Hip hop has developed and evolved in many parts of the U.S. — and the world — but few regions have created as many unique subgenres and rising stars as the American South.
The earliest days of hip hop essentially pitted two rival regions against each other: East Coast vs. West Coast. However, these delineations largely referred to just two locations — New York City and Los Angeles. All of the biggest artists of the day, including N.W.A. and the Wu-Tang Clan, originated in these cities and often referred to their respective affiliations in their music. However, as hip hop became the latest music trend across the United States in the late 1980s, a number of southern artists emerged with their own distinct styles and perspectives.
The Birth of Southern Hip Hop
Though there were certainly smaller artists cropping up in cities like Atlanta, New Orleans, and Miami, the first well-known southern hip hop group was The Geto Boys, who hailed from Houston, Texas. The group’s second studio album, Grip It! On That Other Level, earned The Geto Boys national stardom in 1989. They would later follow up on the album’s success with another popular release, We Can’t Be Stopped, in 1991. While the group did not invent the genre, their intense, violent, and misogynistic lyrics are often cited as an influence for the horrorcore subgenre of hip hop.
Thanks to The Geto Boys, Texas (particularly Houston) became the South’s hub of emerging hip hop artists, with Miami coming in second. Miami-based group, 2 Live Crew, helped popularize the new “Miami bass” sound, which was characterized by a sustained kick drum, heavy bass, elevated tempos, and sexually explicit lyrics. Despite its popularity, hip hop had yet to enter the “mainstream” of the American music industry. That was until Atlanta became the new center for Southern hip hop and, eventually, American hip hop in general.
Outkast Changes the Game Forever
While dozens of popular artists were cropping up throughout the southern United States in the mid-1990s, much of the country still wasn’t interested. The infamous East Coast-West Coast feud continued to dominate headlines and helped their respective hip hop artists top the music charts. Nonetheless, Atlanta was pumping out some of the best new artists of the day, including TLC and Usher. However, it was a young rap duo known as Outkast that turned out to be the real game-changer.
Outkast began in 1992 in East Point, a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. The group consisted of Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Bot artists were talented lyricists who liked to dabble in various genres. It was this experimentation that helped Outkast gain nationwide popularity. When Outkast won Best New Artist at the 1995 Source Awards, southern hip hop finally had an ambassador. Thanks in large part to groups like Outkast, the South would soon become the measuring stick by which all hip hop was judged.
New Styles Emerge
With Atlanta as the epicenter of southern hip hop, the new “Dirty South” style emerged. The new musical approach took inspiration from various styles, including hardcore, gangsta rap, and Miami bass. It often mixed hardcore lyrics with slower, more soulful beats that appealed to the fast-rising “party culture” of southern rap.
The Dirty South style also spawned various imitations and subgenres, including the highly popular Crunk style, which was championed by Atlanta-based rapper, Lil Jon. The up-tempo style and party-oriented lyrics made Crunk hip hop ideal club music. The popularity of southern party music continued throughout much of the 2000s, albeit in slightly varied forms.
Snap hip hop came about in Atlanta as a spin-off of Crunk. This new genre maintained all of the same qualities as Crunk, but often with slower beats. Though it was popular among many casual hip hop fans, Snap music quickly drew criticism from critics, as well as both East and West Coast rappers. Many dubbed the new style “Ringtone Rap” as a way to diminish the power of southern hip hop. Dozens of artists cropped up with new singles that had very little staying power, which only added fuel to these criticisms.
2000–2006: The Pinnacle of Southern Hip Hop
As the 1990s came to a close, Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans had emerged as three of the biggest cities for southern hip hop artists. Record labels like LaFace Records and Cash Money Records helped give the region better representation and infrastructure, while new styles began to appear in direct contrast to the hip hop of years past.
By the early 2000s, southern hip hop artists were producing more than half of all the top-charting singles. During this period, some of the most well-known rappers and hip hop artists of all time came to prominence, including T.I., Ludacris, Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, and Three 6 Mafia. The mid-2000s also saw more traditional institutions showing their respect to southern artists. Outkast took home six Grammys in 2004, while Three 6 Mafia won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2006 for “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp.”
Trap Music Takes Center Stage
Though Trap music has been around for nearly three decades, it didn’t take on mainstream popularity until the late-2000s and early-2010s. The style originated in Atlanta, with the name referring to the houses in which illegal drugs are bought and sold. Artists like Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame topped the charts with singles that signaled the new genre. Trap music uses synthesized drums, tuned kick drums with a long decay, and lyrics that often address drug use, party culture, and inner-city violence.
Today, Trap music is one of the most popular musical styles from any genre in the United States. It has had cross-over appeal in multiple genres, influencing pop, K-pop, and even country music. Various subgenres of Trap have become increasingly popular in recent years, particularly Emo Rap and Lo-Fi. Even though it started long before SoundCloud existed, Trap is often associated with the rise of young artists on the SoundCloud platform, including Lil Peep, Post Malone, and XXXTentacion.
Many artists from my own record label, Guin Records, have been inspired by the lyricism, style, and history of southern hip hop. The South has had unprecedented influence over the genre as a whole — and for good reason. Southern artists continually prove that they possess the skills and creativity to produce high-quality, wholly unique music, time and time again. For this reason, I can’t wait to see what the next generation of southern artists has in store for us.