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A Guide To Southern Hip-Hop
Big Boi and Andre 3000 of Outkast

Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Firefly Music Festival

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A Guide To Southern Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From The Dirty South

A geographical region far larger than the coasts, the South stretches from Texas to Virginia and includes myriad subgenres. Home to Outkast, Big Freedia, Ludacris and many others, the Third Coast has something to say in its own language.

GRAMMYs/Aug 15, 2023 - 02:48 pm

For decades, hip-hop was regulated to New York, even though its musical stylings traveled to neighboring cities such as Boston and Philadelphia. In those cities, hip-hop was a cultural production of the city’s individual sound and history, rather than that of an entire region. 

The power of L.A.'s  emergent style of gangsta rap was the first attempt by an outsider to change hip-hop. As L.A. rappers began to give those from NYC rappers a challenge, the surrounding cities were solidified under the East Coast banner. 

Often lost in the retelling of hip-hop’s birth are cities, regions and states in between the coasts. This absence may be due to the concentration of record labels and media corporations on the East and West Coast, or ill-informed beliefs that classify sections of the nation as backwards.

But expressions of hip-hop are expansive, and its culture is well represented in the South. A geographical region far larger than the coasts, the South stretches from Texas to Virginia. Along state lines, hip-hop finds itself at the intersection of Southernness and Blackness, leading to the creation of myriad subgenres. 

Hip-hop sound traveled to New Orleans, where bounce was born in the city’s housing projects, and to Memphis where it became buck and crunk. In Atlanta, snap and trap music reign supreme, while electronic bass booms along the beaches of Miami. In every state, hip-hop took on a new voice, new moniker, and new identity. 

With each innovation, the sound was able to expand beyond state lines to a diverse, wide ranging language along the region. Instead of accommodating the voices of the East or the West, the South a.k.a. the Third Coast entered into hip-hop with something to say in its own language. 

Listen to the Spotify playlist below or visit Amazon Music, Pandora and Apple Music and take a journey through the diverse sounds of Southern hip-hop.

A Brief History Of Dirty South Hip-Hop

The birth of Southern hip-hop begins at the 1995 Source Awards, where Atlanta based hip-hop duo OutKast won Best New Artist and Best New Rap of the Year for their debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. As André 3000 and Big Boi walked on stage, they were put with a chorus of boos. Although the ceremony was held at the height of East vs. West Coast rivalry, the coasts agreed on a singular purpose: The South had no claim to hip-hop.

There’s one thing the coasts don’t know about Southerns, especially Black Southerners. When your people and community have been culturally, socially, and politically oppressed, a few boos don’t feel like much. This resistance was evident in André 3000’s impassioned delivery of an acceptance speech, that served not only as a rebuke of bicoastal elites but a reverent call to arms for every rapper in the Southern United States.

"It’s like this though. I’m tired of folks. You know what I’m saying? Close minded folks. You know what I’m saying? It’s like we got a demo tape and nobody wants to hear it. But it’s like this. The South got something to say. That’s all I got to say."

Those words, uttered by a young André 3000, echoed through the South. Although the Atlanta group was the first Southern group to achieve mainstream recognition  for their work, the first Southern hip-hop group to reach commercial success was the Geto Boys from Houston. Texas — a state, which is often referred to as its country, an amalgamation of different regional dialects and sounds — laid the foundation for André’s charge.

After the duo left The Source Awards stage, they swore to Goodie Mob, another Atlanta based group in attendance, "One day they’re gonna have to f— with us." Months after the 1995 Source Awards, Goodie Mob released their own critically acclaimed debut, Soul Food. The album propelled Southern hip-hop to the masses, and featured a track entitled "Dirty South." The term, first used by Atlanta rapper Cool Breeze, gave a name to the burgeoning hip-hop movement south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Instead of rejecting the coastal elitism of hip-hop, the Dirty South embraced it — in fact they sold it. Rappers from the Dirty South did not emulate New York or L.A style;  they reinterpreted and investigated cultural perceptions and stereotypes about being country, backwards, forgotten to the time and the nation. Southern rappers also interrogated America’s past, present and future. For Black Southerners — whose cultural hallmarks and cornerstones are distinctly entwined with remnants of the Confederacy, the Klan, and the Civil Rights movement — hip-hop gave the ability to document a region and people lost to the American consciousness. 

The aesthetics of Southern hip-hop were rooted in the power and reclamation of things once thought to be country: Gold dental crowns evolved into grills; the four pack of oversized white tees from the dollar store became a nightlife staple; André 3000, Pastor Troy, Lil Jon and Ludacris reinterpreted the Confederate flag. The attire of strippers from across the South became the blueprint for women’s fashion. Cash Money introduced "Bling Bling" into the American consciousness.

While East Coast rap was heavily influenced by musical stylings of immigrants from the Caribbean with notes of funk and soul, rap in the Dirty South took inspiration from blues and gospel — genres birthed from hymns and psalms sung in the fields and plantations. The Dirty South brought their ancestors with them. Their rap style and delivery had an inherent country twang, an accent reminiscent of a period lost to time yet modern; its incorporation of rock 'n' roll, jazz, and funk embodied a contemporary Southern spirit. 

If the introduction of West Coast rap struck fear in the East Coast, the South was a laughing stock, until the South started to sell in the early to mid 2000s. Some critics attribute the ascension of Southern hip-hop to the fatigue of the East vs. West Coast rivalry. Others say hip-hop was in need of a new start after the early passings of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. Whether both claims are true or false, the Dirty South was the future.

Notable Southern Hip-Hop Artists & Labels

Atlanta: The epicenter of the Dirty South. In the early 1980s, Atlanta' hip-hop started to get its foothold with airplay on local radio stations, artists being signed to Miami-based record labels, and early success on the music charts and the GRAMMYs. Rapper Mo-Jo, club DJ King Edward J, and Peter "MC Shy D" Jones were among the first in the city’s hip-hop community. At the time Jones was signed to Luke Records, a Miami based record label started by Luke Campbell of the 2 Live Crew. The hyper localized scene benefited from the contributions of club DJs Kizzy Rock and DJ Smurf, who shifted Atlanta’s sound from a Miami bass derivative into a distinctive sound. 

