This is a rough survey of southern hip hop from the Dungeon Family to trap music, written for a seminar on media economics. I'm drawing on political economy, materialist musicology, and rhetoric to figure out how Atlanta's brand of hip hop became the template for pop music in the 21st century.
Since emerging from the Bronx in the 1970s, hip hop has transitioned from an underground community to a mainstream counterculture to the dominant popular culture of the 2010s and 2020s. Rap overtook rock as the most popular musical genre in the US in 2017, and 808 bass, rolling trap hi hats, and rapped lyrics are pervasive in pop music globally (Nielsen, 2018; Billboard, 2021). This trend has leaked into other popular music; hip hop producers regularly top country music charts, and in the 2020s rappers have led a mainstream revival of pop punk and driven innovation in industrial metal. Notably, while major labels are still largely based in New York and LA, Atlanta and the Southeast US – latecomers in the history of hip hop – represent the artistic capital of this cultural coup. In this study, I take an interdisciplinary genealogical approach in an attempt to articulate the technological, economic, and aesthetic infrastructures that placed Atlanta and the South at hip hop’s pivot point between mainstream counterculture and hegemonic pop culture.
An Ontology of Pop Music
When discussing pop music as a genre or popular music as a category, it is imperative to consider genre and industry as inseparable and irreducible. Pop music evades genre definitions because of its cyclical nature: pop records imitate each other, producing a narrow formula which is periodically uprooted by cultural shifts and technological innovations. Pop music more closely resembles a pattern of consumption than a distinct musical tradition.
As a musical genre, pop is a type of popular music that split off from rock music sometime in the mid-twentieth century (Warner, 2003). Until this point, pop music and popular music were one and the same: commercialized folk musics, like jazz or rock. With the introduction of recording technology and the record as a commodity, popular music emerged from the record industry as a populist counterpart to “serious” art music and its patron, the sheet music publishing industry (Frith, 2001a). The profound impact of the record was based on its ability to capture the materiality of a performance in a physical medium and reproduce it. Instead of selling instructions which would be realized by trained musicians at a concert venue (or by amateur musicians at home), the record industry could sell specific sounds and distinct moments in time to unprecedented masses of non-elite, non-expert consumers, able to be replayed anywhere at any time. Combined with the complementary invention of the electric microphone, this produced both a new way of consuming music and demand for a new type of music which would be designed specifically for recording, a genre characterized by careful control of a specific sonic event and previously impossible levels of intimacy in the performance, particularly in the voice. These two priorities meant that the spotlight was no longer on composers, musicians, or bandleaders. The popular record is about the producer (who may or may not have written the song) and the vocalist, now the pop star.
Rock music claimed the title of popular music during the 1950s and '60s, but in the '60s the rock movement became ideologically invested in notions of authenticity and personal expression derived both from 19th century art music and folk music (Frith, 2007; Warner, 2003). Freed from this cult of authenticity, “pop music” came to describe popular genres marked by artificiality and directed toward listener effect. Pop music can then be understood as a simulacrum of folk music culture: folk music commercialized and communities simulated by mass media, then divorced from ideological purists, who formed the first musical countercultures. Pop emulates folk music in its accessibility and in the emphasis placed on personal connection – connection with the artist and with communities of listeners, technologically and economically mediated. While it maintains a strict wall of esoteric knowledge and celebrity between production and consumption, it retains a trace of its participatory nature in the importance of danceable rhythms and catchy, singable melodies.
Pop music is defined and shaped by commercial imperative. As Simon Frith has argued, this fact does little to discredit the musicological merit of pop music and the profound socioaesthetic experiences it can provoke. Likewise, the discourses of authenticity, musicianship, and meaning that elevate rock over pop and art music over popular music are historically contingent and politically loaded (Frith, 2007). To say that pop is shaped by the market means its form is determined in part by profit maximization and in part by efforts to affect the largest possible audience (Frith, 2001b). As a consequence, pop producer/songwriters resemble self-expressive artists less than they do engineers or artisans. Producers like Phil Spector in the ‘60s and Max Martin since the ‘90s have earned success through a methodical understanding of the structure of the pop hit, their signature techniques (Spector’s “wall of sound” and Martin’s “melodic math”) reflecting the nature of their work: to emulate the prototypical pop song, a piece of music that can be consumed and enjoyed by the most listeners possible. A second consequence of this commercial imperative is that pop music often employs innovative technologies and sounds (e.g. the widespread adoption digital synthesis in the ‘80s), whether to cut costs, to lower turnaround time, or to create more accessible, effective sonic experiences.
