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Southern Hip Hop

Music That Arose Out of the Black Experience in America

Genre Spotlight...."Southern Hip Hop"

Cultural Origins.... 1980s &1990s Southern U.S. Houston Atlanta New Orleans Memphis Miami

Stylistic Origins.... Hip Hop, Rap Music, Dirty South, Electro, Miami Bass, Hardcore Hip Hop

Sub-Genres & International Influence..... Southern Hip Hop, East Coast Hip Hop, Dirty South Rap, Rap, Pop Rap, Hip Hop, Hardcore Hip Hop, Detroit Hip Hop, Crunk, Memphis Hip Hop, West Coast Trap, Deep Trap, Dance Pop, Alternative Hip Hop, West Coast Rap, Bay Area Hip Hop, Hip Pop, Trap Music, Bounce, Underground Hip Hop, Gangster Rap, Dirty Texas Rap, Hyphy, Underground Latin Hip Hop, Finnish Hip Hop, Deep Latin Hip Hop, Dutch Hip Hop, Danish Hip Hop, Brazilian Hip Hop

Southern hip hop, also known as Southern rap, South Coast hip hop, or Dirty South, is a blanket term for a subgenre of American hip hop music that emerged in the Southern United States, especially in Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, Memphis, and Miami.

The music was a reaction to the 1980s flow of hip hop culture from New York City and the Los Angeles area, and can be considered a third major American hip hop genre, after East Coast hip hop and West Coast hip hop. Many early Southern rap artists released their music independently or on mixtapes after encountering difficulty securing record-label contracts in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, many Southern artists had attained national success, and as the decade went on, both mainstream and underground varieties of Southern hip-hop became among the most popular and influential of the entire genre.


Independent Southern Rap Labels Excel

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the American hip hop music market was primarily dominated by artists from the East Coast and West Coast. Los Angeles and New York City were the two main cities where hip hop was receiving widespread attention. In the 1980s, cities throughout the Southern United States began to catch on to the hip hop music movement. The Geto Boys, a hip hop group from Houston, were among the first hip hop artists from the Southern United States to gain widespread popularity. Southern hip hop's roots can be traced to the success of Geto Boys' Grip It! On That Other Level in 1989, the Rick Rubin produced The Geto Boys in 1990, and We Can't Be Stopped in 1991. After the Geto Boys rose to stardom, Houston became the center for Southern hip hop. Miami also played a major role in the rise of Southern Hip-hop during this time frame with successful acts like 2 Live Crew and other artists who relied heavily on the Miami bass sound. In the late 1980s, other rising rap groups such as UGK from Port Arthur, Texas, and 8 Ball & MJG from Memphis, moved to Houston to further their musical careers.

By the 1990s, Atlanta had become a controlling city in southern hip hop music. Hip hop groups such as OutKast and Goodie Mob played a huge part in helping the South become a center for hip hop music. OutKast became the first Southern artists to generate album sales like the powerhouse rappers on the East and West coasts.

The most successful Southern independent labels during the mid-to-late 90s came out of the cities of Memphis and New Orleans. Both scenes borrowed heavily from a production style first introduced by way of the obscure late-1980s New York rap group The Showboyz, heavily sampling the beats from their songs "Triggerman" and "Drag Rap". By the turn of the century these scenes found mainstream success through Cash Money Records and No Limit Records out of New Orleans and Hypnotize Minds out of Memphis, revolutionizing financial structures and strategies for independent Southern rap labels.

By the early to mid-2000s, artists from all over the South had begun to develop mainstream popularity with artists like T.I., Ludacris, Lil Jon, Young Jeezy from Atlanta, Trick Daddy and Rick Ross from Miami, Lil Wayne and Juvenile from New Orleans, and Three 6 Mafia from Memphis all becoming major label stars during this time. In 2004, OutKast won six Grammy awards for their album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, including Best Album, while in 2006 the members of Three 6 Mafia won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp" from Hustle and Flow, a Hollywood film about a fictional Southern rap artist. In 2005, the Houston rap scene saw a revival in mainstream popularity, and many Houston rappers started to get nationwide and world-wide audiences such as Paul Wall, Mike Jones, Chamillionaire, UGK, Lil' Flip, Slim Thug, Z-Ro, Trae, and many members of the Screwed Up Click.

