In 1995, André Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton took the stage in front of a hostile New York crowd. The Source Awards had just recognized Outkast as the Best New Rap Group. And in an East Coast and West Coast world, hip hop awards just weren’t supposed to go to albums like Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.
So the crowd booed. And in a moment that spawned 1000 t-shirts, André Benjamin stared them down and said, “the South got something to say. And that’s all I got to say.”
Today, it may feel a little ridiculous that the South was ever sidelined in hip hop. As we know, every form of American music has Southern roots. And 26 years after that moment, the sounds that have emerged from the South have taken over everything in hip hop. But once upon a time, André’s words were a battle cry.
This week on the Reckon Interview, we are talking about the hip-hop South. We’re chatting with Dr. Regina N. Bradley who has a stunning new book, “Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South.”
Dr. Bradley makes a convincing case that the South’s hip hop generation used their music to respond, remix and reinterpret their parents’ and their grandparents’ civil rights struggles, as well as the whole of Southern history. And in addition to the unique sound created by sampling Southern blues, soul, and funk, this was a unique perspective for hip hop at that moment.
This is also a theme that we’re going to be examining throughout this season of the Reckon Interview. What can our region’s great artists, thinkers, and leaders tell us about the South? And how can they help us write our own narratives? Because André didn’t say Outkast got something to say, or Atlanta got something to say. He said the South got something to say. And that includes each of us. We’re going to be focusing on those Southern stories, and how those stories shaped the South.
Below is a full transcript of the episode.
John Hammontree: You have a new book out called Chronicling Stankonia. It’s about the rise of the hip hop South. And I thought we would maybe start at the very beginning. You moved to Albany, Georgia, when you were 14. Can you describe what it was like when you kind of first heard Southern rappers like Outkast, and UGK, Goodie Mob? Do you remember the first time?
Dr. Regina N. Bradley: The first time I was introduced to Outkast was the episode of Martin that was the player’s ball. So there was that. But when I moved to Albany, I was in eighth grade, and I had moved from Northern Virginia. So Northern Virginia radio was pretty much whatever was playing in New York was playing in DC. And that’s what we were listening to. So I tried to jump into these conversations about rap that folks were having in the cafeteria and at school, and I remember one time I just kind of randomly threw out a Northeastern rapper, I forgot who it was by now, I mean, but they were like, “What, no, we’re not… go away. Like we’re not having that conversation.” And I was like, “What? Why?” So then after that, I was always very attentive to the radio station in Albany, whatever was playing on the radio, I was trying to throw it into conversations. I was like, these are people that I need to know. And being in southwest Georgia, whatever is hot in Atlanta is definitely going to be hot in Albany. So it was the Dungeon Family, it was Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz, and I’m like, okay. So it was like a rewiring of my already anxious teenage brain before high school, but it was definitely you know, a rewiring because that was the very real reality for me, is that, “Oh okay, so the South is definitely not what’s going on up north,” and hip hop was my introduction to what that could be like.
Hammontree: You have this sentence in your book, you said, “Hip hop was my means of personal and cultural transition into being Southern.” So can you can you walk us through what that means? I mean, you came from Virginia, Virginia is the South-ish.
Bradley: Yeah. It’s always funny because when I have conversations with people about what Southern is, and what it’s not, folks will be like, well, what part of Virginia? Cause Richmond north, they don’t they don’t consider themselves Southern. But yeah, so I mean, I had two things going on. I was raised by my grandparents. My grandparents brought me in, they came of age in the Jim Crow South. So you know, segregation was very real. All of these biases and stigmas associated with Black folks in the South were very real for them. And as a result of that, a lot of that kind of residual effect of how they came up was instilled in me. But what I realized is that their idea of the South is different than the South that I’m living, going to school everyday, friends. I was like, oh, there’s two different Souths going on, so to speak. So I couldn’t quite label it like that. But there’s a realization that, you know, the Southern this isn’t monolithic, first of all, right? And this idea of the South being this historical space, because let’s face it, I mean, the South, we capitalize on that idea of being like this old Southern lore. But the reality of it is, I didn’t realize how uncomfortable that made people to think about a contemporary Southern experience for Black folks until graduate school. But there was really kind of an interesting thing that I was seeing in terms of, you know, the South that I live, breathe, slept every day was an extension of what my grandparents came through. But it wasn’t the same thing. And I think that was important for me to realize, is that hip hop was an opportunity for me to realize those distinctions and also kind of really think through what does that mean, in terms of me identifying myself as a southern Black woman or girl then Black woman, yeah.