Pop music is a phenomenon of media technology and political economy. Rather than a comprehensive value system or a shared vocabulary of musical tropes, it is defined by patterns of production and consumption. Hip hop, to the contrary, has a recognizable style emergent from a specific subculture. It is defined not so much by market habits (it has survived several revolutions in both production and consumption models) as by a distinct aesthetic framework and a shared understanding of function and telos. These are maintained – as in all culturally situated genres – by mythology. My history of hip hop, then, starts from its mythological origin story.
Hip Hop Canon
As a subculture and a transdisicplinary artistic genre, hip hop consists of breaking (breakdance) and writing (graffiti) alongside an MC toasting in rhythm and rhyme (rapping), all centered around the DJ and their beats. Tricia Rose (1996) identifies hip hop’s key characteristics as flow (complex and fluctuating rhythmic movement), layering (multiplication and embellishment), and ruptures in line (breakflows that simultaneously highlight and disrupt a work's continuity). Potter (2001) describes the unifying principle of hip hop as a shared “scratch aesthetic – a re-valuation of arts that are inscribed upon the decaying infrastructures of city walls, old vinyl records, and cardboard crates” (151). Because of this, hip hop artists define themselves not only by their beats and flows but by their sociocultural milieu, including the type of music they sample and especially the neighborhood, city, and region they hail from.
Hip hop’s creation myth begins in the late ‘60s, when the family of Clive Campbell (AKA DJ Kool Herc) left Jamaica for the Bronx and brought with them elements of West Kingston’s yard culture, with its virtuoso DJs and their absurdly powerful DIY sound systems (Perkins, 1996). The origins of rapping can be traced both to the Jamaican style of impromptu banter known as “toasting,” as well as black radio DJs like Frankie Crocker and Jocko Henderson (Charnas, 2010). To rap is to talk fast and talk smart, a crucial survival skill among young hustlers in the Bronx that found its way into DJ culture. Artists like DJ Hollywood earned celebrity in New York discotheques for their participatory, rhyming banter during instrumental breaks. Meanwhile, hip hop as a distinct culture was incubating in the streets among those too young or poor to get into the discos. DJ Kool Herc began playing parties in his apartment’s rec room in 1973, prioritizing upbeat funk music and using two turntables with identical records in order to extend instrumental break, allowing dancers to show off their moves. Grandmaster Flash introduced technical innovations, switching between records with unprecedented precision and speed (giving rise to his epithet) and enlivening the show by layering snippets of other records and scratching the record for percussive effect. Both DJs performed with crews of rhyming MCs, and by 1975, hip hop had emerged as a distinct culture in the South Bronx.
Hip hop’s party culture evolved within an existing gang culture, where competing gangs would take up residence in a neighborhood, offering protection and maintaining order in lieu of police presence in exchange for a host of privileges, such as free entry to parties and clubs. Some members of the Black Spades – who made their home in the Bronx River Projects – saw the emergence of hip hop culture as an opportunity for social innovation. They splintered into an entertainment promotions group called Bronx River Organization, led by the charismatic and eccentric DJ Afrika Bambaataa and later rebranded as the Zulu Nation (Charnas, 2010). Gang presence in the Bronx was, in part, replaced by rival hip hop crews, who – as the story goes – waged cultural guerrilla warfare with elaborate dance routines, promotional graffiti, and clever, rhymed insults hurled over increasingly loud and high fidelity sound systems.
