I've been working on a feature story about hip-hop, and I've noticed something: In the hip-hop world, there's a lot of talk about representing. Representing, as in a constant refrain of reference to one's hometown, one's neighborhood, one's street. Hip-hop is filled with constant shout-outs to artists' roots, to the minutiae that make up the flavor of where they're from, and to whatever town or city that may be.
It's striking, because there is a second genre that boasts such a characteristic. Country music, of all things, stands side-by-side with hip-hop when it comes to colloquial references and hometown pride.
It's an admirable idea, this concept of staying connected to your roots, of proudly displaying where you're from, and it also brings up a curious question of why it's so important to the heart of certain types of music.
Country and hip-hop have more in common than you'd first imagine. Both country—true country—and hip-hop—true hip-hop—are incredibly soulful varieties of music. It's a dangerous thing to try to analyze the nature of that shared soul, because it's like analyzing a joke. By the time you've figured out its true essence, you've beaten it to death. But, hell, sometimes such hubristic measures are called for, and in this case, both genres are so interconnected with Texas, they are windows into our own identity. So let's dig in.
Country and hip-hop are about place in a way that, say, rock or pop never could be. Take any number of country songs, and many of them will contain some sort of direct, flat-out statement about where its author was born, or some description of a willow tree down in a nearby holler. Maybe the most well-known example of this is Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter": "I was born a coal miner's daughter/In a cabin on a hill/In Butcher Holler." The tradition has traveled through to current alternative country artists such as Lucinda Williams, who notes in her song "Bus to Baton Rouge," "I had to go back to that house one more time/To see if camellias were in bloom/For so many reasons it's been on my mind /The house on Belmont Avenue."
Now take Paul Wall's "Big Ballin'": "I'm on that 59 South, ridin' with my trunk popped/From that Homestead to that Spice Lane, I'm on Scott, in the turning lane/I'm headed straight to that Timmy Chan's, order up and let's get some wangs." And Eminem's "Welcome 2 Detroit": "Where's my gangstas and all my thugs/Throw them hands up and show some love/And I welcome you to Detroit City."
Are these lyrics really all that different? All of them stress certain details of place: specific street names, specific towns, specific geographical areas and the details that make them special—for Williams, it's camellias, for Wall, it's chicken wings. The details of each song differ, but the core is the same: These are songs about the physical manifestations of how places influence character and identity.
At least, that's what was on my mind (really!) as I perused the list of this year's Grammy nominees, which was released last week. There aren't too many Dallas names on the list there (see And Another Thing, page 61, for an update on that), but a smattering of Texans stand out: Guy Clark, the Dixie Chicks, Beyoncé.
Now, let's face it, the Grammys suck. Their cultural relevance has waned; they are a mere whack-off on the part of a bloated and gasping music industry. And with the exception of Clark, it's difficult not to indict the likes of our homegrown nominees as having lost touch with where they're from. Sure, the Chicks splay their roots out for all to see, but at this point it feels like a marketing ploy. And Beyoncé? When's the last time you heard her even say the word "Texas"?
But we still want our homegrown talents to represent, don't we? As far as I'm concerned, Clark should be standing on that stage flanked by Dallas rapper Big Tuck on his right and Houston's Chamillionaire on his left. But that's not gonna happen; what we have is Natalie Maines with her bizarre collagen lips and Beyoncé with her ever-expansive boobitude. But dammit, they're ours—some kernel of connection just won't die, some shared primal thing about Texas that we refuse to let go of because we can't. So I guess I'll watch the Grammys and root for all of 'em. Roots, after all, are roots.
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