Country-Rap: A Secret History
Cowboy Troy plays chicken with a train
Snoop Dogg's "My Medicine" is the goofiest, most engaging novelty song on an album full of goofy, engaging novelty songs. It's his country song, and it's every bit as ridiculous as that description might suggest. Over producer Everlast's workable chugging Tennessee Three rip-job, Snoop mumble-singsongs about weed and pimping, which is exactly what you'd expect him to do. But he also dedicates the song to "my main man Johnny Cash, a real American gangster" and says "Grand Ol' Opry, here we come." Cash once got banned from the Opry for getting drunk and kicking out the footlights, so I'd love to see what that venerable institution might do with a guy who's been banned from half the countries in Europe and who went through a period of six months or so where he couldn't seem to walk through a major airport without getting arrested for carrying guns. "My Medicine" is now Snoop's new single, and it'll be fascinating to see whether anything happens with it. Batshit novelty crossovers are a good look for Snoop now that Rick Ross inexplicably sells twice as many albums as he does, and country music is notoriously hospitable to any once-famous singer who deigns to court its gigantic market. Nashville is now paying bills for Jewel and Michelle Branch, and thanks to a Tim McGraw collab, Def Leppard are now in heavy CMT rotation. But this song? I don't know. Country radio isn't really used to having to bleep words, and I don't know how they'll take to explicit get-high talk, even if Brad Paisley and Willie Nelson show up in the video, Willie wearing a giant Snoop t-shirt and looking older than he's ever looked in his entire life. I hope it works. Country and rap have enough in common that they should really cross over more. Both tell specific and plainspoken stories, both purport to speak for broke everymen, both depend heavily on genius-producer assembly-lines. But as of now, the only country-rap song to actually cross over is Nelly and Tim McGraw's "Over and Over," which really wasn't either country or rap; it was pretty sparkly immaculately-produced acoustic-guitar R&B like Beyonce's "Irreplaceable" (which Sugarland cover live). Still there have been a few fun little curios throughout history. Like these:
- Older Southern-rap types like UGK and 8Ball & MJG and the Dungeon Family put all sorts of country signifiers in their beats: honking harmonicas, sighing organs, bar-band blues-guitar noodles. That stuff doesn't really come from country; it comes from old-school Southern soul and blues, but old-school Southern soul and blues share plenty of DNA with pre-80s Nashville country, and most of my favorite 70s country singers (Waylon Jennings especially) were basically soul-singers. Pimp C used to like to say "country-rap tunes" a lot. That Southern swamp-rap has mostly died out in recent years, but every once in a while another great example comes along, like B.O.B.'s "Fuck You" or Young Bleed's "Bac Road Mississippi."
- This decade has seen the emergence of a few post-UGK uber-Southern rappers, guys like Nappy Roots and David Banner and Petey Pablo and Rich Boy, guys who come from small cities or smaller towns and who rap in impenetrably thick accents. With Nashville country's shift toward slick sports-bar aesthetics, these guys can semi-legitimately claim to be more country than country. Nappy Roots used to wear cowboy hats in their videos, but when they tried their big crossover move, they hired some guy from P.O.D. to do a remix. It sucked.
- Bubba Sparxxx and Timbaland tried a really brazen and unprecedented fusion of space-rap and O Brother-soundtrack ancestral country on Bubba's brilliant and still-overlooked second album, Deliverance. Timbaland threw jug-band harmonicas and banjos into his offspeed funk and Bubba talked about how his family loved Jimmy Carter but didn't vote. Commercially, it failed utterly, and Bubba's one blip of popularity since then came when he hired the Ying Yang Twins to yell "booty" a bunch of times on one of his songs.
- On the other side of the aisle, there's Cowboy Troy, the rapping protege of day-glo country weirdos Big & Rich and the whitest-sounding nonwhite rapper since E-40. Troy is just a fascinating figure all around: he wears cowboy hats and wranglers and giant belt-buckles, he speaks three languages, he's really tall, he hosted Nashville Star for a while, and he can't rap. At all. On Big & Rich's "Rollin'," he had this to say: "Dum diggity dum diggity diggity dum dig this / Slicker than the grease from a barbecue biscuit." This was the first line of his verse. I paid actual money for Troy's 2005 solo album LocoMotive, which turned out to be a really bad idea. It bricked commercially, as did Black in the Saddle, the follow-up.
- Speaking of Big & Rich, they said "what, what" in "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)," my favorite single of 2004. This led to a microtrend of country singers awkwardly co-opting outdated rap slang. (See: Trace Adkins's "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," Toby Keith's "She's a Hottie.") Big & Rich also had a crappy song with Wyclef on their crappy 2007 album Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace, and one of the album's iTunes bonus tracks was a Lil Jon remix of "Loud."
- John Rich's reality show Gone Country, which is about a bunch of faded non-country singers who try to make country songs, featured Bobby Brown, who used to rap a little bit ("Every Little Step," "On Our Own"). The first episode was a lot of fun, but for some reason I stopped watching after that.
- Montgomery Gentry's euphoric, celebratory surviving-abuse love-jam "If You Ever Stopped Loving Me," one of my favorite singles of the decade, has DJ scratches buried really, really deep in the mix. For a while, I thought maybe I was hallucinating them, but no. They're there.
- Taylor Swift and Kellie Pickler do the Soulja Boy dance in Taylor's "I'm Only Me When I'm With You" video, appropriate considering that Taylor provokes the exact same reactions in old country dudes that Soulja Boy provokes in old rap dudes. Taylor also likes to cover "Lose Yourself" live, and it's not as bad as you might fear.
- Master P's "Ooh Wee" video takes place at a rodeo, and it's even funnier now than when it was first on. If you haven't seen it in a while, you owe it to yourself. (Juvenile's "Rodeo" video, meanwhile, unfortunately takes place in a strip club.)
- I guess I should probably mention Kid Rock here. Kid's not really rap or country, but he fucks around with both a whole lot. His gorgeous new single "All Summer Long" is built on a sampled loop of the "Sweet Home Alabama" riff, which is sort of a country-rap move in itself. Maybe I should also mention "My Medicine" producer and La Coka Nostra frontman Everlast, who had a brief late-90s resurgence mumble-rapping over acoustic guitars. Except Everlast wasn't really country-rap either; he yarled way more than any self-respecting country singer ever would. Really, Whitey Ford-era Everlast was more post-grunge-rap, like a rap Seven Mary Three or something.
That's all I could come up with off the top of my head, but I know I'm forgetting some stuff, and that's what the comments section is for.