From the mid 1980s, a number of local record labels emerged: Ichiban Records and Wrap Records. However when Antonio "L.A." Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds moved to Atlanta in 1989, the local hip-hop scene changed. In the 1990s, their LaFace Records signed Goodie Mob, Outkast, producers Organized Noize, TLC, Usher, Xscape and others. Meanwhile, Jermaine Dupri founded So So Def record label. Under the direction of Lil Jon, the label’s A&R, the label signed Xscape, Da Brat, Jagged Edge, and more acts aligned with the R&B/hip-hop sound. As the signees of LaFace and So So Def Records triumphed, Def Jam Records hired Scarface of the Geto Boys to lead their Southern division, Def Jam South, which signed Ludacris

As a solo artist Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz released "We Still Crunk Up!,""Put Yo Hood Up,""Kings of Crunk," and "Crunk Juice," a series of albums credited with bringing crunk into the mainstream. The popularity of crunk and dance music was heralded by Crime Mob, D4L, Dem Franchise Boyz, Soulja Boy and more who gave Atlanta hip-hop prominence not only in music but Internet culture.

New Orleans: In the aftermath of bounce music’s expansion in the early 1990s, Parkway Pumpkin’ Records was the holding place of New Orleans’ talent. Mystikal, known then as Mystikal Mike, was one of the label’s early signees. Along with Magnolia Slim, an architect of the New Orleans hip-hop sound. At the time, Parkway Pumpkin were free to record with other labels like Big Boy Records. When Master P moved back home from the Bay Area, his No Limit Records existed alongside local independent record labels like Cash Money, Take Fo’, Tombstone and Untouchable. 

In a strategic business move, No Limit Records took Mystikal, Soulja Slim (formerly known as Magnolia Slim), and producer KLC from Parkway Pumpkin. As well as the signing of his family members C-Murder, Silkk the Shocker, Master P signed Mia X, the first lady of No Limit Records to the label. KLC, known as Craig S. Lawson, formed Beats by the Pound, the production behind No Limit Records. One of his first productions, Down South Hustlers, a compilation tape that featured New Orleans' first rap group New York Incorporated, signified No Limit Records attempt to exemplify Dirty South culture. Although No Limit Records secured a major label investment in 1996, Cash Money Records emerged in 1998 as a challenger with their new signees of Juvenile, Big Tymers, Hot Boys, and Lil Wayne with production by Mannie Fresh.

Memphis: At Club No Name, the first club in Memphis to play hip-hop, DJ Spanish Fly originated as one of the first creators to bring Memphis rap into shape. Although the patrons’ preference skewed towards electro, DJ Fly would incorporate his own preferences into mixes at Club No Name, Club Expo, and the Crystal Palace Skating Rink. His mixes maintained an ominous groove that included notes of electro but made room for moody rap. Though DJ Spanish Fly was among the first to evolve Memphis rap, DJ Squeeky defined the city’s sound with the insertion of a SP-1200 and Roland keyboard. 

His influence can be heard in early mixtapes from DJ Paul and Juicy J. DJ Paul and Lord Infamous, his half brother formed the Serial Killaz. When the duo met with Juicy J, the three formed The Backyard Posse. Over time, the group added Koopsta Knicca, Crunchy Black, and Gangsta Boo. The six person group was renamed Three 6 Mafia and released their first album, Mystic Stylez under Prophet Records. Mystic Stylez also featured the female rapper La Chat and Project Pat, the brother of Juicy J. Shortly after their deal, the group parted ways with Prophet and formed their own label Hypnotize Minds. La Chat also released "Murder She Spoke," her debut album on the record label. 

Under the direction of DJ Paul and Juicy J, the rappers under the Hypnotize Minds label achieved commercial and critical success, as well as an Academy Award for It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" for Hustle & Flow, a drama set in Memphis that follows DJay (played by Terrence Howard), a pimp and drug dealer with aspirations of becoming a rapper.

Miami: Before hip-hop migrated down from New York, Miami already had a DJ style. In Miami, the DJs would be "regulating": or "mic checkin','' where the DJ brought down the record for a short period of time and insert their own lyrics to remix the song in a similar fashion to reggae and dancehall DJs. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, DJs would travel with their generators, turntables, speakers, and equipment to perform in public and private spaces across the city. 

As local DJs put their spin on hip-hop, the city’s rappers energetic sound which came to be known as Miami bass, a diasporic influenced heavy bass sound that contained elements of electro and synthesizers were heard in the music of the Gucci Crew, Clay D, MC A.D.E., and the 2 Live Crew. The 2 Live Crewwas the first to bring the Miami bass sound to the mainstream. The group released their albums under then Skyywalker Records (now Luke Records), member Luther Campbell’s record label. Their success came at a cost. The sexually explicit nature of their lyrics resulted in a federal court obscenity trial, which established the precedent for censorship in music. 

In the mid to late 1990s, Slip-n-Slide Records, a label founded by Ted Lucas, signed Trick Daddy, a Liberty City resident who thematically used the language of gangsta rap to speak about the struggles and challenges of living in a disenfranchised area. However, it was Trina who joined Trick Daddy on "Nann N—a," who put the city, its women, and women across the Dirty South with her as refuted Trick Daddy on his own track. "Da Baddest Bitch," her debut album released on Slip N Slide label put her in conversation with Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown as a contender for the Queen of hip-hop title.  

Subgenres Of Southern Hip-Hop

For the past two decades, the Dirty South has been responsible for hip-hop’s expansion and evolution. The region has conducted a variety of sonic experiments and melodic sounds to produce an expansive lexicon that represents the conflict, tension, and joy about being Black in the South. 

Southern hip-hop does not shy away from the underground, but rather embraces it. The music in itself is a contradiction: A track used for shaking ass at the strip clubs, while patrons eat chicken wings, can originate from a gospel beat. Because to be Black in the South, where your ancestors were once enslaved, is disorienting.

