For years now, a slow and sticky tempo and a drawled vocal cadence have been some of the clearest indicators that a hip-hop song is baked in Southern humidity. But instead of the heat, a new strain of rap coming out of Nashville is more influenced by the city’s established music culture.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
If Dee Goodz wanted to follow the typical southern hip-hop path, he would’ve headed four hours south to further his rap career. The 24 year-old MC says, “Me going down to Atlanta to live and do my music, in my opinion, that would make my music, like, faulty, because I didn’t grow up there. …You kind of just fit in with the rest of the pack. I think that’s what everybody does. But who all can say that they made it out of Nashville and they put Nashville on? I think that’s an even better story.”
That’s not the only unexpected twist in the Music City hip-hop narrative. “Recently, there have been a lot of folks that have started moving to Nashville to make hip-hop, which is really kind of weird,” observes Sean Maloney, who covers the output of local MCs and DJs for The Nashville Scene. “But it makes sense. You know, if you want to be an artist that makes music, there’s no place else to do it, really. I mean, you’re not gonna find any more musicians than you will here.”
You’ll never confuse Dee Goodz with Nashville’s best-known hip-hop export to date. That would be Young Buck. While Buck was aligned with gangsta rap mogul 50 Cent and represented inner city life on his Straight Outta Cashville album eight years ago, Dee, hails from the suburbs—Antioch, to be exact—and possesses both an accounting degree from Alabama A&M and a laidback skater vibe. He spends a lot of his downtime at the hip streetwear boutique Love is Earth (Nashville rapper Purple Monk is a co-owner), and rhymes about stylish sneakers, college and hustling to pay his bills through rapping.
“Not taking anything from Young Buck,” says Dee, “because the world still feels him. You know what I mean? I just speak for just a whole different type of people from a different area.”
Later he adds, “I wasn’t going in the club talking about like ‘Bang, bang. Shoot ‘em up.’ Like, I didn’t have the heavy, you know, what people of my demographic were used to. So I had to kind of create my own scene.”
If it sounds like Dee Goodz has been flying solo, he has. He got national blog coverage, SXSW and CMJ bookings, urban clothing sponsorships—including one with the New York and Tokyo-based brand Rocksmith, that was founded by a Nashville entrepreneur—and even his own app, all before he hired a manager last month. And by then he’d already released five mixtapes and his debut album, The Introduction of Donald G.
“I’m from Nashville,” says Dee, to place things in perspective. “Our population is not in the great numbers. I just came back from doing a show in New York. So for me to have reached up there and to actually have a fan base of people that they would want to book me, I think that’s beautiful.”
SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT
A lot of local show-goers and music-makers credit the rapid growth of the scene, at least in part, to the fact that Nashville has its own hip-hop blogs. 2Lsonacloud.com (pronounced 2 L’s on a Cloud) was founded by D’Lisha Davis, who went to school with Dee. She has a crew of photographers and videographers who capture live shows. “So just in case you missed it,” she explains, “the photos and the recaps and the write-ups and all that would pull in those people to say, ‘I’m going next time. I will not miss out.’”
She and her fellow bloggers also bring attention to the latest must-hear mixtapes. “I do it for personal reasons and I do it for the reasons of some artists just deserve to be heard,” she says. “And a lot of people are now respected because they’ve been pitched on our websites and other local websites, and it’s been picked up.”
When it comes to the music itself, there’s plenty to talk about. Says Maloney, “One of the things that I’ve noticed over the last year and a half, as Nashville has kind of crept closer to a more cohesive sound, is that rappers in Nashville love awesome guitar sounds, just like anybody else. Like on Dee’s new record, he has some like crazy, psychedelic guitar solos. You’ll listen to these mixtapes from these young rappers, and the guitar will be so prominent that you can’t ignore it. It’s like, ‘Well, maybe there is this Nashville Sound.’”
Unlike a lot of the hip-hop churned out elsewhere, that sound isn’t all about samples and drum machines. Tracks produced here tend to make room for real instrumental textures alongside the synthetic beats, bells and whistles. And all of it supports the most important part—the heavy-duty lyrics.
THE POWER OF WORDS
“While the hip-hop scene is maybe not drawing explicitly from, say, like the Roger Miller handbook, or the Tom T. Hall handbook,” muses Maloney, “I think that in general for crowds in Nashville, you’re not gonna be able to impress them if you’re not crafting a song and putting all of the thought into it.”
He’s ready with the name of a rapper who’s caught jaded Nashville ears. “When folks first picked up on Openmic’s ‘For the Rebels’ tape,” Maloney remembers, “a lot of my industry friends were just like, ‘Oh my god! This guy is writing these super-intense, super well-crafted lyrics. How did I not know about him?’”
Maloney’s referring to Openmic, the young, socially conscious rapper who’s a senior at Tennessee State, as opposed to an open mic showcase, although Openmic hosted one of those at Rocketown during high school. The mixtapes he’s put out while earning his degree in business administration have turned lots of heads. On the heels of his debut, For the Rebels, he found himself opening for alternative hip-hop giant Talib Kweli.
Openmic is well aware that he’s working in a genre that still has a reputation for blunt-edged, violent sensibilities. “The poetic elements found in hip-hop are something that a lot of people overlook when they’re not into the genre of music,” he offers, “because they can’t get past the production; they can’t get past the sound of what hip-hop is. My lyricism is definitely a bridge for those individuals.”
He continues, “I think one of the things that people gravitate towards the most in my music is the fact that you could read my lyrics on a piece of paper or you can listen to it a few different times and be able to have the same respect for it as though it were literature.”
The crispness and elegance of Openmic’s writing is not unrelated to the fact that he’s spent his entire life calibrating his musical standards. As the son of accomplished jazz and gospel trumpeter Rod McGaha—who’s played with everyone from Max Roach to Lou Rawls and Take 6 and has several solo albums—he grew up watching professionalism embodied on live stages and in recording studios.
“I didn’t even know that was weird until I went to high school,” says Openmic, “and you actually start talking to people about how they grew up and you have those types of conversations. I didn’t know that everybody didn’t go to live concerts. I’m like, ‘You’ve never been to a live jazz showcase before?’”
He’s not the only one in the hip-hop scene who hails from an industry family. B. Jones, who’s recorded both Openmic and Dee Goodz in his basement digs, has a day job working in commercial studios and a dad who put in time playing drums for Seals & Crofts. And you’d never guess whose grandson Struggle the rapper is: none other than Country Music Hall of Famer Waylon Jennings.
Maloney says of Struggle, “I’d been listening to him for years and then he released the video for Outlaw S***, and at the very beginning it says, like, ‘This one’s for granddad,’ and it flashes the Waylon Jennings logo. And I’m like, ‘No way!’”
Like many of his industry-schooled Nashville peers, Openmic has the advantage of already knowing the drill. He’s seen that a serious musician can make a living at his craft; he’s also free from the illusion that it happens overnight.
Says Openmic, “My mom would always tell me…’You have those starving moments, whether you’re successful or whether you’re unsuccessful. There’s always gonna be times where it’s not secure.’ There’s no health plan for rappers, you know.”
A fair point. Still, there are undeniable artistic benefits to polishing your rhymes here in the Tin Pan Alley of the South.