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You can call it country rap, or you call it hick hop (and some call it other things that are not so flattering), but a new company wants to coin the definitive term of what to call music that mixes country, rap, EDM, rock, and the rebellious culture of monster trucks and muddin’ that surrounds the movement. RebelCore is what they want it to be known as, and they are going to great lengths to make that the accepted term for the genre bending music, signing artists to a management company, promoting themselves through an upcoming clothing line, and potentially partnering with labels to make RebelCore the accepted term of the masses for country rap and all that comes with it.
Though the movement appears to be still in the early stages, plans for an association similar to the CMA or the Americana Music Association are part of their goals in an attempt to make RebelCore a “‘genre of music’ that represents artists, fans, and individuals in rap, rock, and EDM mixed with country.” According to iamrebelcore.com, the movement was started by two men, Chris James and Daniel “Gray” Creach “in partnership with MMG, Sound Kontrol, and Blu Ink Entertainment.”
According to Daniel “Gray” Creach, “As a country boy, born and raised in the south, the word ‘hick, redneck or hillbilly’ was always somewhat of a put down or when joking on each other. As a huge fan of this music and an artist myself, I’ve always felt ‘hick-hop’ was a very childish term and did not describe the true nature of this music. This music is rebellious to it’s core, revolutionary, and out of the box and I think the term RebelCore encompasses that. Ask most of your true country hip hop artists and they will tell you they personally hate that name ‘hick-hop’ for their genre but have had to just go with it because that is what the media decided they would refer to it as. I feel that the genre RebelCore will give the country hip-hop artist a new home, a new space to reside in. A place where the music they put they’re heart and soul into can be taken seriously and not feel embarrassed by a term that doesn’t describe the true rebellious, against the grain nature of country hip-hop!”
RebelCore at the moment has a management company that has signed multiple artists including one act called Psycho Billy Cadillac, and they plan to make their presence known as part of the CMA Fan Fest coming up the first week of June by launching their Rebel Core clothing line at the event. Their overall plan appears to be to unite the disparate terms and scenes that exist in country rap under a common cause and term.
Beyond the country rap songs of some of mainstream country’s biggest stars, the cross-genre movement has a massive grassroots network and many loyal fans, especially in rural locales across the country. Sometimes even without label representation or promotional budgets, country rap videos from artists like Big Smo, The Jawga Boyz, and The Moonshine Bandits regularly get hits in the millions from the sheer number of loyal fans of the music.
The music also fits seamlessly with much of the rural muddin’ and truck racing culture, illustrated recently when the largest label for country rap, Colt Ford’s Average Joe’s Entertainment whose roster includes the LoCash Cowboys, Bubba Sparxxx, and many more, partnered with the “Mega Truck” racing series. “We have always shared a common lifestyle fan base,” Average Joes CEO Shannon Houchins told The Tennessean. “This deal allows us to maximize the overall fan experience with a combination of big truck races and music as well as create bigger and better on-site marketing opportunities for our sponsors.”
The Average Joe’s truck partnership, just like RebelCore, once again emphasize that in 2014, entities in and around country music are betting big on the future of the genre, and are looking for dance partners and cross-platform collaborators to create empires and shore up their stake in the music.
In 2011, when Jason Aldean’s country rap song “Dirt Road Anthem” became the best selling song in all of country music, the genre’s impending dalliance with rap was ordained. Though the sub genre had been brewing under the surface for many years, and quite successfully for some acts, it had now hit it big, and it was only a matter of time before you would see country music’s top performers experiment with the genre bending style.
When “Dirt Road Anthem” hit, artists like Cowboy Troy and “Dirt Road Anthem” co-writer Colt Ford had already made successful careers out of country rap for years, despite not being able to rise to the level of mainstream radio acceptance. There were many other acts doing very well at the club level with country rap, like The Moonshine Bandits, Bubba Sparxxx, and The Lacs. Country rap even had much of its own infrastructure, and despite the suspicion it was eyed with from the mainstream, most country rap acts were able to post videos and get views in the millions, Wal-Mart was stocking hick hop on their shelves, while labels like Average Joes, started by Colt Ford, offered material support to some of the bigger country rap acts.
When Music Row decided rap was its future and a potential vehicle to drive the genre out of the malaise it suffered with the rest of music in the decade of the oughts, there were a number of ways the influence could be integrated into the genre. Major labels could sign or otherwise champion already-established country rap acts like Colt Ford and The Moonshine Bandits. Or they could try to impose the new style with already-established mainstream stars who had proven they were palatable with the American public. The latter is the path country rap eventually took. Despite the success of “Dirt Road Anthem,” the song had fought an uphill battle on radio itself. Programmers were suspicious of country rap, and artists like Tim McGraw and Blake Shelton who would later release their own country rap songs, were a known quantity and already under contract compared to unproven talent like Bubba Sparxxx or The Lacs.
But 2012 came, and it was mostly quiet on the country rap front from a mainstream standpoint. As Saving Country Music pointed out in the story Mono-Genre Watch: 2012 End-Of-Year Sales,
2012 did not see either a dominant country-rap single, album, or artist. Rap is still asserting itself as an influence in country, but may not be finding the commercial strength it needs to stick. 2012 mono-genre songs like Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah” underperformed to expectations, never cracking Billboard’s Top 10 on the country chart.
But Music Row is notoriously 18 months behind the relevancy cycle. “Dirt Road Anthem” had taken the industry by surprise, and it took over a year for country’s major labels to retool to the new country rap reality. Then by 2013, country rap came out in full force, with virtually all of mainstream country’s big male stars releasing rap/country songs. Reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year Blake Shelton released “Boys ‘Round Here” to a #2 chart showing and double platinum sales. ACM Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan released country rap “That’s My Kind of Night” that spent a whopping twelve weeks at #1, and was the song to finally depose another country rap-inspired single “Cruise” by upstart Florida Georgia Line that became the longest-running #1 song in the history of country music.
