Interscope inked a deal with 16-year old Chicago rapper Chief Keef earlier this month, after the buzzy MC — who also signed a publishing deal with Dr. Dre — flirted with offers from Cash Money and Grand Hustle.
This signing adds an interesting piece to Jimmy Iovine’s roster, but the deal also continues a significant trend in hip-hop. The first generation of rappers to grow up during the South’s stranglehold on national airwaves are coming of age and the music they’re creating oozes the influence of the region, despite being made all over the map.
Take an artist like A$AP Rocky. The 23-year old Harlem native combines a flow that would make you believe he was from Texas. It’s all about exposure. Twenty-five year-old Meek Mill has had consistent success with his MMG label but the music the Philadelphia native has a southern touch that goes beyond just Rick Ross’ obvious influence. Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa often cites Memphis’ own Juicy J’s influence on his music.
You could argue that what these rappers are doing isn’t sonically unique but they’ve only cemented the fact that the ubiquitous sound of the South is the new standard. Their music represents an evolved version of what we heard from artists like T.I., Lil’ Jon, Three 6 Mafia and others have been doing for over a decade. Maintaining the edge and grit that’s been there, they’ve managed to add layers to what was, at first, a fairly simple formula.
Don’t think older MCs haven’t noticed. You’ve got southern rappers like T.I. dubbing Chief Keef the voice of youth in America and savvy veterans from the North like Jadakiss putting out music that breaks out of their geographical, and sometimes lyrical, comfort zone in an attempt to stay current. We’ve seen others make the Gangsta Grillz mixtape leap, including megastar 50 Cent and even underground group, Dead Prez. Jay-Z is far from new to this. The hip-hop mogul has made a career out of being affiliated with what’s current in music and has been making records with southern artists for decades.
What’s interesting to watch with the current crop of artists cashing in on their southern exposure is how many have mimicked the underground and independent spirit of the labels like No Limit and Cash Money. Every crew seems to be a record imprint. They’re not above big label money but are still putting a distinct stamp on their music that’s instantly recognizable.
The independent and Internet component can’t be overlooked. Many of these artists have lourished before signing label deals because they learned a thing or two from Cash Money/Young Money and even Soulja Boy. They’ve figured out a business models that give them the mainstream exposure they need but which also allow a rabid underground following online.
Let’s face it, kids who had “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” play at their prom are out of college now. The musical landscape they came of age in stands in stark contrast to the hip-hop older fans’ era. As far as they know, the South’s radio dominance is normal and its staying power — from crunk, to snap-and-pop, and even trap music speaks volumes.
So what does the future hold? With Nicki Minaj aligning herself with Southern stars and reaching a decidedly broader audience, New York hasn’t presented a significant threat outside of 50 Cent, who’s watched his hip-hop star fade in recent years.
The West Coast is primed for an explosion of their own, behind the offspring of the G-Funk era. Artists like Kendrick Lamar and Dom Kennedy are coming of age and making music that is true to their backgrounds.
Before purists run to the few record stores left and start stocking classic vinyl for the hip-hop apocalypse, there’s hope. The sound most people grew up with still exists but even if its taken on a southern spin. In the digital era, it wasn’t hard for someone like Drake to have stumbled across beats by North Carolina-based Grammy Award winner 9th Wonder and feel inspired.
The South continually proves to be more hip-hop than one could have ever expected. The popular wisdom five years ago was that the sound was due to fade, but now everyone’s wondering how they can profit from a little southern flavor. The world may not be eating grits or picking Bojangles over Popeye’s just yet, but musically they’re all in.
Follow Mike McCray on twitter at @yomike