In the 1990s, it was nearly impossible to be tuned in to popular culture and not know that a deadly war was going on between east and west coast rappers. This feud led directly to the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. Now, when it seems like all is right in the world of hip-hop (short of your standard boasts and disses), Ben Westhoff’s new book The Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop (Chicago Review Press) introduces a new, lesser-known clash between the north and south that has been bubbling under the cultural surface for years. Westoff describes this rivalry as “less blood feud than ideological battle and culture clash.” Westhoff, a St. Paul native and music editor of LA Weekly, has written a book that is equal parts academic work, travelogue, and music reporting.
It begins with the southern act Ms. Peachez, whose video for “Fry that Chicken” has caused uproar in the hip-hop community. Jabari Asim, an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post, likened Ms. Peachez to “Aunt Jemima off her meds,” saying that the music video “engages—no embraces—racial stereo types,” and continued on to say, “it is the stuff of nightmares.” Conversely, Kelefa Sanneh, a writer for The New Yorker, insists that “Fry that Chicken” is “very clearly a novelty and a parody.” Westhoff, however, isn’t so sure. Hoping to gain insight into the music video that launched a thousand (actually, more like thousands of) YouTube comments, he proceeds to track down Nelson Boyd, the man who plays Ms. Peachez, and his recording crew at Millenia Records in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Even without the apparent offenses of Ms. Peachez, rappers like Nas have made claims that southern rap—including artists like Lil Wayne, Lil John, Chamillionaire, and Gucci Mane—is bad for the industry. Westhoff writes,“In 2009 [Nas] took a swipe at the alleged minstrel MCs, via an ostensible public service announcement known as ‘Eat That Watermelon.’” After a brief description of the video, he concludes “only higher production values—and a weak bit of self-awareness—seem to separate it from ‘Fry That Chicken.’” After setting up the (heretofore unknown to this writer) argument that southern groups are “minstrel” acts that set out to entertain white audiences, Westhoff doesn’t spend many of his own words arguing against this accusation. Rather, he tours the south, visiting the hometowns of various southern all-stars talking to as many artists as he possibly can, allowing their words and experiences to explain the drama.
After chapters and chapters detailing the various journeys to (or near) fame, the sub-textual conclusion seems to be that southern rap is still rap, with issues to discuss and phrases to be turned. What does Westhoff think about the subject after his experiences? Though he “admit[s] that not all southern rappers are forward-thinking…the genre has been tremendously adept at giving people what they want. It has reshaped the idea of what it means to be hip-hop artists and businessmen, and may just have saved the genre from obsolescence.” His final point is this: “[Southern rap] certainly speaks to me; its vivacity brings me a joy that I don’t get from other styles. Sure, it’s sometimes nonsensical, sometimes preposterous, but it’s always unpretentious and always concerned with hitting your pleasure centers. If music can have a more important raison d’être than that, I don’t know what it is.”
While the book can be pretty heavy at times and the retellings of tragic experiences in some artists lives can wear on the soul, Dirty South is packed with plenty of hilarious moments—like Westhoff’s experience partying with Luke Campbell of 2 Live Crew—and replete with fantastic quotes from Lil Wayne. Westhoff has tapped into a cultural wellspring with this book, leaving me almost stunned with information overload at the end of every chapter. A very entertaining, enlightening work, this is a book you should own if you’re even slightly interested in contemporary American cultural history.