Ben Westhoff, author of 'Dirty South,' picks his top five Southern rap records
That was the question rapped by Atlanta's Goodie Mob on the psychedelic spiritual trip better known as "Soul Food." Released in 1995, the Gold-certified record was an early salvo in the region's bid for respect from its often elitist Northeastern peers.
Aided by OutKast, Big Gipp, Cee Lo, Khujo and T-Mo spun gritty tales of the dope game and a lifestyle filled with Cadillacs, Impalas and Regals. A half decade before "Big Pimpin," the crew delineated themselves from their direct predecessors (Atlanta and Miami's bass music scenes and Rap-A-Lot's gangsta fiefdom in Texas) with their weary pimped-out meditations.
Just a few years later, the South shouted its arrival with the Soundscan dominance of Louisiana's No Limit and Cash Money, a reign that lasted for much of the last decade. From T.I. and Gucci Mane, to the Houston explosion of 2005, to the all-encompassing influence of Lil Wayne, the South has been and continues to be rap's most commercially viable region.
In his new book, "Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop," author Ben Westhoff sketches the stories of the superstars, one strip club at a time (a particularly humorous chapter details a trip with Trae the Truth, where the Houston rapper makes it rain).
In honor of its release, Westhoff has selected his five favorite Southern rap albums. Goodie Mob's "Soul Food" didn't make the cut, but you shouldn't hold it against him.
-- Jeff Weiss
Ben Westhoff's five favorite Southern rap albums
1. OutKast -- "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik" (1994)
Even if OutKast had never released "Stankonia" -- whose track “B.O.B” Pitchfork called the best of the last decade -- or "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" (the bestselling rap album of all time), the duo's place in the rap pantheon would still be secure, thanks largely to their long-titled debut, which set the standard for earthy, progressive, down-home Southern rap. Its celebratory beats come courtesy of production team Organized Noize, and Big Boi and André 3000’s relentless positivity continues to resonate.
2. UGK -- "Ridin’ Dirty" (1996)
Peppered with conversational clips from actual prison inmates, "Ridin’ Dirty" speaks for those caught in limbo -- in jail, expecting to die, morally confused, or simply doing their best to enjoy their brief time on Earth. The work helped establish the late Pimp C as perhaps the most influential Southern producer, and his partner Bun B as the most purposeful rapper working. But perhaps UGK’s greatest achievement was capturing East Texas rap culture, with its slow-rolling cars, jewels and cough syrup hallucinations. To a generation of Southern fans, UGK is hip hop.
3. Juvenile -- "400 Degreez" (1998)
Long before Lil Wayne became a household name, "400 Degreez" was the album that brought New Orleans label Cash Money Records into the mainstream. This despite the fact that many of the 4 million people who bought it couldn’t understand much of what Juvenile was saying, as he rapped in a thick bayou drawl over Mannie Fresh’s electro-pocalypse beats. Exploring the topics of hustling, womanizing and partying (and their consequences), the work still sounds unique and fresh 13 years later.
4. Scarface -- "The Fix" (2002)
Though for "The Fix," Scarface looked beyond his Houston hometown to collaborate with folks like Jay-Z, Kanye West and the Neptunes, many consider it the quintessential work of the South’s best rapper. Part memoir, part fiction, its milieu is the neighborhoods, relationships, dreams and schemes that have informed Face’s life. At least as evocative as famous gangster movies like the one that inspired his name, it encapsulates the joys and horrors of the modern human experience like few other rap albums ever have.
5. DJ Khaled -- "We the Best" (2007)
Miami radio personality DJ Khaled doesn’t really sing or rap, but he's united a crew that continues to dominate the game. Combining the forces of Florida solo stars such as Rick Ross and T-Pain (and transplant Lil Wayne) with production acts such as the Runners and Jim Jonsin, "We the Best" helped reestablish South Florida as a hip-hop epicenter, a position it hadn’t held since 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny” was on the charts in the late '80s. "We the Best" contains almost nothing but big budget bangers, each more addictive than the last.
-- Ben Westhoff
Photo: OutKast. Credit: Sony Music