Atlantic reporter Noah Berlatsky is in hot pursuit of the solution to a mystery at the front of nobody’s mind: “The Racial Dynamics of Hick Hop.”
In an interview with sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, Berlatsky seeks to understand an emerging music genre that remixes traditional country music with elements of autotuned hip-hop. If you have heard anything by Florida Georgia Line, then you probably have heard what hick hop, a term coined by the Wall Street Journal, sounds like.
In 2013 the group collaborated with rapper Nelly to remix their hit “Cruise” into an even bigger hit; but “Cruise” is hardly the first of its kind. Perhaps most notable is Nelly’s 2004 hit “Over and Over,” a ballad featuring twangy vocals from Tim McGraw that reached number one on the Billboard Pop 100. Other hick hop singles include Jason Aldean trying his hand at rapping on 2010’s track “Dirt Road Anthem.” That performance inspired a studio remix with Ludacris. Other hick hop works include Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s “Accidental Racist,” Florida Georgia Line’s remix of “This Is How We Roll” with Jason Derulo, and Nelly’s “Hey Porsche.”
The defining characteristic of “hick hop” is the subject matter, which differentiates it from southern hip-hop. The music is focused on nostalgia and down-to-earth activities of driving a truck, drinking beer, and beautiful women. Southern hip-hop, conversely, is simply hip-hop by artists who come from southern states; the lyrical content is still very much rooted in hip-hop, but with more references to growing up in Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, or Memphis. Southern hip-hop artists have introduced such fundamental terms as “bling,” “crunk,” “sipping on some sizzurp,” and “turn down for what” into the hip-hop lexicon — a far cry from the back roads, farm towns, and “Chevy with a lift kit” the members of Florida Georgia Line sing about on “Cruise.” So where do hip-hop artists and country stars find common ground? And what exactly are the “racial dynamics” that Berlatsky writes about?
The genre has inspired bona fide hip-hop artists to rap about the South in a different light. They’ve traded nightclubs for trucks and dirt roads, and in turn, are embracing a Southern culture — one that is typically white, notes Berlatsky. On “Cruise,” Nelly raps “Hey, country girl, this country boy / Like everything about you,” and on “Dirt Road Anthem,” Ludacris waxes about “Reminiscing on the good times / Water balloons, super soakers / Wet T-shirts, women in bikinis / Kenny Rogers penny loafers.”
On “This Is How We Roll,” Jason Derulo sings, “My accent’s got a little twang, little thing” before mentioning his Maybach and snapback — two distinct symbols of urban hip-hop culture. Derulo< is able to put his own spin on the remixed version of the song, and it works; the lyrics fit with Florida Georgia’s sound. On his collaboration with Ludacris, Aldean said what seemed like an unlikely pairing actually made a lot of sense: “We’re both Georgia boys, so even though our music is totally different, our roots are the same. We both know about hot Georgia summers and cooling off with a six pack or two.”
The pairing seems unlikely, Berlatsky contends, because “country music is generally seen as music for rural white people sung in traditional styles,” while hip-hop is “(also generally seen as) urban black music continually updating itself.” But hick hop isn’t the pairing of country music with Seattle-based rapper Macklemore’s socially conscious messages, or Jay-Z’s references to luxury designers (“I don’t pop molly, I rock Tom Ford”). Its lyrics are simple and easy to digest. The genre doesn’t discriminate; it doesn’t make obscure references, require anything from listeners, or seek to spread a message. The listener enjoys hick hop because it is fun, not because it is thought-provoking.
Because sociologists have all the answers, Cottom explains, “A lot of other popular music, there’s a certain self-consciousness about it. Everything now is snark, everything is very self-aware. But country music is still selling the fun and the lack of self-consciousness, and that appeals to me.” She also notes country music’s nostalgia for “a better, simpler time. And that’s always a nostalgic feeling, about a better past.” But then she takes a turn for the worse.
“For white people a lot of talking about the good old times is talking about a pre-integration time, a pre–Civil Rights time, a time before interracial dating was common,” Cottom asserts — a generalization that doesn’t stand up to the most casual scrutiny. The two members of Florida Georgia Line were born in 1987 and 1985. They’re too young to remember the movie Mississippi Burning, let alone to be nostalgic about the pre–Civil Rights era.
Berlatsky and Cottom try to frame everything in terms of race. Country music, Berlatsky asserts, “is used to signal whiteness, or as an expression of white community.” That must be why Charley Pride has had 39 number-one Billboard Hot Country hits; Darius Rucker has had three; Ray Charles released Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music way back in 1962; and soul and blues artists including Sam Cooke, B.B. King, and even Leadbelly all worked occasionally in the country-and-western idiom or covered country hits. Anybody who enjoys a particular musical style can claim to be a fan of that style.
In fact, the beauty of hick hop is in its simplicity. Country, and the genre it has spawned in hick hop, is relentlessly accessible. The appeal reaches across differences in gender, age, race, and socioeconomic status. Hick hop is the merging of two different types of distinctly American music, genres of music that were created in the U.S. and remain an indelible part of our culture. The genre represents two values in which Americans have always taken pride: down-to-earth relatability and a fusion of cultures.
— Caroline Rizzo is a rising senior at Yale and a Buckley Program intern at National Review.