Still More Backstage!
by Jess Harvell
For a region that obviously dwarfs New York's piddling five boroughs, Roni Sarig's excellent new history of Southern rap, Third Coast: Outkast, Timbaland, and How Hip-Hop became a Southern Thing ($16.95, Da Capo Press) is one of the few of its kind and, nonetheless, overdue. Hip-hop heads cringing at OutKast and Timbalandâ"often lazy mainstream media shorthand for all of Southern hip-hopâ"appearing so prominently in Sarig's title should note that Scarface and Eightball and MJG appear just as prominently in a narrative that moves up and down I-95 and across I-10, from Houston to Virginia Beach and back again. And while he tracks the moves of modern-day pop impresarios such as L.A. Reid and Jermaine Dupri, Sarig is also happy to discuss the countrified and just plain weird, from Field Mob to Bubba Sparxxx.
Fans will also be happy that, as a historian, Sarig is commendably thorough, devoting ample space to the half-remembered progenitors of regional styles like New Orleans bounce and Memphis buck, obscure producers and rappers crucial to the story of each state's cross-pollinated contribution to Southern hip-hop. Sarig's not a flashy stylist, and he has a slight tendency to repeat info for the layman, like explaining the black fraternity/spring break celebration Freaknik several times over. But his quick clipâ"his descriptions of the various regional hip-hop styles are admirably un flashy, never getting needlessly poetic when a little concrete fact will doâ"means Third Coast 's few hundred tidy but info-packed pages avoid clutter. And Sarig does consistently slip in tiny descriptive jewels, like describing Timbaland's production on Ginuwine's â“Ponyâ” as â“the sexy sound of a robot regurgitating.â”
And if the Dirty South's id-addled aggression, pole-dancing swagger, and crack fantasies have made it a sitting duck for old-school hip-hop moralists, Sarig's defense of supposedly â“simplisticâ” Southern hip-hop is not just necessary but admirable and inventive, including a discussion of crucial differences between high-toned Norman/French and blunt-edged Saxon/Germanic derived English. The â“terse eloquence of Germanic wordsâ” still â“spark[s] the language of the underdogâ” today, which is certainly a new way of explaining the mosh-pit power of Lil Jon's chants. But while Sarig is, to his credit, quick to take rappers to task when their lyrical content gets indefensible, occasionally in his proselytizing fervor he says things that are hard to take prima facie seriously. Does anyone out there really believe that the Ying Yang Twins' â“Pull My Hairâ” constitutes â“a leap in maturity by addressing the needs of the woman in the sexual transactionâ”? The use of the cold, businesslike word â“transactionâ” to describe lovemaking was perhaps unintentional on Sarig's part, but its conflagration of sex, money and power is still a reminder that talking pop music often takes us into morally ambiguous areas at best. (Just ask Russell Simmons and Oprah.)
Despite the rock-friendly modernist weirdness of Timbaland or the Dungeon Family's soul-food slant, Sarig knows that meat-and-potatoes gangsta rap is the inescapable backbone of Southern hip-hop, from Houston's â“gangsta gothsâ” to New Orleans' â“soldiers in the murder capital,â” and it's his bipartisan approach to such a thorny subject that makes Third Coast such a fascinating and complex piece of history, telling a sprawling, artistically rich (and bling-rich) story that was previously scattered across old magazine articles, internet sites, and the oral history passed down within the scene itself. It should make a useful tool if you ever find yourself trapped in a conversation with Nas or anyone else claiming hip-hop died when it moved down South.
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