Hip hop culture incubated in community centers and parks for years before rap was ever recorded. Though one or two rap songs preceded it chronologically, Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper's Delight” made history in 1979 as hip hop’s first hit single. The track would provide the blueprint for much of recorded hip hop to come, despite the single being orchestrated by record producer and label executive Sylvia Robinson using three amateur New Jersey-based rappers in order to capitalize on the novel phenomenon of rap music. Even the production was unusual for a rap song: the Sugarhill Gang rhymed over a live band recreation of Chic’s summer disco hit, “Good Times.” Still, by breaking the top 40 charts, “Rapper’s Delight” exposed hip hop to a wider audience and proved its commercial viability.
From here, the history of hip hop is typically presented as a series of singles. Kurtis Blow was the first rap artist signed to a major label (Mercury), and his 1980 single “The Breaks” earned the distinction of being the first rap single certified gold by the RIAA, if only because the more popular “Rapper’s Delight” was never registered with the organization. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released “The Message” on Sugar Hill Records in 1982, the first rap single to address poverty and systemic racism in inner cities. This was an uncomfortable topic for the band of first generation MCs, who were used to braggadocious party raps, but the song’s success illustrated the potential of hip hop to not only as escapism or to enact more equitable social relations (as was the goal of the Zulu Nation), but as a way to reach a national audience with compelling narratives of oppression and injustice. That same year, hip hop activist Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force released the Kraftwerk-inspired, Afrofuturist party anthem, “Planet Rock.” Produced by Arthur Baker, the single made use of the distinctly electronic sounds of the Roland TR-808 and sparked a strain of electro-infused hip hop that saw the genre’s creative potential in a technological future, rather than in remixing the past. In 1986, producer Rick Rubin orchestrated a collaboration between Run-DMC and Aerosmith, who recorded a rap cover of the latter’s 1975 rock hit, “Walk This Way.” The single was hip hop’s first crossover hit, reviving Aerosmith’s career, making Run-DMC into a household name, and proving the crossover potential of hip hop more generally. Still, as black Americans across the country found a means for creative expression, economic mobility, and political activism in the newly mainstream hip hop movement, the region with the heaviest and most complex history of racial oppression was left out of the conversation almost entirely.
The Dirty South
Atlanta has played a singular role in the historical struggle for black liberation. An important logistical hub for the Confederacy during the American Civil War, in 1864 Atlanta was the first victim of General Sherman’s scorched-earth March to the Sea. Around 40% of the city was destroyed and Georgia’s economic infrastructure was crippled for decades after the war ended (Hudson, 2022). Over the next century, the city would be rebuilt haphazardly, the scars of the city’s destruction still tangible in its disorderly and maddening geographic layout. The home of Martin Luther King Jr., Atlanta represented the heart of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. In the ‘70s, it became an icon of post-civil rights political and economic development, expressed through the city’s powerful black leadership and represented synecdochically by the election of the first black mayor of any major southern city, Maynard Jackson. Supported by a coalition of Atlanta’s black majority alongside white business owners, Jackson spearheaded economic development initiatives aimed at empowering the black middle class and constructing an image of a metropolitan city “too busy to hate” (Hobson, 2017). This included establishing the Office of Cultural Affairs to promote entertainment and the arts. It soon became apparent, however, that Jackson was less interested in liberating the black masses of Atlanta than integrating them into the global order of capitalism. He fostered black-owned businesses while earning a reputation as a ruthless strikebreaker, and strengthened the city’s public infrastructure even as crime rates soared in impoverished communities. These policies have been crucial in shaping contemporary Atlanta as a site where rich cultural infrastructure meets extreme lifestyles of poverty, systemic oppression, and cynicism toward the failures of the civil rights generation, setting the scene for the rise of Atlanta hip hop.
