Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Hip Hop, Country, Racism, and the Question of Musical Purity

Country Rapper Colt Ford Generates Controversy, Draws Criticism but Manages to Rise above the Fray

More than three decades after it happened, it’s easy to forget that hip hop was literally born at a disco concert.  Although it’s not actually the first recorded single to contain rapping, certainly the birth of rap as a popular phenomenon can be traced back to the fateful night that Fab Five Freddy jumped up on stage during a disco show and busted out what at the time was a nearly unheard of musical innovation.  The result, “Rapper’sDelight,” has since become iconic, and no music aficionado can possibly forget that catchy disco beat along with the words which literally defined a genre:  I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop ah you don’t stop.”  A revolution was born.  Described by the Sugarhill Gang’s studio owner Sylvia Robinson as “kids talking really fast over the beat,” hip hop exploded and quickly became one of the most influential movements in twentieth-century popular music. 

Yes, it can sometimes be hard to believe that the gangsta rap of N.W.A., Easy-E, Ice-T, and Tupac is so closely related on the musical family tree to disco, but there it is.  The bass line of the hit song “Rapper’s Delight” was lifted straight out of the Chic’s single “Good Times” and when they threatened to sue, duel credit was given for the track.  Hence the hip hop technique of “sampling” from other artists is not merely a common practice that has taken root among hip hop artists over time – it is an integral part of what hip hop is.  The practice of talking rhythmically in a song is incredibly versatile and it works with a seemingly infinite range of sounds – from the electronica of Mantronix, to the hardcore of Public Enemy, to the rock-infused rap of the Beastie Boys, to the gangsta rap of Easy-E, to the lighthearted pop of DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince.  Hip hop exploded in a hundred different directions in its first decade of life and it borrowed liberally from every other genre of music – from disco to jazz to soul to blues to pop to rock to classical – and continues to do so to this day. 

Consider the case of pioneering gangsta rapper Ice-T responding in the spoken introduction of his rap metal album “Body Count” (originally containing the controversial song “Cop Killer”) to charges that he had “sold out” because he had made a rock album.  He reasoned that although Rock 'n' Roll was by that time (the early 90s) primarily associated with white culture, the genre originated with black artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard:  "As far as I'm concerned, music is music. I don't look at it as rock, R&B, or all that kind of stuff. I just look at it as music. [...] I do what I like and I happen to like rock 'n' roll, and I feel sorry for anybody who only listens to one form of music."  He makes an excellent point, but one that has somehow been lost on a number of individuals who for whatever reason see the blending of genres as an affront to the “purity” of their favorite musical style. 

Indeed, there are those who consider hip hop and country music to be diametrically opposed on the scale of musical genres and some argue that they should never be mixed together lest they merge into one huge "mono-genre" devoid of individuality and regional differences.  Thus, the interesting musical niche called country rap or “hick hop” has become an important symbolic rallying point in the twenty-first century culture wars.  It is apparently not a problem when hip hop artists like the Beastie Boys, Beck, and more recently Everlast, Yelawolf, Bubba Sparxxx, and the up-and-coming gritty southern rapper Mikel Knight bring elements of country music into their tracks.  After all, most country music purists don’t give a damn one way or the other what hip hop artists are up to.  But what makes the events of the last few years quite a bit different is that rather than hip hop artists borrowing samples and sounds from country music, a new crop of artists have emerged who are genuinely country yet are choosing to rap their lyrics rather than to sing them.

The greatest example so far of this emerging phenomenon was seen at last year’s CMA Awards when Jason Aldean’s song “Dirt Road Anthem” was nominated for song of the year.  Written by country rapper Colt Ford, the track is a traditional country anthem overlaid with two verses of understated and twang-fully delivered rap that became a number one single on the country music charts and spent several months in the top 5.  The apoplectic reaction of country music purists was perhaps predictable, though the real tragedy of the CMA awards came when the nerve-gratingly dreadful tune “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry somehow beat out Taylor Swift’s “Mean.”  But even the most ardent supporters of country music purity had to admit that both tracks should have taken a back seat to “Dirt Road Anthem” which was both the most popular and influential country music song of the year. 
Think about it.  The reason that Aldean’s hit song was overlooked by CMA voters is pretty clear.  By rapping on an otherwise pure country track, he had crossed the line.  He even went so far as to perform a remix of the song on stage earlier in the year with rapper Ludacris at the CMT video awards.  This was not some hip hop group sampling country music riffs to lay down raps over the top of.   This was a bona fide country musician choosing to rap part of his song rather than sing it, and it wouldn’t have mattered if “Dirt Road Anthem” was the greatest song of the decade – it never had a chance at the CMAs.  Country Music has drawn a line in the sand. 

Enter Colt Ford.  Perhaps the most zealous line-crosser of them all, this 300-pound self-described redneck from Athens, Georgia is all country.  But when he steps up to mic he raps.  “At the end of the day I’m a country artist 100 percent, through and through, but that don’t mean you can’t like other music,” he says in response to critics who claim that his rapping is not fit for country music.  Ford lists Run DMC among his primary influences, and even recorded the song “Ride On, RideOut” with DMC for his second album Chicken and Biscuits.  But most of his collaborative projects are with country music stars, not hip hop artists, provoking the creation of a “Colt Ford Collaboration Blacklist” on the blog, Saving Country Music which calls on “Real Country” fans to boycott the (numerous) artists who have degraded themselves enough to collaborate with Colt Ford.

