Book Review

It’s important to understand and honor your Southern heritage. As we reflect back on that great and terrible conflict between North and South, we must all look deep within ourselves and ask—did the South destroy hip-hop or save it? If you’re not sure, Ben Westhoff’s Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop (May, Chicago Review Press) is a good place to start learning your history.

Westhoff, who has covered music for the Oxford American, Pitchfork, Village Voice and others, tells the larger story of hip-hop in the South through its many regional scenes: Miami (Luke Campbell, 2 Live Crew), Houston (Geto Boys, DJ Screw, Trae, Paul Wall), Memphis (Three 6 Mafia, Eightball & MJG), Atlanta (Goodie Mob, Outkast, DJ Drama, T.I., DJ Smurf, Soulja Boy), New Orleans (Cash Money, Juvenile, Lil Wayne), Virginia (The Neptunes, Timbaland, Missy Elliot) and Florida (T-Pain). Dirty South necessarily covers much of the same ground as Roni Sarig’s Third Coast: Outkast, Timbaland, and How Hip-Hop Became a Southern Thing (2007, Da Capo Press), which you’ll note is already required reading on your Southern Music 101 syllabus.

A few things have happened since Sarig wrote his book, though. Notably, Lil Wayne transformed from potential-one-hit Hot Boy to wacked-out, chart-topping “geniusâ€; T-Pain conquered the universe with Auto-Tune; and Soulja Boy invented a dance and mastered the art of online self-promotion.
Westhoff does a good job of tracing the formation of each region’s distinctive sound, driving around the South in a rented Hyundai to hear firsthand how genres like crunk and bounce got started. Houston’s DJ Screw relates that when he accidentally altered a record’s pitch to an extremely slow pace, it sounded so good to the stoned crowd in his living room that someone offered him $10 on the spot for a tape. Houston’s slowed, slurred “chopped and screwed†style grew from there.
Early Southern hip-hop mirrored punk in odd and surprising ways—it featured rawer, grittier sounds; it maintained a distrust of the mainstream music industry; and it relied on scrappy DIY business models to get started. New York wouldn’t take Luke Campbell’s booty-centric party anthems seriously, so he sold records by the trunkful all over Miami. In the book, Westhoff meets up with Campbell in Athens for an April 2010 show at local hip-hop mecca and North Avenue Mexican restaurant, El Paisano, and it’s clear from his account that Campbell hasn’t mellowed and cleaned up his X-rated live shows that made him infamous in his 2 Live Crew days.

Throughout Dirty South, Westhoff engages with detractors who call Southern hip-hop mindless, simplistic, novelty-driven music. And it’s not just Rosa Parks picking on Outkast—many rap icons like Ice T, Jay-Z and RZA have piled on, too. Westhoff starts the book with the story of Ms. Peachez as a sort of extreme case in point. Peachez is actually a man from Shreveport whose over-the-top video for “Fry That Chicken†became an Internet sensation in 2006. Like some low-budget homage to Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma, the video confused, outraged, offended and entertained—sometimes all at once. Millions watched. People accused the South of producing minstrel rap. Columnist Jabari Asim dissed Peachez as an “Aunt Jemima off her medsâ€â€”in the Washington Post, no less. Westhoff seems to be the only person to have actually tracked down Peachez and the others behind the song, and their perspective on the incident is revealing and somehow touching. Though he maintains a healthy journalistic objectivity for much of the book, Westhoff doesn’t make the mistake of sitting on the sidelines over the question of whether Southern hip-hop is good. Ultimately he’s a fan, and his passion for the music makes this an even more engaging work.

A panel discussion on the state of Southern hip-hop and a book signing will be held in Atlanta at Young Blood Gallery & Boutique (636 N. Highland Ave. NE) on Wednesday, May 4, at 7 p.m. The panel will likely feature musician Killer Mike, writer Maurice Garland, Creative Loafing music editor Rodney Carmichael, Westhoff, and possibly a surprise guest or two.

