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The Rise & Fall of the Southern Rap Empire

Posted by Keith Freund On August - 28 - 20094 COMMENTS

atlanta-skyline-3From 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.


Key Songs


“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


atlanta-capRight 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.

tiFrom “ill” to “trill,” buzz words have been a mainstay in hip hop culture since its inception, used to associate one’s self with a particular scene or movement. A few years ago, using the word “crunk” in a lyric served as an automatic association with the South while “hyphey” was code for California (specifically the Bay Area). As a rapper, buzzwords can either earn you street cred or date your work and career.


Snoop Dogg is the perfect case study on the benefits of buzz words. Like T-Pain with his Auto-Tune, “izzle” became Snoop’s brand, one which was so heavily copied and referenced that it elevated his status above and beyond his “Gin N’ Juice” days (via imitation being the highest form of flattery).*


While the term “swagger” is not technnically new to hip hop, it has only recently become a movement, turning the game on its head and defining what it means to be cool in 2009. “Swagga Like Us,” a hit collaboration between the four hottest** rappers in the game: Kanye West, TI, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne. It’s the closest thing to a “super group” rap music has seen thus far. Because of this, everything in the song becomes significant automatically.


There are a number of notable musical devices used in this song***, but what struck me most was the word swagger itself. Dope, fire, fly,… Those terms have all been more or less meaningless, merely synonyms for “cool.” But swagger calls to mind a very specific brand of cool. Swagger is classy. Sophisticated. Timeless. Those who possess swagger stay in control no matter the situation.

Sinatra: the original king of swagg.

Sinatra: The original Sultan of Swag.


I’ve heard some rappers imply that people can have all different ‘types of swag,’ but this article refers to classic Swag, the real deal, of which TI is the archetype. It’s not hard to imagine that TI had Sinatra in mind when crafting his his image.

“A person with swagger is classy, stylish, confident, above the fray, perhaps a bit aloof.”

-TI

Keri Hilson desires a man who has his “swagger right.” Mike Jones isn’t afraid to go pop for a woman with “Swag Through The Roof.” But as with anything that blows up quickly, its popularity could be its downfall…


The Death of Swag?


Several weeks ago, there was an internet uproar when CNN did a segment on Obama’s “swagga” (thank you, CNN for the ‘authentic’ spelling). Ehow.com now has instructions on how to “turn [one’s] swag on” (see: “Turn My Swag On” by Soulja Boy). But swag started going down hill long before CNN caught wind of it.


I consider myself a connoisseur of pop music. Give me the dirtiest, most superficial, mindless morsels of sugary pop goodnesss and I’ll devour them in one bite. But every now and then a song comes along that is just so utterly baffling that I have to stop myself. I’m going to go against popular opinion here and put myself out there: “Swagg Surfin”? Really? Is this serious? “I SWAGG WHEN I SURF NOW WATCH ME SURF N SWAGG”? I practically had a heart attack when I heard this song for the first time. Swagg Surfin is beyond me. Maybe it’s the fake horns, maybe it’s the laughable dance, but I will not allow myself to like this song. Swagg Surfin is the new Laffy Taffy. Take a look:



The funny thing is, I’ve listened to Swagg Surfin so many times now (in an attempt to wrap my head around it) that I actually enjoy the song now. While it’s been all over Atlanta radio for a while now, a lack of a Wikipedia page leads to me to believe F.L.Y. and their Song-Dance has yet to make it out of the South.


So what does it all mean? Is swagger signaling a more mature direction for rap, a response to increasing social awareness from the 2008 presidential election? Has the younger generation decided to “turn (their collective swag) on and tune in?” Can you think of more rap buzz words? Comment with your favorites.


Download Swagga Like Us on Amazon MP3.


*Of course, today all but the dorkiest of middle-class white kids are tired and unamused by izzle references, including Snoop himself I’m sure.


**Young Jeezy is certainly up there, but his latest album didn’t do so well (though I’m a huge fan of “Put On” and “Vacation”) and he is branded as a cocaine dealer (“the snowman”), which is problematic for him because rap has turned away from gangster rap in favor of party/club music. At this time two years ago, every rap client put down Young Jeezy as a reference on our Fix Your Mix Submission Form but now it’s all Swagg Surf or TI.


