Ben Westhoff’s overview of Southern rap’s rise from oft-mocked underdog to Third Coast powerhouse provides a useful overview of a a cross-section of recent hip-hop history, from 2 Live Crew to Gucci Mane. Serious hip-hop fans may know much of the history and anecdotes Westhoff shares in Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, And The Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop, but it’s a zippy read, bolstered by fresh interviews and a coherent argument. Westhoff is convinced that micro-genres like snap and sissy bounce are worth taking seriously, and he presents a good case.
Full of colorful stories, Dirty South stumbles mostly whenever Westhoff stops merely narrating the rise of much-derided performers like Nelly and Soulja Boy and begins arguing for their merits. Of the latter, he offers the hapless defense that “inelegant drivel” has always sold well. But he also makes the point that market forces from the ground up—rather than cynical record labels—are powering performers like Soulja Boy, whose self-built regional followings are a better indicator of what’ll sell than the old-fashioned label scouting process. For Westhoff, a producer like DJ Smurf—who brought Soulja Boy to national attention—is as important a figure as OutKast, and his big-picture overview of 20 years of hip-hop history pays admirably equal attention to both the business and the art of Southern hip-hop.
Dirty South begins with Westhoff hanging out with the past and present of Southern hip-hop. First he tracks down the producers behind Ms. Peachez, whose viral video hit “Fry That Chicken” inspired predictable controversy with its video of a man in drag chanting about preparing poultry. Then he tags along with Luke Campbell, who declares “I started this shit, the whole fucking South” and explains his lyrics’ origins (“I said, ‘Take it off! Take it off!’ Then the crowd said, ‘Take it off!’ Before you know it, they’re taking it off”). In both, Westhoff sees true populists catering to a public taste often derided, but worth taking seriously.
Westhoff presents mini-histories of different cities and alliances, from Houston’s Geto Boys To Atlanta’s overlapping Goodie Mob and OutKast year in the mid-’90s. Closer to the present, his narratives become more scattershot: His chapter on T-Pain, for example, devolves into a timeline of attacks on Auto-Tune. In general, Westhoff is sharper and has more fresh insights and interviews to offer before he gets to the last five years. As a general history of a musical scene perpetually fighting for more respect, it’s a useful primer, a respectful but generally not overstated argument for how Southern rap has altered the musical landscape.