Hip Hop Infiltrates Nashville Through Soundland 2011

This weekend downtown Nashville is buzzing from Soundland, a four day musical event in its sixth year that features over 100 bands, including Americana stalwarts Justin Townes Earle, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Those Darlins, and Lydia Loveless. Soundland has always been more about featuring the music that does not fit into the typical Nashville “country” mold, but this year, as pointed out in this American Songwriter article, it is the first year that hip-hop artists are being featured prominently in Soundland’s selection for headliners and undercard acts.

Yelawolf - One of Soundlan's 2011 Hip-Hop Performers

Though American Songwriter does a great job highlighting the hip-hop acts slated to play, what they don’t highlight is the country/Americana and indie rock acts that are not in the lineup because of the directed addition of hip-hop artists. In an all-too-present and predictable manner, as soon as a festival built from the blood and sweat of roots and indie acts gets its feet under itself, the flavor of the whole event changes to satisfy the monetary demands of corporate sponsors. As said in the American Songwriter piece more eloquently that I could: “It’s the first year in NBN/SoundLand’s six year history, that hip hop is holding it’s own with the indie rock and Americana that have built the festival.”

One of the big hip hop acts playing Soundland is Big K.R.I.T., who in many ways is the hip-hop counterpart to the Jason Aldean/Colt Ford/Brantley Gilbert team. Just as “Dirt Road Anthem” has made inroads for hip-hop in the country genre, Big K.R.I.T.’s “Country Shit” has taken the country checklist formula, and introduced it to the rap world. Featuring hip-hop acts in the heart of country music’s home, Soundland makes a good bid for being the crossroads for the mono-genre.

And some of the rhetoric coming from the press coverage of the festival and how it attempts to draw parallels between Music City’s country roots and hip hop are laughable. That same American Songwriter article states:

There’s a work ethic, strident independence and spirit of pop-experimentalism that hasn’t been seen in this city since the days of Chet Atkins and the rise of the original Nashville Sound, a sound that not incidentally also had to fight an uphill battle for legitimacy and respect.

Excuse me? Chet Atkins, The Nashville Sound, and RCA’s Studio B, which Chet was in charge of, was the epicenter of the Nashville establishment for a generation, and the death of experimentalism in Nashville, if not the death of country music as a whole. It was the result of heavy-handed requirements being dictated by executives in New York to control every aspect of music from it’s songwriting inception to the vinyl pressing.

As rural art forms that have been around for generations, country and folk music have a long history of joining forces to create infrastructure to help support music, principally in festival gatherings, some that have been going on for many years, and some that have reached into urban zones. As an urban art form, and one that is only a few decades old, hip-hop is devoid of the long-standing festival infrastructure roots music enjoys. And as the corporate music world continues to crumble and is able to support fewer artists, while capital and infrastructure to develop upcoming acts continues to contract, hip-hop and indie rock bands have been flocking to traditional roots festivals for support.

And the festivals, many corporate owned or sponsored, diversify their lineups to appeal to the masses, as promoter demands necessitate them needing to increase attendance and profits each year, regardless of sustainability, or the roots or focus the festival had at its inception, and many times, at the detriment of the sound or the acts or the patrons or the grassroots organizations and efforts that made the festival worth taking over in the first place. Bonaroo started out catering to jam bands, a fact that would be lost while looking at this year’s lineup. Austin City Limits started out to chronicalize and promote local Austin bands. The ACL Fest headliners this year were Coldplay and Kanye West.

I am glad hip hop is gaining a foothold in Music City, and Nashville will benefit from that diversity, and hip hop deserves infrastructure to support and develop upcoming talent. But it shouldn’t be garnered at the expense of the folks that built that infrastructure.