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"The South Got Something to Say": Atlanta's Dirty South and the Southernization of Hip-Hop America

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 12, Number 4, Winter 2006
pp. 55-73 | 10.1353/scu.2006.0045

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Figure 1
In a stark contrast to the days when Sherman's troops occupied this Confederate fort outside Atlanta, the city's rappers now have invaded the rest of the country's hip-hop scene, burning up the charts, unfurling the Dirty South's banner, and spreading its culture across the nation as they southernize Hip-Hop America. Photograph courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

By the summer of 1995, the Atlanta-based rap group OutKast had watched their first album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, achieve platinum sales of over one million. This feat earned them an award for "Best New Group" from The Source magazine and an invitation to attend the hip-hop publication's second annual awards show in New York City. Goodie Mob, another Atlanta group, joined them on the trip up north. As Big Gipp, a member of Goodie Mob, remembered, their reception from the New York audience was less than favorable: "When Big Boi and Dre [of OutKast] got out there at those Source Awards, everybody was like, 'boooo, boooo, boooo.' I remember it was just OutKast and the four Goodie Mob members and I was like, man. . . . Don't nobody even give a fuck about us folk." Leaving the Source Awards that night, OutKast and Goodie Mob swore to each other to "show all them motherfuckers" that "one day they're gonna have to fuck with us."

Over the next decade, OutKast, Goodie Mob, and other southern rappers followed through on their intentions, moving to the forefront of America's hip-hop culture industry. In 2004 OutKast won six Grammys, including an "Album of the Year" award, for their multi-platinum fifth effort, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. On that night, no one in the star-studded Los Angeles audience doubted that, as OutKast had yelled back at the booing crowd nine years before, "the South got something to say."

What the South had to say reveals much about the making and marketing of regional and racial identity in modern America. Most explicitly, the rise of Atlanta's "Dirty South" rap music industry shows the readiness of some African Americans in the post-civil rights era not only to embrace their southernness but to sell it as well. Throughout the 1990s, industry leaders and southern rappers promoted the Dirty South as a new type of rap music. A blending of older rap styles with southern music, accents, and themes, Dirty South rap was also a bold statement from rappers who felt estranged from Atlanta's economic and social progress and excluded by their southernness from competing in a rap-music market dominated by New York and Los Angeles. By the end of the 1990s, however, their unique coupling of regional and racial identity had earned them increased attention from listeners and critics alike and a reputation as innovators of a fresh, new sound and style in hip-hop culture. The next wave of southern rappers built on this emergent appeal but in the process changed the meaning of the Dirty South. Leaving behind the more troubling aspects of their regional identity, southern rappers after 2000 preferred to promote the Dirty South as a loosely defined, inclusive concept and a lucrative set of attractive commodities. Thus, by the time OutKast accepted their Grammys in 2004, the Dirty South was not only a banner under which a wide variety of southern rappers now congregated. It was also a culture industry that had "southernized" what cultural critic Nelson George has termed the multibillion dollar business of "hip-hop America."

The importance of Atlanta's Dirty South industry can only be understood by placing it in the wider context of rap music in America. During the 1970s and 1980s, the everyday problems of life in urban black ghettos contributed to the subject matter and complex politics of American rap. Though some critics dismissed rap's portrayals of racial identity as juvenile laudations of violence, sexism, and greed, the cultural message of "East Coast" New York rappers and "West Coast" California rappers registered with young blacks and voyeuristic whites across America, creating for the first time a profitable mass market for rap. During the 1980s and...