The first sounds you hear on Nappy Roots’ 2002 debut Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz aren’t the thwacks of one of their trademark warm, rich beats, nor are they the twangy syllables that immediately connect the group to the then-exploding Southern rap scene. Instead you hear crickets, the kind of nature sounds you might pick up on some relaxation-oriented white noise machine. These are punctuated by trudging steps along what is unmistakably a dirt road.
Even if most members of the rap sextet aren’t actually from towns whose populations were three digits or less, the album embraces the idea of being country almost immediately. Not in a superficial way, with cowboy hats and big trucks, but in a way that is almost spiritual: humble, simple, down-to-earth.
It’s in their name, whose dual meaning is elucidated in the title of their second independent album, No Comb, No Brush, No Fade, No Perm… It’s in their 1998 independent debut, the one that first caught Atlantic’s ear, titled Country Fried Cess; its first song, “Country Roads,” features an almost unrecognizable banjo in its beat and the contours of what would make the group so successful on the national stage. “From the Roots, these country roads hold untold truths,” they rap before a rough-hewn chorus, creating the formula: pointedly unglamorous honesty conveyed with dynamic, bright hooks.
If Nappy Roots didn’t invent country-rap, they certainly crystallized it into something much deeper than whatever ill-advised hip-hop crossovers were happening on Music Row, just an hour or so south of Western Kentucky University, where the group first came together. Yet their work sometimes gets categorized as “conscious” — argot for hip-hop with explicitly political or philosophical lyrics — and it’s an apt description given the way the group entwines vivid depictions of rural poverty with reflective musings on how things got that way. As geographically specific as their city-dwelling counterparts in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston, Nappy Roots planted a flag, claiming every forgotten small town for hip-hop with style and self-assurance.
“Average man when the rest was ashamed to be,” Big V (aka Vito Tisdale) croons on the group’s biggest hit, “Po’ Folks,” a song that presents swaggerlessness as a point of pride in the same way country radio hitmakers never stop using their humble beginnings as a source of relatability and credibility. It was new and, more importantly, it was catchy, compelling pop that led listeners to at least tacitly acknowledge that all their assumptions about rappers — and Black musicians — were wrong.
What its members coined the “Nappy movement” started in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where five out of six of them were in school in the mid-’90s. Standard after-class hangs — TV, beer, weed — increasingly turned into freestyling sessions, which led to involvement in Bowling Green’s first Black-owned music shop, ET Music. There they not only immersed themselves in the regional underground scene but also put together a tiny, ramshackle studio on the second floor, where they recorded their earliest songs on a “microphone in the closet ... No A/C,” as they described on their first single, “Awnaw.”
Their initial mission was a DIY one, modeled on Master P’s No Limit Records; and insofar as that model can work in Western Kentucky, it worked. Bowling Green embraced the group even though only one of its members (Big V) was from there. The rest hailed from Louisville, and in R. Prophet’s case, Oakland — a detail that never came close to tarnishing their country image.
Country Fried Cess moved enough units to make it to the staff’s boomboxes at a nearby CD pressing plant, which is where, according to then-Nappy Roots manager Terrance Camp, an Atlantic rep heard the group for the first time. “They had a different kind of creativity,” he said. “Six different members with six different styles.” They were signed within weeks to a deal that seemed too good to be true. Melvin Adams (aka Fish Scales) quit the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers basketball team to pursue music, and the Roots were off. Only the deal they signed would quickly prove to be filled with caveats, and the strings attached would keep their music in limbo for four years. They made and scrapped entire albums, and shed some of the initial nine signees (some producers, some business partners).
The creation of Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz may not have been smooth, but the results were undeniable. Rich, organic, soul-driven beats with live instrumentation that jumped out of your speakers, supporting a diverse cast of distinctive emcees, each sharing his own good-humored realism — hard knocks shown through a soft lens.