But 2014 has been a different story already. Whereas 2013 seemed to be dominated by country rap singles, 2014 has so far been the story of EDM, or Electronic Dance Music. Though EDM and hip hop can sometimes be mistaken for each other, especially to the country consumer’s ear and because the two disciplines have numerous similarities (use of electronic beats, sampling, and rapping instead of singing in some instances), there are also many clear differences between the two disciplines.
When Jerrod Niemann released his single “Drink To That All Night” in the second half of 2013, country music’s EDM cherry had been popped, and it seemed to be a harbinger for things to come in the country format. Interestingly the single underperformed in most of 2013, but has been creeping up the charts in early 2014, reaching its highest chart ranking in the last week of February. Though the argument can be made that Jerrod Niemann is still rapping instead of singing, “Drink To That All Night” is full of EDM earmarks: the heavily Auto-tuned electronic-sounding vocals, the digitized beats, and most-importantly the emphasis on perfectitude in the music as opposed to the fallibility of a live, traditional band lineup playing real instruments, reinforced in the video of the song that heavily refers to the EDM/dance club culture instead of the country honky tonk.
Many of the lead singles from country music’s big 2014 album releases from male artists lean heavily towards EDM influences, most notably Tim McGraw’s “Lookin’ For That Girl” with it’s heavily-digitized vocal track and electronic beat bed. Rascal Flatt’s “Rewind” incorporates many EDM elements. And Brantley Gilbert, one of the other co-writers of “Dirt Road Anthem,” his latest single “Bottoms Up” sounds much less like a country rap, and more like a country/EDM effort with more melody to the vocals, and the signature electronic drum bed and digitization of instrumentation.
First, don’t count country rap out. There are certainly more country rap singles from big, mainstream country artists in the pipeline that we’re likely to hear in 2014, if they ever go away completely in the more global trend of the formation of a mono-genre. And in the independent realm, acts like The Lacs and Moonshine Bandits are likely to remain sustainable commodities.
But despite a few lucrative singles, country rap was very hit and miss in the mainstream. The aforementioned “Truck Yeah” by Tim McGraw seemed like an unfortunate career move. Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” followup called “1994″ was a general flop in comparison, stalling in the charts despite a heavy push behind the song. Brad Paisley’s much-ridiculed “Accidental Racist” with LL Cool J wasn’t even released as a single. In the end, mainstream country stars just didn’t make good rappers. Country music is for crooners and twang, and even though these elements are generally lacking in present-day country music anyway, this was the foundation of these singer’s discipline, and rapping never stopped feeling foreign to them, their audience, and most importantly, radio programmers.
EDM on the other hand is a “no experience required” format when it comes to singing. The purposefully heavy Auto-tuned environment allows the performer to simply hit close approximations of the melody the song is built around, and then the studio hands take over from there.
However just like with rap, country music is horrifically late when it comes to the EDM game. The argument that was made during the integration of rap into country is that country music had to evolve. What the people making that argument failed to realize is that rap was already a 30-year-old art form when it made its appearance in country’s mainstream. Similarly, many of the EDM elements we’re seeing in country—especially Auto-tuned lyrics—are already considered outmoded in most other mainstream music.
Similarly, the relevancy arch has moved on in many ways from the heavy electronic sound. An EDM act in Daft Punk dominated the Grammy Awards held in January, and they did so with a live sound. Instead of starting with electronic beats and synthesized hooks, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories featured live, human instrumentation and vocals with minimal electronic treatment. This was the formula that won them 5 Grammy Awards, including Best Album and Best Record. In the end it is not the EDM elements in country music that make it bad, just like rapping in a country song isn’t something that can be completely ruled out as a valid form of expression if it is done in a fresh, artistic way. It is the poor implementation—the awkwardness of the integration of the two influences, and the submissive pose country takes towards EDM and rap—that makes it so polarizing.
Whether it was country rap in 2013, or EDM influences in 2014, it speaks to a systemic problem with country music that the format deems itself inadequate and feels the need integrate influences from other genres to stay relevant, following instead of leading, and making excuses of why it can still be cool instead of educating the public on country music’s inherent virtues.
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If you’re a male performer in country music right now, you may no longer have a choice. If you want to see your singles and records reach the top of the charts, if you want your songs played on the radio, and if you want to be in contention for the big awards, you better add some hip hop elements into your music.
It seems almost inexplicable that this statement could be made about American country music, but when looking at the top performing songs, albums, and artists in the format, and how many of them have at least some form of the hip-hop culture embedded in their music, the statement isn’t controversial, it is conclusive. And Saving Country Music isn’t the only one pointing this out.
“You hear the hip-hop thing start kicking in, and you start going, ‘Is that what we gotta do now to have a hit? Is that what I need every one of my songs to sound like now?” says Toby Keith, who not only was the best-selling country artist from the 2000′s decade, but is the owner of the influential Show Dog Universal label, and the highest paid person in country music from his stake in multiple record companies.
Even as a top label executive, Toby is having trouble convincing his own people to push music that doesn’t include electronic beats or rapping. According to Keith, when he brings them country songs, they tell him, “Eh, it doesn’t sound like what’s going on the radio today.”
The two best-charting, biggest-selling songs of 2013 so far have been songs that lean heavily on hip-hop influences: Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” and Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night.” Both songs broke records in 2013, with “Cruise” breaking the all-time record for any country single with 23+ weeks at the #1 position, and “That’s My Kind Of Night” breaking a record for the most consecutive weeks at #1 for a solo male performer—a record held since 1966.
Currently, the #1, #2, #6, #7 songs on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart feature hip hop influences, while Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, and Tim McGraw at the #4, #5, #9 positions respectively have all had major country rap singles, including Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” that was the biggest-selling song in all of country in 2011. Three of the five nominees for both Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year for the upcoming CMA Awards have cut country rap songs.