Bounce music: New Orleans has a vast musical history and structure: The chanting of the Mardi Gras Indians, the brass of the second line bands, and the expressiveness of parade culture cultivated a music of lively and celebration. When hip-hop arrived, it incorporated notes of the existing styles into a call-and-response formula over a series of rhythmic beats which invoked attendees into dance. Originating in the city's housing projects, this new style of bounce music took a new life in the city’s nightlife. Folks felt called to participate in the chanting, the hyper-localized lyrics, and high energy drum patterns familiar to second line culture. Although Big Freedia, is known as the Queen of Bounce Music, and rightfully so. The musician got their start working with Katey Red, "the first trans woman bounce artist.

Buck music: Within Memphis’ skating rinks and club cultures a dance music that ricocheted through the body, was born. Local DJs reinterpreted samples of soul and funk music, keyboard melodies of the Black church, with distinctive time signatures and cadences, on top of electronic-focused bass to give rise to a lexicon of dance styles including  jookin’ and stomping. The heavy bass music stylings of Memphis also gave birth to trap and crunk, two styles most associated with Atlanta.

Crunk music: What would crunk music be without its patron saint Lil Jon? Although the rapper-producer cannot lay claim to the origins of the musical style, in the early 2000s, Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz brought crunk to popular culture. Known for its party-centered lyrics and uptempo rhythms, crunk music became synonymous with Atlanta’s club and strip culture. The shouting, the energetic call and response, the chanting; crunk became the loud, bold, vocal expression of the city’s youth and music culture.  To be crunk was to be excited. 

Snap music: Snap music, an Atlanta-based form of hip-hop, was ushered in by the rise of handheld technology and social media sites like YouTube in the early 2000s. In lieu of a snare or clap, a snap was inserted as a replacement, often complemented by a whistle. The songs, which shared components of crunk, were exemplified by an accompanying dance and uploaded to social media sites (in much the same way  Gen Z does on TikTok).

Miami bass: Miami, the city of two Souths. One foot in the Southern United States, the other in the geographical South. The demographic, geographic, and cultural mix of Cuban and Haitian, as well as Southern Blackness, produced an eccentric style of hip-hop. Elongated bass built on layered rhythmic production, and short, repetitive phrases ushered in a shout and response style became hallmarks of Miami bass. Played around 125 beats per minute, the style flourished in Miami’s car scene as well as party and adult entertainment culture. 

Trap music: If crunk and snap music were symbols of the jovial Atlanta, then trap emerged as a symbol of the city and Black America’s underground. In a nation where Black communities experienced the onslaught of War on Drugs policies and excessive policing, the only way towards economic freedom was to hustle, and the hymn of the hustle and struggle was trap. Embedded with the dark lyrical content, multilayered kick drums, hi hats and synthesized drums was the moodiness of the duffle bag boy trying to survive. Over time, a holy trinity of the Roland TR-808, snare rolls, and first hand experience gave birth to a style where dope boys could be referred to as kings.  

Definitive Southern Hip-Hop Songs

Three 6 Mafia - "Tear Da Club Up '97" (1997): The conveying of electric bodies in movement can result in one of two ways. The first, a baby. The second, an ass whooping. The club is also a multifaceted place where you can meet the love of your life or the person (or people) who have been "talkin' that s—," as Three 6 Mafia say. This is the environment where "Tear Da Club Up" resides.

The song serves as a call to action. On a good night, the song is a declaration of celebration. On a bad night, an ominous premonition of what’s to come. "Tear Da Club Up" was banned in 17 states, but established the precedent for crunk anthems like "Knuck If You Buck," and the movement of club-esque songs that served a dual purpose for fighting. 

"Tear Da Club Up" remains a reminder of what a night out looks like with Three 6 Mafia.

Gangsta Boo -"Where Dem Dollas At" (1998): In an industry, where the contributions of Black women are used to build the empires of men in hip-hop, Gangsta Boo refused to be silenced. She knew that the voices of young Black women and girls from the South, belonged at that table.

While Juicy J and DJ Paul used Three 6 Mafia to construct their own kingdom in the Third Coast, Gangsta Boo did not sit idly by. Her appearances on Three 6 Mafia's "Mystic Stylez" and "Enquiring Minds" were small glimpses of her power, but her christening was "Where Dem Dollas At." The Queen of Memphis had arrived.

Her presence made the appearance of Juicy J and DJ Paul irrelevant. Her lines became a chant, a psalm, a swift rebuke for every woman who had been taken advantage of by a man and needed a fierce reminder of their power. It made men in Memphis and hip-hop understand exactly what it meant to be a lady from the Third Coast: to endure, to preserve, and to hustle when the odds are against you. To this day if you hear a woman recite "Where Dem Dollas At," know she has conjured the spirit of Gangsta Boo and it would be best to return the money owed by you. 

Trick Daddy feat. Trina - "Nann N—" (1998): Hip-hop has always encouraged the back and forth among emcees — the exchanging of verses, the pointed attention to detail, the eventual crescendo to eviscerate an opponent. There is a reason why battle rap is tethered to its name. Although the spirit of competition has always been omnipresent, the battles were always centered around men. Whenever a woman enters the battle and annihilates an opponent — as  Roxanne Shanté did at the Battle for World Supremacy — the man still emerges as the victor. It was as if femininity was the deciding factor of who could win a battle or not. Until Trina came around.

That is not to say Trina was the first to win a one-on-one battle with a male MC. But, she is the first to utilize femininity in a pointed way to take down an opponent. The first half of "Nann N—" is an elongated list of the ways masculinity has empowered Trick Daddy. In the second half, Trina details the ways her femininity grants her access to things Trick Daddy could not even dream of. The deployment of her sly, viperous lines and sweet, Southern wit took apart Trick Daddy’s line bit by bit. Until she was left as the last person standing. 

The positive reception and response to "Nann N—" placed Trina in conversation with the women rappers of that era, and laid the framework for the next generation of women rappers from the South. 

Juvenile feat. Mannie Fresh & Lil Wayne - "Back That Azz Up" (1999): The opening notes of "Back That Azz Up" are all it takes for people to throw their booties in a series of fashions. Whether circular or up down, the song does not shake about the positionality of where you throw ass, as long as you are shaking it. 