Hammontree: You kind of explore in your book that at least in the cultural imagination of, and, I don’t know if you were speaking specifically about Northeastern white people or white people in general, but you know, Southern Black folks are typically either kind of the Antebellum South, so you know, slavery and moonlight and magnolias, and Gone with the Wind and all that, and then also kind of the Jim Crow Reconstruction South, and then the Civil Rights Era. And it kind of stops there. And I think that’s maybe changing now with with everything that’s been happening in the South in the last few years. But you know, certainly when you when you were thinking about this and writing this book. and groups like OutKast and southern hip hop artists, you argue we’re kind of remixing on that and responding to that and and changing what it meant to be Black in the South and kind of giving young post civil rights Black Southerners, I guess, permission almost to think of themselves differently.
Bradley: Yeah. And it’s not just it’s not just Southern white folks, I was, in general, I was hating on all white folks. I was an equal opportunity hater. It’s really kind of fascinating that there is still a stigma that’s associated with the possibility of Southern Black folks existing in a different way after the Civil Rights Movement. Because for a lot of people, it’s so easy for the Civil Rights Movement to be the apex of modernity for Southern Black people. And I’m like, “Yeah, but it was the apex of modernity at that time.” Like we have multiple generations after the 50s and the 60s. And what I didn’t want to do with the book was suggest that there wasn’t an appreciation for what happened during those movements. Like there’s definitely an appreciation. But I also want to encourage folks to step out of that shadow, so to speak, and see how that’s set up. So in the book, I talked about, you know, Dr. King’s metaphor of the mountaintop, and I’m like, “Well, if we’re on the mountaintop, then the mountaintop’s not flat, like it’s not this romanticized ‘everything was fixed with the Movement.’ And for a lot of folks, that is kind of still the dream, you saw what I did there. But yeah, it’s still the dream, that you’re supposed to be exceptional, and you’re supposed to be able to move forward. And what a lot of rap artists who came up, not necessarily in that immediate aftermath, but like a generation or two removed from the movement were like, “Well, yeah, we’re still dealing with some stuff, like we’re still we’re still working through a lot of these things that weren’t necessarily necessarily settled. But also like, there’s this new round of issues and concerns that are affecting us, that are unique to this particular moment. And we need room to vent about it. And we need room to talk about it and name it.” And for a lot of older generation members that made them uncomfortable, because it was a realization that everything wasn’t fixed with the movement. And I think ultimately, hip hop’s significance lies in the fact that it makes room to have these difficult taboo conversations without shying away from, not only the legacy, but also this is where we are, this is where we’re going.
Hammontree: You know, it’s interesting, I mean, the way that André Benjamin and Antwan Patton kind of addressed that, embraced that almost with some irreverence, you know, they talk about slavery in a way that was very different from the way that their ancestors talked about it. And as you write in the book kind of paved the way for depictions in movies like Django Unchained, and things like that, and kind of reimagining a lot of this Southern iconography and mixing it with, you know, Afrofuturism and a little bit of Southern Gothicness, and even at times, you know, wearing symbols like the Confederate flag. You know, it’s very, very interesting and strange, the way that they’re doing that. How does Southern hip hop I guess, differ from its Northern and West Coast counterparts in the way that it was addressing these themes and issues?
Bradley: I feel like they don’t try to sugarcoat it. Like they don’t try to say, “Oh, this is something that we can’t touch like, Oh, don’t talk about it.” You know, they I’m like, well, it’s hard not to talk about it when it’s something that’s in our face on a daily basis. Especially if you think about Outkast coming out of Atlanta, Atlanta is already dealing with that kind of social cultural anxiety like, “where do we go from here?” This is the birthplace of King. We’re trying to establish ourselves as this Olympic City. We’re still kind of working through that. And I think the biggest thing that separates Southerners when talking about rap… and I didn’t think I’d be able to talk about this, but I find it kind of interesting when you know when you listen to something like Brad Paisley And LL Cool J’s “Accidental Racist,” right? The feelings I had. Especially, you know, with LL Cool J coming from this very Northeast perspective saying, you know, “If you forgive our gold chains, then I’ll forgive the iron chains.” And I’m like, sir, that is not how none of this works. I remember, I think it was Pastor Troy, who was like, “See, apparently there were no Southern rappers available, because we definitely would have approached that different.” But yeah, I’m like, there’s just this kind of assumption, because you’re so far removed from it, is this like, okay, if it’s not something that’s in your in your face on a daily basis, which is definitely that. I mean, like you have the nostalgia tourism of plantations, and I’m in Georgia. So whenever I go home from Atlanta, I see the Gone with the Wind posters and the billboards that are like, you know, “You want to come and visit,” and I’m like, “No, I don’t want to come and visit. That is not for me.” But yeah, I think that that’s a major distinction. What makes the South different from other regions in the United States is that the history is continuously in our face on a daily basis, and there’s really no room to maneuver and avoid it. I think the flip side of that, you know, kind of going back to what you were talking about when they approached the ideas of slavery, especially on that first album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, is that slavery was considered to be the strictly traumatic thing, which it is. But the possibility that enslaved folks were resisting the trauma, like pushing back, when he’s like, but they were cool, you know, I’m like, I never even thought about that. Like, you know, what, they had to be able to survive that