The vibrating bass and jabbing wit of southern hip-hop provide a soundtrack for contemporary life in Mississippi, and young people throughout the state define themselves and their communities through their engagement with a regional hip-hop aesthetic they call the Dirty South. The global hip-hop movement, which includes dance, art, clothing, and musicianship, emerged as a genre of popular music throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but hip-hop is rooted in the practice of rap, a rhythmic form of black poetic speech that has historically been central to the Mississippi cultural landscape. Mississippians have, in turn, contributed important sounds and styles to the development of hip-hop as a global genre. Rather than representing a break with traditional forms of song and speech, the synthesizer riffs and chanting cadence of ’Sip-hop represent the latest version of Mississippi’s complex black oral and musical traditions.
Mississippi’s best-known commercial hip-hop artists include Jackson’s David Banner and DJ Kamikaze (originally of the group Crooked Lettaz), Batesville’s Soulja Boy, and Hattiesburg’s Afroman. Many Mississippians are involved in national and regional groups and are pioneers in the deep southern hip-hop subgenre of crunk music—a slow, bassy, chanting dance floor production style that reached its commercial apex in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Mississippi artists such as Nate Dogg have brought the gospel-infused sounds of southern rap to the West Coast gangsta aesthetic and influenced hip-hop styles in larger southern cities including Memphis, Atlanta, and New Orleans.
Far from the big-city recording studio or sound stage, however, most Mississippi artists prefer a kind of improvisatory hip-hop poetry called freestyle, a practice of poetic improvisation and rhythmic vocal play that emerges in the living rooms and on street corners of everyday creative community life. This poetry can be accompanied by an oral technique called beatboxing, which uses the mouth and breath to mimic drum sounds, improvised over instrumental versions of popular hip-hop songs, or “spit” in a rapid-fire a capella that recalls a host of Mississippi oral-musical styles. The freestyle artist must show a deep knowledge of hip-hop slang and lyrics while improvising new commentaries on the situation at hand.
The deep-rooted Mississippi blues are perhaps the strongest strain present in current regional pop styles; the improvised, spoken-word blues boasts of artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Koko Taylor portray the themes of physical prowess, vocal strength, and masterful wordplay that anchor ’Sip-hop today. Further, the bass-heavy sounds and rhythmic interplay of the Mississippi blues are echoed in the deep sounds of crunk music. Classic rapping blues artists such as Ike Turner and Early Wright can still be found in clubs and locally owned radio stations in the region. These Mississippi mainstays not only weave verbal riffs, shout-outs, song lyrics, and poetic fragments into their performance but also juggle multiple records or CDs on their equipment, cutting and mixing in a down-home version of hip-hop’s scratching, remixing and MC-ing techniques. In Mississippi today, many local radio stations feature hip-hop DJs who talk to callers, announce community events, and encourage listeners to dance over the sounds of remixed hip-hop records. They also feature home recordings of local hip-hop artists in their musical mixes and host on-air freestyle battles.
Although conventional hip-hop histories place the genesis of hip-hop on the East Coast in the mid-1970s and the movement itself was named and organized by New York artist Afrika Bambaataa, the poetic, musical, and stylistic techniques of hip-hop have been firmly rooted in the American South for centuries. Many hip-hop researchers recognize the importance of an African American insult-trading practice called the dozens (typically an exchange of improvised “yo’ mama” jokes) in the formation of early rap styles, particularly in the practice of rap battling, in which two rappers trade poetic boasts and insults with coolness and wit. Hip-hop also draws from the barroom toasts, or long epic poems involving an unlikely hero outwitting oppressive opponents; these include tales drawn from African proverbs such as the Signifying Monkey and tales of plantation rebels or badmen such as Railroad Bill. The prison work songs and levee hollers documented by folklorists John W. Work, Alan Lomax, and William Ferris also underline the chugging call-and-response, sparse rhythms, and droning sound of Mississippi crunk styles.
These hip-hop roots continue to thrive throughout Mississippi today, as kids weave popular rap lyrics into their schoolyard dozens games and young people underline their hip-hop performances with story lines drawn from the classic badmen toasts. Collaborations between blues musicians and rappers, gospel singers, and hip-hop producers are common. Many Mississippi clubs feature classic blues, southern soul, R&B, pop, and hip-hop in a single Saturday-night mix, and older club patrons are often familiar with emerging hip-hop dances. Children create homemade Internet videos in which they parody the lyrics of a popular hip-hop song to represent their community and state.
Although the most recognized commercial practitioners of ’Sip-hop are young men, women are critical to the local hip-hop movement in a number of ways, both as artists and less visibly through family and religious traditions. Many women in Mississippi cultivate a poetic talent and stage dramatic readings at family reunions and community gatherings; young rappers often learn the skills of rhyme and elocution in this setting. Gospel preaching and song, particularly with the African American Holiness and Church of God in Christ churches of the region, infuses ’Sip-hop with its signature rich vocals and biblical phrasing. Much Mississippi hip-hop is religious in nature, and performances often take place inside the church. Mississippi’s rich African American rhythmic, musical, spiritual, and poetic heritage continues to nourish new global movements in music.
- Roger D. Abrahams, Singing the Master: The Emergence of African American Culture in the Plantation South (1992)
- William Ferris, Blues from the Delta (1979)
- Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal, eds., That’s the Joint! A Hip-Hop Studies Reader (2004)
- Ali Colleen Neff, Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story (2009)
- John Wesley Work, Lewis Wade Jones, and Samuel C. Adams Jr., Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University–Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941–1942, ed. Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov (2005)