunk and snap, respectively). The power that these artists and their business associates possess to name, categorize, and periodize ideas within the rap form speak to Atlanta's privileged position. In the increasingly globalized and media-connected world of rap, place still matters, both as a certification of authenticity, and as a way to maximize structural advantages and connections.

Atlanta Audio Samples
(Warning: Some of these audio samples contain explicit content.)

Sample from OutKast featuring Goodie Mob, "Call of da Wild," LaFace Records, 1994. An underexposed track from OutKast's debut album showcases sophisticated rap skills and forward-thinking production work.

Sample from Diamond featuring D-Roc, "Bankhead Bounce," Elektra/Asylum, 1996. Before he joined the Ying Yang Twins, D-Roc brought the rap spotlight to an Atlanta neighborhood with his catchy song and accompanying dance.

Sample from Goodie Mob, "Dirty South," LaFace Records, 1996. This song crystallized a way of thinking about the South when southern rap was on the verge of becoming a national phenomenon.

Sample from DJ Kizzy Rock featuring DJ Smurf, "Crank this Shit Up," Ichiban Records, 1996. Music designated for local club scenes relies on energetic music and exhortative lyrics.

Sample from Lil' Jon & the East Side Boys, "Get Crunk," Ichiban Records, 1997. Lil' Jon has become the public face of crunk.

Sample from Ying Yang Twins, "Wait," TVT Records, 2005, The Ying Yang Twins took crunk from a scream to a whisper in this 2006 hit.

Sample from Trap Squad, "What's Happenin?," Asylum Records, 2006. "What's Happenin?" was the first single from the Trap Squad's Asylum Records debut.

Sample from D4L, "Laffy Taffy," Asylum Records, 2005.

Virginia Beach

The rap scenes and styles in the other cities covered in this essay developed from years of collective grassroots activities, supported by local networks of clubs, radio, retailers, and small independent record labels. Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Memphis supported artists and labels making distinctive music for local crowds. Virginia Beach deserves note for its failure to conform. The decentralized beach town — "a faceless stretch of suburbia" — forms part of the sprawling "seven cities" on the swampy Virginia coast, and the presence of several military bases in the area provides a constantly shifting demographic diversity.39 By taking advantage of the area's positioning with regard to the New York-centered rap industry, a small number of talented producers and artists found shortcuts to pop stardom, producing rap music with a "less aggressive take on place" than other southern urban scenes, and a musical sensibility unfettered by allegiance to local preferences.40

Promotional image for Supa Dupa Fly by Missy Elliot. (East/West Records, 1997).
Promotional image for Supa Dupa Fly by Missy Elliot. (East/West Records, 1997).

The music industry in Virginia Beach was largely nonexistent before the arrival of Teddy Riley, a New York-based R&B performer and producer famous for pioneering the "New Jack Swing" style with the group Guy. Riley was inspired to relocate to the beach town after attending the Labor Day bash known as "Greekfest," which by the late 1980s had become "an anarchic event attracting tens of thousands of students and fun-seekers." However, the year after Riley's visit, the event spiraled out of control, as the fragile relationship between local authorities and an estimated 100,000 partiers descended into rioting and looting, followed by numerous arrests, events which effectively signaled the end of the annual gathering. However, Greekfest's demise did not deter Riley from his planned move, and he arrived in 1990, set up a studio and "actively embraced the local community" with charity events and talent shows.41 His presence helped focus the efforts of aspiring artists and producers, especially the team of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, who worked on production and songwriting at Riley's Famous Recording studio under the maritime-inspired moniker The Neptunes while still in high school.

Slightly older than The Neptunes, producer Tim "Timbaland" Mosely and rapper/producer Missy Elliot have done much to elevate Virginia Beach's profile, but the two artists left the area in the mid-1990s, as a collaboration with R&B singer Aaliyah propelled them into the pop spotlight. Over the course of the next few years of multiple solo and collaborative albums and constant production work, the inventive and eclectic Timbaland became one of the top producers in rap, R&B and pop. Backed by Interscope, he founded a label, Beat Club, and signed white Georgia rapper Bubba Sparxxx as its first artist in 2001. With platinum sales from 1997 onwards, Missy Elliot became "the biggest female artist in hip-hop history."42 As her recording career leveled off, she ventured into reality television in 2005 with her rap-themed reality show, The Road to Stardom.

Promotional image for Indecent Proposal by Timbaland & Magoo. (Blackground Records, 2001).
Promotional image for Indecent Proposal by Timbaland & Magoo. (Blackground Records, 2001).

The Neptunes moved to New York in the late 1990s, and drew widespread attention in 1998 with their production work for the rapper Noreaga. The pair crafted hit songs for rap acts such as Mystikal, Jay-Z, and Scarface, to pop icons including Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, No Doubt, and Beyoncé. The pair founded the Star Trak label, distributed by Arista, and signed Virginia rappers Clipse as their debut artists. In 2002, they bought the Mastersound studio in Virginia Beach where they had previously worked alongside Timbaland and Missy, changing the name to Hovercraft Studios.

In terms of chart position, crossover, and influence, Virginia Beach produced some of the most successful producers and rappers during the Dirty Decade. The profiles of Timbaland, the Neptunes, and Missy Elliot have diminished, resulting in the disappearance of Virginia Beach from current rap geography. The Tidewater region has not sustained a grassroots scene capable of providing an ongoing supply of aspiring artists and producers, and its relationship to rap's Dirty South is tenuous and fragile. For Pusha T of the duo Clipse, "'I was raised here, but Virginia isn't what I know as Southern,' . . . 'There's no way I could call this the Dirty South. This is the middle ground before you start going Deep South. This is the mixing pot of everything; it's dead smack in the middle.'"43

Virginia Beach Audio Samples
(Warning: Some of these audio samples contain explicit content.)

Sample from Timbaland & Magoo, "Peepin' My Style," Atlantic / Q Records, 1997. Timbaland showcases his laid-back rap style and layered, eclectic production on this track.

Sample from Missy Elliott, "Get Ur Freak On," Elektra / WEA, 2001. A world music sound from Timbaland helped this song reach the top of the national charts and Missy to become one of the most successful women rappers in history.

Sample from Clipse featuring Pharrell Williams, "Mr. Me Too," Re-Up Gang / Star Trek, 2006. Virginia due Clipse raps over a sparse, futuristic beat from The Neptunes.

Marketing the South

If we include Miami in "the South" (a move which brings traditional geographical and historical definitions of the South into question) people had been rapping, DJing, and releasing records in this part of the country for almost two decades before the idea of "southern rap" as a category emerged in the mid-1990s. Prior to that time, any artist or group with serious national aspirations would have considered "southern" origins fraught with negative stereotypes, rather than a neutral factor or strategic advantage. A southern imaginary within rap culture — one that had its own distinct musical flavors and forms — did not exist. Understandably, rap artists who emerged from the section of the United States defined by the former Confederacy did not embrace a southern identity, and rappers from early southern rap strongholds like Miami or Houston expressed their geographic ties at the level of neighborhood, city, or state rather than affiliate themselves with a wider South.

Image of a Dirty South T-shirt. Photograph by Matt Miller, 2006. Courtesy of Matt Miller.
Image of a Dirty South T-shirt. Photograph by Matt Miller, 2006. Courtesy of Matt Miller.

Overlapping this period in which the South was essentially invisible in the world of rap music came a second stage in which southern identity and imagery were used to challenge the status quo in rap. This approach is well represented by the Goodie Mob's "Dirty South" (1996), in which the group used the mapping of very specific and detailed Atlanta urban geographies to support a scrappy and, to some extent, defensive posture vis-à-vis the prevailing norms of geographic affiliation in rap. In the lyrics and imagery of the song, group members reject negative stereotypes (such as southern ignorance or inability to make credible rap music) and assert positive ones (such as community, family, and everyday culture). "Dirty South" was one of many songs released in the mid-1990s that pitted the South's diverse African American urban youth populations against the rest of the country and the world, within the artistic arena of rap music.

The Dirty South existed at the intersection of two different types of affiliation. On one hand, southern and northern blacks found common ground in an intense dislike for any sort of nostalgic or sanitized representations of the eras of slavery and segregation. The experiences of blacks in the South and their relationships with whites could easily be metonymically construed to represent black experience and black/white relations in the United States generally. The rhetorical rejection of the images and ideas related to a white supremacist South that often characterized southern rap of this period formed a point of identification between young black southerners and their counterparts in other areas of the United States, which black southern artists were capable of strategically exploiting.44

However, while the explicit discussion of 'southernness' sometimes engendered solidarity between southern and northern black youth, it also expressed divisions between these two groups. Within the context of rap, black southern participants often expressed an attitude of defensiveness or outright hostility towards blacks from other places in anticipation of dismissals of their efforts by listeners whose expectations were oriented to the more established sites of production. These feelings of division between northern and southern blacks were informed by "raced, sexed, and gendered scripts of pathological black masculinity" that predated the rap era, and by the South's status as a "pariah region" in the national context generally.45 The defensive framing of southern qualities suggests that artists in this period were unable to express 'southernness' without referencing, and ultimately reinscribing, to some extent, persistent negative stereotypes.