trauma somehow, and being able to actually identify what that looks like, I think is, is really important. And it’s also really useful for me when I’m teaching because I’m like, okay, usually, you know, there is this very rigid standard of what slavery is. But if you can put André and Big Boi in conversation with somebody like Harriet Jacobs, and “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” or Frederick Douglass, you know what I’m saying? It shows students that the South is not linear, like, it doesn’t just happen and then we forget about it. You know what I’m saying? If that was the case, then we wouldn’t have Civil War reenactments, we wouldn’t have this big push back against Confederate monuments. Which most of the Confederate monuments were built in 20th century, they weren’t immediately after the Civil War as memorials, as folks would like you to assume. It was an opportunity to remind people that, you know, the Confederacy was built on white supremacy, and how are we going to do that? We’re going to remember the Confederate soldiers who stood on those principles. So yeah, I think it’s just the the unapologetic embrace of the messiness of Southern history and Southern culture is something that definitely makes Southern rap stand out. And I think, in particular, earlier generations of Southern rap, because there’s multiple generations of Southern rap now. You have those early 80s and 90s, you have that immediate aftermath after the explosion of like Atlanta and New Orleans, Katrina. With the multiple generations of Southerness that are being represented in the contemporary form, I just hope that my book was able to kind of lay out that earlier ground where we’re supposed to kind of realize that this didn’t just happen in a vacuum.
Hammontree: And it’s interesting, you brought up those Confederate monuments. And I guess it’s interesting to kind of compare that like “Lost Cause” mythology way that white folks responded to the Civil War to kind of the hip hop South and the way that Black southerners responded to the Civil Rights Movement. I mean, obviously, one is white Southerners, rewriting history where they lost, but but then it’s interesting that white people kind of romanticize that era and turned it into something that it’s not, whereas black people are kind of directly challenging and kind of pushing back and critiquing on the impulse to romanticize the civil rights movement. You know, it’s an interesting way that those two things broke down like one’s like, “Okay, well, let’s go back to the way things were,” and the other is like well, “Let’s keep pushing forward.” You grew up in Albany, like you said, and that that’s a city that kind of has its own sort of messy place, I guess, in civil rights history. It was not the location of one of Dr. King’s most successful campaigns. What was it like growing up in Albany? And how present was that for you on a daily basis?
Bradley: It was every day all day, I was like, okay. Again, I really have my grandparents to thank for that. My grandparents, Eugene and Sarah Barnett, they were among the first black educators to integrate the Dougherty County School System. So you know, it was interesting, because usually when you hear about civil rights movement, you hear about the things that you can also visualize, you hear about the marches, you hear about, you know, the freedom singers, for example, where you know, Miss Ruth Mae Harris and Bernice Johnson Reagan, and you know, Miss Harris is teaching at Monroe High School, so I could just literally go across the street and be like, Oh, hey, Miss Harris something like that. Just the tangibility of the history, I think is something really significant in Albany. But also like anytime we would go down certain streets in Albany, there was always a reminder “Well, you know, that’s where Dr. King went, and he gave that speech” or “You know, that’s where they did X,Y and Z,” And I’m just like “Yes ma’am. Yes.” You know, what do I say?” Yeah, I mean Albany, I think in the book I call it like the peculiar jewel of the movement. Like, you know, Dr. King went down there and tried to share the dream and you know, Sheriff Laurie Pritchett was like, “Nah, you ain’t sharing no dream.” To the point where, you know, the word on the street was that he put in to help set Dr. King’s bail, which really kind of collapsed a little bit of the morale and really forced Dr. King to reconsider his approach to this idea of boycotting, right? But a lot of that wouldn’t happen without Albany and, you know, there’s definitely that kind of like that particular shadow. But I also think, you know, thinking about Albany in more contemporary times, it’s not exactly a crystal stair, either. You know, it’s high unemployment, high teenage pregnancy, nobody had heard of Albany, Georgia, for real for real until COVID hit because of the super spreader funeral event. Which is ironic it was a funeral that was a super spreader thing, right? And it touched me in a particular way because I knew people who passed from the virus because of that experience that spread. But also, I mean, like MLK funeral home was the funeral home that buried my dad, my granddad, so there were like multiple layers of this grieving. But then it really made me feel some kind of way that I would be hearing Albany, Georgia, on the nightly news, like NBC Nightly News, like Albany, Georgia, is like at one point, I think they were like one of the biggest, like, per capita in the world, like the world. I was like, “What?” So yeah, it’s just, you know, growing up in Albany, all of those things impact how you see yourself, how you see how the world moves. But I also want to make sure that, you know, I, hopefully this came through in the book, there’s a lot of a lot of fun and all but to like, I’m not gonna sit here be like, it was a strictly horrific, tragic, and hip hop was the soundtrack for a lot of that fun. But being able to put those two in conversation, I think shows the complexity of being a young Black Southerner in a space like Albany, and also growing up not only in the long shadow of the civil rights movement, but the for real long shadow of Atlanta. Like even to this day. It’s like, I’m from Georgia, and I’m super proud of being from Georgia. And then the first thing that somebody asks is, “Oh, what part of Atlanta are you from?” And I’m like, I am not from Atlanta. And they’re like, “Oh, I’m sorry what part of Georgia are you from?” I’m like, I’m from Albany, I’m proud, my chest puffed out, and they’re like, “Oh, well, how far is that from Atlanta?”
