London Crunking: My Path to Southern Hip Hop

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Ten years ago I was living in London and became part of what I like to look back on fondly as a special secret Southern rap club. At the time, regional rap from the nether states was starting to make its wide-scale break-through, but there was almost total resistance and cheap jokes at its expense in the United Kingdom from die-hard fans raised on staunch east coast rap values and jaded industry types.

Once a week though, a small group of us would congregate at a record store, buy up the latest vinyl promos, and then retreat to a grubby pub to talk about the music. Southern hip-hop of course took over the commercial rap world, but back then listening to this regional fare that no one else around us seemed bothered about became an exotic obsession. Two records recently released: Chamillionaire's Reignfall and Pastor Troy's Streets Need You, took me back to this brief but memorable spell.

The gateway records to my short Southern rap fixation came from names like the Youngbloodz, Lil Flip, Bone Crusher, Pastor Troy, and T.I. around the time when his infectious "Rubberband Man" song was buzzing. There were curios like the presumably-now-A.W.O.L. Native, who released the monstrous fight-club-music "Put It Down," and Fresh, a guy who had a ridiculously hypnotic song called "Hey Fuckboy" that was flipped into "Hey Cakeboy" for the radio edit. A colleague who at the time deejayed as R Breezy and was something of the instigator of the Southern rap club curated a mixtape with another DJ, Superix, that rounded up what became our personal playlist for a few months. It was titled Lessons In Crunk, although the mix swung through broader states and styles. For us, it was almost like a southern-focussed equivalent of DJ Premier's indie-rap primer New York Reality Check 101.

A few months of excitable record collecting and enthused banter sprouted up against this backdrop of southern rap. "Cakeboy" became in-jokey slang for five people in London; Fresh's record became something of a holy grail acquisition that I eventually managed to persuade a friend to part with for $40 once he'd sourced two more copies of it from some place he'd never reveal. Maybe it was because not that many southern rap vinyl promos made their way over to the now closed Beanos record store in East Croydon, but there was something verging on a panic that ensued when rummaging through the racks. Sometimes you'd arrive at the store five minutes earlier than agreed in an attempt to get a jump on any new goodies. Or you'd end up nerdy and infatuated to the point where you realized that Pastor Troy's gloriously rambunctious "Ridin' Big" was issued in vinyl promo format with two different stickers, one with the extended title "I'm Ridin' Big Yo." At the time I could have probably persuaded myself they both sounded different.

Connecting many of the dots was David Banner, who not only produced some of the era's most vital songs but whose own Mississippi album is something of an overlooked potential classic. Banner fused the harsh, bare-bones mentality of mid-'80s rap production with a soulful streak, but beyond the double whammy of "Like a Pimp" and "Cadillacs on 22s" his career flatlined. I remember getting to interview Banner a few years later and he seemed defeated by the music industry. He told me "Cadillacs on 22s" was the biggest ball Universal Records dropped, and that with its acoustic guitar base it should have been a worldwide radio smash. He talked about giving up music to pursue an acting career. By that point my own interest in Southern rap has waned similarly. What once sounded fresh and unique to my ears now seemed to have settled into a template concerned with nothing more than appeasing the charts. Southern rap was everywhere and my personal connection to it had been severed.

Looking back, there's a chance we were obsessing over a bunch of records that people in the South considered dollar bin fare. Native and Fresh may have been the equivalent of random Dat Piff rappers. But the relative lack of knowledge was a thrill; piecing together your own Southern rap narrative by following production credits and guest verses was rewarding. You'd branch out and go back in time as if filling in missing pieces of a grand hip-hop map. It was a moment of tangible discovery and something where the exclusive nature of it made it all the more special. To be honest, I doubt I'll have much interest in checking out those new Chamillionaire and Pastor Troy records this week, but just seeing their names took me on a fond nostalgia trip. Now to dig out that copy of Lessons in Crunk.