The city’s first brush with hip hop was Mo-Jo’s 1982 hit “Battmann, Let Mo-Jo Handle It,” a fairly standard rap with a superhero gimmick and allusions to Mayor Jackson’s handling of the child murders that plagued black communities from 1979-1981 (Wilson). While southern artists like Houston’s Geto Boys enjoyed mainstream success starting in the late ‘80s, and while the underground dance-oriented genre of Miami bass would prove influential down the line, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the South would claim its own hip hop identity, distinct from the lyrical East Coast hip hop and the g-funk (gangsta funk) of the West Coast. A crucial development in Atlanta’s music industry was in 1989, when songwriting and production duo Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds moved Atlanta to found LaFace Records. Taking advantage of the city’s arts subsidies and tax incentives for creative industries, LaFace built a reputation as the Motown of the South, investing in and developing undiscovered R&B and hip hop artists like Toni Braxton and TLC. Its collection of in-house producers and songwriters included the production team Organized Noize, consisting of Ray Murray, Pat “Sleepy” Brown, and Rico Wade. Operating out of a DIY studio in Wade’s mother’s unfinished basement, the trio and their frequent collaborators were known as the Dungeon Family, a collective which included two fresh new products of Atlanta’s distinct sonic and socioeconomic landscape: the hip hop groups OutKast and Goodie Mob. Organized Noize set out to curate a southern hip hop aesthetic, and the most drastic departure that these artists took from traditional hip hop was their reliance on live studio bands playing original instrumentals, rather than sampled or interpolated material (Hobson, 2017). Two factors played into this departure. First, with hip hop now a mainstream genre and its popularity and profitability on the rise, licensing samples from rights holders was becoming increasingly expensive and copyright more fervently policed. Second, the arts initiatives that attracted LaFace to Atlanta also made session musicians more accessible than ever to independent producers. In this context, alongside the region’s well established R&B scene, The Dungeon Family’s style of hip hop meaningfully incorporated the southern soundscape of soul, funk, and gospel.
Of all the Dungeon Family artists, OutKast – the collaborative effort of MCs Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and André "3000" Benjamin – receives the most credit for bringing mainstream attention to the hitherto peripheral southern hip hop movement. The defining moment came during the 1995 Source Awards in New York. Hip hop’s first nationally televised award program was dominated by the soon-to-be deadly East/West rap conflict (Pierznik, 2015). Between the onstage callouts and offstage brawls, OutKast (true to their name, the only nominees not representing either coast) accepted the award for best new rap group to a jeering audience. André 3000 pushed back, famously declaring that “the South got something to say.” The group’s next album would elaborate on this assertion, and ATLiens (1996) can be read as an exploration of southern identity through the extraterrestrial metaphor, positing OutKast as aliens within hip hop culture for their regional origin but simultaneously offering the otherworldly sounds of the South as the emancipatory future of (hip hop) civilization (Bradley, 2021). OutKast’s sound – emblematic of that of their southern peers – is built around this negotiation of past and future, a combination of live bands and gospel with synthesizers and drum machines. Looking to the past, Andre 3000 says they “stay closer to our slave roots here in the South[…] spirituals, the church, the struggle” (qtd in Leger, 1997, p. 23). On their rejection of sampling, Big Boi asserts “[i]f it’s an old-school jam, leave it to the old. We wanna have our own school of music” (23.) OutKast’s initial crossover pop success, continued mainstream presence, and consistent critical acclaim were crucial in calling attention to Atlanta and the South more broadly as a site of new talent, new sounds, and new cultural identities (Hadley, 2021).
The Club and the Trap
While OutKast and the Dungeon Family were crafting their notion of a southern aesthetic, another strain of hip hop had already established itself in the region’s nightclubs. The sonic successor to Afrika Bambaataa’s electro-rap, the genre of Miami bass was embodied by groups like California transplants 2 Live Crew, who gained traction in clubs for their danceability and notoriety elsewhere for their sexually explicit lyrics – both characteristics well suited to Miami’s trending club dances and strip club performances. Crunk music evolved directly from Miami bass, pioneered in Memphis by Three 6 Mafia before being codified and popularized by Atlanta artists like Lil Jon and the Yin Yang Twins. It’s characterized by danceable club tempos, hard, stripped-down drum machine, synth melodies, and, once again, hardly any samples. Crunk lyrics are typically party and dance themed, with catchy refrains and frequent use of call-and-response. Words form part of a soundscape, employing commands like "get low” to facilitate movement rather than communicate meaning. Unlike politically-minded hip hop (whether socially conscious rap, nihilistic gangsta rap, or the cynical middle ground represented by artists like OutKast), these genres are escapist in nature – dance music designed to overwhelm the body, stripping it of signification. Music becomes an exercise in “social cymatics” (Jasen, 2016), exploring the relationship between new sounds and new types of movement. The point of departure for this exploration is the instrument that would become the defining sound of hip hop in the 21st century.