Hammontree There’s a lot of rappers who I guess claim Atlanta, including Gucci who is from Bessemer, so just down the road from us here but like, there’s a lot of Southern rappers who I think claim Atlanta who are not actually from Atlanta and maybe that fuels some of that mythology about Atlanta being the only place.
Bradley: Young Jeezy’s got roots in Hopkinsville, Georgia. I mean, Pastor Troy’s from College Park, but he went to school in Augusta at Paine College. Being from Albany, Field Mob is from Albany, but you know, once they signed, they also started representing Atlanta. So, I mean, I get it, like Atlanta is the is the visual representation of what they think the state is, right. But you know, for those of us who grew up and live outside of the perimeter, you know, I’m saying, I think it’s important to realize that the South isn’t monolithic. Even within the state, like you were kind of pointing out what’s going on in Birmingham is different than Bessemer is different than Phenix City. Um, you’re right, and I’m like, it’s the same thing in Georgia. It’s the same thing I think in Florida. Florida is a really interesting example. Because once you go South of Orlando, they feel like they’re the Upper Caribbean, you know, I’m saying? But yeah, I just I think to really emphasize that point that the South is not a monolith, the music is a great reflection of that. And hip hop especially is a really great reflection of how all of us are in conversation with each other, but we don’t necessarily have the same type of experiences.
Hammontree: And I mean, even the sound of the music can change from Memphis to Houston to Atlanta to somebody like Big K.R.I.T. coming out of Mississippi. I mean, I’m not an expert on this by any means. But it seems like kind of the Southern style and the Southern sound, particularly coming out of Atlanta, has kind of taken over nationally like that a lot of New York rappers and, maybe less so but even West Coast rappers kind of have embraced the sounds that were really being pioneered by Southern rappers and in the late 90s, early 2000s
Bradley: Oh, yeah, I mean, like the immediate sound that I think about is trap. Like trap music is not just an Atlanta sound. It’s not just a Memphis sound, you know? Because if you talk to Memphis people, they will tell you that they originated trap and you just have to have that conversation. Right? But I’m from Georgia, so I’m like it’s in Atlanta it’s always been Atlanta. But yeah not to take anything away from like Three 6 Mafia and DJ Paul, I don’t want…Yeah, I mean, like, but it’s true. It’s like you know, it’s interesting how the music is an export, but not the cultural influence behind the music. You know what I’m saying? I remember having a conversation with a student in my Southern hip hop class a couple years ago, and she argued with me for a good 10 minutes that Katy Perry’s Dark Horse was trap music, and I was like, lies and deceit. And she was like, “No, seriously, Dr. B, look.” and I was just like, no. So she pulled up the wiki page, and it was like trap and it was talking about, you know, the extension into like EDM and I’m just like, “No, no, no, that is not trap music.” But now it’s like you put trap in front of everything trap water, trap yoga, trap karaoke, trap, you know, Pilates, all these different, you know, trap meditations. And it’s just kind of really fascinating because how trap originated? Well, that wasn’t the focus. That wasn’t the point. It’s really interesting that Atlanta in particular, has ushered in so many different styles of Southern rap from crunk music to trap music to the snap era. And then in conversation with that, and I really find this really interesting is that post-Katrina, so many folks from New Orleans came to Atlanta and that further hybridized the sound because you’re getting a little bit of bounce, a little bit of jazz, all of those things. So, again, music is like the the Rosetta Stone, so to speak, it’s the opportunity for folks to not only speak their truth to power, but also to experience each other’s cultures and experiences without necessarily having to be fully immersed, is probably the best way to put it.