To the extent that they were familiar with the local preferences and practices that emerged in cities and towns across the South in the 1980s, mainstream audiences and participants in the national-level music industry often viewed the music and its audience as anomalous or even atavistic. As the popularity of Arrested Development demonstrated, national critics and audiences were more comfortable with representations of southernness in textual or visual imagery than they were with engagements of the musical style increasingly associated with southern rap scenes. Even iconic southern groups like OutKast straddled an undervalued local urban club scene and a more nationally oriented rap scene, two venues which possessed substantially different values of spatial authenticity.

During the late 1990s, preferences of national rap audiences became more closely aligned with those of audiences in the major urban centers, black suburbs, and even small towns across the South. While earlier artists from Atlanta, Miami, or New Orleans chose between participating in relatively self-contained local markets and trying to beat New York or Los Angeles-based rappers at their own game, by the late 1990s, they had succeeded in redrawing the stylistic map of the game itself. While Arrested Development or the Goodie Mob deployed speech patterns, familiar imagery, and lyrical references to locales such as Adamsville or East Point, later rappers expressed "southernnness" through the use of musical and stylistic signifiers widely understood by their audiences. Artists including Lil Jon, The Ying Yang Twins, Juvenile, Trina, Trick Daddy, and David Banner benefited from the creative work of earlier rappers who made more literal and direct reference to southern signifiers.

Trick Daddy on the cover of The Source, Issue #139, April 2001.
Trick Daddy on the cover of The Source, Issue #139, April 2001.

The late 1990s saw yet another transition: an assertion of a wider, generic "southern" identity was increasingly abandoned in favor of more specific articulations of local identities keyed to city or neighborhood. However, unlike the "invisible South" years, this lack of attention to the spatial imaginary of a wider South results from a taken-for-granted acceptance of the South and the authenticity of its rap music among national audiences and markets. For the time being, the South occupies a central position in the rap universe. Changing tastes of national audiences, dynamically related to changing ideas about the relationship of rap to place and to an evolving Southern imaginary, led to increased interest from independent label owners in exploiting local musical subcultures rather than identifying atypical artists or performers whom they could mold to national tastes.

Strategically deployed, "southernness" was no longer a handicap within rap. As the acceptance of southern rappers, producers, and audiences grew, the need for the expression of ideas related explicitly to a Southern imaginary subsided. With anti-southern bias receding as a barrier to success, the Dirty South as a point of affiliation also diminished, while increased exposure of rap scenes in major southern cities created competition at a more focused level. The disparity of access to national audiences and the music industry that once existed between southern cities and their counterparts in the Northeast or Southern California now maps onto a divide between well-connected southern cities like Houston or Atlanta and second- or third-tier cities like New Orleans, Memphis, and Miami.

Dirtiness Defined

For music critics and journalists, the "Dirty South" became shorthand for the growing numbers of rap artists from the former Confederate states. Sometimes appearing as a geographical referent, at other times the Dirty South described a genre of music. On the website allmusic.com in 2008, the Dirty-South-as-genre appeared as "a stoned, violent, sex-obsessed and (naturally) profane brand of modern hip-hop," the anonymous writer asserting that OutKast and Goodie Mob "were the best the genre had to offer, since both their music and their lyrics were much sharper than such contemporaries as the No Limit posse." Allmusic.com also features an entry for "Southern Rap," offering an overview of the most successful artists from the South with no attempt at thematic or stylistic unification.

The 2008 entry for "Dirty South" on Wikipedia, while lacking the dismissive tone of allmusic.com, is hardly more helpful. As part of a larger entry on "southern hip-hop" that features a series of subgenres or local styles, Dirty South is listed as "the biggest and most popular genre of southern rap," which itself is "just a general term for Rap made in the South." "Dirty South rap," write Wikipedians, "is largely characterized by its bouncy, upbeat, exuberant, club-friendly tunes and simplistic, heavily rhythmic lyrical delivery." "Dirty South" is also used as a geographical referent, "a term for the South minus any states whose Southern character is debatable." The shifting boundaries of "the South" in these definitions, and the fact that this uncited characterization of Dirty South as a discrete genre is not generally shared by music journalists, scholars, or artists who have commented on the subject, underscore the difficulties of dealing with a concept as mutable and adaptable as "Dirty South."

The Source: "Dirtiest Dirty Issue Ever"

OutKast on the cover of The Source, Issue #169. September 2003.
OutKast on the cover of The Source, Issue #169. September 2003.

In the mid-1990s, the growing interest in rap scenes of the South found expression within rap music magazines through special issues about Atlanta and Miami. Soon, the coverage moved from considering these cities as anomalous to situating them within a larger, southern rap culture. By September 2003, when The Source was published with two different covers featuring OutKast or Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz, the southern takeover of the rap industry and fan base seemed complete. Trumpeted as "the dirtiest dirty issue ever," it included an article on the emerging "crunk" subgenre, entitled "The New South." Artists like Mississippi's David Banner and Atlanta's Lil Jon and Bonecrusher represent the rising generation of southern rappers.

A close reading of The Source's "Dirty South" reveals a puzzlingly conflicted mixture of connotations and perspectives. On one hand, the South represents a sort of hip-hop time machine through which a lost paradise can be regained. Citing the "fun factor" and the way that the "communal spirit of the artists and their music resonates with the masses," editor Kim Osorio enthused, "whether it's a packed club or a backyard BBQ, there's a whole other world of hip-hop down in the Dirty Dirty." Touching on traditional notions of (white) southern gentility and New South boosterism (Atlanta once proclaimed itself "the city too busy to hate"), she continues,

cats from the third coast got some manners. The idea that you can do your thing, get your money and still not hate on the next man (or woman). At least in the South, they understand that hip-hop has grown enough for all of us to eat. Look at how many people Cash Money, No Limit and the Dungeon Family have put on over the years. It's common practice down South to spread the wealth.46
Album cover for Light Poles and Pine Trees by Field Mob. (Geffen Records, 2006).
Album cover for Light Poles and Pine Trees by Field Mob. (Geffen Records, 2006).

One need not look far for contradictions to this vision of a feel-good communal South with rural undertones. Osorio's "Southern hospitality" — marked by "manners" and a willingness of southern artists and labels to "stick together" —lies over an imagined potential for lethal violence."There's no need for studio gangstas and desk thugs. 'Cause if you bark up the wrong tree, you just might getcha jaw broke, wig split, neck snapped . . . or forehead poked out . . . thinking this is just rap."47 In her commentary, violence, community, and rap authenticity combine to form a highly problematic vision of the South and its rap music. Describing the action in Three 6 Mafia's "very successful, graphic, straight-to-video movie" entitled Choices (2001), producer and rapper Juicy J offers a similar perspective: "[the film] is basically how it goes down in Memphis . . . It's not a pretty scene. A lot of these small towns got crazy niggas killing and cutting each other's throats."48

While Juicy J's comments call into question some of the glib assertions about the South made earlier in the issue, The Source's article on Three 6 Mafia reveals the persistance of another kind of place-based essentialism related to an organic paradigm of reflection with regard to the relationship of music and place. The group's "dark sound" based in satanic or macabre lyrical imagery (often voiced in "monotone chants") and "scary, eerie beats" represent, a writer in The Source remarked, "a reflection of their surroundings. With Tennessee bordering nine different states, it is an ideal distribution center for all things corporate and criminal . . . [Memphis] is rife with extreme poverty and gang activity."49 While it seems just as logical to connect a "dark sound" (or contemporary Memphis conditions) to the historical legacy of racism and poverty in the Delta region, either explanation conflicts with Kim O.'s assertion that "it's the fun factor that seems to be the selling point for the New South."50 What is noteworthy here is not that The Source's editors and writers ignored the contradictions among the multiple meanings subsumed into the Dirty South imaginary. Artists and producers, as well as national audiences, often did the same. Rather, it is the fact that historically rooted imagery and media-fueled fantasy remain so close to the surface of southern rap, its performance, interpretation, and evaluation. Rappers like Three Six Mafia or Lil Jon, as well as music critics, revisit a variety of southern imaginaries that predate the rap era.

Dirtiness in Southern Rap and Beyond

Album cover for Ridin’ Dirty by Underground Kingz. (Jive Records, 1996).
Album cover for Ridin’ Dirty by Underground Kingz. (Jive Records, 1996).