The height of Southern hip-hop was reached from 2002 through 2004. In 2002, Southern hip-hop artists accounted for 50 to 60 percent of the singles on hip-hop music charts. On the week of December 13, 2003, Southern urban artists, labels and producers accounted for six of the top 10 slots on the Billboard Hot 100: OutKast had two singles, Ludacris, Kelis (produced by The Neptunes), Beyoncé and Chingy (on Ludacris' Disturbing Tha Peace label). In addition to this, from October 2003 through December 2004, the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart was held by a Southern urban artist for 58 out of 62 weeks. This was capped by the week of December 11, 2004 when seven out of the top ten songs on the chart were held by or featured Southern urban artists. In 2004, Vibe magazine reported that Southern artists accounted for 43.6% of the airplay on urban radio stations (compared to 29.7% for the Midwest, 24.1% for the East Coast and 2.5% for the West coast). Rich Boy from Mobile, Alabama was successful in 2007 with his debut album.

Unlike hip hop in other regions of the United States, numerous mainstream Southern rap artists did not come from larger cities and instead came from either suburban areas or areas with smaller hip hop scenes. Notable examples include Field Mob, natives of Albany, Georgia, Bubba Sparxxx, from LaGrange, Georgia, and Nappy Roots, from Bowling Green, Kentucky and the artists of Trill Entertainment out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Popular Southern artists to emerge in since the mid 2010s include Young Thug, Future, Travi$ Scott, 2 Chainz, Rae Sremmurd, Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mane, and Rich Homie Quan. Most Rec In addition, many younger non-Southern artists such as French Montana and ASAP Rocky have established themselves within the hip hop scene through southern flavored beats and have acknowledged being heavily influenced by Southern styles of hip hop.

Georgia Foundation

"Atlanta" Southern Hip Hop's Center of Gravity

Although the music scene of Atlanta is rich and varied, the city's production of hip-hop music has been especially noteworthy, acclaimed, and commercially successful. In 2009, the New York Times called Atlanta "hip-hop's center of gravity", and the city is home to many famous hip-hop, R&B and neo soul musicians.

In the 1980s and early 1990s Atlanta's hip hop scene was characterized by a local variant of Miami's electro-driven bass music, with stars like Kilo Ali, MC Shy-D, Raheem the Dream, and DJ Smurf (later Mr. Collipark). MC Shy-D is credited with bringing authentic Bronx-style hip-hop to Atlanta (and Miami), such as 1988's Shake it produced by DJ Toomp; Jones was signed to controversial southern rap label Luke Records, run by Luther Campbell aka "Uncle Luke". Arrested Development won the Grammy in 1992 with Tennessee, while Mr. Wendal & People Everyday and Kris Kross won with their hit song Jump. The group Tag Team released their debut platinum certified album Whoomp! (There It Is) (album) on July 20, 1993, spawned by their hit single of the same name.

By the mid-1990s, the rise of LaFace Records artists OutKast, Goodie Mob and the production collective Organized Noize led to the development of the Dirty South style of hip-hop and of Atlanta gaining a reputation for "soul-minded hip-hop eccentrics", contrasting with other regional styles. While Atlanta-area hip hop artists were from the suburuban Decatur area, their prominence was eclipsed by music associated with these artists from "The S.W.A.T.S." ("Southwest Atlanta, too strong"), i.e. Southwest Atlanta, plus territory extending into the adjacent cities of College Park and East Point. The term "SWATS" came into vogue around 1996, initially made popular by OutKast and Goodie Mob.

From the late 1990s to early 2000s, record producer Lil Jon became a driving force behind the hip hop subgenre known as crunk, known for its upbeat and club oriented hip hop sound. Record producers L.A. Reid and Babyface founded LaFace Records in Atlanta in the late-1980s; the label eventually became the home to multi-platinum selling artists such as Toni Braxton, TLC, Ciara. It is also the home of So So Def Records, a label founded by Jermaine Dupri in the mid-1990s, that signed acts such as Da Brat, Jagged Edge, Xscape and Dem Franchise Boyz. The success of LaFace and SoSo Def led to Atlanta as an established scene for record labels such as LaFace parent company Arista Records to set up satellite offices.