Hammontree: And you argue that I mean, even kind of the early New York hip hop. I mean, like all music kind of has its roots in the south.
Bradley: Yeah, I definitely agree with Charlie Braxton. Charlie Braxton was like every every American music that you enjoy came out of the South. And I’m like, well…
Hammontree: Coming up after the break, Dr. Bradley shares her essential Southern hip hop albums.
Hammontree: So much of the music is influenced by the South now but in 1995, Outkast drew that line in the sand at the Source Awards. You know, they got booed by the New York audience. And, you know, André said that saying that launched 1000 t-shirts and Twitter bios of “the South got something to say,” you know, why was that such a turning point?
Bradley: Well, the first thing is, I think it was a reminder for the audience that Outkast wasn’t the first Southern rap group ever. I mean, before Outkast got put on there was a lot of interesting Geto Boys coming out of Houston, you know what I’m saying? But when he gave that declaration, it was kind of like a, not only was it a rallying cry. I don’t know, you kind of read it like a warning like, “No for real, it’s not just us. It’s not just us down here who are doing this rap thing.” Like it’s a little bit of everybody that is Southern that is really starting to dig their heels in. And then for those artists and listeners and hip hopfans we were like, “oh? oh, yeah? Okay.” And then like kind of kicked the door open and don’t even look back. There was a realization in that very simple statement that the South wasn’t the same. Like he didn’t say Atlanta got something to say, which would have still been apropos, because you know, they’re from there, he was like, “Nah, the South got something to say,” because there’s a realization that Atlanta is different than Memphis, it’s different than southwest Georgia, it’s different than Tallahassee, it’s different than Baton Rouge, it’s different than Dallas. And all of us have something to contribute to this hip hop thing. It might not be the same thing. But just to let you know that. And one of the things I really want to make clear is, again, is that Outkast wasn’t the first Southern rap group, but they were the first Southern rap group to be recognized as Southern. Distinctively Southern.
Hammontree: And in the book, when you’re talking about that moment, you also kind of say, “The hyper awareness from both Big Boi and André in front of the predominantly New York crowd ruptures the accepted narrative of the South as needing saving by non-Southern counterparts.” And, and you go on to kind of talk about, like, a lot of people think that like, you know, the Black people who continue to live in the South do so because they don’t have a choice. They have nowhere else to go if they had been able to, they would have left with the Great Migration. You know, never mind the fact that now a lot of people in the Great Migration are coming are coming back down to Atlanta in particular. Does that narrative from the North, does that continue through today? Or was that kind of nipped in the bud in the 90s?
Bradley: It really just burns my spirit, like it gets on my last nerve, when folks who are not familiar with the music, not familiar with the culture, not familiar with the region, try to use New York or anywhere else to talk about the South in an intelligent way. You sound dumb. That’s like me saying what’s happening in Albany, Georgia, can be applied to what happens in New York City, New York. It’s just not that. And I think one of my main motivations for writing Chronicling Stankonia was because I was a graduate student who was taking hip hop studies classes. And we were talking about hip hop, but they were all from folks who came up in New York. And I’m just like, I’m from southwest Georgia. And it was really fortunate because my class was majority Southern, most of us were from Texas, Florida, Georgia. And we were like, “Yeah, I mean, we’re not saying that that’s not hip hop, but Yo, that don’t have nothing to do with hip hop that I’m currently listening to in my car.” So how do I open up that conversation? And that’s what I want to do with Chronicling Stankonia. Like, I wanted to have a conversation about Southern rap from a Southern perspective. Even now, like folks are so quick to discount or dismiss the South. “It’s the South fault. It’s the South fault for Trump. It’s the South’s fault for whatever.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but you know what? It’s also the South’s fault for Biden.” It’s the South’s fault for all these things. So it’s really kind of interesting to me that folks are so quick to dismiss without acknowledging that there’s a complicated narrative that you might not be familiar with, because that’s not part of the norm. That’s not part of normal conversations. And then when you tell folks that they don’t know what they’re talking about, when they’re not from the South or not familiar, then they get in their feelings. Because they’re like, well what do you know about it? And I’m just like, well, the PhD, and I’m from Georgia, you know, I can say a little something. I can say a little something about it. But you’re right. I mean, like the reverse migration that is currently taking place. Folks are coming home. That’s the best way to put it. It’s like folks are coming home, you’re coming home, but a lot of us didn’t leave the South, didn’t want to leave the South. Or if we did want to migrate, we migrated to another part of the South. Like, I think that’s the thing that is missing in so many conversations is that when folks moved, yeah, a lot of folks moved to Detroit and Chicago and New York and LA. But a lot of folks moved from a rural part of their state to the city in their state. But that’s not part of that migration narrative. And it needs to be. But yeah, it just really, it don’t sit right in my spirit, as my elder folks say. When folks be like, “Oh, the South is just x, y, z.” And it’s just such a flat discussion. It gets boring. I’m bored of it. I’m like, okay, so hopefully this book will actually complicate, season the conversation a little bit. To get them to reconsider.