Within rap culture, the utility and adaptability of the Dirty South popularized by Goodie Mob became evident in the various ways that ideas or images of dirt and dirtiness continued to proliferate in artist names as well as album and song titles. The debut album from a Mississippi-based artist named Dirty South was advertised in XXL magazine in early 2002. Southern corruption and decadence localized to the county level in the name of the Albany, Georgia-based Dirty County Boyz. In Montgomery, Alabama, the two-person Dirty parlayed the local and regional success of their independently released album into a deal with Universal. Asked about the origin of their name, the group replied, "Dirty, is just a description of the South . . . Envision red hot clay dirt, chicken coops, slow living, good people and family — in other words, cold-hearted slum life—and that's Dirty. Our music brings that kind of energy."51 This provocative and ironic juxtaposition of two disparate ways of rural, southern life — which turn on the urban connotations of the word "slum" — illustrates the complexity and instability of the Dirty concept.

The trope of dirt and dirtiness thrived in the decade since "Dirty South's" release. Mississippian David Banner combined religious imagery with a dirt-based southern identity in his album MTA2: Baptized in Dirty Water (2003) the cover of which portrays a giant Banner rising monstrously from the Mississippi River. The white Georgia-based rapper Bubba Sparxxx, who tried to push the idea of a "New South" over a "Dirty South" (possibly because of the strong association between Dirty South and black ethnic identity), included a song called "Back in the Mudd" on his 2003 album Deliverance, the title itself a reference to the most influential cinematic portrayal of a violent, decadent, incestuous, perverted (read: dirty) South in recent filmic memory.52

Promotional image for The Pimp & Da Gangsta by Dirty. (UMVD Labels, 2001).
Promotional image for The Pimp & Da Gangsta by Dirty. (UMVD Labels, 2001).

Within rap, the idea of "dirtiness" imbues a form of southern authenticity. This dirtiness can exist across the South with local variants. In the case of the Alabama-based duo Dirty, a reviewer on the website www.down-south.com used a local Montgomery, Alabama slang term to describe the group: "Dirty is Gump. [There is] no other way to explain them, you can find some influence of some Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana and Georgia shit on the album, but the album is a hybrid of all that and their own shit, [it's] Alabama shit, [it's] all theirs." A 2000 prediction by Montgomery-based record label owner Mike Jackson demonstrates the stakes involved in a location in the rap imaginary, as well as the ubiquitous resort to the "map" metaphor: "Just like Nelly did it for St. Louis," claimed Jackson, "DIRTY will put Alabama on the map."53 In Alabama and Mississippi, the ability to "represent" on a national level is still largely confined to a limited number of people, almost always based in cities like Montgomery or Jackson (home of David Banner).

Dirty South Outside the Rap World

While dirtiness continues to be an important, if receding, trope within rap culture, the effects of the Dirty South imaginary rippled across other cultural spheres and adapted to new contexts in idiosyncratic ways. A Nebraska college football player originally from Horn Lake, Mississippi, described his technique as '"Dirty South' running, a combination of power, speed and agility."54 In late 2003, activists in Louisiana formed Dirty South Earth First to oppose logging operations by Maxxam, "a Houston-based holding company and forest products concern."55 Two years later in Louisiana, police closed Dirty South Kennels for its association with illegal dog fighting.56

Sports remain a common arena for appropriations of the "Dirty South" — there are Dirty South Runners, Dirty South [Trail] Riders, and a Dirty South [Basketball] Classic held at Norcross High School in 2005.57 In her study of black-sourced expressions in the news, Margaret Lee observed, "Journalists attempt to create an image of 'coolness' and 'hipness' through the use of well-established or popular black slang expressions."58 The Dirty South has proved itself adaptable to sports and entertainment writing. Statements describing "The Braves ditching the Dirty South for the West," or New Orleans' Hornets "making everything Dirty South comfortable for the visiting [Sacramento] Kings" confirm Lee's conclusion.59

Comparison of imagery from mid-2000s CD and book covers reveals the Dirty South as multifaceted and contradictory. (New West, 2004 ; Avon, 2005 ; Wm. Morrow, 2004 ; Triple Crown Publ., 2005).
Comparison of imagery from mid-2000s CD and book covers reveals the Dirty South as multifaceted and contradictory. (New West, 2004 ; Avon, 2005 ; Wm. Morrow, 2004 ; Triple Crown Publ., 2005).

A similar impulse underlies the appropriation of "Dirty South" by a variety of creative artists outside of the rap world. In March 2004, Ace Atkins, "a onetime Auburn football star . . . [and] crime reporter for the Tampa Tribune," published his fourth novel, Dirty South, the title, one reviewer explained, being "a reference to the new black sound coming out of places like Atlanta and New Orleans."60 While the exotic portrayal of "that glitzy and druggy world" of hustlers and rap music moguls in the housing projects of New Orleans entranced many reviewers, the appropriation of the Dirty South opened Atkins up to a particular line of criticism: "It's hard to hear the music in its pages."61 The imagery used on the cover of Atkins' book reveals the mutability of the Dirty South imaginary: one edition shows a desolate bayou, while another features neon signs and markers of urban decadence localized to New Orleans and Bourbon Street.

Geography poses no obstacle to the appropriation of the Dirty South. A nineteen-year-old shooting suspect in Canada is described as "white, 6-foot-2, 205 pounds" with "a 'Dirty South' tattoo on his neck," while a Melbourne, Australia-based producer and DJ calling himself Dirty South was hailed as "Australian dance music's newest star" by June 2006.62 The appeal of "Dirty South" in St. Louis, where rappers like Nelly and Chingy rose to prominence with style and material similar to that being produced in southern urban hotspots, was not limited to the rap sphere, as demonstrated by a 2006 advertisement for a rock band called "Dirty South."63 The website for a cover band from Northeast England called The Dirty South advertises "moonshine-laced southern rock" and features imagery and language that engage facile southern stereotypes (rebel flags, cowboy hats, "geetar," "hollerin'") in a manner somewhat comparable to blackface minstrelsy or the movie The Blues Brothers.

The English southern rock cover band The Dirty South blends hillbilly and confederate imagery; at right, Australian DJ/producer Dirty South.
The English southern rock cover band The Dirty South blends hillbilly and confederate imagery; at right, Australian DJ/producer Dirty South.

Another notable appropriation of rap's Dirty South surfaced in February of 2004, with the release of an album by the Athens, Georgia, rock group Drive-By Truckers. Dirty South is one of a series of ironic appropriations of ideas drawn from rap by the band, whose name involves the juxtaposition of imagery associated with the world of gangsta rap and southern-coded truck driver culture. While group members acknowledge their appreciation for both the spirit and musical content/ of the new rap sound coming out of certain southern cities, their appropriation of the term "Dirty South" is imbued with an explicit sense of "class consciousness" and is specifically linked by band leader Patterson Hood to "everything that went on in our [Alabama] hometowns politically and economically in the late '70s and early '80s."64 In a similar manner to the "cold-hearted slum life" referenced by the group Dirty, the Drive-By Truckers' Dirty South traps its inhabitants in a "vicious cycle" that keeps poor and working class people "working for a living till [they] die" in the cities and towns of the South.65 Like Atkins' novel, though, some reviewers resist the decontextualization of terms and ideas appropriated from rap music culture: as one complained, the album "has a clever title but remarkably little crunk."66

Get Crunk, Tear the Club Up

The crunk concept was born in the late 1980s and early 1990s in nightclubs in southern cities like Memphis and Atlanta, as DJs, producers and artists strove to produce the kind of music appropriate to a rowdy, collective, and embodied experience. Before it became a rap subgenre, crunk's meaning evoked a high level of crowd energy and enthusiasm. In 1995, a post on the newsgroup rec.music.hip-hop defined crunk as "hype, phat," while another poster pointed out in 1998, "krunk is pretty much the past tense of crank."67 In Rolling Stone, a 1999 "glossary of Dirty South slang" defined Get Crunk as "get excited."68 However, the word has an additional level of connotation for young African Americans in the South, encompassing both a desirable state of out-of-control abandon on one hand and an intolerable situation on the other. Explaining the source of their macabre and violent lyrical themes, a member of Three 6 Mafia explains, "Since Memphis is so crunk, all we gotta do when we rap is talk about real shit."69

Album cover for Get Crunk, Who U Wit: da album by Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz. (Ichiban Records, 1997).
Album cover for Get Crunk, Who U Wit: da album by Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz. (Ichiban Records, 1997).

