Dirty Roots: Southern Hip-Hop Part I — The 12″ Era (1979-1983)

As far as my ears can tell, pretty near every rapper from Inglewood to Plumstead nowadays owes more than a little something to the rise of the Dirty South sound that pretty much took over hip-hop in the late 1990s. As anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the genre knows, however, southern hip-hop was for many years primarily a regional concern. In the 1970s the hip-hop scene was firmly centered in the Northeast. In the early 1980s it made its way to the West Coast but as far as mainstream audiences were concerned, skipped the third and fourth coasts. In the 1990s, many casual fans and scholars alike will tell you, there was a war between the East and West Coasts during some Southern upstarts crashed the party and, despite the efforts of the backpack Taliban, restored a sense of fun to a genre which had increasingly grown joyless and conservative. 

The Sequence
The Sequence

In actuality, southern rap is almost as old as rap itself. Hip-Hop might’ve been born in the Northeast but it was quickly recognized and received throughout the urban centers of the US, Canada, and the UK. In the 1970s, hip-hop was primarily experienced live — or on amateur recordings made of live performance — and hip-hop clubs and radio shows appeared in many American cities. Although vinyl records were central to hip-hop as sources of DJ samples it wasn’t until 1979 that the first hip-hop recordings themselves began to make their way to the 12″ single format. That year groups like Funky Four Plus One More, Spoonie Gee, Jazzy 4 MC’s, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, First Class, Jocko, Mr. Q, and others recorded the first hip-hop singles. One of the rap releases of that year was The Sequence’s “Funk You Up.” The Sequence —Cheryl “Cheryl The Pearl” Cook, Gwendolyn “Blondy” Chisolm, and future soul star Angie “Angie B.” Brown Stone — were a group of high school cheerleaders from Columbia, South Carolina who signed toSugar Hill and were likely both the first female rap group and the first southern rap group on record.

In 1980 all rap was still primarily party music and given much of the South’s acceptance on equal terms of partying and preaching, it should surprise no one that the first rap record cut in the south, Danny Renée And The Charisma Crew‘s “Space Rap,” was a disco-rap tune that did little to challenge that perception. However, although Renée and the Charisma Crew (Theresa McKie, Otis Johnson, and Marty Williams) weren’t exactly musical pioneers, they were quietly progressive in their gender-integration and their lyrical preoccupations with “bass in the face,” booty-shaking, and sex — themes which would soon develop into the tropes of southern hip-hop. And although bass wouldn’t emerge as a rap sub-genre until around 1985, the alien robot (by Robotron from the planet, Rap-On) introduction on “Space Rap” and science-fiction concerns would even later be common features of many an electro bass record. I could find almost nothing about this group but it seems to have been the group’s only release, the only song recorded at Atlanta’s Melody Recording Studios, and one of the few singles recorded for that city’s Shurfine Records.

The future arrived some time in 1981 CE. That was the year that Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five released what was likely the first electro song, “Scorpio.” In Detroit, Number of Names released what many consider to be the first Detroit techno record, “Sharevari.” Somewhat surprisingly then, given the fact that electronic hip-hop production was ultimately embraced nowhere more than in the south, the only southern rap release that I know of from that year was The Flame and The Dynamite Three‘s funky but fairly standard disco-rap single, “Work Your Body,” recorded for Chattanooga, Tennessee’s Bronco Records.

Several important developments occurred in black, underground music in 1982. Firstly, Peech Boys“Don’t Make Me Wait” was perhaps the first garage recording. Secondly, Arthur Baker and John Robie created, with Boston‘s Planet Patrol, perhaps the first freestyle song, “Play At Your Own Risk.” Whilst garage remained for many years associated almost wholly with New York and New Jersey, freestyle would make its way (thanks to Baker, Robie, and Freeez) to the UK and (thanks to Pretty Tony) to Florida. Freestyle, orLatin hip-hop — essentially salsafied electro —  was a natural fit in sunshine state and Tony (Anthony Butler) crafted hits for Debbie Deb, himself, and his group Freestyle, who released “When I Hear Music,”“Fix It In The Mix,” and “Freestyle Express,” respectively.

1983 proved to be a significant year in hip-hop not as far as the freestyle explosion but across the entire rap genre and even the western world. Wild Style was released in theaters in the US, Canada, Denmark,Hungary, Italy, Spain, and West Germany. In November 1982, Afrika BambaataaFab 5 FreddyGrandmixer DST, Mr Freeze, and the Rock Steady Crew embarked on the New York City Rap Tour which brought them to France and the UK where the first British rapper on record (although it should be noted Adam Ant and George Michael had previously rapped on record), Dizzy Heights, released “Christmas Rapping” in time for the 1983 holiday season (and teamed up with The Style Council). 1983 also, by most estimations, marked the end of the 12″ Era and the beginning of the New School Era, characterized by an increased focus on cohesive LPs rather than novelty, disco-rap singles. In the South, there would a market for the latter and its antecedents, which in the New School Era often mean bass, and in later eras lead to the South’s takeover.

Stay tuned for Part II of Dirty Roots: A History of Southern Hip-Hop

Eric Brightwell is a writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, or listicles and jobs must pay more than slave wages as he would rather write for pleasure than for peanuts. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles Magazine,LAistEastsider LA,Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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