Hammontree: And I’m curious, Georgia, of course, has been in the limelight, more than almost any state in the country for the last few months. I mean, specifically, the Georgia election, and kind of the surprising results, both in the presidential cycle of Biden winning, and then in the senate race where both Democratic candidates won. Outkast, and a lot of these groups and rappers kind of addressed politics in a very irreverent way, particularly early on. I mean, André is very dismissive of voting generally. And kind of in the decades since then, it seems like hip hop and politics have started to kind of blend together more than maybe they were in the 90s. But there were a lot of rappers involved with the the Georgia election. Do you think that the kind of rise of the hip hop south and all the cultural changes that resulted from that are what led to Georgia even being in play in 2020?
Bradley: Yes. Because I mean, like, a lot of those folks, you know, they don’t want to give credit, but I mean, like younger voters came out in record numbers. You know what I’m saying? And I think the organizers, I really want to shout out the grassroots organizers here. And a lot of folks, you know, raise up Stacey Abrams, which is rightfully so. Like I’m not…she definitely had a big hand in that. But also the folks who might not get that shine who were on the ground. There’s a realization, right? I’m thinking in particular, I was watching the Jeezy and Gucci Mane Verzuz a couple months ago. And before it got started, Stacey Abrams came on and was like, “I just want to encourage everybody who hasn’t already to vote.” Like what? Like there’s a realization that hip hop reaches so many different people that that is extremely important. But I think even though, you know, even in the 90s, what was going on with Atlanta politics is really, really kind of fascinating because they were catering to this particular idea of this pristine Mecca city. And Maurice Hobson does a phenomenal job of laying that out in his book “Legend of the Black Mecca,” right? But you know, with Outkast being, when they were writing at the time 18, 19, early 20s, you know? And I’m thinking about what I thought about politics at age 18, 19, 20. I mean, yeah, there was definitely like this, “We’re trying to push back against the the establishment and they don’t do nothing.” But then kind of looking back on it and then moving forward. I’m like there’s a maturation stage, right? To the point where you know, hip hop isn’t just entertainment, you know, for a lot of folks is like edutainment. So you have folks like Killer Mike, for example, who’s on Keisha Lance Bottoms’ transition team, T.I.’s on the transition team. But still, I mean, like still making a particular claim and getting folks to really consider why voting is so important. And that is definitely in conversation with a lot of the lore and the rhetoric from the Civil Rights Movement. Especially if you’re thinking about somebody like, you know, John Lewis who like he was still, he was still campaigning literally up until his death it seems like. It was like, yo, you know, your vote is your most important tool and putting that in conversation with these with these hip hop artists who are not only in our face on a daily basis, but also like, “Hey, you for real need to vote. You need to take action,” right, completely changed the game. And if you take out hip hop from what happened in this recent run of elections, I think that the outcome would have been completely, completely different. We might not always agree with the political stance, but nonetheless, it’s still showing that there is a very real active conversation going on. I mean we have like political scholars, like Lakeyta Bonnette at Georgia State immediately comes to mind, who kind of talk about that. Like this would have been a completely different outcome, a completely different conversation if hip hop didn’t play such a pivotal role in the South.
Hammontree: How did hip hop also change Southern culture beyond music? You know, Atlanta becoming a destination for Hollywood. You know, so many movies being made in Atlanta. You know, it seems like there’s probably a through line of like the Afrofuturism of ATLiens, and like, the depiction of Wakanda in Black Panther, which was filmed in Atlanta. I mean, even country music now incorporates a lot of hip hop beats and things like that. So what are some other ways?
