When the indie-rap movement swept through hip-hop culture in the mid-to-late 90s, it seemed to completely skip over the South. Sure, there were subterranean groups in Atlanta like Mass Influence (formerly known as Y’all So Stupid) and Binkis Recs; Nashville’s Count Bass D; Houston’s K-Otix; and others. But they were like footnotes to the thriving scenes in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York. It wasn’t until North Carolina’s Little Brother released its 2003 classic The Listening that the majority of rap fans realized that there were indie groups in the South similar to the ones they heard elsewhere.
In recent years, critics have argued that street rap artists that release their music independently deserve the “underground” label as much as artists whom fans perceive as more traditionally hip-hop or “conscious.” There is some truth to this, particularly in the South. Here, there is less separation between the “backpack” and “street” scenes. Artists like Big K.R.I.T. and Curren$y (the latter who was briefly signed to Lil Wayne’s Young Money label) clearly value the South’s rich tradition of rap gangsters and funky bluesmen. The history of Southern hip-hop is very different from the two coasts, and its underground is a reflection of that legacy. You can trace a line from OutKast to G-Side, and from Three 6 Mafia to SpaceGhostPurpp.
Today, the Southern underground is more vibrant, and that’s entirely due to the fragmented nature of hip-hop in the aughts. Influences, and the music on your hard drive that inspires you, may be more important than your physical location. As a result, the artists on this cheat sheet can only be pigeonholed by the cities where they’re from, not their sounds. As Rakim once said, it ain’t where you from, it’s where you’re at.
Big K.R.I.T.’s Dirty South classicism is a gift and a curse. For all his bellicosity — celebrating “Country Shit” and rubber-band men and eating collard greens — he simply isn’t as amorally opportunistic as, say, 2 Chainz, who probably would rap about selling china white to grade-school kids if it netted him more downloads. For K.R.I.T., the Mississippi rapper’s love for Southern hip-hop’s pioneers is as much professorial as it is personal, and he tends to package his songs in a sociological context that canonizes his heroes while explaining their world to cultural tourists. He’s what was once called a “conscious rapper,” and that quality has helped him win fans in unlikely places — last week, the ever-so-tasteful NPR hosted an advance stream of his major-label debut, Live from the Underground, a rare event for a rap record.