In the midst of the east and west coast hip hop wars of the 80s and 90s, the southern part of the United States, sometimes referred to as the “third coast”, formed pockets of their underground scenes to create some of the most transgressive hip hop in the genre’s history. Southern women had a much larger and often more masculine role in the genre compared to their east and west coast counterparts, rapping alongside their male counterparts about drugs, murder, and braggadocious tales of sex and love. Figures such as Gangsta Boo of Three 6 Mafia, Princess and Diamond of Crime Mob, and more mainstream figures like Trina and Missy Elliott broke barriers both in and out of the underground. Because of the south being seen as an outlier in hip hop history, the coast’s contributions to music are often left out of the narrative, especially the stories of these women. In an attempt to grant the privilege of documentation to these women, I received the Lang Opportunity Award to travel to Atlanta, Memphis, Miami, and Houston to interview female-identified rappers and immerse myself into the culture that has bred some of my favorite music.
My first stop, Atlanta, was beautiful and rewarding. Atlanta is a large city interconnected with highways, countless neighborhoods, and a bustling transportation system often referred to by “zone”, or groups of neighborhoods that the police patrol. I was staying in Zone 6, home to the likes of Future and Gucci Mane. Atlanta is often seen as the most accessible of the southern region, as its role as a major transportation hub allowed for the transfer of many different sounds to take place, hence why so many popular southern rappers hail from Atlanta. In the city, I was able to interview Coco Brown, a woman whose obscene raps about detailed sexual intercourse made rounds in the late 00s within the southern club scene. I was also able to interview Mac Bre-z, best known for her feature on ex boyfriend Gucci Mane’s club hit “Go Head”. Both women opened up about the trials of being a black southern woman trying to make it mainstream, while also acknowledging the vibrant community in Atlanta in which they were able to network and sustain themselves as musicians with the common thread of nightclubs and strip clubs being their main avenues of connection.
Interviewing Coco Brown
I then made my way to Memphis, home of the darker side of southern hip hop with breakout stars such as Three 6 Mafia, La Chat, and Tommy Wright III taking Memphis blues aesthetics and turning it into dark, brooding, sometimes sexual, and often violent hip hop tales of their lives in the midst of poverty and murder. My time here was much shorter than expected due to travel issues, but my short time there illuminated me to the stark class divide of Memphis that has slowly grown over the years. Even the changing of the landscape as my Uber driver drove into the more affluent, predominantly white neighborhood in which I was staying was drastic. Further exploration of Memphis showed the lack of proper resources given to black neighborhoods where a lot of these rappers came from. Nonetheless, their communities were vibrant and tight knit with an emphasis on community action. Inside church basements were youth programs, soup kitchens on the corners, and the preservation and protection of graffiti on the sides of buildings made for a beautiful city despite its bleak appearance. I connected with elusive rapper Princess Loko, known best for her feature on Tommy Wright III’s smash hit “Still Pimpin'”. However, our interview is pending.
I <3 Memphis!
My trip to Miami was slightly less eventful but nonetheless illuminating on the changing of aesthetics. Miami’s club scene is vibrant and heavily influenced by Caribbean music due to its proximity to the islands. Miami rappers such as Trick Daddy and JT Money soundtrack dance floors, while the likes of Rick Ross and Gunplay have more of an aggressive and hyper masculine presence. Female rappers such as Trina and newcomers City Girls are overtly sexual, reappropriating stereotypically masculine language about sex and turning it on its head to signal a page turn to female empowerment. Much like Atlanta, Miami’s role as a major hub for tourism and transportation allowed me to observe different sounds and influences dependent on one’s surroundings.
My last stop, and my most rewarding, was my time in Houston. Houston is much larger than I initially anticipated. Much like my time in these other cities, the class divide is sobering. Homes, stores, and people changed as I bussed through the neighborhoods. I spent a majority of my time in the blacker parts of the city, taking in the culture and the music. In conjunction with the University of Houston, I was able to peruse their archive of seminal hip hop magazine Murder Dog, based in the Bay Area, to view their in depth coverage of the lesser known hip hop scenes in the south and midwest. It was an emotional time to say the least, and it was such a beautiful sight to see full page ads for the music I found to be so obscure, long letters to the editor from prisoners thanking them for their coverage, and obituaries written by fellow rappers in their native tongue. Interviews honored the rappers’ unique speech patterns in AAVE and reviews of both women and men’s records were respectful and emotional. I also viewed their archive of Miami based magazine Ozone, created by Julia Beverly, a white woman who wanted to document her city’s growing music scene. Similar to Murder Dog, everything was much more in depth about the forgotten coast’s music and people, but with even more women involved. I have since reached out to Julia for an interview which will be completed at the end of the month. I also contacted newer Houston rapper Amber London, who I will also be interviewing soon.
An Ad for B.G.’s Chopper City in the Ghetto in Murder Dog
I spoke to Uber drivers who all gave me emotional accounts of their experiences with Houston’s legendary status in hip hop. In particular, I visited seminal Houston producer DJ Screw’s record store featuring all of his tapes, which feature his signature style of slowing down popular songs and freestyles, which he pioneered and called “chopped and screwed”. Located in the depths of Houston with next to nothing in sight, the road was barren but his mural shined bright in the distance.
Me in front of the DJ Screw mural at his store Screwed Up Records and Tapes
A look inside the store
My time in Houston solidified my observation of community being the main reason why these sounds and scenes are preserved. The intense emotional connection and pride these people have with their hometown heroes touched me and reminded me why my work is important. My last stop before my trip was to visit the grave of frequent DJ Screw collaborator Big Moe. I pet his stone and said a tearful and thankful goodbye. Behind me, a large man took his tank top off and wiped his eyes. I peered over to see him caress the stone of another Houston legend Fat Pat. The impact of this music reached the suburbs of New Jersey to me, but the true reverberations of these scenes are found in the neighborhoods of these cities who trade music as their means of communication, and sometimes survival.
Big Moe’s grave
It was an absolute honor to make this journey which wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity of the Lang Opportunity Awards. I am thankful to have the resources to create this project which is the first of its kind. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.