The crunk concept existed in southern rap circuits for several years before it emerged to fuel a putative subgenre, thanks to the efforts of rapper and producer Jon "Lil Jon" Smith (b. 1972), who started in Atlanta's bass music scene in the 1990s: "Crunk is a term," said Lil Jon, "that's been used in the South for as long as I can remember."70 Referring to his 1996 release "Get Crunk (Who U Wit)," Jon recalled, "We were the first ones to use it in a hook and tell people to 'get crunk.' We started calling ourselves a crunk group, so we kind of paved the way."71 Jon produced two gold records independently in the late 1990s, then signed with New York-based TVT Records in 2001, helping it become "Billboard's top indie label of 2004." He continued to promote crunk as a rap subgenre, which found enthusiastic reception by listeners and critics.72

Lil Jon's role in the establishment of crunk speaks to the ways in which strategically positioned individuals or groups can exploit their access within the music industry to exercise significant influence over wider sense-making practices on the part of audiences, critics, and music companies. While the distinctiveness of Lil Jon's performance and presentation should not be minimized, his music — like that of others tagged as "crunk" artists — could just as easily be understood as occupying a point on a continuum of constantly evolving club-based rap.

The transformation of "crunk" from vague idea to musical subgenre produced mixed results for artists from southern cities. For those in the right place (chiefly Atlanta), with music that fit the crunk conventions, this was a positive development. In addition to Atlanta-based artists like Lil Jon, The Ying Yang Twins, Bone Crusher, and Pastor Troy, Mississippi's David Banner and Memphis' Three 6 Mafia (arguably the uncredited inventors of the genre) also rode the crunk wave in the late 1990s. However, the essentialist conflation of geography and musical style that lies under much of the critical and promotional discourse around crunk limited the possibilities for those who were not in a position to capitalize on them. As Mississippi-based rapper Kamikaze complained, "The industry has us in a climate where every cat that come out the South gotta be crunk. They got us pigeonholed."73

Crunk as Music

An emphasis upon call-and-response lyrical constructions in the form of "hooks" or "chants" intended to be repeated by the audience is a central feature of crunk, one that it shares with Miami Bass, New Orleans bounce, and other, older, southern club-based rap styles. Crunk songs often use tempos around 75 b.p.m., which, being relatively slow within the rap spectrum, allows for sparse beats to be accented with double-time hi-hat parts and bass drum fills. Beats and basslines are augmented by minimalist synthesizer riffs. The crunk vocal style is often characterized by collectively shouted or screamed performances, often in a call-and-response structure. Producers working in the crunk style often use drum machines, sequencers, and other "instruments," rather than samples from older recordings. They design the spare music with club sound systems in mind, which are capable of producing an intensely physical experience.

While some critics lauded the "complex, smart Southern production work" behind crunk, others found the music "vulgar, gnarly, bass-heavy," "joyless and bleak" with "rough, distorted basslines" similar to "gothic dirges."74 The association of the "riotous, anthemic music" and its "rebellious chants" with "rambunctious behavior" figured centrally in artists' and critics' attempt to compare it to previous genres of youth music.75 As Lil Jon describes it, "crunk music is something parallel to rock 'n' roll or punk rock because of the energy it gives you."76 For artists and audiences, crunk is about the generation and release of collective energy. As Miami rapper Pitbull explains, "Crunk is just getting wild, off the chain," while Lil Jon aims to "get you [the listener] hyper and to get the party off the hook."77 This release and freedom from hooks and chains articulates the physical abandon that makes "rumps shake and jugular veins throb," offering momentary release from social pressures while serving a generalizable need for cohorts of young people to define and create their own leisure spaces.78

Album cover for Get Crunk! by Club Crunk. (Tommy Boy Music, 1999).
Album cover for Get Crunk! by Club Crunk. (Tommy Boy Music, 1999).

There are divergent opinions as to whether crunk continues or departs from ideas and practices associated with the afro-diasporic music sensibilities that inform earlier genres of African American music. For those who understand crunk as "a superficial music obsessed with perversity," the style's novelty is emphasized in descriptions of "rowdy choruses less like classic call-and-response hollers and more like howls of pain."79 For many crunk artists, however, the style does not represent a repudiation or abandonment of the values and practices of prior African American popular music styles, but rather a continuation. "All of it," says Pitbull, "is African-based. It's all about the percussion and the changes behind them."80

A more poetic perspective comes from David Banner, the so-called "Mississippi Madman," who connects the energy of crunk with African American spirituality and youthful abandon: "Crunk is the closest thing there is to church music . . . you have to look at it from a spiritual perspective . . . it's the closest thing to pure adrenaline, the closest thing to pure freedom, that these kids have."81 In another interview, Banner further elaborates the spiritual dimension of crunk: "I think of crunk as being part of what religious people call the Holy Ghost. . . . It's just a spirit you have. People go to church to find the Holy Ghost. We go to the clubs to find the crunk. It's like a ball of fire in your spirit."82

The Crunk Zone

Album cover for CrazyNDaLazDayz by Tear da Club Up Thugs, a side project of Three 6 Mafia. (Relativity Records, 1999).
Album cover for CrazyNDaLazDayz by Tear da Club Up Thugs, a side project of Three 6 Mafia. (Relativity Records, 1999).

Often dismissed as meaningless or, at best, functional "inane party chants," crunk lyrics vary widely in complexity and meaning.83 In addition to the theme of communal enjoyment in the space of a party or club, crunk lyrics usually include a strong emphasis on sex, violence, and intoxication (understood as key components of the club experience). The setting of the strip club depends upon the objectification of women, and crunk has drawn criticism as a music defined by "rampant misogyny."84 While a critical engagement with and recognition of crunk's misogyny is important, there are other elements to the crunk lyrical world.

Songs such as Three 6 Mafia's 1997 crunk anthem "Tear Da Club Up" invoke a level of crowd enjoyment which borders on violence and destruction, similar to the explosive combustion suggested by black artists in the mid-seventies who urged audiences to "tear the roof off the sucker" in a "Disco Inferno."85 However, crunk's exploration of rage and violence as enjoyment and release in the club context is particular, both in its language and its tone, which are much angrier than anything produced in the eras of soul, funk, or disco. In a departure from 1970s club culture, crunk lyrics often turn other imagined club goers into targets for rhetorical rage and imagined assaults.

Album cover for Crunk Juice by Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz. (TBT Records, 2004).
Album cover for Crunk Juice by Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz. (TBT Records, 2004).

Lyrically, crunk often derives its creative energy from imagining and describing violent conflicts or confrontations between groups in an "us against them" context. In songs such as "What U Gon Do" or "White Meat" (both included on the 2004 album Crunk Juice), Lil Jon creates scenarios which imagine one group confronting another in the nightclub space, threatening to "bust your head 'til the white meat shows." Other songs, such as "Stilletoes (Pumps)," by the Atlanta-based group Crime Mob, or Ms. B's "Bottle Action" declare that women who attend clubs in expensive or fashionable clothes are nonetheless prepared for interpersonal violence, usually against challengers of their own gender.

While some crunk lyrics fantasize violence for mass consumption, I argue that, in addition, they relate to recent African American youth subcultural practices in the form of the nightclub experience as a central site for collective expression. While almost never expressed explicitly in crunk lyrics, the anger, rage, and violence expressed in the music evokes contemporary social conditions of African American young men, as well as the media imagery that helps justify the persistence of these conditions. Like previous forms of black popular music, the stylistic and thematic changes that marked the emergence of crunk appear "closely related to changes in the state of mass black consciousness."86 Though its style and content/ are far from being simply determined by the social context, crunk can be understood as engaging and responding to the extreme marginalization of black youth, particularly black men, in the post-Fordist, neoconservative climate.

As Tia DeNora has demonstrated, the possibility for music to be used to organize subjective experience on a non-cognitive, embodied level is a dimension of music's relationship with agency that is often slighted in favor of an emphasis on semantic or symbolic meanings.87 I suggest that rather than focusing on what the lyrics of crunk say, it is more productive to turn our attention to what crunk does for listeners (or what they do to themselves with it) in order to understand the power of the music. While the "rebellious chants" of crunk express a literal message of release and anger, they are one component of an experience produced through the combination of musical and performative features, most often enjoyed in an embodied manner.

Album cover for Crime Mob’s self-titled debut. (Reprise/WEA, 2004).
Album cover for Crime Mob’s self-titled debut. (Reprise/WEA, 2004).