But just because a song has hip hop influences, doesn’t make it bad. It has been the combination of country rap and the laundry list style of lyricism that has been the 1-2 punch to the integrity of the country genre, and especially the material emanating from male talent. This trend has caused a recent uproar, with many artists speaking out, including artists who have themselves participated in either the country rap or laundry list trend, including Jake Owen who recently said, “We need more songs than just songs about tailgates and fuckin’ cups and Bacardi and stuff like that,” potentially dissing Toby Keith’s hit “Red Solo Cup.” Keith was also arguably responsible for the first country rap song in the modern era when he rapped the verses in his 2001 hit “I Wanna Talk About Me.”
It may not be as much that Jake Owen and Toby Keith are being hypocritical as much as they are big stars that are expected to deliver hit singles, and they are sick and tired of chasing the current trends where there is little or no room for substance. When Keith spoke about his recent single “Hope On The Rocks” that stalled at #18 on the Country Airplay chart, he said, “…you start playing it to a twenty-something audience, and it’s like, ‘Naw, man, there ain’t no mud on that tire. That ain’t about a Budweiser can. That ain’t about a chicken dancing out by the river. That ain’t about smoking a joint by the haystack. That’s about somebody dying and shit.’”
So does that mean we can expect Toby Keith to go the country rap route? “I don’t know how to do that,” Keith explains. “I’m not going to change much. And when it quits working, I’ve got other stuff to do.” But if he doesn’t, Keith runs the risk of losing his relevancy as a mainstream country artist. That is why we’ve seen middle-aged country performers like Tim McGraw and Ronnie Dunn cut country rap songs recently, and why most of the up-and-coming country males that are making their mark are doing it through country rap.
Peer and financial pressures are making it mandatory for male country artists to start off their songs with a hip hop beat, or rap the verses to their songs, even if it is just a verse or two. Forget the stigma of trying to bring hip hop into the country format. If you’re a male country star in 2013, you can’t afford not to.
On July 4th, The Wall Street Journal posted a rather lengthy, in-depth look into The Unlikely Rise of Hick Hop. Focusing in tighter than the more broad country rap phenomenon that is gripping mainstream country music in 2013, the Journal draws parallels between the rural recreational sport of “muddin’” and the emergence of artists that use a rapping style set to country lyrical themes in a tight knit underground that doesn’t rely on traditional radio play for support. Saving Country Music has talked about many of these bands in the past like the Jawga Boys and Moonshine Bandits, and how they are able to garner tremendous loyalty from fans by using YouTube and other easily-accessible outlets, and whose fan bases have ballooned to astounding numbers in the last few years.
One of the principle purveyors of this underground hick hop is the record label Average Joe’s, which is home to artists like Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert, but also has a large barn of underground country rappers like the LoCash Cowboys and Bubba Sparxxx. Average Joe’s is on the cutting edge of marketing country rap to consumers, and doing so in an unconventional way that side steps country radio and traditional album distribution. What The Wall Street Journal piece explains is how Average Joe’s has been working very intimately with Wal-Mart to market country rap to certain areas seen as favorable to the emerging sub-genre. While physical CD sales are falling overall, Average Joe’s has been able to keep the CD alive with the help of Wal-Mart, and country rap.
It started in country’s traditional stronghold of the Southeast.
Wal-Mart started getting calls from stores across the Southeast from customers complaining that mud-themed music was only available online, said Tiffany Couch, sales director of Select-O-Hits, a division of closely held Anderson Merchandisers that Wal-Mart hires to supply its 4,000 Supercenter stores with CDs. Cautiously, she said, they began stocking several hundred Wal-Mart stores in the region with the music, waiting to make sure it sold before expanding to other locations.
But once hick hop began to take off, Average Joe’s expanded their reach across the country.
To assure Wal-Mart about its prospects for selling more mud music outside the Southeast, Average Joe’s last year showed the retailer “heat maps” drawn up by Pandora. The maps showed where Pandora users were listening to the new genre most frequently, landing the records in nearly half of Wal-Mart’s Supercenters nationwide. Average Joe’s also began using Pandora’s heat maps to route artists’ tours through unlikely areas with high fan concentrations, like Ohio, Indiana and the Pacific Northwest.
The parallel the Wall Street Journal piece does not draw is how hick hop and Wal-Mart tend to have the same demographics of poor, sometimes disadvantaged, and sometimes culturally disenfranchised white people from rural areas. For many of these consumers, whether it is because Wal-Mart is the only store in town, or because they offer cheap prices, the big box retailer has become the only retail outlet they have access to, and in turn becomes their primary interface and outlet for culture, including music. And while Wal-Mart has ceased to carry the wide swath of music that consumers used to see at traditional music stores, or at stores like Circuit City and Best Buy during the height of the CD era, the retailer has zeroed in on the hick hop market as a specialty and focus of many of their stores. Wal-Mart also tends to stock the same type of clothing and other consumables seen in hick hop videos, becoming a one stop shop for the country rap culture.
The most important takeaway from the Wall Street Journal piece might be that the emergence of country rap is multi-pronged, and highly profitable. This is not just Blake Shelton releasing one song to a mainstream audience. Hick hop, or country rap is a widespread, nationwide phenomenon spanning mainstream and underground channels alike, and now being disseminated through the world’s largest retailer to American consumers en masse.
It was November of 2008 at the annual Country Music Association Awards, and Kid Rock came out on stage to perform “All Summer Long,” a remixed rap rock song that borrows from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Warren Zevon. Never before had such a non-country genre-bending song been performed on the CMA stage, but considering Kid Rock’s strong ties to the country music industry, the performance seemed par for country’s course of slowly contemporizing away from its traditions….except for one curious thing.
