Hip-hop journalist Ben Westhoff, of Village Voice and Creative Loafing fame, has penned a compelling book about the Dirty South hip-hop. I had an opportunity to meet him recently when he came to Houston for a book signing/reading/BBQ party. After hearing Ben read an excerpt from his book to an applauding, appreciative crowd, I picked up a copy. It’s a good read. Crisp, unpretentious, and powerful in its ideas. Just like the Dirty South. Westhoff tells tales of doing lemon drop shots and touring strip clubs Luke Campbell and watching Scarface fire off a lol-worthy email to his former therapist. If you’re curious about the minds behind the southern rap movement, then you’ll enjoy Dirty South. The TRU brain trust caught up with the hip-hop documentarian for a Q&A session. Here’s the transcript.
Jaap van der Doelen: What do you think defines the Dirty South sound?
Ben Westhoff: To me it’s like pornography — you know it when you see it. Er, hear it. Some say it’s “simple,” and some say it’s “danceable,” but it can also be extremely profound when folks like Scarface, UGK and Goodie Mob get involved.
Jaap: What are the major differences between hip-hop culture in the south and in other places?
Westhoff: I think there’s a much stronger DIY (do it yourself) culture in the south. Because the New York establishment shut out the south for so long, cats down there had to sell “out the trunk” and through mom and pop stores to get on. And so, even after they get famous, many hustle harder. I also think southern folks are more open-minded about hip hop, and are more willing to let the genre evolve.
Jaap: What brought on the dominance of the south in rap in the mid 00s?
Westhoff: I think it began to dominate even before that, but as to why it happened, I believe it’s because southern artists were more apt to give the people what they wanted. As I write in the book, coastal rap had become more of a cerebral boys club, where southern rap was more about having fun.
Rizoh: What do you think led to the demise of the Houston hip-hop dominance of the mid-2000s?
Westhoff: Good question. The only thing I can think is that the image — the candy cars, drooping chains, grills, etc. — seemed new and fresh to the rest of the country when it came on the scene in ’04 and ’05, but then the country later found it gimmicky. That’s not a reflection on the quality of the music, which I think has remained high.
Rizoh: Who is the most misunderstood rapper from the dirty dirty?
Westhoff: I would say Waka Flocka Flame. He’s called the hip hop antichrist, and accused of really dumbing things down, but though he can’t flow especially well (he’s the first to admit that), he’s innovative in other ways, with his chants and ad-libs, and has kind of changed the idea of what a rap song can be, popularizing a sort of more-melodic crunk.
Andrew Schweizer: What factors have contributed to Southern rap, and aspects thereof, expanding as quickly as it has to other parts of the country and into the genre itself?
Westhoff: Southern rap had to get really successful (with fans) before other rappers took it seriously, but then when it did, people began to notice that many of the players had amazing new styles and flows, and were talking about things others ignored.
Aaron McKrell: Do you think the whole “hip hop is dead” thing was aimed at the south?
Westhoff: Yes, 100 percent. And proof is Nas’ “Eat That Watermelon” spoof, which pretty much expands on that idea and is clearly aimed at the south.
Aaron:What is the most common misconception about dirty south hip-hop?
Westhoff: That it’s a corporate conspiracy to dumb down the masses. The reverse is actually true; grassroots southern labels like Luke Records, Suave House, Rap-A-Lot, Cash Money and No Limit had to fight twice as hard to get on, as New York wasn’t having them.
Sketch the Journalist: Given the “Bible Belt” location and reputation, how much do you think the church has played into southern hip hop artists’ sound and lyrics? (I’m thinking here about the syrupy, church organ sound you hear in a lot of Texas rap, Bun B’s Hip Hop & Religion course, etc. etc)
Westhoff: I think church is a huge factor in a lot of southern rap. David Banner talked about southerners staying out late in the club partying and then getting up early to go to church the next day. Pimp C’s “country rap” implies something slower and more instrumental; not everyone used a church organ like he, but you can almost hear church choirs (and all of the melody and soaring choruses that implies) in tons of southern rap.
Ivan Rott : Who is Mike Jones?
Westhoff: We are all Mike Jones.
Ben Westhoff’s ‘Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop‘ is out now from Chicago Review Press. The various interviews and visits to the home bases of artists give interesting context to many classic songs, and his descriptions of the tunes will make you want to bump some vintage dirty south jams. Something I’ll be doing right now.