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.
Andre 3000, one of a handful of rappers who can legitimately claim to being one of the best ever, has delighted and flummoxed us for years. We can only speculate on the reasons why.
Every so often, Andre Three Stacks teases us with a handful of guest appearances on other artists’ songs. On the surface, that’s no big deal: When a rapper is hot, like Rick Ross and 2 Chainz, he can generate dozens of cameo appearances in less than a year. But when Andre blesses a track, it’s still a major event because OutKast has been silent since 2006’s uneven Idlewild soundtrack (and the inarguably bad movie it accompanied). They didn’t necessarily go out on top, but their string of classic albums matched only by Kanye West has left us hungry for fresh material, whether it’s a new Big Boi solo project like 2010’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty, or an odd verse from ‘Dre.
It doesn’t hurt that Andre 3000’s guest appearances tend to be terrific in that casual, offhand manner that only he and his inimitable ATL drawl can manage. His verse made Devin the Dude’s “What a Job” one of the best Southern rap songs of the past decade. He gets on such a roll when he woos a girl during the bridge of John Legend’s “Green Light,” that he chuckles at his audaciousness, and makes us laugh, too. And he made rap fans actually listen to a Ke$ha song, “Sleazy 2.0 Get Sleazier” (though we really didn’t want to). There is Jay-Z’s “30 Something (Remix),” Beyonce’s “Party,” and Drake’s “The Real Her”… perhaps the only time another rapper out-shined Andre 3000 is on an “Interlude” from Lil Wayne’s The Carter IV, when Tech N9ne speed-rapped a burner verse. Even legends have their off-days.
In July, two more verses from Andre 3000 appeared. For Frank Ocean’s “Pink Matter,” he remembers a woman who “had the kind of body that would probably intimidate/ Any of them that were un-Southern/ Not me cousin/ If models are made for modeling/ Thick girls are made for cuddling.” Rick Ross’ “Sixteen” finds him tortured over the concept of a 16-bar verse, and how he can’t fit what he has to say in such a short frame of time. Andre also plays guitar on both tracks, perhaps as a way of promoting his upcoming Jimi Hendrix biopic. On “Sixteen” in particular, he attempts a stilted, Hendrix-like solo with a few strummed notes and a little reverb. Such goofiness is to be expected from Andre Three Stacks – after all, this is the guy whose only solo album to date is a little-promoted children’s record, 2007’s Class of 3000. It’s what we love about him.
(Rhapsody – August 3, 2012)
If there is a definitive list of the greatest rappers of all time, then Scarface ranks highly on it. He’s widely regarded as one of the first and greatest voices to emerge from the South.
Born Brad Jordan in Houston, Texas, Scarface’s career dates back to the post-NWA rise of reality rappers across the nation. His group, the Geto Boys, nearly equaled NWA’s infamy. Their self-titled album, which included titles like “Mind of a Lunatic” and “Assassins,” led to several major retailers and distributors refusing to carry the album. But the Geto Boys’ finest song was “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” a top 40 hit from We Can’t Be Stopped that famously begins with Scarface’s words, “I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at candles…At night I can’t sleep, toss and turn/Candlesticks in the dark, visions of bodies being burned.”
“Mind Playing Tricks On Me” prefaced the haunted, remorseful tone of Scarface’s solo career. His debut album, Mr. Scarface Is Back, was a frightening and unrelenting volley of gunfire rhymes over funky drummer beats. But by 1994’s The Diary, he struck a compromise between his coldhearted gangsta cuts; a love rap for the ladies; and tracks like “Hand of the Dead Body,” a duet with Ice Cube that not only rues our frequent censorship of gangsta rap, but also distances Scarface the rap character from the successful real-life musician that Brad Jordan had become.
As Scarface racked up three platinum and two gold albums through the 90s, he developed quirks, like the all-black suits that made him resemble a grim reaper in his music videos. Beyond the commercial ticks, however, what sustained him was his mastery of tone and his engaging storytelling. With its funereal, gloomy production by Mike Dean and Tone Capone, Scarface’s 1997 top 15 hit “Smile” is the best of the many songs dedicated to the late 2Pac (who recorded a verse for it before he died in late 1996). On “I Seen a Man Die” from The Diary, he details an ex-con who tries to return to the streets, only to be murdered, cursed to drift through the netherworld until he finally accepts his demise. “I still gotta wonder why/ I never seen a man cry until I seen a man die,” he raps on the chorus.
This year marks the revival of Scarface the solo artist after years of silence and a fitful, sometimes-combative reunion with his Geto Boys crew. He released a critically acclaimed autobiography, Diary of a Madman: The Geto Boys, Life, Death, and the Roots of Southern Rap, where he discussed his lifelong battle with depression. On September 4 he’ll release his first album in 7 years, Deeply Rooted, an addition to a legacy that’s already secure.
(Rhapsody – August 28, 2015)