Fresh off a photo shoot, the four sisters of Cherish -- Neosha, Farrah, and twins Felisha and Fallon King - are bubbling over. Sisters between the ages of 18 and 22 years old, they are meticulously lip-glossed, wearing matching red ballet flats, and finishing each other's sentences the way only family can. They are excitedly discussing their single, "Do It (To It)," which has become a chart fixture by translating the dances and club hits of their Atlanta hometown to a national audience. "Good Morning America wanted us to teach them how to do the snap dance," giggles Neosha. "It's hilarious."
On "Do It (To It)," Cherish harmonize airily over producer Don Vito's synth bounce, name-checking dances like Poole Palace and club hits like "Kryptonite." The song joins an expanding roster of chart hits that represent ATL culture, including other snap tracks like D4L's "Laffy Taffy," Dem Franchize Boys' "I Think They Like Me," Lil' Jon's "Snap Yo Fingers" and BHI's "Do It Do It." But while the latter joints are 100% rapper-helmed, the ladies of Cherish sing in soprano harmonies and sped-up cadences that mirror the staccato syntax of Dirty South rappers such as Eightball and Ludacris. As Southern hip-hop devours the charts, increasingly, Southern soul is responding to rap's empire by offering its own bounce, further blurring the boundary between rap and R&B. And while Cherish rep the A, the group also reflects the fact that in a post Ciara/Lil' Jon world, the young face of southern rhythm and blues is crunky, hooky, and custom-fit for the club. "We're so influenced by rap that when we write our music, we're incorporating it," explains Felisha. "Not on purpose, but it's all around us, 24-7. That's why I think female music from Atlanta -- or the South, period -- is different and unique: because we create hip-hop and R&B together."
The sound of hip-hop soul dates back to Mary J. Blige's 1992 breakout single "Real Love." But the Southern strain of putting ooh-bop on the boom-bap is something else entirely. The new Southern soul sound is descendant of disco, electro, and Mariah Carey/Ol'Dirty Bastard's 1996 "Fantasy (Remix)," which popularized the use of guest-rappers on R&B tunes. Says Farrah, "Hip-hop's changing R&B to a mix of the two. It's more about fun. It's more than just singing. The main radio stations in Atlanta don't really play R&B unless it has a rapper on it. I don't have a problem with it, 'cause I love rap." Today's young R&B singers came up in an environment where the Dungeon Family was as important as Donnie Hathaway. As such, they encapsulate and respond to rap cultures of Atlanta, Houston and Miami, where dancing is as hot as the weather and club bangers rule supreme. It's energetic, it's young, it's Crunk & B. Whether repping the dance-floor (as do Cherish) or the donks (the '70s high-rise Chevys featured in the video for Ciara's flagship "Oh"), Crunk & B is the first viable R&B offshoot, that isn't beholden to throwback soul, since producer Teddy Riley's New Jack Swing translated Harlem to the world.
"When Teddy Riley had New Jack Swing, if you didn't have no New Jack Swing on your record in the R&B world, you wasn't getting in. He cornered the market with one sound," opines Jermaine Dupri, the Atlanta super-producer and So So Def head honcho whose beats and vision have greatly contributed to the evolution of Atlanta music of the past two decades. "I'm not trying to do that," continues Dupri, "but that was my inspiration. And you gotta have the bounce. I can't even front and say that you don't."
Beat-makers up and down the Atlantic seaboard purvey the sound of Crunk & B, yet it's almost exclusively the domain of Atlanta's three-headed monster: Dupri, Lil' Jon and Jazze Pha. Their party beats have defined Crunk & B. "With the bounce being so hard in the South, that's all we know," explains Dupri. "It came from us trying to create our own sound, because we were always held as country and not able to compete with the other major cities. When people push you into making your own sound, you create your own momentum. That's basically what happened. We were all the most challenged producers, which forced us to create something almost bulletproof. It made us create our own feel."
This sound has been gestating for at least a decade -- look no further than Ghost Town DJs' 1996 "My Boo," Aaliyah's 1998 "Are You That Somebody?" or Destiny's Child's 1999 "Jumpin Jumpin," for proof. But it began coagulating in 2004, when Lil' Jon coined the term, describing the beats he made for Usher's "Yeah," and Ciara's 2004 debut, Goodies, as "Crunk & B, R&B songs that get you crunk, make you wanna wild out." (Lil' Jon is currently working on his new album and, citing prior studio engagement, declined to be interviewed for this piece.)