The TR-808 drum machine was introduced in 1980, and was one of the earliest drum machines to use analog synthesis: modulated sine waves blended with bursts of white noise to emulate percussion sounds from scratch. Most drum machines used (and still use) sampling, a technique introduced by the 808's direct competition, the Linn LM-1, which quickly gained traction for its greater realism. The LM-1 stored information in only 8 bits, and did not include cymbal samples, with their long decay time. It was priced at just under $5,000, accessible to wealthy musicians and high-budget studios (French, 2019). The TR-808, thanks to its method of analog synthesis, used no samples and required significantly less storage space. At a quarter of the cost of the LM-1 but producing much less convincing emulations of drums, Roland hoped to market the 808 as a tool for recording demos. Critics panned its bizarre, unrealistic emulation of a drum kit, while musicians were terrified at the idea of human artistry replaced with machine capital (Abdurraqib, 2020). Afrika Bambaataa recognized the instrument's potential early on, incorporating the instrument's posthuman beats into "Planet Rock.” Roland sold 12,000 units of the TR-808 before production was shut down in 1983 due to lackluster sales and the increasing cost of semiconductors. After its commercial failure, the 808 found an afterlife circulating through secondhand channels, often for under $100. It entered the amateur market, where it allowed young DJs to create custom drum beats instead of having to sample breaks or track a live drummer. Miami bass producers made further innovations, using 808 samples on E-mu SP12 and SP1200 sequencers in order to further manipulate them. The futuristic, speaker-rattling sound of the 808 was exported throughout the southeast, spawning a lineage of club genres defined by intense beats and danceable, seductive rhythms. The 808's sustained, descending pulse of low frequency information made it the perfect tool for stimulating the body in calculated ways. The other innovation sparked by the 808 and refined in the clubs is what pioneering Atlanta DJ Shawty Redd refers to as “booty-shake hi-hats:” tightly gated and high-passed, rapid-fire hi hats approach the point where repetition collapses into frequency and modulation of rhythm becomes melody (Setaro, 2018).
Trap music is an offshoot of crunk with darker, more violent lyrical themes – a nihilistic reflection of the socioeconomic issues still relevant in the contemporary urban south (Bradley, 2021). “The trap” is both a location and a lifestyle, an entrapping cycle of drugs, money, power, struggle, and tragedy. Also a literal trap: the abandoned, dead end alleys of Atlanta, where drug deal go down privately and securely. Trap music can be considered a type of gangsta rap, and as has often been the case in hip hop, the underground trap industry overlaps with various criminal enterprises. Trap houses double as DIY studios, earning startup capital from the sale of illicit drugs. BMF Entertainment represents a high profile example of this cross-subsidization; an influential promotions agency and record label, the firm was responsible for launching the career of Young Jeezy and was funded by Atlanta's biggest cocaine distribution network, the Black Family Mafia (Shalhoup, 2006). The hip hop industry has always been structured around local and regional independent labels partnering with national labels and distributors, serving a triple function of minimizing investment, maintaining a discourse of locality and “street cred,” and keeping media executives at arm’s length from the illicit underground markets that fuel hip hop startups (Negus, 2004).