The holy trinity of Mannie Fresh, Juvenile and Lil Wayne not only introduced New Orleans bounce music into the mainstream, but jump started Cash Money Records' takeover of the 2000s. There is no greater party song, revered by people of all generations, genders, races, and creeds than "Back That Azz Up."

Crime Mob feat. Lil Scrappy - "Knuck If You Buck" (2004): For Black youth in the South, there are few outlets to express rage. Crunk music is emo music for Black people, and provides the language to release and move through the torments of being Black in America. For a group of teenagers from outside of Atlanta, Crime Mob were the originators of this type of youth-specific music. 

The group, composed of M.I.G., Cyco Black, Princess, Lil' Jay, Diamond, and Killa C. were the voices of young Black Atlanta.

Recorded in a closet at producer Lil Jay’s house with a knockout track by his little sister, Princess, "Knuck If You Buck" became a rallying cry for Southern teens. With a beat inspired by a brawl at Lil Jay’s house and the stylings of DJ Paul and Juicy J, the song quickly became the group’s biggest hit.

"Yeah, we knuckin and buckin and ready to fight. I betcha I'ma throw them things, so haters best to think twice," became the go-to chant for a country-ass brawl. With the addition of Diamond’s delivery of  "Bitch you irrelevant, step to my residence. Best to back up 'fore I fill you with lead," in the fourth line; the song solidified the pair (Diamond and Princess) as the breakout stars on the collective track. 

Their presence welcomed women to the crunk fight. Where their verbal expressions of anger and violence were warmly received for over 15 years, generations of Black youth have sought solace in this song and whooped ass to it as well. 

Southern Hip-Hop Artists On the Rise

If the Dirty South is the future, the future of Southern hip-hop is female. Jucee Froot, GloRilla, Doechii, Kaliii, KenTheMan, Monaleo, TiaCorine and Baby Tate are among the latest rappers to carry the Dirty South sound and aesthetic. Meanwhile, Saucy Santana and Lil Nas X are changing the South's presentation in terms of gender identity and expression. 

Cultural and societal perceptions of the South have changed greatly, in due part to a new generation of entertainers who champion the South on a continual basis: Houston has found another champion in Megan Thee Stallion; Miami’s new voice is found in the City Girls; in Memphis, GloRilla is carrying on the legion of Gangsta Boo who died in January of this year; and Atlanta has a diverse array of women rappers that prove the city does not have one singular sound. 

By the early 2000s, the classifier "Dirty South" became less of a communal touchstone and  more of a marketing term by record labels in Atlanta. But it was less of a marked loss and more of a massive cultural shift. 

By the mid 2000s, Southern rappers became the dominant voices in hip-hop, and largely took over pop culture. Evidenced by trap music migrating out of Atlanta to pop and genres across the world, the cultural exports of Southern hip-hop can also be found in streetwear and luxury fashion.Within the industry, Dirty South legends like Lil Wayne were honored at the Black Music Collective’s Recording Academy Honors during the 2023 GRAMMY Awards.

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A black-and-white photo of pioneering rap group Run-DMC
Run-DMC

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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'Run-DMC' At 40: The Debut Album That Paved The Way For Hip-Hop's Future

Forty years ago, Run-DMC released their groundbreaking self-titled album, which would undeniably change the course of hip-hop. Here's how three guys from Queens, New York, defined what it meant to be "old school" with a record that remains influential.

GRAMMYs/Mar 27, 2024 - 03:49 pm

"You don't know that people are going to 40 years later call you up and say, ‘Can you talk about this record from 40 years ago?’"

That was Cory Robbins, former president of Profile Records, reaction to speaking to Grammy.com about one of the first albums his then-fledgling label released. Run-DMC’s self-titled debut made its way into the world four decades ago this week on March 27, 1984 and established the group, in Robbins’ words, "the Beatles of hip-hop." 

Rarely in music, or anything else, is there a clear demarcation between old and new. Styles change gradually, and artistic movements usually get contextualized, and often even named, after they’ve already passed from the scene. But Run-DMC the album, and the singles that led up to it, were a definitive breaking point. Rap before it instantly, and eternally, became “old school.” And three guys from Hollis, Queens — Joseph "Run" Simmons, Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell, Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels — helped turn a burgeoning genre on its head.

What exactly was different about Run-DMC? Some of the answers can be glimpsed by a look at the record’s opening song. "Hard Times" is a cover of a Kurtis Blow track from his 1980 debut album. The connection makes sense. Kurtis and Run’s older brother Russell Simmons met in college, and Russell quickly became the rapper’s manager. That led to Run working as Kurtis’ DJ. Larry Smith, who produced Run-DMC, even played on Kurtis’ original version of the song.

But despite those tie-ins, the two takes on "Hard Times" are night and day. Kurtis Blow’s is exactly what rap music was in its earliest recorded form: a full band playing something familiar (in this case, a James Brown-esque groove, bridge and percussion breakdown inclusive.)

What Run-DMC does with it is entirely different. The song is stripped down to its bare essence. There’s a drum machine, a sole repeated keyboard stab, vocals, and… well, that’s about it. No solos, no guitar, no band at all. Run and DMC are trading off lines in an aggressive near-shout. It’s simple and ruthlessly effective, a throwback to the then-fading culture of live park jams. But it was so starkly different from other rap recordings of the time, which were pretty much all in the style of Blow’s record, that it felt new and vital.

"Production-wise, Sugar Hill [the record label that released many key early rap singles] built themselves on the model of Motown, which is to say, they had their own production studios and they had a house band and they recorded on the premises," explains Bill Adler, who handled PR for Run-DMC and other key rap acts at the time.

"They made magnificent records, but that’s not how rap was performed in parks," he continues. "It’s not how it was performed live by the kids who were actually making the music."

Run-DMC’s musical aesthetic was, in some ways, a lucky accident. Larry Smith, the musician who produced the album, had worked with a band previously. In fact, the reason two of the songs on the album bear the subtitle "Krush Groove" is because the drum patterns are taken from his band Orange Krush’s song “Action.”

