Matson on Music
Book review: "Dirty South" by Ben Westhoff
Posted by Andrew Matson
Even if you only barely recognize the names in the full title — "Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop" (Chicago Review Press) — you can still understand and enjoy Ben Westhoff's new book.
There's a gonzo appeal to his experience of being in a clothes-on "strip club" with slow-rolling Houston rapper Trae, dollars fluttering through the air, unsure whether or not to pick one up off the ground.
You feel Westhoff's confusion again in an office with young dance-craze YouTube star Soulja Boy, who between bites of McDonald's claims to have one million dollars in his briefcase.
In these moments you get a bigger picture — the intricate rules and culture of Houston hip-hop, the flash-fame of Internet stardom — with Westhoff openly learning as he writes, a rap scholar who's not afraid to be disoriented.
The biggest picture, of course, is that southern rap has been at the top of the American charts for around a decade now. But that will wane, says Westhoff, and the steps to how we got there, what southern hip-hop was and is, must be recorded.
Each chapter has its own bigger picture. In the one about oddball producers Timbaland and the Neptunes — known for tech-y, willfully strange rap and R&B hits — we learn about the blank cultural wash of Virginia Beach, where Timbaland and the Neptunes' Pharrell were in a teenage group called Surrounded by Idiots.
We get different scenes in Port Arthur, Texas, home of UGK (Underground Kingz), who married Oakland hustler lore with Texas twang. In St. Louis, Missouri, we see a see a party-hardy scene that blew up nationally and then shrunk back to nothingness — not southern rap geographically, but stylewise. A dark feeling creeps into the Houston chapters, with the present-day late-night strip club scene, and Westhoff's considerable time spent detailing the '80s and '90s career of reality-rappers Geto Boys, masters of macabre storytelling. Atlanta comes across insanely broad, with Lil Jon's upper-middle-class upbringing factoring into his status as a crunk socialite, and his call-and-response music that's not low brow so much as no brow, all about shapes of sounds and instincts of club-goers. It's opposite music to Outkast and Goodie Mob, who Westhoff calls "George Clinton-style extraterrestrials," and whose music "confronts lies of American history and the persecution of African Americans, often in a surreal way."
The underlying story of "Dirty South" is Westhoff's discussion of how maligned southern hip-hop is by coastal elites, both critics and other rap artists. The same case is made against contemporary country music — it's full of stereotypes that make Southerners look bad, and has a dumbing-down effect on America.
He dismisses this in the closing chapter, which starts with a discussion of oft-jailed mumble-mouthed rapper Gucci Mane, and ends comparing southern rap to the Delta blues:
"The prevailing notion is that hip-hop should — nay, must — be about something bigger than self-expression or having fun. But who came up with this? Overeducated men, mainly, those who have traded in their baseball cards and Dungeons and Dragons sets for golden-era music and would rather sit at home with their vinyl than go out and party in a coeducational fashion."
It seems bit ironic for Westhoff to end his book by saying southern rap shouldn't be overthought — a book is overthinking, pretty much. But "Dirty South" thinks just hard enough, explaining everything around the music in greater detail than the music itself, which really ought to be listened to.
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