Discussion: Rhetorical Functions of Pop Music
Earlier, I described pop music as directed toward listener effect, which classifies pop music as a rhetorical art – the engineering of listener response. This is something it shares with gospel traditions, and which shows up in southern hip hop not simply in the gospel and R&B tropes that color the southern soundscape of the Dungeon Family, but through a general familiarity of gospel’s sonic-rhetorical techniques: things like repetition, catchiness, and participation. These devices have been honed for centuries by religious institutions seeking to elicit spiritual experiences in their listeners. As participatory black folk culture evolved through the 19th and 20th centuries along two parallel courses – one secular, one sacred – southern hip hop represents a rhetorically potent synthesis of the two strains.
Pop music has (at least) three primary rhetorical functions. The first, overarching concern is to encourage music consumption. This means, of course, that pop music needs to be enjoyable. Further, pop songs need high replay value and to be catchy, hence the importance of the earworm. The second function can broadly be described as producing identification (Frith, 2007). One one level, this includes identification with the artist and with a community of fans, but it also means identification with a shared ideological structure that allows a community to exist and an artist to communicate meaning.
The third function of pop music is to induce movement within a calculated range of social acceptability – i.e., dance (Warner, 2003). Hip hop’s emergence coincided with the death of disco, but what disco left behind was a legacy of pop music as club music (Potter, 2001). Contemporary clubs are heterotopian sites where the social apparatus is subsumed under the beat and the body, recentering the DJ in the hip hop hierarchy for the first time since “Rapper’s Delight.” While radio play has been and remains important for commercial success, underground momentum in Southern hip hop lies in the club circuit. Producers solicit DJs to add songs by new artists to a rotation and successful songs are replayed and shared throughout the local and regional club scenes, with strip clubs being especially important as networking sites for Atlanta’s industry professionals (Balaji, 2012). However they diverge stylistically, Miami bass and its southern progeny in crunk and trap share a common interest in the transduction of microscopic movement (i.e. sound/vibration) into macroscopic movement (e.g. dance, singing). This involves the exercise of power through sound, using loud and bass-heavy music to disorient the listener, collapsing the distinction between the senses: sonic dominance, a technique inherited from West Kingston’s Dancehall culture (Henriques, 2003). In Atlanta’s Zone 5 – where the hottest dance clubs are a stone’s throw away from the biggest recording studios – techniques of sonic dominance are studied, tested, and perfected.
On May 6 2018, the single “This is America” by Childish Gambino was released with its accompanying music video. Featuring guest vocals by fellow Atlantan Young Thug and ad libs by host of contemporary trap rappers, the song and video juxtapose trap cliches, club-friendly dances, gospel music, and horrific bursts of violence. Gambino satirizes both the grim nihilism of trap and the detached fantasy of party culture, a simultaneous critique and culmination of southern hip hop’s musical-cultural legacy. It is as conflicted and contradictory as the city of Atlanta, where radical artistic innovation meets pervasive systemic oppression, a mecca where artists can jumpstart their careers with either grant money or drug money.
Southern hip hop came to define pop music in the 21st century at least in part because of the convergence of two distinctly southern rhetorical traditions with the dynamic cultural phenomenon of hip hop. On one hand, gospel music represents an inescapable aspect of the black southern experience. Its incorporation into hip hop by way of the Dungeon Family was facilitated by Maynard Jackson’s arts initiatives, even as the mayor’s betrayals of his black working class constituency fueled a righteous anger at the city’s black elites. On the other side, clubs constitute an important means of escape and fantasy for southern urbanites, and the geographic proximity of clubs and studios in downtown Atlanta make it the perfect location to experiment with new styles of club music and new ways to move masses of people. Each concerned with evoking calculated reactions from audiences, these two traditions constitute a powerful rhetorical toolkit for pop producers appropriating southern hip hop, or hip hop producers crossing over into the pop industry.
The hegemony of hip hop in the 21st century has been an ambivalent development for black artists, and it is beyond the scope of this study to assert definitively whether pop music has colonized southern hip hop or the reverse. The East and West Coasts are still the financial centers of pop music, but cultural capital now gravitates toward Atlanta and the South. Suffice it to say that, as the pop industry has reorganized to incorporate hip hop through subsidiary deals with independent labels, new means of exploitation have emerged alongside new opportunities for expression and a shared musical lexicon that centers black music in the South.
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