Hip-hop, the most urban of genres, is getting a new sound – courtesy of the small towns of a deep south state.
By Rob Boffard, The Guardian
Around 40 miles south of Jackson, Mississippi’s state capital, just off Interstate 55, lies the town of Crystal Springs. Unless you need to fill up your car or your stomach, you almost certainly won’t leave the freeway to visit it.
Around 6,000 people live in Crystal Springs. Last year, the town briefly made headlines when members of the congregation at the First Baptist Church on East Cayuga Street refused to let their pastor marry a black couple
. It used to call itself The Tomato Capital of the World. That gives you a bit of insight into the kind of place this is.
When he was in high school in the early 90s, Jason Thompson would get into his 79 Chevy Impala and drive from his family’s house on Utica Road, which meanders outside the town limits past the cemetery. He’d end up at the gas station with his friends. They’d sit outside, late into the night, scanning the dial for hip-hop.
“We’d hang out – post up, is what we would call it – and listen to music,” Thompson says. “Real slow motion. We listened to a lot of east coast hip-hop: Nas, Rakim, KRS-One. That’s when Outkast was popping off, so we listened to that.”
The seeds planted by those gas station sessions are starting to pay off – both in Crystal Springs and elsewhere in the state. Something is happening in Mississippi. The small towns are starting to produce some of the coolest hip-hop music you’ll ever hear. Drawing on styles from both the east coast and the dirty south
, Mississippi’s rappers seem to have an innate sense of musicality – an idea that the voice can be an instrument, not just a way to deliver a message.
For a long time, Mississippi was the forgotten cousin of the southern hip-hop family. The state didn’t have a Lil Wayne, or a Master P, or a Rick Ross or an Outkast. Its most recognisable artist was David Banner
– no megastar, even if he was something of a trailblazer. All that is changing. Big K.R.I.T
(from Meridian, population 40,000) has become one of hip-hop’s go-to talents, signing to Def Jam and working with everyone from the Roots and TI to BB King. Tito Lopez
, from the state’s second largest city, Gulfport, first signed to Capitol Records, then headed out to Los Angeles to help Dr Dre write for his Detox project.
There are countless others, Thompson among them. He’s now known as PyInfamous
, and even one listen to his music shows that all that posting up at the gas station paid off. With a pitch-perfect flow and a voice as dusty as Utica Road, he’s making some truly amazing hip-hop.
Here’s the really weird thing about these towns. It’s because they’re small, because there is so little to do and so little chance for traditional jobs (Mississippi has the lowest average household income in the US, at just under $37,000 (£24,000) a year) that hip-hop thrives. Poverty isn’t noble, and it should never, ever be celebrated, but what it does do is create the perfect conditions for hip-hop to explode.
“Out of struggle and out of difficulties, you sometimes get the best music,” PyInfamous says. “Some of my favourite singers right now – Corinne Bailey Rae, Adele – all that heartbreak drives them to make really good music. Inner turmoil and struggle – we have something like that here.”
In 2009, a North Carolina-based academic, Ali Coleen Neff, wrote a book called Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story
. The book neatly broke down some of the other issues Mississippi rappers have faced. One of the biggest problems, she says, is finding a space to record: to take those scribbled lyrics rhymes and actually lay them down.
“It’s hard when you don’t have access to a recording studio,” Neff says. “It’s hard to imagine me here in my college town, with my laptop, talking to people who are like: ‘Oh my God, you have a computer?’ But in [small towns] people don’t have access to the technology.”
The successful artists coming out of Mississippi have flipped the problems and turned them into opportunities. Big K.R.I.T. (real name Justin Scott) comes from Meridian, which though bigger than Crystal Springs faces the same kinds of problems. He made headlines with his excellent K.R.I.T. Wuz Here
mixtape, and last year he released his Def Jam debut, Live from the Underground
, an album recognised by Spin magazine as one of the year’s best.
“It’s so hard to make noise coming from a small town, that by the time you start branding yourself, you’ve grown in a certain way,” he says. “There’s no real network, and every city in Mississippi
is so spread out, so it isn’t easy to drive around and pass out CDs. So when an artist from Natchez or Gold Coast or Meridian breaks out, they already know exactly what kind of artist they want to be. The grind and the hustle is just so adamant.”
Mississippi is still one of the states where racism can still rear its ugly head. It’s less of a problem than it might have been once, but it’s still something the state’s rap artists have to deal with. They do it by celebrating the good, not just exploring the bad, and in showing pride in where they come from. Sure, there’s poverty and boredom and discrimination, but the artists who come from these small towns say they see something else: the sense of community and the camaraderie of a place where everybody knows everybody, and everybody faces the same struggles.
“People have a lot of [misconceptions] about what it’s like now,” Big K.R.I.T. says. “But where I’m from, if someone doesn’t like you for your race or religion or whatever, you know it. They don’t hide nothing. You know not to affiliate yourself with them. Other places, people may not like you, but they’ll still smile in your face. Where I’m from is humble, and people are mad appreciative of what they have.”
Jade Harris, who performs as Tha Joker
, agrees. The 18-year-old MC comes from Kosciusko, a town of around 7,000 people. It’s slap-bang in the middle of nowhere, 80 miles north of Jackson. But Harris hasn’t let that stop him – he has managed to amass more than 26m views on YouTube
“It’s a very small town,” he says of Kosciusko. “Everybody knows everybody, and a lot of people don’t know nothing but that. It’s very downtrodden. It’s not a big city like New York or LA, but we have our own roots. People are nicer to each other. The sound of the music has gotten better over the years, and people have been getting more creative.”
There’s something else. It’s very tempting to make a direct connection between the rap coming out of these small towns, and the blues. They spring from the same places, geographically. And if Mississippi gave the world the blues, it would seem almost poetic that hip-hop – which the blues helped build – would come full circle back to its birthplace.
Tempting, but not necessarily right. There are lines between blues and Mississippi hip-hop, but they’re meandering, and very thin. “To say, this person is talking rapidly in rhyme so obviously there’s a connection to southern blues, I think that’s really facile,” Neff says. “I don’t think that respects the complexity of the genre.”
PyInfamous agrees. “It’s not like someone gets inspired to rap by listening to the blues. I think it’s the fact that blues and even further back than that with spirituals and slave songs: they were for a way for individuals to communicate with one another or just to express what was going on. That’s where the blues originated from – a lot of that is the same in hip-hop: frustration in where I am, or talking about the things I want that I can’t attain at this point.”
Beatmakers tend to steer clear of old blues records, which don’t lend themselves well to sampling. That isn’t to say that modern blues and hip-hop don’t get along sometimes: Big K.R.I.T hooked up with BB King for the astounding Praying Man
. “I didn’t want it to sound like a hip-hop song,” he says. “It had to sound authentic.”
Small towns don’t retain their talent. PyInfamous didn’t stay in Crystal Springs. He lives in Jackson now. Big K.R.I.T spends much of his time in Atlanta. Tha Joker travels around the US, bringing his club-friendly rap to audiences a world apart from Kosciusko.
But in a way, it doesn’t matter. Because the gas stations still stand. There are still young rappers who hang out there, with their car doors open and smoke hanging in the air. And now, they aren’t just listening to Nas and Rakim and Outkast. They’re listening to PyInfamous, Big K.R.I.T, Tito Lopez and Tha Joker as well.