Bradley: Even with, you know, country? Reluctantly, I would say. Very reluctantly. That push back against Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road” was disgraceful, I think. But yeah, I mean, all of those things you said from from Hollywood’s interest in the South, you know, that definitely has something to connect with. Language, you know, folks think about Snoop Dogg and how he, you know, had his own little language and E-40 but I mean, like, they also got connections to Mississippi and to Atlanta. So I think that that’s definitely part of it. I also think the other thing that hip hop introduces and updates to Southern cultural conversations, at least for Black folks, is that it allows folks to reminisce on the past, but still think about the future to engage the present. And what I mean by that is, the South has such a difficult time with putting both feet in the present. We just can’t be fully in today. We’re thinking about tomorrow. We’re thinking about yesterday, and rightfully so, I mean, the South isn’t linear, as I said earlier. I mean, it’s cyclical. So, to be cyclical, you need to be able to maneuver. And Southern rap definitely does that. It reintroduces particular tropes and experiences to younger generations to be like, okay, this isn’t something new. And something I really emphasize with my students. I’m like, a lot of these things that you’re enjoying now aren’t new. Like, they didn’t just come out of nowhere. It’s not a vacuum. It’s a conversation. And that’s definitely what I think hip hop does is that it introduces a new part of a conversation. It introduces new lenses to think about the complexities of a Southern experience that often get overlooked, in favor of kind of like this flat idea of Southerness and Southern Blackness, because that’s what we see in pop culture. From Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta to the Real Housewives of Atlanta, to all the reality shows. A lot of that is grounded in people who are part of the industry and I think that that’s equally as important because that get folks interested. “Oh, okay, well, maybe there’s something going on that we should check out.” And I’m thinking, probably one of my favorite things that has come out of Southern hip hop culture as an experience is definitely Donald Glover’s Atlanta. Like the show is amazing. And I think what really makes it stand out is that it intentionally stays away from those immediately recognizable hotspots in Atlanta. You don’t see Peachtree anywhere. You don’t see the skyline. You’re in Mechanicsville, Adamsville. Like you’re definitely in these working class Black communities that get overlooked because they make folks uncomfortable. And Donald Glover is like “Nope, we’re gonna talk about it. Put it in your face. How are we gonna do that? I’m a struggling young man who got kicked out of Princeton.” And I’m still trying to figure out why he got kicked out of Princeton, and maybe we’ll figure that out for season three. Whose cousin is a one hit wonder because he’s a trap rapper who doesn’t want to be a trap rapper. All of those things.
Hammontree: And then Lakeith Stanfield’s character is just one of the best characters on TV.
Bradley: Yeah, it’s kind of scary how well he plays it. Like you ever see somebody play characters and you’re just yeah, that seems like that’s a little too close to how you actually are.
Hammontree: Talking about that new generation, and you mentioned kind of even kids coming up today, my brother was a teacher in Luella County there in Georgia. And I think he was teaching eighth and ninth grade. And the kids he was teaching, you know in their conscious lifetimes Outkast hadn’t really released an album. You know it’s been a while since Speakerboxxx/Love Below, and I guess you have Idlewild after that, but like it’s been a while since they’ve done music together. And I would imagine some of your students now coming into college are the same way. And we are maybe now as close to the release of their first album as they were to what the passage of the Civil Rights Act? So you know, this is now the generation that’s kind of growing up in the in the shadow of Outkast if Outkast’s growing up in the shadow of the Civil Rights Movement. So, you know, what do Donald Glover and Migos and Lil Nas X, what what do they kind of do to distance themselves but also kind of pay homage to the generations that came before them?
Bradley: How they distance themselves is that there is not this urgent need to recognize or be identified as Southern because we’re in the digital age, you know what I’m saying. And there’s really no need for that particular type of identity. I mean, it’s cool, it’s cool if you’re like, oh, okay. I always laugh at Migos because Migos has extended Atlanta past what traditional Atlanta purists, those folks with just Dekalb and Fulton County. Cuz they talk about Gwinnett and Gwinnett is far, as far away from Atlanta, the city, Atlanta city limits. But you know, for folks who aren’t familiar with the geography, they’re like, oh okay, well Migos is from Atlanta. Gwinnett. They say “that way,” that’s what they mean, waaaaaay over there. But I think that that’s I mean, like, on the one hand, I feel like that is the contribution to this generation from older generations of Southern rappers who had to establish themselves in a particular way. It’s the freedom to not have to do that and not label it as such. At the same time, I feel like there’s homage that’s still being done through like the sampling of older music. It pains me to say this, but I mean, having students who were born in 2002, 2003, really puts me in my feelings to say out loud, but also like there is, it’s just different. I mean, like, you know, for a lot of folks that change, the winds of change, so to speak, that people were listening to and thinking about the civil rights movement is now Hurricane Katrina. How did Katrina change how we understand the South? What type of migration was that? What type of music was that? What type of a cultural impact was that? So the starting point is different. I mean, like a lot of the