The club experience intensifies the expressive power of crunk. Sometimes compared to "slam-dancing" or "moshing" associated with punk, the dancing at clubs or concerts associated with crunk often is a rough and chaotic affair, with participants feeding on each other's energy as "the club gets truly unruly, when elbows are wildly thrown and moshlike mayhem erupts on the dance floor."88 In addition to conjuring collectively embodied aggression and release, punk and crunk share a connection (real or imagined) with urban working-class culture.89

Lil Jon consciously frames his success in terms that emphasize down-to-earth attitudes. In a description contrasting the action in one of his music videos with a "normal video," Lil Jon states: "No mansions. . . we ain't about that [bourgeois] shit. We about being regular." Jon then describes the plotline for the video produced to promote the 2002 song "I Don't Give a F---," in which the artist and his rather nondescript and burly sidemen "aren't on the guest list" and eventually "rush the VIP [the most exclusive section of the club]", demonstrating, to some degree, a resistance to the glorification of wealth and status that has often characterized rap culture.90

The association of crunk with the lower social orders mirrors its association with the lower regions of the body or with previous stages in human evolution. The descriptions of crunk as "simple, catchy," "crude," or even "outrageously puerile" often imply a distinction between two broad classes of music, which correspond to the intellectual and the corporeal (metaphorized as high and low, respectively): "like Lil Jon, and more than a few of his other Southern brethren, [Georgia rapper Pastor] Troy's aiming for that grossly reactive section of the brain that governs activities below chest level. Which is where most pop music aims anyway, though Southern artists tend to be more upfront about it."91

Crunk Critiques

Like "Dirty South," the passage of "crunk" from subcultural to mainstream usage has meant a significant diminution of nuance in meaning, producing oversimplifications informed by stereotypes. The multivalent and ambiguous sensibility that characterizes the concept in its use by creative artists and grassroots audiences — in which tropes of energy and release are central — became simplified and caricatured as the term went mainstream. The most prominent example of this was the frequent assertion by mainstream journalists that the word derived from "a blend of 'crazy' and 'drunk.'"92 While it could very well accommodate this dimension of meaning (as well as the related etymology of combining marijuana ("chronic") with alcohol (drunk), it should be clear by now that this represents only one dimension of a open-ended concept.93

 Billboard, Memorial Drive and Midway Road, Atlanta, 2006.
Billboard, Memorial Drive and Midway Road, Atlanta, 2006.

In a similar vein, the understanding of crunk's relationship to southern rap and its place in the genre system of rap in general has produced further confusion: "The use of the word has far surpassed the actual amount of music released within its ambit."94 An example of this is the description of Atlanta rapper T.I. as a "crunkster," when his style of composition and performance falls well outside the parameters of the genre as it has taken form.95Another reviewer writes that crunk was "made and minted in the US Dirty South, in new hip-hop strongholds from Atlanta to Houston," ignoring the fact that, with a couple of notable exceptions, "most of these cats grew up in the same Atlanta neighborhood."96 Crunk bears a strong association with Atlanta's rap industry and culture, but is also understood as a set of stylistic conventions that an artist can adopt or adapt.

The inroads that crunk artists made into mainstream musical consciousness met with less than universal enthusiasm. Despite Lil Jon's breakthrough to pop success with the production of R&B singer Usher's song "Yeah!" in 2004, an Atlanta-based reviewer criticized him as a "numbingly simple chanter [rather] than noteworthy rapper," and noted that Jon, once marginalized as "Southern" or "underground" or "independent," "now has the cachet to get A-list acts to join in on the inanity."97 Clearly, some reviewers wished the obnoxious music would just go away; "crunk is likely to be remembered with just a hangover a decade from now."98 For others, the work of crunk artists like Lil Jon pales in comparison to that of preceding figures such as OutKast and Goodie Mob: "These tracks [on Lil Jon's 2003 Kings of Crunk] have catchy choruses, chanted under some delusional notion that screaming vulgarities over a beat is what the Southern hip-hop movement is about." In this critique, Lil Jon's ability to relate to audiences with catchy choruses and beats (many of which he produces) represents a betrayal of a static and monolithic "movement" represented by elite artists "who have shown you can stay true to the 'dirty,' spit creative lyrical content/ and still move a crowd."99

Crunk's detractors often expressed a mixture of musical and moral objections to the genre and its representative artists. After a positive review of Lil Jon's music by Kelefa Sanneh, one Canadian reader complained that the New York Times critic was only interested in "champion[ing] the worst in pop music," and decried the "appallingly cynical attitude" evidenced by Lil Jon's "tireless use of racially offensive language and his blatant objectification of women (in his lyrics and in his videos)."100 Another writer connected crunk to an earlier generation's version of the archetypal southern, African American musical bogeymen, 2 Live Crew:

. . . their legacy thrives in the 'crunk' style, which depicts the sexuality of young black men and women in ways that, to put it mildly, conform to the fevered imaginings of the worst white racists. The standard defense is to say that this stuff is a parody. But of what? For millions of young people around the world, including many African Americans, these words (and video images) define blackness."101

These points deserve serious consideration, although I would argue that "grotesque" is a more appropriate frame for the representations in crunk than "parody." Lil Jon and other crunk artists like the Ying Yang Twins have forged close ties with strip-club-culture and have not hesitated to make the eroticized, objectified female body (or parts thereof) central subjects of their expressions. Still, it is difficult to separate the critique of sexism in crunk from the association of the music with "lower social orders." The perception of crunk artists and their antecedents like 2 Live Crew as representing a nadir of vulgarity and depravity speaks to the ways in which class affiliations (and related racial formations) affect our understanding of what is "crude" or "vulgar" — not to mention the taken-for-granted assumption of vulgarity for any expression related to sex, desire, or eroticism generally.

Crunk Epilogue: Snap

"Trap House Rules,” sign posted outside a nightclub on Columbia Dr, Decatur, Georgia. Photograph by Matt Miller, 2007. Courtesy of Matt Miller.
"Trap House Rules,” sign posted outside a nightclub on Columbia Dr, Decatur, Georgia. Photograph by Matt Miller, 2007. Courtesy of Matt Miller.

The prominence achieved by "crunk" speaks to the increasing centrality of Atlanta rap culture and willingness on the part of national audiences and major music corporations to accept and support southern urban club music scenes and styles that would have previously been considered underground or, at best, the source of the occasional one-hit wonder like D-Roc or Duice. Crunk's acceptance is often characterized by an absence of contextual or historical understanding that masks its strong similarities with prior expressions of club or dance music produced in cities such as Atlanta or Miami. Ultimately, the distinctiveness of crunk has as much to do with the ways in which it has been marketed and discussed as with its musical qualities.102

The forces that propelled crunk from the underground to the mainstream were multiple and intertwined. The shaping of the crunk style largely occurred in strip clubs or nightclubs, and was part of a wider process of the grassroots evolution of southern dance music styles as artists refined their expressions to achieve maximum effect with audiences.103 However, the way that crunk was marketed as a "movement" and as a new genre of rap depended centrally upon Lil Jon and a few other empowered artists, followed quickly by journalists seeking novelty and controversy.104 Both grassroots popularity and corporate hype figured centrally in Lil Jon's success: without these two factors, his rise to the status of the public face of crunk would not have been possible.

Album cover for Down for Life by D4L. (Asylum Records, 2005).
Album cover for Down for Life by D4L. (Asylum Records, 2005).

Crunk quickly became esconced within corporate networks, but, like punk rock, it resisted complete co-optation. Lil Jon's efforts with regard to crunk were characterized by shameless self-promotion and conscious attempts to manipulate rap's genre system and critical discourse to his own advantage. Like other rap impresarios, he tried to expand upon his success in the music industry through branding and marketing products like the "energy drink" Crunk Juice (which was also the title of his 2004 album), as well as "a clothing line, a porn DVD, . . . a record label and now a series on MTV."105 At the same time, however, more than economic concerns motivate Lil Jon, who had put in years of work as an Atlanta DJ and producer, and also worked as an A&R representative and promoter for Jermaine Dupri's So So Def Records before launching his own recording career. Even after his rise to prominence, he has frequently collaborated with obscure or up-and-coming artists by producing their music or making a guest appearance on their records: "we look at ourselves that we're on the same level with everybody . . . I [collaborate] with anybody if I like their [music]."106

The trajectory of crunk seems to await a newer Atlanta strip club music called "Snap," a less aggressive style characterized by slightly slower tempos than crunk and extremely sparse backing tracks which often feature the sound of snapping fingers as a meter (hence the name). One critic described snap as "a dance-centric form of hip-hop, defined by light but propulsive beats and lyrics that often revolve around playful chants."107 Along with crunk and other southern styles such as Miami bass or New Orleans bounce, snap relies heavily upon call-and-response lyrical constructions and often features narratives of sexual objectification, desire, titillation, and conquest set in a strip club or nightclub.

Album cover for Trap Squad: Trap Talk by DJ Scream. (2006).
Album cover for Trap Squad: Trap Talk by DJ Scream. (2006).

