Toward the end of Ben Westhoff’s new book, Dirty South, we are introduced to the inimitable Lil Wayne, who promptly launches into an explanation of the many designs that cover his diminutive frame. “I think the tattoos intimidate [people] and show them they’d better not walk up to me,” he announces. “Because I’ll knock your f*cking head off."
Westhoff populates his book with a multitude of such punchy nuggets as he chronicles the rise and relevance of southern hip-hop, a subgenre whose influence is often forgotten by mainstream critics more familiar with its coastal brethren. By focusing on the rappers, producers and label owners—including interviews with Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, Big Boi, Scarface, Luke Campbell and other pioneers—Westhoff makes the case for the cultural significance of southern hip-hop not only on its own, but as a driving force behind the elements of hip-hop currently working their way into mainstream pop music.
Though Dirty South touches on the stories of southern hip-hop’s brightest starts, some of the best parts come from Westhoff’s interactions with lesser-known artists. We follow the author as he traipses around the South in a rented Hyundai, witnessing the fabled rap ritual of “making it rain,” courtesy of Houston rapper Trae; other highlights include a wild night out with Luke Campbell, a refreshingly genuine chat with Memphis duo 8-Ball and MJG, and a recipe for the infamous libation known as sizzurp.
Along the way, Westhoff argues passionately in defense of a much-maligned genre, and his book certainly can’t be criticized for not taking its subject seriously. Take, for instance, the discussion of St. Louis rapper Nelly’s patty-cake hit “Down Down Baby”:
The song’s dichotomy—the hardened and the innocent—gives it power and would later be copied by MCs like Gucci Mane and Lil Boosie. Rappers once assumed that if you wanted to talk tough, your music had to sound tough, too. But nowadays southern gangsta rap’s music is often quite soft, full of sugary riffs, toy pianos, and choruses sung by children’s choirs.”
The book is packed with such analysis and leavened with the author’s often-comical experiences in penetrating the somewhat Byzantine inner world of southern hip-hop (attempting to decipher Gucci Mane’s drawl, declining offers of oral sex at a rowdy party, etc). As a fellow outsider-turned-chronicler-of-hip-hop, most recently in the form of an unauthorized biography of Jay-Z, I both sympathized with Westhoff’s experiences and found reading about them extremely entertaining.
Regardless of whether you agree with his thesis—that despite the well-documented opinions of its detractors, southern hip-hop is a worthwhile and vital sound that has helped to bring the broader genre to a wider audience than ever before—or what you think of the artists whose careers it details, Dirty South is a must-read for anybody interested in hip-hop’s ever-growing role in America’s cultural consciousness.