Trailing Kid Rock out on the stage was hip-hop icon Lil’ Wayne. It was curious that Lil’ Wayne was there, but not completely surprising. Lil’ Wayne had performed “All Summer Long” with Kid Rock only 2 months before at MTV’s VMA Awards. But instead of rapping like he did at the VMA’s, Lil’ Wayne just sort of stood there, pretending to strum a guitar that clearly was not in the mix.
Why was Lil’ Wayne there? Nobody was quite sure, but at the time Saving Country Music surmised that this was an act of desensitization from Music Row in Nashville. Facing nearly a decade of declining sales and needing something to shake up the landscape, allowing rap to infiltrate country’s inner sanctum could be a way to grow country’s fan base, entice younger listeners, and maintain the commercial viability of the industry. The country music industry would have to warm the country fan base up to the idea first. So bring Kid Rock out, and Lil’ Wayne with him, but don’t allow anyone to rap just yet. There would be time for that down the road.
Just 2 weeks after the 2008 CMA’s, country rap king Colt Ford released his first major album Ride Through The Country, and soon small but well-supported independent country rap outfits like the LoCash Cowboys and Moonshine Bandits began to emerge, creating a substantial country rap underground that saw significant success in the YouTube realm, garnering 5 and 6 million hits on some videos despite having no initial label support, and no radio play. Country rap had already been around way before 2008, with Cowboy Troy releasing his debut album Loco Motive back in 2005, and many other independent artists dabbling with the genre blending concept years before. But Colt Ford began to open the door of acceptance for country rap in the mainstream by collaborating with country artists like Jamey Johnson, John Michael Montgomery, and Brantley Gilbert. Country rap songs were still not receiving radio play or award show accolades though. The country rap commodity was just too risque for mainstream labels and radio programmers to get behind, and it remained a very small sliver of the greater country music pie.
Then came Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” a song that initially appeared on Colt Ford’s first album and co-written with Brantley Gilbert, and everything changed. A mild-mannered song compared to most country rap, and coming from a polished Caucasian performer that the mainstream country community was already comfortable with, country rap was able to finally find it’s acceptance on the popular country radio format. In early June of 2011 at the CMT Awards hosted by Kid Rock, Jason Aldean came out to perform the quickly-rising single, and hip-hop artist Ludacris joined Aldean on stage, this time to actually rap. “History has been made baby!” Ludacris declared from the stage, and it had been. Mainstream country now had its country rap cherry officially popped, and rap was now a viable, accepted art form in country music.
And it would become a commercially successful one too when “Dirt Road Anthem” eventually hit #1 on the Billboard charts in late July of 2011. The effects of “Dirt Road Anthem” hitting #1 were significant. Radio programmers who had been reluctant to bring country rap to the airwaves for years had officially waved the white flag. At the time Saving Country Music also predicted:
Just like how you can blame a blizzard on a rash of births nine moths later, the Music Row machine undoubtedly is being retooled to meet the burgeoning country rap demand, and we will be seeing the results in the upcoming months. The only question is, in what form will it be? Will we see established artists adopting the new style? Or will it be the popularization of the Colt Fords and Moonshine Bandits of the world?
The prediction of Music Row retooling to become a assembly line for country rap was correct. What was not correct was the timeline. Apparently 9 months lead time was a little too optimistic, and after “Dirt Road Anthem” dominated the charts, country rap went somewhat dormant in mainstream country for nearly 1 1/2 years. “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best selling single in all of country in 2011. But in 2012, country rap was virtually absent from the mainstream country scene. As Saving Country Music explained looking at 2012 end-of-year sales numbers:
Rap sales were significantly down in 2012, bucking the trend of being one of the few areas of strength during music’s decade-long decline. Similarly, unlike 2011 when Jason Aldean’s country-rap “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best-selling single in all of country, 2012 did not see a dominant country-rap single, album, or artist. Rap is still asserting itself as an influence in country, but may not be finding the commercial strength it needs to stick. 2012 mono-genre songs like Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah” underperformed to expectations, never cracking Billboard’s Top 10 on the country chart.
Then came 2013, and “1994,” Jason Aldean’s follow-up country rap to “Dirt Road Anthem.” Though the song was a little too fey for mainstream country ears and topped out at #10 on the Billboard charts, it was the spearhead to what would become a massive and historic influx of country rap songs and influences flooding the country music format heading into the summer of 2013.
Blake Shelton, the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year and influential personality from his work on the popular reality TV show The Voice, released his own country rap song “Boys ‘Round Here” that quickly became a #1. Country duo Florida Georgia Line who regularly incorporates Ebonic verbiage in their songs achieved a #1 single with “Cruise” that is currently poised to become the best selling song of 2013. When the duo remixed the smash hit with hip-hop star Nelly, it created yet another chart-topping country rap collaboration.
All of a sudden, hip-hop influences were, and currently are dominating the top of the country music charts, asserting just as much influence, if not more than indigenous country influences, with a bevy of new country rap tunes from numerous artists ready to be released, and mainstream artists lining up to try and be a part of the trend. Brad Paisley and LL Cool J made waves by collaborating on the country rap song “Accidental Racist.” 90′s country star Joe Diffie, the muse for Jason Aldean’s country rap “1994,” has released an “answer” song called “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” with the Jawga Boyz to attempt to exploit the renewed attention for his career. And Luke Bryan has recorded a country rap song with Auto-Tune maestro T Pain to be released soon.
But the infiltration of country rap is not just confined to underground circles and mainstream collaborations, it has touched the very foundations of country’s traditions and history. In May of 2013, the rapping grandson-in-law of Waylon Jennings named “Struggle” released an album with 7 of the 9 songs being Waylon tunes with Struggle rapping over them. The country rapping LoCash Cowboys have a song called “Best Seat in the House” from their new self-titled album that includes a collaboration with the recently-deceased George Jones—an icon of traditional country fans who traditionally do not favor the influx of rap influences in country music. The country rap collaboration is possibly the final track George Jones ever recorded.