Read more: Essential Hip-Hop Releases From The 1970s: Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang & More

But by the time sessions for Run-DMC came around, the money had run out and, despite his desire to have the music done by a full band, Smith was forced to go without them and rely on a drum machine. 

His artistic partner on the production side was Russell Simmons. Simmons, who has been accused over the past seven years of numerous instances of sexual assault dating back decades, was back in 1983-4 the person providing the creative vision to match Smith’s musical knowledge.

Orange Krush’s drummer Trevor Gale remembered the dynamic like this (as quoted in Geoff Edgers’ Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song that Changed American Music Forever): “Larry was the guy who said, 'Play four bars, stop on the fifth bar, come back in on the fourth beat of the fifth bar.' Russell was the guy that was there that said, ‘I don’t like how that feels. Make it sound like mashed potato with gravy on it.’”

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It wasn’t just the music that set Run-DMC apart from its predecessors. Their look was also starkly different, and that influenced everything about the group, including the way their audience viewed them.

Most of the first generation of recorded rappers were, Bill Adler remembers, influenced visually by either Michael Jackson or George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. Run-DMC was different.

"Their fashion sense was very street oriented," Adler explains. "And that was something that emanated from Jam Master Jay. Jason just always had a ton of style. He got a lot of his sartorial style from his older brother, Marvin Thompson. Jay looked up to his older brother and kind of dressed the way that Marvin did, including the Stetson hat. 

"When Run and D told Russ, Jason is going to be our deejay, Russell got one look at Jay and said, ‘Okay, from now on, you guys are going to dress like him.’"

Run, DMC, and Jay looked like their audience. That not only set them apart from the costumed likes of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, it also cemented the group’s relationship with their listeners. 

"When you saw Run-DMC, you didn’t see celebrity. You saw yourself," DMC said in the group’s recent docuseries

Read more: 20 Iconic Hip-Hop Style Moments: From Run-D.M.C. To Runways

Another thing that set Run-DMC (the album) and Run-DMC (the group) apart from what came before was the fact that they released a cohesive rap album. Nine songs that all belonged together, not just a collection of already-released singles and some novelties. Rappers had released albums prior to Run-DMC, but that’s exactly what they were: hits and some other stuff — sung love ballads or rock and roll covers, or other experiments rightfully near-forgotten.

"There were a few [rap] albums [at the time], but they were pretty crappy. They were usually just a bunch of singles thrown together," Cory Robbins recalls.

Not this album. It set a template that lasted for years: Some social commentary, some bragging, a song or two to show off the DJ. A balance of records aimed at the radio and at the hard-core fans. You can still see traces of Run-DMC in pretty much every rap album released today.

Listeners and critics reacted. The album got a four-star review in Rolling Stone with “the music…that backs these tracks is surprisingly varied, for all its bare bones” and an A minus from Robert Christgau who claimed “It's easily the canniest and most formally sustained rap album ever.” Just nine months after its release, Run-DMC was certified gold, the first rap LP ever to earn that honor. "Rock Box" also single-handedly invented rap-rock, thanks to Eddie Martinez’s loud guitars. 

There is another major way in which the record was revolutionary. The video for "Rock Box" was the first rap video to ever get into regular rotation on MTV and, the first true rap video ever played on the channel at all, period. Run-DMC’s rise to MTV fame represented a significant moment in breaking racial barriers in mainstream music broadcasting. 

"There’s no overstating the importance of that video," Adler tells me. vIt broke through the color line at MTV and opened the door to a cataclysmic change." 

"Everybody watched MTV forty years ago," Robbins agrees. "It was a phenomenal thing nationwide. Even if we got three or four plays a week of ‘Rock Box’ on MTV, that did move the needle."

All of this: the new musical style, the relatable image, the MTV pathbreaking, and the attendant critical love and huge sales (well over 10 times what their label head was expecting when he commissioned the album from a reluctant Russell Simmons — "I hoping it would sell thirty or forty thousand," Robbins says now): all of it contributed to making Run-DMC what it is: a game-changer.

"It was the first serious rap album," Robbins tells me. And while you could well accuse him of bias — the group making an album at all was his idea in the first place — he’s absolutely right. 

Run-DMC changed everything. It split the rap world into old school and new school, and things would never be the same.

Perhaps the record’s only flaw is one that wouldn’t be discovered for years. As we’re about to get off the phone, Robbins tells me about a mistake on the cover, one he didn’t notice until the record was printed and it was too late. 

There was something (Robbins doesn’t quite recall what) between Run and DMC in the cover photo. The art director didn’t like it and proceeded to airbrush it out. But he missed something. On the vinyl, if you look between the letters "M" and "C,", you can see DMC’s disembodied left hand, floating ghost-like in mid-air. While it was an oversight, it’s hard not to see this as a sign, a sort of premonition that the album itself would hang over all of hip-hop, with an influence that might be hard to see at first, but that never goes away. 

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Students participate in Getting Funky In Havana
Cuban music conservatory students perform during Getting Funky In Havana 2024

Photo: Eduardo Reyes Aranzaez

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At Getting Funky In Havana, Young Musicians Feel The Power Of Cross-Cultural Connection

An annual program organized by the Trombone Shorty Foundation and Cimafunk, Getting Funky In Havana explores the deep connections between Cuba and New Orleans — and provides student musicians with once-in-a-life-time learning opportunities.

GRAMMYs/Mar 25, 2024 - 08:34 pm

It’s sweltering inside the Guillermo Tomas Music Conservatory, a primary school in Havana’s Guanabacoa neighborhood, where American visitors enjoy what will likely be the best school recital they'll ever see.  

A series of teen and tween musicians — some in trios and quartets, others in larger ensembles — are playing a mix of Latin jazz, orchestral overtures and even a rousing rendition of the Ghostbusters theme. During an interpolation of Aretha Franklin's "Think," three young horn players burst to the front of the group in a competitive but friendly battle of brass. 