In 2009 the New York Times noted that after 2000, Atlanta moved "from the margins to becoming hip-hop's center of gravity, part of a larger shift in hip-hop innovation to the South." Atlanta hip-hop’s pop breakthrough—everyone from Jermaine Dupri to OutKast to Lil Jon—involved the blend of various distillations of hard-core sounds from the West, bass beats from Florida, and styles and images from the North.[8] Producer Drumma Boy called Atlanta "the melting pot of the South". Producer Fatboi called the Roland TR-808 ("808") synthesizer "central" to Atlanta music's versatility, used for snap, crunk, trap, and pop rap styles. The same article named Fatboi, Shawty Redd and Zaytoven the four "hottest producers driving the city".

"Texas" Chopped & Screwed

Preceding the early 1990s, most Southern hip hop was upbeat and fast, like Miami bass and crunk. In Texas, a different approach of slowing music down, rather than speeding it up, developed. It is unknown when DJ Screw definitively created "screwed and chopped" music: although people associated with Screw have indicated any time between 1984 and 1991, Screw said he started slowing music down in 1990 and also in Tulsa Oklahoma Dj Dinero And Dj Z-Nasty helped popularize Chopped And Screwed music in the Mid South. There is no debate, however, that DJ Screw invented the music style." He discovered that dramatically reducing the pitch of a record gave a mellow, heavy sound that emphasized lyrics to the point of almost storytelling. After experimenting with the sound for a while Screw started making full length "Screw Tapes".

Between 1991 and 1992, there was a large increase in use of purple drank in Texas. Purple drank has been considered to be a major influence in the making of and listening to chopped and screwed music due to its perceived effect of slowing the brain down, giving slow, mellow music its appeal. DJ Screw, however, repeatedly denounced the claim that one has to use purple drank to enjoy screwed and chopped music. Screw, a known user of purple drank, said he came up with chopped and screwed music when high on marijuana.

As the spread of Southern Rap continued the year 2000 became a breakthrough year for one founding group. Rap duo UGK made a high-profile guest appearance on Jay-Z's smash hit "Big Pimpin'" and also appeared on Three 6 Mafia's hit "Sippin' on Some Syrup". Both of these collaborations greatly increased their reputation, and helped fuel anticipation for their next project. A song that originally appeared on the compilation album The Day Hell Broke Loose 2, Mike Jones' "Still Tippin'", achieved mainstream success in 2004, leading to local Houston rap label Swishahouse signing a national distribution deal with Asylum Records. Jones released his major label debut, Who Is Mike Jones?, on Swishahouse/Warner Bros. in April 2005; the album was certified platinum that June. Paul Wall's major label debut, The Peoples Champ, on Swishahouse/Atlantic, was released in September 2005, eventually topping the Billboard 200. Before embarking on his rap career and while still at school, Wall had worked in the Swishahouse office.


New Orleans, with its rich history of African American musical traditions, has occupied a central place in the history of hip-hop in Louisiana, although several notable rap artists have emerged from other cities like Baton Rouge and Shreveport/Bossier. Building on a decade of local activity, rappers and DJs in New Orleans during the early 1990s created a new local style of hip-hop that was eventually christened “bounce.” While the style remained regionally limited, the bounce scene helped support the growth of a local industry. However, the city’s distance from hip-hop’s initial centers of activity (New York and later Los Angeles) meant that it would take a significant amount of time for New Orleans-based rappers, producers, and record labels to penetrate the commercial mainstream. Building on the early foundation, several independent record labels, including No Limit and Cash Money, captured national audiences in the late 1990s, and helped establish New Orleans as one of the centers of the “Dirty South” style. New generations of artists and companies emerged in the early twenty-first century, but many of those suffered a major setback in the form of Hurricane Katrina-related disruption.

Locally established record labels and producers were responsible for some of the earliest rap recordings to come out of New Orleans. These included singles by Parlez (on Senator Jones’s Superdome label) and Jones and Taylor Experience (on Soulin’ Records), among others. New York Incorporated, a group of several DJs and rappers led by transplanted New Yorker Denny Dee, was one of the first devoted exclusively to hip-hop. It included Byron Thomas and Mia Young, who would go on to later fame as Mannie Fresh and Mia X, respectively. Other groups from this period included Rockers Revenge and the Ninja Crew (composed of rappers Gregory D, Sporty T and DJ Baby T), who released a single in 1986 on the Miami-based 4-Sight label.