Other artists that are traditionally seen as respites from the commercial trends in Nashville like Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and their mutual band The Pistol Annies have participated in the country rap craze, leaving mainstream country fans that are looking to avoid the trend few options. The Pistol Annies appeared in Blake Shelton’s country rap song and video “Boys ‘Round Here,” and Miranda Lambert participated in the “celebrity remix” of the song, even though at one point she took to Twitter to proclaim that remixes “pissed her off.”
Ashley Monroe appears in a just released acoustic version of the Macklemore rap song “Thrift Shop.” June of 2013 has been jam packed with new country rap song and video releases, with new collaborations rumored seemingly every day as artists and labels scramble to figure out how to capitalize on the country rap phenomenon.
Which begs the next question, is this a craze that will show a predictable lightning-fast life span and quickly fizzle, or are we seeing the long-forecasted dramatic, wholesale, long-term change in the traditional genre formats of American music, where all genres coalesce into one big mono-genre where contrast and diversity between disparate art forms will be resolved, leaving no true regionalism and no cultural separation, just one homogeneous corporate American music culture?
That remains to be seen. But wherever country rap goes, we can say with confidence that the way country music sounds in the summer of 2013 is very similar to the way the mono-genre would sound like if it is realized in the long-term.
Potential Ramifications of Rap’s Infiltration of Country
The benefits of the emerging mono-genre can be the breakdown of musical prejudices across genre lines, but the main impetus is the broadening of markets of music consumers for record labels to take advantage of. Though traditional genres can be helpful to consumers by classifying the style of the music so they can choose if it is worth their time, genres limit the scale of potential consumers for a given music franchise.
The problem with the mono-genre, especially for country music is the potential loss of autonomy and control over the music by the genre, both sonically and through the genre’s infrastructure and institutions. During music’s lost decade of the 2000′s when the industry bobbled the move to digitization, country music weathered the storm much better than other genres because it had its own built-in institutions like the CMA and ACM Awards shows, and the Country Music Association itself which unites US radio broadcasters around the country format. And unlike hip-hop or rock and roll, country music is heavily steeped in tradition, with legacy institutions like The Grand Ole Opry acting as pillars for the music. But if the term “country” can’t define a well-recognized sound, it risks diminishing the effectiveness and viability of these country music institutions in the long term.
Since the beginning, country has taken a submissive role to hip-hop in the formation of the mono-genre. Though you may find some small exceptions, country influences have not encroached on the mainstream hip-hop format virtually at all, and certainly haven’t risen to the point of dominating the hip-hop charts, like hip-hop influences are now dominating the country charts. Helping this trend along is Billboard’s new chart rules that take into consideration sales and plays of music from other genres in rating country artists. So country artists whose songs cross over to the pop or hip-hop formats gain extra points compared to their pure country counterparts.
Hip-hop is in the cat bird’s seat in the mixing of the two genres. Artists like Ludacris, Nelly, and Lil’ Wayne can benefit from the exposure the country format gives them, but hip-hop doesn’t have to return the favor. The reason there are no country-influenced songs at the top of the hip-hop chart is because the hip-hop community would not allow it.
Hip-hop as a genre is secure and confident in its standing with young demographics, and in its future, while country seems to be constantly wanting to apologize for itself and find new ways to attract younger listeners. Hip-hop artists are just sitting back, waiting for the managers of mainstream country artist to call looking for collaborations, and all of a sudden the hip-hop artists’ name and music are exposed to an entirely new crowd.
Some mainstream country artists like Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift have participated in hip-hop collaborations not featured in the country format, but the collaborations are almost always done on hip-hop’s terms, with the purpose of exposing hip-hop artists to a wider audience primarily, instead of vice versa.
The debate about the encroachment of rap and other hip-hop influences into country is much broader than disagreements based on taste. To maintain the autonomy and integrity of country music’s institutions, the genre music keep in check influences from other mediums. The argument regularly made for allowing hip-hop influences to infiltrate the format is that country music needs something new to continue to grow and appeal to new audiences and younger people. What this argument fails to recognize is that rap in itself is an over 30-year-old art form, and that it has a dubious history when mixing with other genres at the mainstream level.
When rap mixed with mainstream rock in the mid 90′s with acts like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, it was seen as the beginning of the mainstream rock format losing its identity, and the diminishing of rock music’s control over its radio format and institutions. This gave rise to “indie” rock, and punk and metal undergrounds that purposely avoided mainstream rock avenues and robbed talent from the mainstream ranks. Soon rock ceased to be the catch-all term for guitar-based American music, and country and hip-hop emerged as the more dominant and influential genres. Eventually rock artists like Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow, Aaron Lewis of Staind, Kid Rock, and many more had to solicit country for support in the aftermath of mainstream rock’s implosion.
It is unfair to completely hypothesize what will happen with the mixing of country and hip-hop by what happened in the past because of the tremendous flux the music industry is experiencing due to the ever-evolving technology quotient. Everything an educated guess at best these days in music. But what we do know is that we will discover what the effects of the mono-genre will be because it is unquestionably upon us. The next question is, will it stick around, or will the mono-genre break back down into its traditional genres in the future? How country music as an institution will endure the changes remains to be seen, but country would be wise to keep open a debate on influence, tradition, and autonomy, with a very long-term perspective always in mind. Because if not, country artists could be finding themselves searching for another genre for support, just as rock artists did in the aftermath of hip-hop infiltrating its genre.
Over the last year, the emergence of rapping in some country songs and the sub-genre of “country rap” has caused quite a stir in the country world, with traditional country fans angry over the attention being given to songs like Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” written by country rapper Colt Ford. Well now a new unlikely character has entered the debate, the Surgeon General of the United States.
According to the Surgeon General’s office, an extensive study by the Centers for Disease Control has determined that country rap is a Class 1 cause of obesity, especially in adult white males. Apparently the data from the study is so conclusive and alarming, the Surgeon General is considering pursuing heath warnings on country rap albums.