The performance is the centerpiece of Getting Funky in Havana, a four-day music and cultural exchange program developed by GRAMMY-nominated Cuban funk artist Cimafunk, GRAMMY-winning New Orleans multi-instrumentalist Trombone Shorty's namesake foundation, and Cuba Educational Travel. Now in its third year, Getting Funky brought nearly 200 American music lovers, artists and students to Havana in January to explore the deep connections between Cuban and New Orlenian sounds through a series of performances, educational activities and panels. 

"Cuba and New Orleans have a long line of influence, and we have special things that happen in both places that people can hear through our music," Trombone Shorty, born Troy Andrews, tells GRAMMY.com. "Passing along music and knowledge is…how the music's staying alive. I always try to tell the kids, learn everything that came before you, but also be very innovative."

While there are many conservatories in Havana, Guillermo Tomas was chosen in part for its similarities to New Orleans' Treme neighborhood, where many of the Trombone Shorty Foundation students live. Guanabacoa is "probably the deepest Afro-Cuban cultural neighborhood" in Havana, says Foundation Executive Director Bill Taylor.

Those shared roots and experiences were on display during several capstone concerts, which were also open to Havana residents. At a massive outdoor concert blocks away from Havana's famous Malecón, Getting Funky attendees enjoyed performances from Cuban salsa legends Los Van Van, reparto star Wampi and Shorty's Orleans Avenue. At a pinnacle performance the day before, more than 30 artists gathered at Havana arts hub La Fabrica for a sold-out international jam. Shorty, Big Freedia, Ivan Neville, percussionist Pedrito Martinez, PJ Morton, Tarriona "Tank" Ball, drummer Yissy Garcia and others joined forces with Cuban artists Reina y Real and X Alfonzo to create an unceasing groove. 

Getting Funky In Havana outside school embed

Cuban and American students perform outside Guillermo Tomas┃Eduardo Reyes Aranzaez

While the concerts certainly brought the energy to a fever pitch, the beating heart of Getting Funky is its mission of music education. Ten members of the Trombone Shorty Foundation's brass band traveled to Cuba, where they performed at Getting Funky's opening night party and several other events. Throughout the week, the New Orleans students shared stages with their Cuban counterparts,  learning each others' musical idioms and finding common ground.

"So much of the music [we hear in New Orleans comes] from Africa through the Caribbean to New Orleans, then spreading throughout the United States. When our students connect with those [Cuban] students, there's a natural, symbiotic connection that takes place," Taylor says. 

High school senior and sax player Dylan Racine called the trip — his first time out of the country — a life-changing experience. "I learned so many new skills on this trip, including how to network, how to collaborate with young people from a different culture than me, and more," he says via email. Drummer and pianist John Rhodes, another senior,  added that the experience was invaluable. 

"I was able to interact with another culture and understand other young people through music. Although we couldn't speak the same language, we understood each other musically," he writes.

Both Cuba and New Orleans' unique musical cultures require constant innovation to survive, Taylor adds. "You honor the past, but it needs an infusion of new life in order to thrive. Getting Cuban musicians together with New Orleans musicians infuses a shot of energy into both of those musical styles." 

The trip also put students from both countries in contact with working musicians, whose own perspectives were expanded by the experience. 

"Music education and pedagogical expertise is so important. We need the next level to come up and be dope, just like we are," says trumpeter Keyon Harrold, whose work has taken him from sessions with Beyoncé to the 2024 GRAMMYs. This was Harrold’s second year at Getting Funky. "It's even more visceral and engaging to actually see these kids at the age of 10, 11, 12, and to know that in five years they're going to be the next." 

For many of the musicians who attended, Getting Funky was an inspirational experience that furthered their existing work as well. "I perform for a living, but performing and playing with [students] is super dope. [Their energy is] clean," says GRAMMY-winning producer, rapper and mentor Deezle. "If I can in any way help to guide their path away from the pitfalls that I've encountered and endured, I would love to do that."

Legendary singer/songwriter Ivan Neville said he was blown away while watching young musicians from different worlds performing together. "This music was making their souls feel so good. I know music is good for the soul, but it was another level that I saw."

Getting Funky In Havana Primera Linea

Fabio Daniel (center) and members of Primera Linea, or "first line"┃Eduardo Reyes Aranzaez

Since Getting Funky In Havana was established in 2020, the program has had a measurable impact on Cuban students' lives. In 2023, several young Cuban musicians traveled to New Orleans during JazzFest, where they visited Shorty’s studio and performed together at legendary venue Tipitina's. When the group returned home, they formed their own brass band, Primera Linea. 

"This band is working; they are playing many places in Havana and that's thanks to the project. They were so into the satisfaction of [feeling] that they are valued," says Erik Alejandro Iglesias Rodríguez, who records as Cimafunk. "They are learning good quality things in terms of human relationships and in terms of music. [The program is] something that changes their mentality and lets them know that they can make it." 

While Cuba harbors an incredible amount of musical talent, "making it" as a musician in the country comes with a unique set of challenges. The country's shrinking economy, high rate of inflation and low monthly incomes have 62 percent of Cubans reporting that they "struggle to survive" financially, according to a 2023 survey. Purchasing a professional calibur instrument, which may cost hundreds or thousands of U.S. dollars, often comes with great sacrifice.  

It's an emotional day back at the Guillermo Tomas, where 10 of the school's top students will be awarded an instrument.

"An instrument is not something you can buy in a store," says Amanda Colina González, an art historian and one of the trip guides, who studied saxophone in conservatory. Colina González, like the majority of students, was given an instrument to play for the duration of her studies but had to return it to her school upon graduation. Remembering that moment brought tears to her eyes.

Because of its high cost and the possibility of leading to international travel, owning their own instrument can truly change a young musician's life. Getting Funky has donated approximately 50 instruments to Cuban students over three years of programming. 

Fifteen-year-old Daniela Hernandez was awarded a trombone for her skill and dedication to music outside of school. Harried and teary-eyed after the recital, she shared her happiness and pride for being able to play with musicians who she's long admired. She plans to use her new trombone to study and will "take it with me everywhere."