Do you ever listen to records like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique or Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and wonder why they sound so different from today’s hip-hop? It turns out one of the biggest reasons may be copyright law, a topic explored by Kembrew McLeod (no relation) and Peter DiCola in Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling (March, Duke University Press).

Early hip-hop artists and underground sampling pioneers, like Coldcut and Negativland, all flew under the radar during what the authors call the “golden age of sampling.†But it wasn’t long before groups like Run-DMC started to make serious money and the lawyers came calling. Sampling artists who had primarily been viewed as musicians breaking technical and artistic boundaries were increasingly seen as musicians who were breaking the law. Some of the stories that ensue—like George Clinton being sued for sampling his own music—would be funny in a Kafkaesque way if they weren’t so shameful.

McLeod and DiCola bring a lot of knowledge about the intersections of law and culture to this project. McLeod is the author of two previous books and three documentaries that explore issues of freedom of expression, creative commons and copyright law. His 2010 documentary Copyright Criminals also examines sampling, but not in the same depth or with the same authority as Creative License. As he and DiCola examine the many layers of law, they contemplate how it affected the development of a new musical form and consider where we stand today. It’s sobering to realize that even with a major label’s money and support, a record like De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising probably wouldn’t be made today. The authors also take great pains to show all sides of the debate—and it doesn’t break down neatly as artists versus lawyers. Many artists don’t want to be sampled, for example, and many industry insiders acknowledge the current system is dysfunctional at best.

I know a book about music copyright law may sound like a slog, and there are sections that were slower for me, personally, tracing precedent and going into the legal fine points. Creative License is a collaboration of the Future of Music Coalition ( that is intended to advance and inform the debate around sampling issues. The book wouldn’t work if it didn’t have something to say to lawyers and industry executives. But McLeod and DiCola always keep an eye on the bigger picture. They are as interested in the cultural as the legal, and the book succeeds greatly in broad terms as a history of music sampling.

Here are a few more notable spring books:

See what Austin’s alt weekly has been writing about since the early ’80s in the Austin Chronicle Music Anthology, and reminisce about the days when SXSW was just a little indie festival with the SXSW Scrapbook: People and Things That Went Before (both February, University of Texas Press). Simon Reynolds’ work from the past couple of decades is collected in Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing about Rock and Hip Hop (January, Soft Skull). Morrissey: Fandom, Representations, and Identities (February, Intellect Books) is a collection of essays focused on Morrissey’s solo career. Tom Hamling’s Celebrity Vinyl (March, HarperCollins) is great fun for fans of albums like Bruce Willis’ The Return of Bruno. Dorian Lynskey’s massive 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs from Billie Holiday to Green Day (March, Ecco) is a sprawling look at rebel music. Christopher Smit tries to makes sense of the pop train wreck in The Exile of Britney Spears: A Tale of 21st-Century Consumption (March, Intellect Books). Talk – Action = Zero: An Illustrated History of D.O.A. (April, Arsenal Pulp Press) tells the story of the hardcore pioneers from Vancouver. Get more Canadian punk in Trouble in the Camera Club: A Photographic Narrative of Toronto’s Punk History (May, ECW Press). Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (May, University of Minnesota Press) is a collection of the New Yorker critic’s work. Check if your band was included in The Indie Rock Poster Book (May, Chronicle Books). Mullets and Union Jack shorts are on glorious display in Def Leppard: The Definitive Visual History (May, Chronicle Books). I Mix What I Like!: A Mixtape Manifesto (April, AK Press) is Jared Ball’s impassioned critique of hip-hop culture. Benjamin Piekut’s Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits (April, University of California Press) looks at five seminal music events from 1964. The essays in Brazilian Popular Music and Citizenship (May, Duke University Press) span more than 100 years of that country’s history and culture. Mark Blake’s biography Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Queen (March, Da Capo Press) draws on a trove of new interviews about the band. New in the 33 1/3 series: Daphne Carr’s Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine and Hank Shteamer’s Ween’s Chocolate and Cheese (both March, Continuum).