DMC and Colt Ford

A former professional golfer who spent a year on the national golf tour and several years as a golf instructor, Jason Farris Brown reinvented himself in 2008 as Colt Ford, which is possibly the most profoundly All-American moniker ever conceived (full credit goes to his wife, who suggested the name to him back in 2006), and took the country world by stealth, each of his first three albums becoming slightly more successful than the last.  His 2011 effort Every Chance I Get peaked at number 3 on both the rap and country Billboard charts.  Despite his success, or perhaps because his success has placed him at the forefront of a rapidly growing group of hick hop artists like the Moonshine Bandits, Cowboy Troy, and Rehab, Colt Ford has taken his share of vitriol from those who don’t approve of his genre blending style.  There were early calls to boycott his shows and when that didn’t work, plans to show up at his concerts to heckle him between songs.  At the same time the country music blogosphere lit up with criticism of his work, lame jokes about his weight, and cries that he is “destroying” country music. 

He directly addressed the world-colliding nature of his “hip hop meets country” style on his second album Chicken and Biscuits in the song “Hip Hop in a Honky Tonk” which references country music legend Hank Williams in the highly ironic lines “Now what do you think old Hank would say?  It would kill him if he still were alive today. I’d bet money that he’s rollin’ over in his grave, ‘cause Hank sure as hell didn’t do it that way.”  But for the most part he works hard to stay out of the controversy and just focuses on making music.  “I didn’t set out to create a new genre; I wasn’t trying to do that.  I just wanted to make cool songs, and the way I could make cool songs was this way,” he said in an interview on Fox News alongside rap legend DMC when talking about their collaborative effort.  Listening to Colt Ford talk about his music you get the feeling that its somewhat gimmicky aspects, which seem a bit contrived to a lot of outside observers, are merely incidental and that he really is just doing what he feels like doing, not consciously trying to create music designed to fill a particular niche.  

With his latest album, Declaration of Independence, out today (August 7, 2012) and perhaps in position to surpass his earlier albums’ success, the controversy surrounding Ford’s music will likely increase.  His You Tube videos have become prime targets for racist diatribes (from both haters and lovers of his music) and some pretty inane and venomous comments have sparked bitter arguments beneath the videos of songs like “Waste Some Time,” a feel-good party song with a video featuring rappers Nappy Roots hanging out, partying, and rapping with Colt Ford and a bunch of white Georgia country folk; an image which for whatever reason provokes appallingly racist reactions from certain demographics.   Another Colt Ford video, “This is Our Song,” was posted by a fan with a thumbnail of the Confederate Flag, provoking such rancorous racism-related quarreling that the uploader had to disable comments for the video.

To his credit Colt Ford doesn’t sink into the muck and lower himself to address this kind of nonsense; he just keeps trucking away making good tunes and slowly breaking his way in to the mainstream country music scene without compromising his tastes or his standards.  The cover of his latest album, Declaration of Independence, proudly displays the Stars and Stripes, not the Stars and Bars, and the opening single “Answer to No One” is a tribute to patriotism, hard work, guns, god, honesty, freedom, low taxes, family, and other southern virtues, while the decidedly more negative stereotypes of southern rednecks are conspicuously absent. 

This truly is a country album to the core with the poignant single “Back” – in collaboration with Jake Owen – serving as the centerpiece of a heartfelt tribute to country life and southern ideals.  The video for the song features his real-life Mom and Dad as well as his home town in Georgia and includes Ford standing at the actual grave-site of his childhood best friend.  This music is not hip hop with a country influence.  It is genuine, heartfelt country music with just one notable exception – the lead vocalist prefers to rap.

In fact the only song on Declaration of Independence which sounds like anything other than a pure country tune is “DWI” (Dancing While Intoxicated), a high energy dance track which features LoCash Cowboys and Redneck Social Club and incorporates synth percussion and Auto-Tuned vocals.  Other than that, every song on the record would be an easy fit in any country music catalog if Ford simply sang the lyrics rather than rapping them.  Of course if he was a singer, it’s doubtful he’d be half as successful as he is – he freely admits that the reason he took to rapping (besides that he likes it) is that he never could sing very well; a fact that his haters love to throw back in his face.  But Colt Ford sums up his response to such criticism in the Declaration of Independence track “Rather be Lucky” when he declares, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” 

 Colt Ford is country.  But he’s also squarely in the tradition of the Sugarhill Gang and their “talking really fast over the beat” style that upended the music world more than thirty years ago.  Encouragingly, he also seems to be living in accordance with the ideals expounded in “Rappers Delight” which conveyed a message of racial unity that is too often forgotten even in these relatively progressive times:  “Ya’ see I am Wonder Mike and I’d like to say hello, to the black, to the white, the red, and the brown, to the purple and yellow.”  You see, there’s no such thing as “black music” or “white music.”  There are just artists, songs, and listeners, and there should be no limit to the possibilities. 

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