Following on the heels of several successful "snap" releases in 2004 by groups such as Crime Mob ("Nuck If You Buck") and Dem Franchize Boyz ("White Tee"), D4L broke open the Snap floodgates in 2006. Their infectious song, "Laffy Taffy," started snap down "an unlikely journey from Atlanta phenomenon to hip-hop laughingstock to mainstream juggernaut."108 Like many erotically themed songs within the African American popular music tradition, "Laffy Taffy" is constructed with layers of meaning which allow for children to enjoy the participatory, sing-along nature of the song, while allowing adults access to a raunchier realm of meaning contained within the lyrics. Reaction to this song among many in rap's fan base reached record levels of vituperation based upon "Laffy Taffy"'s perceived lack of sophistication and overly popular appeal. While similar minimalist approaches to rap continue to enjoy popularity among artists, producers, and audiences, the particularities that defined snap have largely vanished by the time of this writing (2008). Rather than representing a discrete genre, the wider exposure of snap represented a snapshot of a continually evolving club scene in Atlanta and other southern cities.

Visual Culture of the Dirty South

"In the field of representational politics," writes Katherine Henninger, "that is, the ongoing contest to assert what can and cannot be represented in a given culture — visual representations have played, and continue to play, an extraordinarily complicated, nuanced role in the South."109 Her insight applies equally to the visual culture of southern rap. The intersections of race, rap, and geography find a variety of visual articulations, including CD or album covers and promotional photographs, as well as performative expressions that use images of whole or partial bodies to conjure particular feelings or ideas. Below are two short essays on different themes in the visual culture of the Dirty South: the "rebel flag" and the "crunk body."

Confederate Grey Area: the Rebel Flag in Rap

Promotional image for The Last Supper by the Down South Georgia Boyz. (Khaotic Generation Records, 2001).
Promotional image for The Last Supper by the Down South Georgia Boyz. (Khaotic Generation Records, 2001).

African Americans won landmark victories in civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, but questions of power, including the power of historical symbols, remain far from settled. The use, for instance, of the Confederate Battle Flag, or the "stars and bars" (which I abbreviate to "rebel flag") as a nostalgia-laden symbol for white dominance has persisted decades after the end of de jure segregation. In the years when rap's Dirty South emerged, blacks and their allies challenged various southern state and municipal governments to eliminate Confederate symbolism in official flags and other material forms, including monuments and the names of public streets and buildings.

Defenders of the rebel flag often frame it as a historical relic devoid of racial animus, claims contradicted by a study revealing that for whites in Georgia in the mid-1990s, racial attitudes and southern identity were strongly related and "the widespread defense of the Confederate-emblazoned flag among whites has much more to do with racial concerns than with other aspects of southern heritage. . . ." 110 The racial undertones of the flag are not lost on blacks, for whom it represents a basic symbol of white racist intransigence that conjures some of the most repulsive incidents of "Southern" history.

The Atlanta-based Goodie Mob introduced the "Dirty South" into the rap mainstream through their 1995 song of the same name, and elaborated its meaning through lyrics, video imagery, and interviews. Explicit thematic strains found in "Dirty South" included the shadowy world of the illegal drug trade in which neighborhood-based groups battle for their share of the spoils and try to avoid corrupt police; the mistrust that is a legacy of the white racist past; and an ideal of slower, friendlier, everyday life in southern black communities. Implicitly, via geographically coded lyrics, the song questions the valuing of some places over others within the material and symbolic dimensions of rap. An analysis of the "Dirty South" music video in light of statements by group members reveals how the production engaged, and was informed by, the outcry over official displays of the rebel flag and debates about the flag's meaning. Members of Goodie Mob make more explicit the understanding of "dirtiness" as it relate to the racist history of the South symbolized by the rebel flag. The video shows the group's members rapping the song's lyrics in a variety of places, including the porch and front yard of a small house, an open field, and a dystopian, post-apocalyptic industrial landscape. In many of these scenes,the members of Goodie Mob are joined by others, forming a multigenerational portrait of friends, colleagues, and family. These images of all-black social spaces are intercut with images of a white girl who sits alone in a fenced-in basketball court, absorbed in making a chalk drawing on the asphalt.

Still image from the video for “Dirty South” by The Goodie Mob (LaFace Records, 1996).

Still image from the video for “Dirty South” by The Goodie Mob (LaFace Records, 1996).

The isolation of this figure contrasts with the communal life of the Goodie Mob and, by extension, southern African Americans. As the video comes to a close, it dramatically problematizes the clichéd innocence of the white girl. The camera pulls back to reveal that her chalk drawing is of a large rebel flag. Imprisoned in an empty cage — a structure that isolates as much as it protects — the white child represents the reproduction in multiple generations of fenced-off, aloof whiteness.The specific use of a white girl to portray the passive, taken-for-granted (naturalized) perpetuation of racism and oppression builds upon a visual legacy in which, writes Henninger, "images, photographs in magazines and family albums . . . simultaneously assert the continuous, 'natural' existence of the white southern lady and bury the real and symbolic violences of gender, race, and class that this image was designed to mask."111

The symbolic destruction of rebel flags by artists such as Atlanta's Lil Jon or Mississippi's David Banner continues a conversation within rap music circles about the legitimacy of the "South" as a site of authentic rap music. The emergence of the South as a credible geographical imaginary in rap music requires a strong repudiation of the white racist baggage of the "Old South" represented by rebel flags and white-columned plantations popularized by the movie Gone with the Wind — all subjects of symbolic destruction, as in the cover of the DVD for the 2004 documentary Dirty States of America. The CD cover of his album Put Yo Hood Up (2001) shows Lil Jon clad in a pair of black rubber coveralls, his open-mouthed expression of rage and intensity augmented by the added effect of gold teeth, sunglasses, and long dreadlocks, creating a general impression of a demented slaughterhouse worker or other grotesque. The draping of the rebel flag around his shoulders in the picture, far from constituting an endorsement, communicates the hostile occupation of a symbol. The cover image seems the worst nightmare of a white supremacist, a demonic, superpowered black man appropriating, occupying, and defiling the treasured symbol of Dixie.

Album cover for Put Yo Hood Up by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz. (TVT Records, 2001).
Album cover for Put Yo Hood Up by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz. (TVT Records, 2001).

However, not all of those who appropriated the rebel flag for use in hip-hop culture are so unequivocal in condemnation. Rapper Andre 3000 of the Atlanta supergroup OutKast, when questioned about a rebel-flag belt buckle in a 2001 issue of Vibe, replied, "I wear the belt for southern pride and to rebel. . . . I don't take the Confederate flag that serious as far as the racial part is concerned."112 To some extent, then, artists from the South have used the rebel flag in ways that express deeply held feelings of anger and resentment over the southern past (and the present it informs) and that also serve to distance themselves from the white southern imaginary, a move that helped establish their authenticity within the rap music field. These uses existed simultaneously with the appropriation of the flag as a generic symbol of a marginalized, underdeveloped territory of rap music geography.

The divergent deployments of the rebel flag speak to a generational split among African Americans and a shifting terrain for symbolizing and portraying racial (and spatial) conflict and identity. For some, the rebel flag is so toxic that no amount of symbolic destruction can justify its use. Nashville journalist Ron Wynn raises the alarm about Lil Jon, Pastor Troy, and other "member[s] of the down-home hip-hop crew utilizing Confederate garb" in an article highly critical of rappers who "are boasting the rebel flag everywhere," displaying a level of historical amnesia that Fisk University professor Raymond Winbush likens to a "a Jewish child [saying] 'Let's wrap ourselves in a swastika.'"113 What seemed to Wynn a rising tide of historical amnesia in 2001 was really a passing sub-theme of southern rap.

Photograph of Ludacris at Vibe Hip Hop Awards, 2005.
Photograph of Ludacris at Vibe Hip Hop Awards, 2005.

Still, the rebel flag is hard to use without stirring controversy, which may explain some of its continuing appeal. How, for instance, to interpret Ludacris' 2005 appearance on the Vibe Hip-Hop awards in a leather suit with rebel flag motif, a suit he discarded at the end of his performance for one in African nationalist colors red, black, and green?114 Acknowledging the imbrication of much southern rap music within the corporate structures and values of the music industry, how much change or consciousness raising is possible from the most self-consciously political displays of destruction and violation of the rebel flag? Consider that 2003 issue of The Source, "The Dirtiest Dirty Issue Ever," which featured an article entitled "Native Sons," about three rising talents of the South — Atlanta's Lil Jon and Bone Crusher, and David Banner. The article directly linked these rappers to the historical struggle against white supremacy, evoked by allusion to Richard Wright's novel in the title, "Native Sons":

One day before America's 227th birthday three of southern hip-hop's most revered leaders, David Banner, Bone Crusher and Lil Jon, are on location up North, specifically Brooklyn, tearing up the most infamous symbol of the Old South, the Rebel Flag. Banner's sharp new fronts [i.e. his gold teeth] grit and Bone Crusher's girth quakes the ground as the threads of intolerance are lacerated. The message is loud and clear: The dawn of the New South has arrived.115

Even the most devoted advocate of oppositional readings of popular culture would have to admit that the transformative effect of these rappers posing in Brooklyn for a magazine cover is overstated. Bombast aside, the article and cover image that went with it represents the way that, like southern rappers of the mid-1990s, many more recent artists still perceive themselves as carrying the mantle of "revered leaders," with collective memory and pride related to the freedom struggle, combined with their repudiation, appropriation, or destruction of symbols of previous ideas of the South to form the latest "New South" identity. While the uses of the rebel flag in rap provide a unique perspective into issues of collective memory, regional identity, and symbolic play, it ultimately ties in to the specific policitics of rap in ways that are particular: "While southern rappers invoke the concept of 'representin'' that is so fundamental to rap," writes Richardson, "they have primarily used the concept to reflect their ongoing effort to make legible a South that has long been invisible in the rap industry," although it is more appropriate to say that representational politics form a central and dynamic part of the effort in question. The various uses of the rebel flag in rap culture illustrate ways in which multiple imagined "Souths" exist simultaneously, informing, antagonizing, and playing off on each other, all the while complicating the symbolic discourse.