conversations still being had about what do those civil rights look like? How is the South racialized in a particular way, especially with the natural disasters that we’ve been dealing with? Like I remember, you know, when folks were scavenging for food, you had folks who were, you know, in flooded out grocery stores who are white, they’re like, “Oh, they’re scavenging,” and then Black folks are doing the exact same thing. And it’s like, “Oh, they’re looting,” you know what I’m saying? Just being able to identify those distinctions. And now we’re in a particular moment. Now, post-George Floyd is the introduction of yet another layer. Because George Floyd had roots in Texas, right? So I mean, like, it’s just really interesting how this manifestation of Black Lives Matter is in conversation with the civil rights movement activists. The tensions that exist between those older generations and now. Like a lot of older activists feel like the younger folks aren’t doing it right, so to speak. But the reality of it is what they’re marching for is a little different than what folks were marching for in the 50s and the 60s. And also, I think it goes to what I’ve said earlier, in terms of, depending on what part of the South you’re in is what is at the forefront. Here in Atlanta folks are thinking about police brutality. And in Alabama, I’m thinking about Nathaniel Woods and also this other gentleman who was on death row and the refusal to let him have the reverend, his pastor with him, for his execution. And I’m just like Alabama need to get it together. Same thing, you know, with Mississippi and in Texas. So Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. So I’m like there are differing pockets of resistance and differing pockets of anxiety that are coming together in the form of a movement that doesn’t need the same parameters as the civil rights movement, because those parameters have already been secured, so to speak. And by that, I mean, like the legislation is still on the books, folks are still out here now just to get people to be held accountable. Like I feel like this representation of the contemporary South, and civil rights is just to get folks to be held accountable. Accountability, if you shoot somebody you need to go to court, not just hide behind the badge, which is unfortunate, right? And then realizing like, yeah, not all cops are bad. Yeah, that’s all well and good. But there’s a lot of cops out here who are making y’all look bad and just being able to recognize that. But there is such a resistance even to that. That you need alternative ways of having these conversations and pop culture and hip hop remain those spaces to have that. So you have a Big K.R.I.T. who has a song like “Might Not Be Okay.” Believe. You have folks like Future and Future is not necessarily known for civil rights anthems, but I mean, like you have folks talking about these things in their music and that is reaching a younger generation. That is mobilizing them to say something, and that’s just as important as being on the grounds and marching in your Sunday’s best so to speak. So I think that the messiness of what’s happening in the world, particularly in the South right now, is not only being documented in rap, but it’s also being archived in social media. And a lot of that is connected back to you know, the predecessors and how that happens. And being able to document it without feeling like they have to censor it, I think is the biggest thing that Southern rap has contributed to this larger conversation.
Hammontree: If you had to recommend five albums, let’s say, that kind of tell the story of Southern hip hop. Which are the first five that come to mind?
Bradley: Um, so Southernplayalistic obviously for Atlanta. Grey Skies by Crooked Lettaz in Mississippi, because without Crooked Lettaz you wouldn’t have K.R.I.T. The Geto Boys. Three 6 Mafia’s first album. And interestingly, you know what, interestingly enough I would also put somebody like, I don’t know, Nappy Roots out of Kentucky. Nobody thinks about Kentucky as a hip hop group but I mean like the idea of like rural Southern rap is somebody also to listen to. So you know, the Nappy Roots first album is something I would put on there also. And if you’re thinking about trap I mean, like T.I., he branded trap music, like I put it in the book. Like he branded trap music, and I don’t think he started it. So just kind of putting all those things in conversation but yeah, definitely the first albums, like those first albums are so significant from from OutKast, Three 6 Mafia, UGK, and the Geto Boys, just really, I feel like really kind of contributes to that. And also, Ice Cream Man by Master P comes to mind.
Hammontree: Alright, that’s a good list. To close, you know, we’ll close the same way you close your book, which is, you know, you write “the South still got something to say.” So what is it? What’s left to say?
Bradley: Well, I feel like the South still got something to say because the South is still trying to reclaim their narrative. There needs to be more room for Southerners to speak to their experiences in the academy, speak to their experiences in journalism, speak to their experiences in media. And I mean, like, I feel like now it’s kind of like a reclamation era. And being an academic, the Academy is so slow to accept so many different things. Like, you know, people have been studying hip hop in the academy for nearly 30 years now. But Southern rap studies is something that is still extremely, extremely new, unfortunately. And I just want to make room at the table. You know, let’s eat. Everybody needs to eat. I mean, I’m from Georgia. I can’t speak to Texas, the way that somebody from Texas can. I can’t speak to Tennessee the way that Zandria Robinson can. You know? So I just feel like it’s important to recognize, I’m in a particular lane, but the lane is open because we’re all trying to do the same thing, which is make sure that the South is represented in the best and most complicated way possible.
You can purchase Dr. Bradley’s book, “Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South” here.