In 2001, New York hip-hop shifted in a way that became more corporate and commercial. The airwaves weren’t permeated with “conscious rap” anymore. The sound was changing. Hip-hop purists who bemoan the rise of “mumble rap” seem to forget when songs like “Izzo” were hot. Jay-Z, one of the best to ever do it, really went in the studio and said with a straight face—"for shizzle my nizzle used to dribble down in V.A.” Then, to bring his point home, he hit us with, “For sheezy, my neezy, keep my arms so breezy.” These lines feel prophetic and ironic coming from a man who, in 1998, said, “It’s like New York been soft ever since Snoop came through and crushed the buildings.” Young Jay was talking to Hov circa 2001, but he didn’t know it.
At the same time, rappers from the South grew in popularity. They transcended the South and started winning accolades traditionally given to New York rappers. The mecca of hip-hop was no longer dominating the conversation. This shift wasn’t well received. When OutKast won the Soul Train Award for best rap group the audience responded by heckling them in the middle of the award show. It didn’t stop their rise. Something distinctive was happening in the South. OutKast was creating music that spoke directly to and for southerners. They were not New York, and not only were they okay with that, but they also made sure you knew it.
One of their most popular songs during my last year in college was easily “Aint Nobody Fresh as Me.” Their lyrics and sartorial choices were in stark contrast to the baggy jeans and Timberland boots worn in New York. In hip-hop, the clothes are just as part of the culture as graffiti and breakdancing. The clothing descriptions they provided in the song felt like a statement from a group that rejected New York hip-hop norms and celebrated their southern roots. Lyrics like, “Sir Lucious gots gator belts and patty melts and Mone Carlos and El Dorados,” beautifully highlighted this.
Beyond the clothes, the song spoke in many ways that were specific to Atlanta-based lovers of hip-hop. They made references that required you to be familiar with Georgia’s HBCUs. “Left her throat warm in the dorm room at the A.U.” The A.U., Atlanta University, is a hub for many Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and apparently, bragging about sexual exploits is not restricted to those in the North.
One thing I learned quickly while in school was that HBCU’s are a vital part of Southern living, far more than in the North. Except for Delaware State University and Lincoln University in PA, the Northeast doesn’t have any HBCUs. Outkast rapped for an audience who understood these subtleties of Southern life. They provided no explanation or apologies for centering the South in their music, and by the time I graduated college, I too would find a richer and fuller appreciation for my own Southern heritage.