From crunk to snap music, Southern rap has reigned supreme over the charts for the last half decade. When ATL stole the crown from NYC as the Mecca of hip hop, aspiring rappers and producers made the pilgrimage from all over to find a better, more trill existence. (Most would fail upon realizing it’s not enough to simply rhyme ‘grind’ with ‘shine’ as many times as possible.) After everything Lil Jon and TI did for Atlanta’s growth, the Georgia Department of Tourism should write them monthly checks.
For my fellow Atlanta natives, I should point out that what old school ATLiens may think of as Southern rap is not really what I’m talking about in this article. The OutKasts and Goodie Mobs of yore are not what made the Atlanta Braves hat the new Yankees cap. What I’m talking about here is a little more, well… basic. Let’s have a look:
Characteristics of (Mid-2000s Era) Southern Rap
- Party-oriented lyrical themes including sex, alcohol, dancing, strippers, and nightclub activity (a shift away from violent or macho ‘street’ lyrics of 90s rap)
- 808 kicks
- Claps & snaps on the backbeat (more on this: Claps & Snaps: The Death of the Snare Drum)
- Single note or nonexistent basslines
- Slower tempos (70-78 BPM)
- Synth-based instrumentation (versus sample-based)
Pop music is often scoffed at and generally regarded as simple by music buffs, but obviously these music buffs have never gotten their swerve on at The Cheetah. Simplicity works especially well in club settings. The reason behind this can be explained using a maxim that (FYM blog cowriter) Phil first posited to me many years ago, which is that in order for something to be big, something else must also be small. Put another way:
The less stuff you have in a mix, the bigger each individual thing can be.
And of course in rap music the quest is always for tighter and deeper low end, whether that be a kick drum or bassline. An 808 kick sound is special because it’s somewhere in between the two in terms of its role. The drawback is that an 808 is so deep that it usually cannot be heard on smaller speakers and headphones that do not produce sub-bass frequencies. The benefit is you don’t have two instruments competing for that all-important frequency range where a mix can easily get cluttered. When the only other stuff you’ve got going on is a snap, vocal, and single-note synth line, huge low end is in the cards. The result is a hypnotic (post-apocalyptic?) dance sound that can be baffling to the uninitiated but works like magic in clubs because of their better low end reproduction capabilities.
“It’s Goin Down” – Yung Joc
“Get Low” – Lil Jon feat. Ying Yang Twins
“Yeah” – Usher feat. Lil Jon
“Crank That” – Souja Boy Tell Em
“Laffy Taffy“* – D4L
Today, it’s hard to say that Atlanta is still the international capital of rap. Over the years, rap has traveled back and forth from East Coast (actually the Northeast) to West Coast, and eventually to the South. With collaborations between people like Kanye and Young Jeezy, you could say we’re overdue for a shift back towards the East Coast sound. But history rarely repeats itself so directly.** No, I believe Top 40 rap is taking a step in a macro direction: away from regional sounds and towards pop crossover.
The Decline of the Southern Rap Empire
Right now, we are in the middle of a shift. The South isn’t dead yet–many of its calling cards and idiosyncrasies are still in effect. But hip-hop is shifting away not just from the South but regional sounds altogether, with even the hardest, street-est rappers going in a homogeneous pop direction (blame it on the Goose economy). Contrary to what Jay-Z wants you to believe, things are not going back to the New York sound. Here is the current state of affairs:
- There’s no doubt the snare drum is making a comeback, particularly syncopated patterns and rimshots (see: Drake’s latest “Forever” feat. Lil Wayne, Kanye, & Eminem).
- Basslines are now back in full force but are often used in conjunction with 808s. This was one of my main qualms with crunk and snap music; a bassline is what gives a song its soul.
- Arrangements are becoming more dense and musical.
- Auto-Tuned, sung choruses are taking the place of repetitive chant hooks.
- Examples: “Fire Burning” by Sean Kingston and “Blame It” by Jamie Foxx feat. T-Pain
Am I missing anything? I want your input on what typifies the Southern rap genre and where music is headed.*** With a new president and the turn of the decade steadily approaching, music almost certainly has more surprises in store for us and I’ll be reporting live from the trenches every step of the way.
*This song is bewildering even to me.
**I believe I’m paraphrasing Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond but I’m not entirely sure.
***Many of the changes listed in this article also reflect the return of R&B, but that’s a story for another day.