Daniela and classmate Fabio Daniel (who received a trumpet during the first edition of Getting Funky in Havana in 2020) joined Trombone Shorty onstage at Getting Funky, performing for more than 15,000 people. Several of their friends and classmates brought their instruments to the concert — the largest held in Cuba in the last four years — and played back at the band from the crowd. 

"Cuban musicians really enjoy playing and making other people feel joy through music,” Daniela says. Fellow trombone player and awardee Cristian Onel León says it's important to play for people outside of Cuba, and enjoys teaching people about his country's rhythms and keys. "I’m [also] learning other forms of playing, that aren’t mine. And it feels good,” he adds.

The program's instrument donation is spearheaded by the long-running nonprofit Horns To Havana, and supported by the Gia Maione Prima Foundation and private donors. Tickets purchased to attend the program also fund its efforts; Taylor says 2024's Getting Funky raised approximately $50,000. The Trombone Shorty Foundation hopes to continue the annual event, and expand into different countries; a 2025 Havana trip is already in the works.

For Rodríguez, who recently moved to New Orleans, the effect of this musical exchange is tangible. He's noticed more musicians who are open to collaborating across borders, and is working on new music with artists who have attended Getting Funky in previous years.

"Just jamming changes everything," he says. "That changes the minds of people; that changes the sound."

The connections made during Getting Funky have led to a variety of opportunities for students on both sides of the Gulf of Mexico. Foundation alto saxophonist Jacob Jones credits the trip for broadening his way of thinking while playing music; Deezle says he wants to get Cuban trumpeter and bandleader Fabio Daniel on a track; Primera Linea may perform at San Francisco's Outside Lands festival in August. 

"To be able to facilitate that, and give to these young musicians of Cuba, is unbelievable," Andrews says of the program. "It's just a blessing to be able to be a blessing and help out the next generation, and help those musicians see a brighter future."

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Baby Keem GRAMMY Rewind Hero
Baby Keem (left) at the 2022 GRAMMYs.

Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

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GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Baby Keem Celebrate "Family Ties" During Best Rap Performance Win In 2022

Revisit the moment budding rapper Baby Keem won his first-ever gramophone for Best Rap Performance at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards for his Kendrick Lamar collab "Family Ties."

GRAMMYs/Feb 23, 2024 - 05:50 pm

For Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar, The Melodic Blue was a family affair. The two cousins collaborated on three tracks from Keem's 2021 debut LP, "Range Brothers," "Vent," and "Family Ties." And in 2022, the latter helped the pair celebrate a GRAMMY victory.

In this episode of GRAMMY Rewind, turn the clock back to the night Baby Keem accepted Best Rap Performance for "Family Ties," marking the first GRAMMY win of his career.

"Wow, nothing could prepare me for this moment," Baby Keem said at the start of his speech.

He began listing praise for his "supporting system," including his family and "the women that raised me and shaped me to become the man I am."

Before heading off the stage, he acknowledged his team, who "helped shape everything we have going on behind the scenes," including Lamar. "Thank you everybody. This is a dream."

Baby Keem received four nominations in total at the 2022 GRAMMYs. He was also up for Best New Artist, Best Rap Song, and Album Of The Year as a featured artist on Kanye West's Donda.

Press play on the video above to watch Baby Keem's complete acceptance speech for Best Rap Performance at the 2022 GRAMMYs, and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of GRAMMY Rewind.

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Notorious B.I.G. Biggie Smalls in 1994
Notorious B.I.G. in Brooklyn, 1994

Photo: Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

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How 1994 Changed The Game For Hip-Hop

With debuts from major artists including Biggie and Outkast, to the apex of boom bap, the dominance of multi-producer albums, and the arrival of the South as an epicenter of hip-hop, 1994 was one of the most important years in the culture's history.

GRAMMYs/Feb 13, 2024 - 05:22 pm

While significant attention was devoted to the celebration of hip-hop in 2023 — an acknowledgement of what is widely acknowledged as its 50th anniversary — another important anniversary in hip-hop is happening this year as well. Specifically, it’s been 30 years since 1994, when a new generation entered the music industry and set the genre on a course that in many ways continues until today.

There are many ways to look at 1994: lists of great albums (here’s a top 50 to get you started); a look back at what fans and tastemakers were actually listening to at the time; the best overlooked obscurities. But the best way to really understand why a single 365 three decades ago had such an impact is to narrow our focus to look at the important debut albums released that year. 

An artist’s or group’s debut is their entry into the wider musical conversation, their first full statement about who they are and where in the landscape they see themselves. The debuts released in 1994 — which include the Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die, Nas' Illmatic and Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik from Outkast — were notable not only in their own right, but because of the insight they give us into wider trends in rap.

Read on for some of the ways that 1994's debut records demonstrated what was happening in rap at the time, and showed us the way forward. 

Hip-Hop Became More Than Just An East & West Coast Thing

The debut albums that moved rap music in 1994 were geographically varied, which was important for a music scene that was still, from a national perspective, largely tied to the media centers at the coasts. Yes, there were New York artists (Biggie and Nas most notably, as well as O.C., Jeru the Damaja, the Beatnuts, and Keith Murray). The West Coast G-funk domination, which began in late 1992 with Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, continued with Dre’s step brother Warren G

But the huge number of important debuts from other places around the country in 1994 showed that rap music had developed mature scenes in multiple cities — scenes that fans from around the country were starting to pay significant attention to.

To begin with, there was Houston. The Geto Boys were arguably the first artists from the city to gain national attention (and controversy) several years prior. By 1994, the city’s scene had expanded enough to allow a variety of notable debuts, of wildly different styles, to make their way into the marketplace.

Read more: A Guide To Texas Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Events

The Rap-A-Lot label that first brought the Geto Boys to the world’s attention branched out with Big Mike’s Somethin’ Serious and the Odd Squad’s Fadanuf Fa Erybody!! Both had bluesy, soulful sounds that were quickly becoming the label’s trademark — in no small part due to their main producers, N.O. Joe and Mike Dean. In addition, an entirely separate style centered around the slowed-down mixes of DJ Screw began to expand outside of the South Side with the debut release by Screwed Up Click member E.S.G.