“Awnaw,” with its irrepressible organ groove and sing-a-long-ready hook (amped up by none other than Atlanta super-producer Jazze Pha), proved to be the perfect introduction to audiences, ultimately peaking at No. 51 on the Billboard Hot 100. It had the countrified lingo (including, but not limited to, “hogwild”), relatable tales of being left with nothing but “pocket lints,” and most crucially, a convincing argument for why there was just as much fun to be had in BFE as there was in one of hip-hop’s established meccas. The video, with its everyday-person cameos, tractors, straw hats and overalls, drove the point home: This was Southern rap in the friendliest sense of that term, but the corn-fed perspective didn’t make it toothless. If anything, the eclectic blend of rap-sung voices and unexpected instruments gave them an edge.
Each member offered something totally different: Skinny DeVille (William Hughes), with his rapid-fire, elastic flow and his undeniable shared DNA with OutKast’s André 3000; R. Prophet (Kenneth Ryan Anthony), whose nasally, off-the-wall rhymes added a dancehall flair; B. Stille (Brian Scott), who drew out his twang with smart, catchy, emphatic phrasing; Fish Scales, who rap-sang with impressive dexterity, finding the inflection that would resonate most with fans; Big V, who used his deep growl to great effect; and Ron Clutch, who relied on a cascade of syllables for impact.
Their stated purpose, at least, was to act as a counterpoint to the prevailing hip-hop decadence of the day. “We ain’t knocking nobody, and we ain’t anti-anything,” Deville told The Washington Post when the album was released. “But sometimes you see a video, and there’s a gap between you and them. They’re having fun, spilling Cristal — that’ll never happen to me.” The group positioned itself against violence and sexism and even had their own substitute for the N-word: “yeggaz.” It may be one reason why the group’s legacy has been so overlooked in comparison to similarly successful but less overtly purpose-driven peers; earnestness is out of vogue.
But while some of their lyrics fit easily with this so-called “conscious” perspective, there are plenty of songs on the 21-track album with more conventional themes. “My Ride” is an ode to a Cadillac with 100 spokes. And then there are raunchy anthems “Headz Up,” “Start It Over” and the delightfully groovy “Ho Down” (get it?), which features Memphis legends the Bar-Kays. There’s even some uncharacteristic nihilism on “Life’s A Bitch.”
But the majority of the release finds Nappy Roots revisiting the same themes they introduced in “Awnaw.” Country life is hard, as they illuminate on “Ballin’ On A Budget” and “Dime, Quarter, Nickel, Penny,” and the reasons it’s hard are obvious. “It’s kinda funny, everybody love money to death / and only 3% control America’s wealth,” Prophet raps on the latter. “Face it, we’re livin with racists — outrageous.”
In spite of those systemic challenges, there is some glory in their humble lot — at least, as they depict it. Anthems like “Country Boyz,” the down and dirty “Slums” and “Kentucky Mud” show a kind of refreshing solidarity with people who might not have ever heard themselves in hip-hop before. That was the Nappy movement, as its creators saw it: finding the joy and beauty, where one could, in an unfair system instead of trying to cover it up. Taking qualities and status perceived as undesirable — “nappiness,” rural living, being part of the working poor — and finding within them a sense of community and appeal without masking all the things that make them so awful.
That’s the tension at the core of the group’s biggest hit, “Po’ Folks,” which channels the blues on multiple levels: in the laid-back guitar licks that outline its seductive beat and in the resigned pathos, humor and persistence of its lyrics. It wasn’t just different than anything on rap radio; it was different than anything on any radio station — until it was on every radio station. A heartfelt depiction of the kind of everyday poverty that’s almost always ignored became a pop sensation, thanks to Anthony Hamilton’s pitch-perfect translation of the track’s core melancholy into its chorus and a collection of impossible-to-contradict verses. “Walkin’ off collectin’ pay, it’s the way of the world,” rapped Big V. “Can’t change it, so I guess I’m gonna pray for the world. Sometimes I ask myself, was I made for the world?”
As a new recession hit and the U.S. slid into yet another war, the single reached No. 21 on the Hot 100; their message of humble resilience rang out everywhere. A new dimension of hip-hop had cut into the mainstream, one that was neither preachy nor apocalyptic but simply made in solidarity. As Deville put it, by way of explaining the album’s title, it’s “the refreshment, the soul food — the shit that’s going to stick to you.”
Natalie Weiner is a freelance writer in Dallas covering music and sports for outlets including NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Billboard.