“Apparently to be involved in country rap, you have to be very white, and very fat.” explains Diane Frankenfurter, spokesperson for the Surgeon General. “Many of these country rap artists like Colt Ford and The Moonshine Bandits include what are referred to as ‘laundry list’ lyrics in many of their songs, promoting a very high fat, high cholesterol diet of fried chicken, cornbread, biscuits, and high calorie ‘ice cold beer.’ Obesity can lead to illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes, as well as a higher risk for certain cancers. It is important that consumers are made aware of the risks involved in the use of country rap.”
Apparently country rap fans can start to experience massive weight gain after only a couple of weeks of consuming the genre mixing music.
“I was a svelte 160 until I bought a copy of Colt Ford’s Chicken & Biscuits about 6 months ago.” says West Memphis, AR resident Donald Hastings. “Now I can’t see my feet to tie my shoes, and have to use one of those electric carts to get around Wal-Mart.”
The Surgeon General’s office says that warnings on packaging could look very similar to warnings on cigarettes, but may include actual photos of country rap artists to illustrate what could happen to consumers if they consume too much country rap. If the government is unable to obtain the rights to use the likeness of Colt Ford, they may use the next best representation of the obese, pear-shaped body: the popular Ronald McDonald Land character “Grimmace.”
A separate study to determine if country rap causes anal leakage was found inconclusive.
When Saving Country Music decided to take a hardline stance against the infiltration of rap into country, one of the requisites I put on myself was to attempt to find the few instances where the bridging of the two genres actually works. As I said in my Survival Guide to Country Rap:
Do not diminish the arguments against country rap by lumping all country rap together. I am sure there has been in the past, and will be in the future, some blends of country and rap that are respectful to the roots of the music, and enjoyable to listen to while not insulting the intelligence of the listener. It is not fair to the honesty and heartfelt approach of these artists who are breeding originality through bridging artforms to lump them in with Jason Aldean.
Since then I have been aggressively seeking to find these instances, to prove I’m not just talk, and trust me folks when I say I’ve almost sprouted a six pack from the workout my abdominal muscles have received from the dry heaves most country rap stimulates. One recent project though intrigued me from the press I read about it, called Songs Of The Ungrateful Living by Everlast, former member of House of Pain, who you probably remember best from their hit song “Jump Around.”
A few years ago, before the rise of Colt Ford or country rap as a mainstream approach, Everlast was experimenting with incorporating country elements and themes into his hip hop music. Notice I said “incorporating” instead of “bridging” the two genres together. I remember getting dozens of emails when he released a hip-hop-style cover of Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” in 2008, but I spared it the poison pen, seeing it more as a silly gimmick than a serious attempt by Everlast to “go country.” In fact Everlast has gone out of his way to make sure people do not call him country. In an article from LA Weekly entitled “Don’t Call Him Country. Everlast Is Hip-Hop, Dammit,” Everlast said:
I think that’s one of the biggest misunderstandings about me. Everything I do is hip-hop. I don’t care if it sounds like a country ballad; if I’m doing it, it’s hip-hop.
Everlast went even further with Hip-Hop DX to call out artists who in the face of descending popularity, try to use the rising action of the country music super genre to resurrect their careers:
I’m not one of these dudes that would come out and be like, “Oh look at me. I’m a Country artist now.”… I would never try to put on a uniform and act like, “Look at me now, I’m a country dude.” That’s real lame. How many times have you seen an artist or somebody who is failing in their actual genre of whatever – I don’t believe in genres anyways, first of all. That should be obvious by what I do. But let’s just say how any times have you seen some Pop princess or some Pop-fucking-singer, boy-toy whatever motherfucker falling down in their career and all of a sudden are like, “I’m a Country singer now.” It’s lame, man.
What I realized when listening to Everlast’s album and reading his take on “going country” is that attempting to bridge country and rap comes down to chemistry. Mixing country and rap may not be like trying to mix oil and water because of how polarizingly-different the two genres are, it’s more like when you pour a dominant chemical into a recessive chemical: you end up with all of one, and none of the other.
Since country is such a traditional art form, as soon as you interject a hip-hop element into the music (rapping, drum loops, samples, whatever) it ceases to be country, and instantly becomes hip-hop. When I talked about how country was taking a submissive role to hip-hop in the formation of the mono-genre, this may be one of the reasons. Everlast uses steel guitar, fiddle, banjo, and country themes in his songs, but he wouldn’t think once about calling his songs country, because they’re clearly still hip hop. One of the calling cards of hip hop is to borrow beats and elements from other genres, and it has been that was since hip hop’s beginning. In other words, there is no country rap. There’s country, and there’s hip hop.
I think this is also one of the reasons so many songs sold as “country rap” also incorporate laundry list/country checklist elements, where the listener is brow beaten with a barrage of “ice cold beer, back roads, pickup truck” countryisms. They’re attempting to countrify a song that is inherently hip-hop to cover up the crime. And when I use words like “recessive” when talking about country, that is not to imply country is weaker or not as good as hip hop, it is simply the nature of how the two genres interact.
And please don’t get me wrong, I am not endorsing Everlast or Songs Of The Ungrateful Living. It is a hip-hop album, and not being an expert on the genre, I don’t have a right to an opinion above my own taste. What I do know is that Everlast was able to incorporate country elements into hip-hop music, and do so not as a gimmick to create the widest possible demographics based on commercial concerns, but do so out of respect and understanding for both art forms with no pandering for commercial appeal. How many more albums could he sell if he simply made a big deal about “going country?” Instead Everlast went with honesty, speaking the truth about how even though he may incorporate country elements into his music, it is still unquestionably hip hop. And that my friends deserves two guns up!
Woody Guthrie’s “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” was not a rap song, despite what the Pittsburg Post-Gazette will tell you.
