Across the height and breadth of the so-called Dirty South, there’s no hip-hop act that is dirty and southern in quite the ways that Nappy Roots are. First of all, Nappy Roots are “dirty” not only because they’re “low-down” or “nasty” but because there is literally mud in the tread of their tires and on the soles of their boots. What’s more, unlike Lil Wayne from New Orleans, say, or Outkast and Ludacris from Atlanta, Nappy Roots is southern in that oldest of old-school senses: They are rural. Indeed, on their 2002 debut disc Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz, these self-professed “Country Boyz” rapped about “Blowin’ Trees” and “Kentucky Mud” while proudly declaring that they were “knee deep, head over heels, in this country shit.”
The group mostly hails from Bowling Green, Kentucky, a college town of around 60,000 people. Now, that’s a definition of “country” which likely would have greeted our forebears as a rank stranger. Still, it underscores that the south (and all of America, for that matter) has never been divided neatly between city and country. Rather, we’ve witnessed the steady transformation of rural precincts into urban and suburban annexes, a perpetual modification of what both terms mean in relation to one another. And just as white kids in the stix today listen to the latest metal, so too are black and white kids in America up on their hip-hop. Few rappers actually talk about this reality in their songs, however.
That’s one of the ways in which Nappy Roots are so special. Like Arrested Development, though notably without the bohemian critique of mainstream rap, Nappy Roots sing of an ex-urban world where gravel roads are still never farther away than a fifteen-minute drive. You’d expect to hear a chorus like the following on a country station…but on a rap album?
Take me back to West V-A, take me back to Charleston
It’s those dog gone busy streets I’m ridin’ to get far from
Ridin’ to a small town
The rap album in question is The Humdinger, the group’s third proper album and first on their own N.R.E.G. label, and it shows the group is country in other ways, as well. They incorporate gospel moans and church piano in spare arrangements, often little more than a keyboard or blues harmonica lick paired with a bass drum and snare the DJ equivalent of front-porch pickin’. Their raps are also more traditionally melodic and chorus-driven than typical contemporary hip-hop, which means you can sing along to most of their songs.
Finally, just as with their first big hit back in ’02, “Po’ Folks”, Nappy Roots still rap about what it’s like to be poor. My favorite moment on The Humdinger is when a danceable plea for momentary utopia, “Good Day”, transitions into the everyday struggles of a man praying his car starts so he can make it to work on the next track, “Down ‘N Out”. Guest Anthony Hamilton sings, “Have you ever been down and out, not a penny left to your name, broke down on the side of the road, is anybody goin’ my way?”
Country? Hell, that’s the country blues.