After Ninja Crew disbanded, Gregory D partnered with Mannie Fresh to form a duo that would prove to be one of the most prolific rap groups of the late 1980s. The pair released records on the Yo! Label, based in Dallas, Texas, and the Los Angeles-based D&D. While they produced music that was largely indistinguishable from mainstream commercial rap, their two-song single on the local Uzi Records was a groundbreaking expression of the local hip-hop sensibility, relying on participatory, call-and-response-based cadences, and references to the city’s housing projects and other poor or working-class areas where hip-hop was taking root.

Other rappers and producers attained prominence in the late 1980s. MC J Ro J’s single “Let’s Jump” was the first local hip-hop tune to sample music from New Orleans’s second line brass band tradition. Other important groups from the period included the Famous Low Down Boys and E.R.C. Several rappers from the West Bank area of greater metro New Orleans achieved prominence, including MC Thick, whose single “Marrero” led to a contract with a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. Other West Bank rappers included Tim Smooth, who signed with Yo! and later, Rap-a-Lot. Ice Mike, who had built his production and rapping skills as a member of the Def Boyz, released records as a solo artist and produced records for others, most prominently BustDown, who was signed to Effect Records, based in Miami, Florida. Club owner and promoter Warren Mayes had a local hit with the chant-heavy song “Get It Girl,” which was released as a single by Atlantic Records in 1991. Several rap groups, including Full Pack and 39 Posse, started their own independent labels, through which they released recordings of themselves and others.

The isolation of New Orleans hip-hop from the national mainstream ended in 1995, when Michael “Mystikal” Tyler signed with Jive Records. His debut album for Big Boy Records was re-released with the new title Mind of Mystikal, the first of several successful releases for the energetic rapper. Despite many local references in his lyrics, Mystikal’s music was not linked to New Orleans bounce.

Meanwhile, New Orleans native Percy “Master P” Miller was in the process of building an underground gangsta rap empire that would see him become one of the richest entertainers in the world. Miller founded the No Limit label while he was living in Richmond, California, but the enterprise took off after he returned to New Orleans and enlisted several prominent local artists, including Mia X and producer Craig “KLC” Lawson. Along with Mo B. Dick, KLC founded the production company known as Beats by the Pound (later the Medicine Men) including Craig B and Odell who produced music for the label in its heyday. No Limit’s early releases included the group TRU, as well as several albums by Master P himself. In 1995, the label recorded several promising local artists for the Down South Hustlers compilation, including Joe Blakk, Mia X, Skull Duggery, Magnolia Slim, and others. In 1996, No Limit sealed a “pressing and distribution” deal with Priority; the label sold millions of copies of subsequent releases by Master P, his brothers C-Murder and Silkk the Shocker, Mia X and, later, Mystikal. Other artists on the roster included Big Ed, Big Ramp, C-Loc, Choppa, Curren$y, D.I.G., Fiend, Full Blooded, Gambino Family (group), Ghetto Commission, Kane & Abel, Krazy, Lil Italy, Lil Ric, Mac, Magic, Mercedes, Mia X, Mo B. Dick, Mr. Serv-On, Mr. Marcelo, Prime Suspects, Romeo, Silkk the Shocker, Snoop Dogg, Sons of Funk, Sonya C, Soulja Slim, Steady Mobb'n, Tre-8, and Young Bleed.

While No Limit’s success was groundbreaking for New Orleans, it was followed in 1998 by a similar deal between Cash Money and Universal. The agreement helped Juvenile’s second album for the label, 400 Degreez, sell more than three million copies, with bounce-flavored songs like “HA” and “Follow Me Now” winning over critics and audiences nationwide. Juvenile’s success was soon followed by other hits, including B.G.’s iconic song “Bling Bling,” on his album Chopper City in the Ghetto. The rap group The Hot Boys, which included Cash Money artists B.G., Lil Wayne, Juvenile, and Turk rose to regional prominence in 1997 with the release of Get It How U Live! and later found nationwide success with later releases in 1998. Although group found national traction in 1998, the label's former stable of artists nourished its local popularity in the early half of the decade. The early roster included Magnolia Shorty, PxMxWx, Kilo G, Pimp Daddy, Ms. Tee, Lil SLim, Ziggler to Wiggler, U.N.L.V., Mr. Ivan, B.G., and Lil Wayne.

Beginning around 2000, New Orleans saw the emergence of a cohort of openly gay male rappers, called “sissies” or “punks.” Led by Take Fo’ artist Katey Red, this contingent also included Vockah Redu, Sissy Nobby, and Big Freedia. Other rappers like Gotti Boi Chris and 10th Ward Buck helped return New Orleans rap to a local orientation, with collective participation driven by chanted call-and-response lyrics. Labels including Black House and Money Rules formed part of the newest wave of grassroots activity in the city. However, local favorite Soulja Slim was murdered in 2003, just as his national career was taking off after a high-profile collaboration with Juvenile.

