From the margins to the mainstream: Rap in the "Dirty South"

For more than 30 years, rap music has shaped the entertainment industry. It began in the late 1970s as a phenomenon rooted in the urban working class of the East Coast and rising to prominence in the West Coast in the early 1990s. But where was the South in the historical narrative of the genre? During the late 1990s rap music produced in cities such as Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, Miami, and Houston forced its way out of the margins to completely change the rap industry.

Southern Spaces this week takes an in-depth look at the history of Southern rap, examining the style and cultural uniqueness of the genre. The essay's author, Matt Miller, provides the context of the emergence of rap scenes in Southern cities, and explains how their development shaped the re-imagining of both the South and rap music. The essay centers on the concept of the "Dirty South" as a geographical imaginary that has affirmed, critiqued, and confounded perceived ideas of the South.

As Miller explains of the "Dirty South":

The concept of the Dirty South as elaborated by the Goodie Mob and other rappers and producers in several of the major cities of the South was complex, contradictory, and multidimensional. This multidimensionality encompassed ideas of a racist, oppressive, white South historically continuous with slavery; a 'down-home' black South marked by distinctive speech and cultural practices; a sexually libidinous South; a rural, bucolic South; a lawless, criminal South; and a sophisticated urban South. The Dirty South was forged in conversation with older or alternate modes of imagining the South, spanning a continuum from Gone With the Wind-flavored Confederate apologetics at one end to the idea of the South as a unique African-American homeland on the other.

The "Dirty South" provided a niche for Southern artists who had felt neglected and disrespected by the industry. It became an identity of opposition and reclamation. Miller presents the politically-oppositional orientation of the "Dirty South" as one that is "expressive of the reclaiming of former sites and symbols of enslavement and segregation, and the legitimation and celebration of 'lowdown and dirty' working-class African American culture."


in today's global age, this Southern brand of rap is growing and moving, shifting and forging images of the South along the way.