There were also notable debut albums by artists and groups from Cleveland (Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Creepin on ah Come Up), Oakland (Saafir and Casual), and of course Atlanta — more about that last one later.

1994 Saw The Pinnacle Of Boom-Bap

Popularized by KRS-One’s 1993 album Return of the Boom Bap, the term "boom bap" started as an onomatopoeic way of referring to the sound of a standard rap drum pattern — the "boom" of a kick drum on the downbeat, followed by the "bap" of a snare on the backbeat. 

The style that would grow to be associated with that name (though it was not much-used at the time) was at its apex in 1994. A handful of primarily East Coast producers and groups were beginning a new sonic conversation, using innovations like filtered bass lines while competing to see who could flip the now standard sample sources in ever-more creative ways. 

Most of the producers at the height of this style — DJ Premier, Buckwild, RZA, Large Professor, Pete Rock and the Beatnuts, to name a few — worked on notable debuts that year. Premier produced all of Jeru the Damaja’s The Sun Rises in the East. Buckwild helmed nearly the entirety of O.C.’s debut Word…Life. RZA was responsible for Method Man’s Tical. The Beatnuts took care of their own full-length Street Level. Easy Mo Bee and Premier both played a part in Biggie’s Ready to Die. And then there was Illmatic, which featured a veritable who’s who of production elites: Premier, L.E.S., Large Professor, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip.

The work the producers did on these records was some of the best of their respective careers. Even now, putting on tracks like O.C.’s "Time’s Up" (Buckwild), Jeru’s "Come Clean" (Premier), Meth’s "Bring the Pain" (RZA), Biggie’s "The What" (Easy Mo Bee), or Nas’ "The World Is Yours" (Pete Rock) will get heads nodding.

Major Releases Balanced Street Sounds & Commercial Appeal

"Rap is not pop/If you call it that, then stop," spit Q-Tip on 1991’s "Check the Rhime." Two years later, De La Soul were adamant that "It might blow up, but it won’t go pop." In 1994, the division between rap and pop — under attack at least since Biz Markie made something for the radio back in the ‘80s — began to collapse entirely thanks to the team of the Notorious B.I.G. and his label head and producer Sean "Puffy" Combs. 

Biggie was the hardcore rhymer who wanted to impress his peers while spitting about "Party & Bulls—." Puff was the businessman who wanted his artist to sell millions and be on the radio. The result of their yin-and-yang was Ready to Die, an album that perfectly balanced these ambitions. 

This template — hardcore songs like "Machine Gun Funk" for the die-hards, sing-a-longs like "Juicy" for the newly curious — is one that Big’s good friend Jay-Z would employ while climbing to his current iconic status. 

Solo Stars Broke Out Of Crews

One major thing that happened in 1994 is that new artists were created not out of whole cloth, but out of existing rap crews. Warren G exploded into stardom with his debut Regulate… G Funk Era. He came out of the Death Row Records axis — he was Dre’s stepbrother, and had been in a group with a pre-fame Snoop Dogg. Across the country, Method Man sprang out of the Wu-Tang collective and within a year had his own hit single with "I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By." 

Anyone who listened to the Odd Squad’s album could tell that there was a group member bound for solo success: Devin the Dude. Keith Murray popped out of the Def Squad. Casual came out of the Bay Area’s Hieroglyphics. 

Read more: A Guide To Bay Area Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From Northern California

This would be the model for years to come: Create a group of artists and attempt, one by one, to break them out as stars. You could see it in Roc-a-fella, Ruff Ryders, and countless other crews towards the end of the ‘90s and the beginning of the new millennium.

Multi-Producer Albums Began To Dominate

Illmatic was not the first rap album to feature multiple prominent producers. However, it quickly became the most influential. The album’s near-universal critical acclaim — it earned a perfect five-mic score in The Source — meant that its strategy of gathering all of the top production talent together for one album would quickly become the standard. 

Within less than a decade, the production credits on major rap albums would begin to look nearly identical: names like the Neptunes, Timbaland, Premier, Kanye West, and the Trackmasters would pop up on album after album. By the time Jay-Z said he’d get you "bling like the Neptunes sound," it became de rigueur to have a Neptunes beat on your album, and to fill out the rest of the tracklist with other big names (and perhaps a few lesser-known ones to save money).

The South Got Something To Say

If there’s one city that can safely be said to be the center of rap music for the past decade or so, it’s Atlanta. While the ATL has had rappers of note since Shy-D and Raheem the Dream, it was a group that debuted in 1994 that really set the stage for the city’s takeover.

Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was the work of two young, ambitious teenagers, along with the production collective Organized Noize. The group’s first video was directed by none other than Puffy. Biggie fell so in love with the city that he toyed with moving there

Outkast's debut album won Best New Artist and Best New Rap of the Year at the 1995 Source Awards, though the duo of André 3000 and Big Boi walked on stage to accept their award to a chorus of boos. The disrespect only pushed André to affirm the South's place on the rap map, famously telling the audience, "The South got something to say." 

Read more: A Guide To Southern Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From The Dirty South

Outkast’s success meant that they kept on making innovative albums for several more years, as did other members of their Dungeon Family crew. This brought energy and attention to the city, as did the success of Jermain Dupri’s So So Def label. Then came the "snap" movement of the 2000s, and of course trap music, which had its roots in aughts-era Atlanta artists like T.I. and producers like Shawty Redd and DJ Toomp. 

But in the 2010s a new artist would make Atlanta explode, and he traced his lineage straight back to the Dungeon. Future is the first cousin of Organized Noize member Rico Wade, and was part of the so-called "second generation" of the Dungeon Family back when he went by "Meathead." His world-beating success over the past decade-plus has been a cornerstone in Atlanta’s rise to the top of the rap world. Young Thug, who has cited Future as an influence, has sparked a veritable ecosystem of sound-alikes and proteges, some of whom have themselves gone on to be major artists. 

Atlanta’s reign at the top of the rap world, some theorize, may finally be coming to an end, at least in part because of police pressure. But the city has had a decade-plus run as the de facto capital of rap, and that’s thanks in no small part to Outkast. 

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