And neither were the spoken word songs from Tex Williams, Hank Williams, Red Foley, Red Sovine, or any other old school country artists who called on the long-used tradition of talking in a song instead of singing to emphasize the storytelling aspect of the lyrics. But I’ll be damned if you will not find a surplus of high-nosed music “experts” that will preach to you that one of these particular songs or artists was either the generation of rap music, or use them to prove that rap and country are one in the same.
I call bullshit.
I first pointed this out this tactic in my Survival Guide to Country Rap, how some would attempt to explain how really, country and rap are the same thing, so what’s the big fuss?
As simply as I can put it, making the case that spoken word and rapping in music are the same thing is an insult to the artistic integrity and creativity of both spoken word and rap artists, and to the intelligence of anyone who that case is being made to.
Battling the infiltration of country rap, not as an artistic expression, but as a way to gentrify music to create a wider audience for financial gain, is hard enough without revising history. Country rap supporters have the upper ground in many ways. They can claim racism against people opposing country rap. They can call them close-minded purists, unwilling to evolve, in a misguided notion that country rap opposition is all about wanting to keep country music exactly how it was back in the 50′s.
Of course rap and spoken word have similarities on the surface. But the fact that the words are not sung is where the similarities end. The origins are different for one thing. Spoken word evolved from the cowboy culture and campfire storytelling that is one of the foundations of country music, while rapping came from tribal cadences carried over from West Africa and the chanting of field songs. Is someone going to really try to make the case that Tex Williams was trying to imbibe the rhythms of West African tribal chants with the disenfranchised themes of slave labor when talking about smoke smoke smoking cigarettes?
But unlike so many other “experts” on the subject, and there seems to be one on every corner these days, I’m not going to get into a long-winded diatribe on the exact origin of one artform or another, or try and pinpoint what the first ever country rap song was, because the origins of music are a slow-evolving, mutable, hard-to-define situation that can be clouded heavily by the perspective of the individual. How about instead celebrating the diversity in music by not letting surface similarities allow us to make shallow observances, with either the underlying motivation or the unintended consequence being the death of contrast in popular music?
And if I was a rap artist or writing for a website called Saving Rap Music, I might even be more insulted by the insinuation that some old crusty white dude was rapping back in the 40′s, because it gives no consideration to one of the most important elements of rap music: flow, or the rhythmic and rhyming approach to the metrical structure of verse that makes rap a much more technically complex art form than simply speaking, or speaking in rhyme, just like cowboy poetry can be more complex than rap from a thematic, storytelling standpoint.
Country rap is here to stay, and one can make the case country rap is on its way to dominating the country music landscape. Country rap has won. So can you do true country fans just one little favor, and not go back in time and try to make rap songs out of country songs in the past too? Is that too much to ask? Or is the guilt for allowing country rap such dominance so great, or the payoff in creating a mono-genre so excessive that we must sell out the past as well?
Last week, as I predicted, off of the strength of Jason Aldean’s country rap song “Dirt Road Anthem”, his album My Kinda Party took the #1 spot in the country music album charts, and “Dirt Road Anthem” rose to #6 on the song charts. For once, the collusion of country radio rotation managers actually works in favor of country purists, as this is the only thing keeping “Dirt Road Anthem” from being a #1, but the video for the song has been CMT’s #1 video for weeks.
Country rap is here ladies and gentlemen. It has been milling around for a while, but now it is a full-blown chart-topping mainstream-acceptable sub-genre of country, like it or not. So what is a country purist to do? Well I have assembled a survivor’s guide to help you through the inevitable ramp up of country rap parody that Music Row is no doubt manufacturing right now to take advantage of this most ill-conceived of music trends. Here’s your guide to help rebuke some of the ridiculous claims being made by country rap apologists.
Not All Dissension Against Pop Country Is About Race
Without question, many people, if not a majority of the people that have a problem with country rap do so from a very basic reactionary stance based on race. However there are many fundamental reasons to be opposed to country rap that have nothing to do with race at all, and anybody who is willing to speak out against country rap would be wise not to bring up race as the foundation of their argument.
Proponents of country rap are playing the race card as the only reason people are opposed to it. Legendary country music writer Chet Flippo’s article on the subject seems to imply that if you embrace the traditions of country music, you must embrace ALL of them, including the racist ones like blackface comedy and David Allan Coe’s foul-mouthed period. This just simply isn’t true. You can rebuke the racist elements of country, and still rebuke country rap as well.
They also insult the intelligence of country-rap opponents by preaching to them about how the roots of country (as white music) and blues (as black music) are very similar, when many of the elements opposing country rap are the only ones truly embracing the intertwined roots of country and blues. This very site has a blues show on SCM LIVE whose motto is “saving country music with the blues.” The Muddy Roots Festival, the country’s largest independent/underground country music festival, has just as many blues bands in the lineup as country ones, with the fundamental approach of supporting all roots music, regardless of the color of those roots. Hillgrass Bluebilly’s award-winning album Hiram & Huddie put the songs of Hank Williams and Leadbelly side by side. Mainstream country has completely forgotten it’s roots, country and blues, but now brings them up as a convenient truth.
There’s A Difference Between Rapping And Spoken Word
This is the dumbest, and most insulting of the arguments for country rap, that, “Hey, Charlie Daniel’s ‘Devil Went Down To Georgia’ was the first rap song ever because he spoke instead of sang”. Please. Charlie Daniels, Red Sovine, the old cowboy country poets were speaking, and Jason Aldean is rapping, and we all know the difference, and we all know Aldean is rapping because that is the gimmick he’s employed to get people to pay attention to him. Yes, there may be some very minor aesthetic similarities between rap and spoken word, but in no way is “Dirt Road Anthem” an extension of the spoken word tradition of country music, or spoken word in country an originator of rap.