Psychic Violence and the Crunk Body

Detail from album cover for 6 Feet Deep by Gravediggaz. (V2 North America, 1994).
Detail from album cover for 6 Feet Deep by Gravediggaz. (V2 North America, 1994).

Crunk artists combine musical and lyrical expressions of extreme psychic states — anger, pain, aggressive rage, emotional release — with a visual and physical aesthetic that merges the traditional "fly" stylishness of rap culture with freakish, uncanny, fractured bodies by drawing upon the expressive power of the grotesque. Southern rappers did not invent the "embodied rap grotesque"—faces twisted into grimaces, bodies contorted or distorted, teeth fashioned into over-the-top "grills." In the early 1990s, New York-based Gravediggas (a Wu-Tang Clan offshoot) brought images of rap monstrosity to national audiences with vampire-fanged gold teeth and macabre lyrics evoking the paranormal or demonic. Artists from the South such as Three Six Mafia, Lil Jon, David Banner, the Ying Yang Twins, Pastor Troy, and others all carried this strain of the monstrous within rap forward. Rather than — or in addition to — the stereotypical expressions of masculine power and toughness that often characterize rap imagery, these artists have often represented themselves in ways which emphasize grotesquely contorted or distorted bodies, faces twisted into painful grimaces.

Album cover for Me and My Brother by Ying Yang Twins. (TVT Records, 2003).
Album cover for Me and My Brother by Ying Yang Twins. (TVT Records, 2003).

Some of these bodies already loomed uncannily. Bone Crusher, the comic book-inspired rapper from Atlanta, weighed in at 421 pounds as he prepared to slim down on VH1's program Celebrity Fit Club.116 DJ Paul, one of the founding members of Memphis group Three Six Mafia, "was born with a stunted arm," while D-Roc of the Ying Yang Twins was born with several fingers missing from one hand. His Ying Yang Twin partner, Kaine, suffers from cerebral palsy.117 These physical factors may have contributed to artists' decision to pursue music rather than, say, team sports; as Roni Sarig speculates, "it's possible that the birth defect made [DJ Paul] more introverted."118 More intriguing, however, is the possibility that these embodied experiences of otherness contributed to the stylistic and thematic particularities of their music, performance, and artistic personae.

The "grotesque physical body," write Stallybrass and White, is "not simply a powerful image but fundamentally constitutive of the categorical sets through which we live and make sense of the world."119 While crunk's representation of the body is particular and strongly tied to previous expressions within rap, its "fundamentally constitutive" role lends itself to Patricia Yaeger's observations about southern women's fiction in Dirt and Desire.120

Detail from album cover for MTA2: Baptised in Dirty Water by David Banner. (UMVD Labels, 2003).
Detail from album cover for MTA2: Baptised in Dirty Water by David Banner. (UMVD Labels, 2003).

Like the writers Yaeger considers, crunk artists often portray "irregular models of the body, . . . damaged, incomplete, or extravagant characters." These bodily displays express the repressed and silenced: "flesh that has been ruptured or riven by violence . . . [and] fractured, excessive bodies telling us something that diverse southern cultures don't want us to say." Like the writers Yaeger considers, crunk artists cultivate modes of "dissonance. Instead of reducing disorder to rule, dissonance gets magnified or multiplied; anomaly gets figured as monstrosity, and monstrosity itself becomes a way of casting out or expelling the new. . . . When crisis erupts, when change grapples towards history, it is configured via appalling body images as something excessive, as monstrosity."121 A representation of crisis underlies crunk monstrosity, a struggle to express the paradox of change and stasis, of persistent structural racism and inequality, that situates black life in the United States.


What is at stake in the creation of imagined spaces of rap? Or an imagined South? Spatial imaginaries arise, already connected with material concerns and economic struggles. A shift in imagining the geography of rap opens possibilities to new participants. Imagined in a different way, the economic, material, and cultural resources of the South, once reserved for an entrenched white elite, open to the possibility of other claimants. The imagination of space (and the relative centrality or marginality of particular interpretations of imaginary spaces) lies not at the periphery of larger inequalities of economic, cultural, or political power, but is central and constitutive.

Album cover for Camp 4 Life by Insane Ward. (Big Boy Records, 1995).
Album cover for Camp 4 Life by Insane Ward. (Big Boy Records, 1995).

This exploration of the Dirty Decade responds to Tara McPherson's assertion that "specific understandings of how the South is represented, commodified, and packaged become key."122 The mutability of the Dirty South (and the related phenomenon of crunk) and its widespread appropriation makes it easy to dismiss as a contrived and superficial marketing gimmick, but the Dirty South contested the received southern imaginary and stirred up the business of rap music in ways that had real consequences and which related to larger structuring forces of region, race, and class. That the battles over classification formed around music recalls previous historical moments: "Music, like many other aspects of culture," Michael Haralambos has written, "is associated with particular groups of people," and "distinctions in music in part refer to and are related to distinctions between social groups." In his own work on Chicago and Delta blues, Haralambos looked "further than the music to explain the more derogatory terms — 'nasty', 'dirty' and 'alley music'," a perspective that is also key to the Dirty South's wider import.123 "Contamination by other people," Terence McLaughlin has observed, "is what we really fear about dirt."124

Understanding the context and consequences of the emergence of rap scenes in southern cities, and how their development shaped the re-imagining of both the South and rap music generally, requires new thinking. Patricia Yaeger's analysis of the role of dirt in southern women's fiction illuminates deeper meanings of "Dirty South." Yaeger frames the South as "a region where race has been at the heart of aesthetic practice," while "southern literature probes or reflects an abyss between white and black ways of knowing." The "unofficial information systems that have been subjugated to nominally 'higher' ways of knowing" that exist in the South form an explicit or implicit subtext in much southern rap, contesting dominant narratives of rap as a genre and the South as a regional imaginary.125 The Dirty South simultaneously embodies a grounded, oppositional historical consciousness and an imaginary that can be commodified and marketed, responding to a range of needs on the part of southern rap performers and their audiences. The mutability of the Dirty South allows the "abyss" that Yaeger observes to be mapped onto other overlapping social and geographical divisions, from regional identity and class among African Americans, to that which exists between established and ascending rap scenes.

Album cover for Trap House by Gucci Mane. (Big Cat Records, 2005).
Album cover for Trap House by Gucci Mane. (Big Cat Records, 2005).

As Yaeger demonstrates with regard to southern women's fiction, dirt is a central trope in the process of creating boundaries and categories: "dirt becomes a rhetorical place marker for cosmos- or system-creating, a signpost that allows southern citizens to recognize a middle-class macrocosm and its underclass boundaries." In a point that sheds light on the Goodie Mob's "Dirty South" and the wider uprising to which this song contributed, Yaeger adds that dirt "also serves as a disrupter of systems. That is, it becomes the stuff of rebellion, the foundation for play, the ground of racial protest and gender unrest, as well as the earthy basis for children's delight in sullying grown-up categories." The Dirty South's potential to exploit "pollution's charismatic properties, its capacity to carry the [listener] toward the limits of the local, to experiment with emancipation" relates centrally to the concept's enthusiastic reception in rap and beyond.126

The instability of the Dirty South imaginary rests uneasily upon its own success. The emergence of the term coincided with the maturation of a rap industry in large southern cities, especially Atlanta. Not only did the Dirty South provide an entrée into rap geography for new artists, but over the next ten years, the music made by these artists rose to dominate radio playlists around the country. Out of a sense of southern lack, neglect, and disrespect, the Dirty South renamed and reclaimed an empty quarter on the national rap map.