The New Orleans hip-hop scene had barely recovered from this shock when Hurricane Katrina struck, scattering rappers and producers to nearby cities like Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta, where they struggled to keep their careers moving forward. Lil’ Wayne, who relocated to Miami after the disaster, has risen to become one of the nation’s most popular rappers. New artists to rise during the post-Hurricane Katrina era include Curren$y and his Jet Life Recordings label, Jay Electronica, 3D Na'Tee, Flow, Ace B, Big Ramp, and Lil Cali.


The first major rap artists out of Alabama was southern rap duo Dirty from Montgomery, Alabama. They sold well regionally before signing with Universal Records. Their major label debut, Keep It Pimp & Gangsta, is their best-selling album. The next rapper was Rich Boy from Mobile, Alabama. His self-titled debut album topped on the Billboard Rap Albums chart and was placed third on the Billboard 200. He debut single, Throw Some D's charted sixth on the Billboard Hot 100. Yelawolf, from Gadsden, Alabama was the next successful rap artist to gain mainstream and popularity in the media and his music from Alabama. His debut album, Radioactive, was met with positive reviews and debuted #4 on the Billboard Rap Albums chart.


The term crunk is used as a blanket term to denote any style of southern hip hop, but it is mainly used to denote a musical style that originated by Three Six Mafia in Memphis, Tennessee, in the mid-to-late 1990s. It was popularised by Atlanta rapper Lil Jon, and gained mainstream popularity in the period 2003–04. A typical crunk track uses a drum machine rhythm, heavy bassline, and shouting vocals, often in call and response manner.

1997 - 2007 The Dirty Decade

Southern Hip-Hop & Rap

In The Words of Matt Miller - Emory University Atlanta, Georgia

(The Southern Museum of Music will spotlight the research of Southern Music from universites within the southern states)... 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.

The Idea of the Dirty South

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. 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.

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.

Southern Rap & 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." 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."

Other scholars caution against a naturalized or taken-for-granted understanding of "'organic' relationships between music and the cultural history of 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'." 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."

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.

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."

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. 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." 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." 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."

As Adam Krims argues, this "poetics of locality and authenticity can work through sound, visual images, words, and media images together." 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. 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." Many of the most prominent of these local styles were located in various urban areas of the US South.

Scenes & Styles of the South

For all of its novelty in the areas of vocal performance, narrative voice, and musical backing, Southern Hip Hop and Rap were 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" music produced for national audiences, inhabitants of southern cities soon began the process of creating rich musical subcultures based around locally specific interpretations of the forms. 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 southern hip hop and 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. 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.

The Hip Hop and 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." 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, & some parts of Opa Locka and North Miami") which came to be known as "Miami Bass" in the early 1990s.

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. 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. 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. 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." 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." 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.

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.


Houston also had an embryonic southern hip hop and 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. 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.

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." 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 music artists who were geographically or culturally distant from . . . New York or Los Angeles."

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." 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. 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."

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. 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. 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."

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.

New Orleans

Southern Hip Hop & 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.

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.

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.

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.


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. 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.

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.'" 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." 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. 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.


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.

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."

As Atlanta's southern hip Hop and 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.

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." 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.

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.

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.

Virginia Beach

The southern hip hop and 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. 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.

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. 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." As her recording career leveled off, she ventured into reality television in 2005 with her rap-themed reality show, The Road to Stardom.

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.'"

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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," 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."

Southern Hip Hop Music & Sub-Genres

Click on any of the names below to hear samples:

Southern Hip Hop

East Coast Hip Hop

Dirty South Rap


Pop Rap

Hip Hop

Hardcore Hip Hop

Detroit Hip Hop


Memphis Hip Hop

West Coast Trap

Deep Trap

Dance Pop

Alternative Hip Hop

West Coast Rap

Bay Area Hip Hop

Hip Pop

Trap Music


Underground Hip Hop

Gangster Rap

Dirty Texas Rap


Underground Latin Hip Hop

Finnish Hip Hop

Deep Latin Hip Hop

Dutch Hip Hop

Danish Hip Hop

Brazilian Hip Hop