For Ciara's debut, Jon and co-producer Jazze Pha mined their stashes of electro cowbells and whistling synths. Their tracks could've easily been created for rappers (Goodies' several hits included verses from Petey Pablo, Missy Elliott and Ludacris), and both producers are used to crafting the low-end for both rap and R&B. Jazze Pha, who is currently co-producing Ciara's second album, making beats for singing/rapping trio Bella and releasing Cherish on his label Sho'Nuff, says the sound "captures a moment. I got so many different styles in there: that crunk the kids love, with that energy you can't ignore because it's so relevant. But it's also that classic R&B, that dance."
All three producers occupy a place in the lineage from electro to disco to booty bass to Southern rap, but the fact of their shared hip-hop and R&B rosters means they act as conduits between the two styles. Says Jazze Pha, "Whether it's Frankie Beverly or Beyonce, or Kelly Rowland, you definitely have to have the times in mind, period. But as far as R&B is concerned, there is a vibe that is timeless. Rap has a timer on it."
RING THE ALARM
If mixtapes are the timepieces of the streets, it follows that R&B artists have been generating heat just as rappers do: by freestyle-singing over popular hip-hop beats and distributing them via mixtapes, or their MySpace pages. Mary J. Blige started the current trend by initially street-releasing "MJB da MVP," which features her vocal track over Dr. Dre's smoldering, horns-and-bass production for The Game's "Hate it or Love it." Atlanta singer Nivea coos above the beat for Dem Franchize Boys' "Think They Like Me" (producer: Dupri).
A few Southern R&B singers have taken the idea a step further by releasing full mixtapes of R&B freestyles and street cuts. LaToya Luckett, the Houstonian who sang in Destiny's Child from 1993-2000, dropped LeToya Luckett: the H-town Chick with DJ Brandi Garcia in early 2006. (It was a preview of her self-titled solo debut, which entered the Billboard Album charts at #1 in August of 2006.) Atlanta's Bella did the same, joining up with Don Cannon, one of the most respected producer/DJs in the rap game, for The Boss Baby Mixtape. Says Bella singer Kayla Shelton, "Cannon helped out, but it was Bella's idea; no other girl groups are doing anything like this. We're not doing snap records, but our music is real ghetto R&B mixed with pop. For such a long time, no one was dancing," she continues. "Everyone was trying to be all grown and sexy, but this brings back fun. And the guys are dancing, too!? It's crazy."
With R&B increasingly tethered to rap culture and vice versa, some view Crunk & B as a byproduct of the dearth of female rappers, or a real space for women in rap music. LeToya, whose self-titled debut includes a chopped-and-screwed track called "Gangsta Grillz," says, "I'm proud to even say I'm a Houstonian because of DJ Screw. No other female artist from Houston has had a screwed and chopped record on their album. I wanted to let people know the boys aren't the only ones that can do it. The ladies can represent as well." Cherish's Fallon echoes this sentiment, almost verbatim. "We want the ladies to understand that you can do the exact same thing the guys do in the club. You do it a little more sophisticated, but you can be just as hard with it."
"...And being that we do R&B," finishes Neosha, "we're competing with rappers for spots in the club. If they have only one slot and ask 'do I play cherish or do I play Yung Joc?' it's Yung Joc. So you definitely need more edge -- but it's all good, we're holding our own!"
Still, while ladies like Cherish, Bella and Letoya might see Crunk & B as a reaction to the male dominance of the rap game, Dupri sees it as a reaction to the cult of the gangster. "In the business world, everybody wanna be so hard," he explains. "We are all intrigued by [it]. There wouldn't be a Scarface movie, the Godfather, or Goodfellas if the world wasn't intrigued by gangsterism. But at the same time, everybody ain't on it like that, and at some point you have to stop acting like it. At one point, every record I heard, someone was killing somebody or dying in the record. 'I'll shoot you a hundred times with fifty guns.' Okay, cool, but I'm not living like that, so I need to hear something that caters to what I'm doing. You got so many people out here that don't wear bandannas frontin' like they do. This R&B stuff coming back to life is definitely gonna break the monotony."