The "southern turn" in rap music involved, in addition to a complex and highly strategic play of identities, stereotypes, and imagery, a rearrangement of values within the music. The relocation of rap's creative center to the urban South resulted in changes in the conception of rap's narrative voice, becoming much less focused on the rendering of complex narratives of individual experience and moving towards an exhortative, collective expression. The musical aesthetics that underlie rap music production shifted towards a focus on loud and low bass tones and tempos matching the expectations of audiences dancing in clubs. While rap has always been, with a few notable exceptions, dance music, the southern turn involved an increased emphasis on corporeal enjoyment at the expense of narrated experience.

Image of CD single for “Dirty South” by Goodie Mob. (LaFace Records, 2006).
Image of CD single for “Dirty South” by Goodie Mob. (LaFace Records, 2006).

The Dirty South succeeded in attracting national attention to previously ignored rap scenes in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Miami, but the catch-all "southern rap" oversimplified the connections between place and style. The possibility that more than one variant of rap can emerge from the same place at or around the same time is not conducive to a reductive, place-based marketing angle. One or two key individuals can steer a city's rap scene in a particular direction, structurally and/or stylistically. In their eagerness to accept an organic relationship between place and music, music journalists rarely confront their own considerable influence as well as that wielded by music industry personnel at various levels. Although the contours and flavors of southern rap take shape through preferences and priorities at the grassroots level, they are also the product of processes characterized by manipulation and strategic intervention. Even in cities where a local style seems widely accepted, conflict and disunity related to struggles for stylistic or commercial dominance are never far from the surface.

The Dirty South served as a marketing hook and an alternate political imaginary, but as its proponents have achieved goals of genre inclusion, acceptance, and a piece of the commercial action, they have moved on to a different set of concerns. The Dirty South as a reference or identification in rap is likely to become more infrequent, even as its ripple effect leads to uses of the phrase in ways increasingly disconnected from the rap music culture from which it came. Dirty South became a term with highly positive associations with the burgeoning southern rap scenes. With working-class black culture more central than ever to the national entertainment industry, the Dirty South also became a point of pride for many hip white southerners, and something to be emulated for aspiring rappers from outside the South. The Dirty South was no longer just rap's Dirty South. The politically oppositional orientation of the Dirty South — expressive of the reclaiming of former sites and symbols of enslavement and segregation, and the legitimation and celebration of "lowdown and dirty" working-class African American culture — diminishes as the concept spreads outwards into global markets, and is often eclipsed by the superficial notions of edginess afforded by the appropriation of contemporary southern urban blackness.


I would like to thank my anonymous reviewers, the Southern Spaces editorial staff (Franky Abbott, Katherine Skinner, Sarah Toton, and Allen Tullos), Robin Conner, Daniel Green, Andy Hopkins, Andrew Nosnitsky and Ben Lawless for their generous assistance in preparing this article.

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  • 76. Jones, "Get Crunk Huh!"
  • 77. Josefina Loza, "Pitbull," Omaha World-Herald, Mar. 30, 2006; Jones, "Get Crunk Huh!"
  • 78. John Soeder, "Nonstop Selling Eclipses Singing at Hip-Hop Show," Cleveland Plain Dealer, sec. E, August 17, 2005.
  • 79. Baca, "Bring In Da Crunk"; Lewis, "Lil Jon and The East Side Boyz Islington Academy Mon."
  • 80. Loza, "Pitbull."
  • 81. Ricardo Baca, "The Rap on the Third Coast," Denver Post, sec. F, March 15, 2004.
  • 82. Jones, "Get Crunk Huh!"
  • 83. Baca, "Bring In Da Crunk."
  • 84. Lewis, "Lil Jon and The East Side Boyz Islington Academy Mon."
  • 85. Parliament, "Give Up the Funk," 1976; Trammps, "Disco Inferno," 1976; see Sarig, Third Coast, 277 for a connection between crunk's destructive imagery and that of Texas bluesman Blind Willie Johnson.
  • 86. Brian Ward, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 339.
  • 87. Tia DeNora, Music in Everyday Life (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 47.
  • 88. Jon Caramanica, "Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz," Rolling Stone 931 (September 18, 2003): 34.
  • 89. Jones, "Get Crunk Huh!"
  • 90. Celeste Fraser Delgado, "Crunk Candy: On Location with Lil Jon, Trick, Hootchies, and Director Mamas," Miami New Times, June 23, 2003.
  • 91. Sonia Murray, "Lil Jon, Crew Crank Up Chant with A-List Assist," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, sec. E, November 16, 2004; Martin Edlund, "Strip Crunk," New York Sun, June 28, 2004; Lewis, "Lil Jon and The East Side Boyz Islington Academy Mon."; Tony Green, "Twerk to Do": 149.
  • 92. William Safire, "On Language: Kiduage," New York Times, sec. 6, November 28, 2004; Andrew Pettie, "Reviews: Music," Daily Telegraph (London), January 22, 2005; Collins, "Crunk," 11; "Box Office: The Lowdown," Independent on Sunday, 27; Loza, "Pitbull."
  • 93. Steve Dollar, "Cool 2 Know," Newsday, sec. B, April 19, 2006; "CD Reviews: Hip-Hop," The Irish Times(March 31, 2006): 15.
  • 94. Collins, "Crunk."
  • 95. Silvio Pietroluongo, Minal Patel and Wade Jessen, "Singles Minded; Country and Crunk among Year's Top Hitmakers," Billboard 116:52/117:1 (December 25, 2004/January 1, 2005): 70.
  • 96. "CD Reviews: Hip-Hop," The Irish Times, 15; Baca, "Bring In Da Crunk."
  • 97. Murray, "Lil Jon, Crew Crank Up Chant with A-List Assist."
  • 98. "CD Reviews: Hip-Hop," The Irish Times, 15.
  • 99. Trish Davis, "New on Disc," Hartford Courant, sec. CAL, January 9, 2003.
  • 100. Mike Schultz, [letter to the editor] "Crunk as in Stunk," New York Times, sec. 2, December 5, 2004.
  • 101. Martha Bayles, "Troubled Soul: The Man Who Started It All Heads for the Finish Line," The Weekly Standard 10:43 (August 1, 2005.)
  • 102. Negus, Music Genres and Corporate Cultures, 28.
  • 103. Collins, "Crunk"; Ricardo Baca, "Lil Jon Crunks it up for All-Stars," Denver Post, sec. F, February 17, 2005; Jones, "Get Crunk Huh!"; "Twins Crank Up Crunk." USA Today, sec. 7, June 28, 2005.
  • 104. Delgado, "Crunk Candy: On Location with Lil Jon, Trick, Hootchies, and Director Mamas."
  • 105. Hattie Collins, "Crunk in Charge," London Guardian, sec. "The Guide," August 5, 2006.
  • 106. Soren Baker, "Interview with Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz Feature," Murder Dog Magazine, http://www.murderdog.com/archives/2002/lil_jon.html (Accessed on May 20, 2008)
  • 107. Kelefa Sanneh, "Critic's Notebook: 'Laffy Taffy:' So Light, So Sugary, So Downloadable," New York Times, sec. E, January 12, 2006.
  • 108. Ibid.
  • 109. Katherine Henninger, Ordering the Facade: Photography and Contemporary Southern Women's Writing(Chapel Hill, Univ. of N.C. Press, 2007): 28.
  • 110. Beth Reingold and Richard S. Wike, "Confederate Symbols, Southern Identity, and Racial Attitudes: The Case of the Georgia State Flag," Social Science Quarterly 79:3 (Fall 1998): 568.
  • 111. Henninger, Ordering the Facade, 88.
  • 112. Gregory Johnson, "Southern Pride," Vibe (September 2001): 96.
  • 113. Ron Wynn, "Reclaiming Confederate Flag Angers Older Black Generation," Nashville City Paper, August 1, 2001.
  • 114. Mosi Reeves, "Luda Disturbing tha State," Creative Loafing Atlanta, December 7, 2005.
  • 115. Branden J. Peters, "Native Sons," The Source 168 (September 2003): 150.
  • 116. Rodney Ho, "Rapper Has Big Plans to Lighten Up His Look," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 31, 2006.
  • 117. Benjamin Meadows-Ingram, "Okay Okay," XXL (September 2003): 150, 152.
  • 118. Sarig, Third Coast, 273.
  • 119. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London: Methuen, 1986), 23.
  • 120. Richardson, Black Masculinity and the U.S. South, 215.
  • 121. Patricia Yaeger, Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women’s Writing, 1930-1990 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), xiii, 7.
  • 122. Tara McPherson, Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 18.
  • 123. Michael Haralambos, Right On: From Blues to Soul in Black America (New York: Da Capo, 1974), 35, 33.
  • 124. Terence McLaughlin, Dirt: A Social History as Seen Through the Uses and Abuses of Dirt (New York: Stein and Day, 1971), 6.
  • 125. Yaeger, Dirt and Desire, xii, 125, 110-111.
  • 126. Ibid., 265, 271.

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