Country Rap is Not Evolution, It’s Devolution
DO NOT fall prey to the idea that country rap is part of the natural evolution of the genre, and that “purists” have always been against “change”. Yes, there were some that fought the electrification of country or the introduction of drums, but rap is not a newly-introduced take on instrumentation, it is a 35-year-old artform being introduced as a last ditch effort to save a dying industry. Country rap is not evolution, it’s devolution by definition. Country music has been trying to evolve for years, but these elements have been pushed into alt-country and Americana, independent and underground channels, as mainstream country favors the quick fix that has done nothing but stultified the music and created an environment of economic uncertainty for the industry.
Country Rap IS Pop Country
Country rap is not an evolution, or an extension of spoken word, it is a version of pop country, and it is important to understand this from a fundamental level. Maybe not ALL country rap is pop country, but the country rap they would play on the radio or you’d see in the charts most definitely is. Music Row knows “pop country” is a bad word to a growing demographic, so they are disguising it, re-branding it as country rap and “new Outlaw” music. But it is still a pop country derivative, and should be approached as such.
Country Rap Is Not Diversity, It Is The Death of Diversity
With the corporate consolidation of radio, we have already bled most of the local and regional flavor off the airwaves to the point where no matter what city you go to, you hear the same songs on the same formatted stations. Now it is getting to the point where you hear the same music no matter what station you’re on. How this can be sold as diversity? Diversity is keeping the differences between genres strong, and celebrating our differences instead of attempting to resolve them.
I’m sure many people think that concern for the infiltration of country rap is tilting at windmills, but the diversity issue is where this becomes about more than just music. America’s “melting pot” ideal is often cited as a primary reason for the strength of the United States. Compromising that diversity could cause social problems and economic problems beyond the world of music.
Not All Country Rap Is The Same
Do not diminish the arguments against country rap by lumping all country rap together. I am sure there has been in the past, and will be in the future, some blends of country and rap that are respectful to the roots of the music, and enjoyable to listen to while not insulting the intelligence of the listener. These projects will likely be ignored by the radio and the industry, but it is not fair to the honesty and heartfelt approach of these artists who are breeding originality through bridging artforms to lump them in with the Jason Aldean’s of the world.
Understand How History Will Judge Country Rap
In the end, the joke will be on them. Look at what happened with the mainstream blending of rock and rap. “Limp Bizkit” is now a punch line, and rock is no longer a viable mainstream genre of American music. The wise will understand that in the future, mainstream country rap will be looked back on and mocked like the pet rock or parachute pants of country. But it is still important, however symbolic, to make a stance against it, especially because of the threat that just like rock music, the infusion of rap could be the last hoary gasp of a dying genre.
The parade of new lows coming from Music Row in Nashville just keeps coming folks. The pre-Holiday period of 2010 might go down as the worst ever. The latest low blow comes from Jason Aldean, whose single off his album released today called My Kind of Party is a straight up rap song.
I’ve had a working theory for a while that as the music industry consolidates, popular music is heading toward two “super-genres:” hip-hop and country. And isn’t it interesting that those two art forms are divided straight down the middle by race and geography. Of course something doesn’t actually have to be country for you to call it that. It can be rock or pop, or apparently, rap. Really country is nothing more than a term for music made by white people, while hip-hop is music made by black people. Sure, there are a few exceptions, Darius Rucker and Eminem for examper, but this is like saying “Hey, I have a black friend.”
But before my two super-genre theory has even had time to codify, music has devolved even further to make it irrelevant. It goes to reason, if you have has-been pop and rock stars “going country” to salvage their careers, while country stars play rock and pop and rap to salvage their own, why not just bridge everything into one big ass “mono-genre?” Hell, what makes us different stands in the way of mass appeal marketing schemes. Wouldn’t it be much more cost effective if all music sounded the same, so we wouldn’t have to cater ad campaigns to different demographics?
The offending song from Jason Aldean is called “Dirt Road Anthem,” and let me tell you folks, I’d rather listen to the sounds of my own prison raping than this monstrosity. Nobody is a better poster boy for why we should keep our kids away from country rap than the horrific Colt Ford, whose album Chicken & Biscuits is great background music for when frat boys are vomit into the floorboards of their Mitsubishi Eclipses. It was my plan to offer ol’ Colt up as evidence to my little “mono-genre” theory. Then I found out Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” is actually a Colt Ford cover! Classy.
Colt has drawn the ire of critics across the board, and the idea that someone would actually cover this garbage is top tier evidence that the music Apocalypse is upon us. Colt, whose admitted he’s so bad that he has to rap because he can’t sing, has made a good living off of charming the slow-minded with his low-rent rapping, and apparently Aldean is admittedly one of the duped:
‘Who wouldn’t want to rhyme “biscuits” with “fix it,” right? “If you see Colt, he’s a big boy. He likes biscuits.’
He also admits his new album is monotonous, and says this song is the cure:
‘It breaks up the monotony of the record, and just when people think they know exactly what they’re gettin’, you throw something different at them.’
The problem is when the thing that is ‘different’ is exactly the same as 50% of everything in popular music, there really is no difference at all.
Nothing is groundbreaking with either this Jason Aldean single or Colt Ford, or the new Sugarland album for that matter. These acts want to use their wildly transparent reaches into the pop market as shields by calling them “innovative” or “fresh approaches” to country. Colt and Aldean are not the firsts to bridge country and hip-hop, and certainly they won’t be the last. I am not a rap fan, but I am sure that if you dug deep into that genre, you would find the same disgruntled sentiment that exists in country, with true core fans of hop-hop wondering what is happening to the music they love. As offended as I am by Colt Ford and this Jason Aldean song, I would be even more offended if I was a rapper or a rap/hip-hop fan.
There are some artists doing interesting stuff meshing dance/techno/hip-hop beats with traditional roots music, but Jason Aldean is not one of them. He is not melding two art forms in the name of innovation, he is taking the worst of both worlds to try to create mass appeal. “Dirt Road Anthem” is an anthem for the death of contrast.
Two guns down.
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