***This song also struck me because it was on the iTunes Top 10 at the same time as the song its beat was sampled from, which demonstrates another trend, Sampling Stuff That Isn’t Old. Other songwriting devices used in “Swagga Like Us” include Phrygian mode and a driving kick drum pattern



Claps & Snaps: The Death of the Snare Drum (TrendWatch)

Posted by Keith Freund On March - 27 - 20092 COMMENTS

Not exactly breaking news, but humor me: scan the Billboard Hip Hop chart and you’ll see that it is hard to find a rap song with a snare drum on the back beat. Why?


tombstoneLet’s go back to the late 90s for a moment. From groups like OutKast, No Limit Soldiers (Master P, Mystikal), and Cash Money Millionaires (Juvenile, Birdman) sprung a new era of southern music which began to seep into America’s collective consciousness. Still, with artists like Eminem, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and 50 Cent (and production teams like Neptunes and Timbaland), it would be another half a decade or so before the South virtually became Top 40 rap.


Growing up in Atlanta, I had a somewhat distorted view of the influence of southern rap. In fact, just the other day I was discussing this very topic with a well-known East Coast rap mixer and discovered that songs like “Back That Azz Up” didn’t have the nearly the impact on the national level that they did in Georgia. In fact, he said that Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass” was the song that, for him, signaled the entrance of southern music into the mainstream.


Crunk JuiceThe south officially became mainstream with the Crunk movement, which is when all the clapping and snapping started. For me, the turning point was when “Get Low” came out and Lil Jon became The Face of Crunk on the national and international levels.


Which brings us back to the initial question: Why? While the actual reason probably has something to do with tools available, the whims of producers, and the butterfly effect…

A clap or snap provides two distinct advantages over a snare drum (1) It leaves room for other elements in the mix (does not compete with the vocal) and (2) provides a human element.


As Phil pointed out in a previous post, when it comes to a mix, in order for something to be big, something else has to be small. While it may seem that layers upon layers of sounds would lead to a bigger mix, it also leads to a smaller vocal, smaller drums, smaller bass. When you’ve only got a clap, an 808, and a vocal, each of those elements can be huge. Unlike the epic snare drums that typify the rock idiom, claps are humble, unassuming, and fun.


Many people simply do not enjoy instrumental music because there is nothing human to connect with. They need a lead vocal to connect with the song. To a lesser extent, claps and snaps serve as this same kind of human element. (If I really wanted to get academic about this, I could relate this to the call-and-response aesthetic seen in traditional African music… but I’ll abstain.)


Slowly but surely, Crunk has split off into two genres which are in effect today:


“Snap Music”


The first branch is known as snap music. In my mind, snap music is the only authentically southern rap around because it is still exclusively being made in the South (in other words Kanye isn’t stealing it). Here are its signature characteristics, in order of importance:

  • A single-note bassline (no chord progression)
  • Sparse arrangements
  • 808 kick sound
  • Monophonic, short, riff-based melodic elements
  • Snaps on beats 2 and 4
  • Fruity Loops-esque synth patches
  • Syncopated snare-fills

Snap music is a little less produced than everything else on the radio. I’m talking Yung Joc, I’m talking Soulja Boy, hell, I’m talking “Laffy Taffy”:



Perhaps even more importantly, it’s a lot more convenient to snap while dancing than to clap (not to mention cooler-looking).


Mainstream Rap


The other branch is what I would simply call mainstream rap: your Lil Waynes, your T-Pains, your TIs. This style is characterized by the following:

  • Auto-Tune/choruses with singing
  • Claps on beats 2 and 4
  • 808s, either supplementing or serving as the kick sound
  • A melodic bassline (in other words, there is an actual chord progression)
  • Futuristic, techno-like synth patches

This form of southern rap is so far-reaching that virtually every Top 40 artist uses claps, from New York to New Orleans.


Next time you’re composing a track, remember that the samples you use play an enormous role in defining that song’s style and determines the demographic to which your music appeals.


*Note: There are several notable exceptions to this rule right now:


One is Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It,” which utilizes a combination of both a clap and a snare on beats 2 and 4. The tune has reached #6 on iTunes and #1 on the Billboard Hip-Hop chart.


TI’s “Live Your Life” feat. Rihanna uses a snare on the backbeat, but it has a syncopated snare pattern too, which gives the song a kind of majestic, almost military band sound.


Perhaps the most complete exception is “Swagga Like Us,” with only a snare on beats 2 and 4. This choice was undoubtedly very conscious–because of the gravity of this collaboration, they were able to use an unusual instrumental and be perceived as innovative rather than out of touch. I think that it was inspired by the movie Drumline based on the feel established by the kick drum pattern.

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