The 1995 Source Awards are legendary mostly because they signaled the apex of the East Coast/West Coast hip-hop rivalry. They’re where Snoop Dogg called the East Coast out for not having love for him and Dr. Dre, they’re where Bad Boy’s Puff Daddy proclaimed he was going to die in the East, and they’re where Death Row impresario Suge Knight delivered his famous “Come to Death Row” speech. But they’re also where Andre 3000 and Big Boi, a pair of funky upstarts from Atlanta who rhymed together as OutKast, were booed after they won the Source Award for Best New Artist. Rather than backing down or acting defensive, Dre squared up to the mic and proclaimed, “The South got somethin’ to say, and that’s all I got to say.”
Three Stacks’ words were profoundly prophetic. Though for much of the '90s hip-hop was dominated by New York and Los Angeles, as time has passed, rap fans have actually discovered that there are actually several other cities in America, and that those cities have been creating rap music for quite some time. And while Atlanta has been the focal point of the rap industry for the past decade and a half, hip-hop has only been kind to the south in retrospect. For the better part of the ‘90s, the south had to fight tooth and nail to prove Andre’s words true. When national record labels wouldn’t sign southern artists, they made their own labels. When major touring cities weren’t interested in booking them, they’d chart their own tours. When New York rap—so concerned with jazz—and the funk-leaning Los Angeles wouldn’t accept them, they forged their own traditions, informed by soul and the blues, with lyrics that proudly illustrated the good, the bad, and the ugly of the southern experience.
Before we get into the actual list of southern hip-hop records you should own on vinyl, a couple more notes. One, there are lots and lots of cities in the south, and each of them have produced lots and lots of great music—this could have easily been a list of ten New Orleans or Houston records—so I tried to keep the list both geographically diverse and sonically representative. Two, there’s a truly galling number of southern rap classics that just straight-up aren’t available on vinyl. Records such as Juvenile’s 400 Degreez, DJ Screw’s June 27th, Boosie’s Youngest Of Da Camp, and Waka Flocka’s Flockaveli are all in their own ways vital albums, and the fact that they are unavailable on vinyl is almost impossible to understand.
The Tennessee rappers might have had to head down to Houston to get a deal with Suave House, but when it came time to release their 1993 debut album Comin’ Out Hard, 8Ball and M.J.G. kept it as Memphis as humanly possible. These tracks were slam-packed with slick talk connected to the local pimp culture, and their bluesy, self-produced beats followed within the tradition of Stax Records. Though they might have sold better with On Top Of The World and came to regret Comin Out Hard’s violent and often villainously misogynistic lyrics with age, you’ll never hear a purer distillation of the uncut and unfiltered energy that informed the early Tennessee rap scene.
For the better part of the '90s, basically everything that a member of Three 6 Mafia touched—from group albums to solo records to their work with affiliates like Kingpin Skinny Pimp and Project Pat—was incredible. Producers DJ Paul and Juicy J had found a simple yet deadly effective formula for creating straight-up demonic records: lay a spooky sample atop a tittering drum pattern, chant some threats, and record the whole thing to tape, which gave the music a murky, subterranean feel, as if it were recorded at the gates of hell. As a result, Mystic Stylez is best listened to in complete darkness on a full moon, preferably after smoking several blunts and watching a couple John Carpenter movies.
Though the decidedly lo-fi, DIY nature of Mystic Stylez wasn’t intentional—Juicy and Paul have said they’d have recorded it on better equipment if they could—it became the defining aesthetic of the group’s early period. In their early days, Three 6 and their affiliates issued a tireless stream of so-called “underground” cassette tapes, consisting of a grip of songs that all followed their basic template (there are also many vital artists, such as Tommy Wright III and Gangsta Pat, who recorded in this style but were mostly unaffiliated). Many of these releases are hard to find in their corporeal form, but thanks to the magic of the internet you can find as much Memphis underground music as you desire if you google hard enough. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in this type of music at all, but I’d recommend Kingpin Skinny Pimp’s Skinny But Dangerous, Project Pat’s Murderers and Robbers, Koopsta Knicca’s Da Devil’s Playground, and (obvs) Mystic Stylez as good of starting points as any.
One more thing about Mystic Stylez, sort of. Large swaths of southern hip-hop stem directly from New York rappers The Showboys’ single “Drag Rap,” otherwise known as “Triggerman,” which contained a combination of 808s and synthesized marimba hits that ended up forming the backbone of both Three 6-style Memphis underground rap as well as New Orleans Bounce music. The song is nothing short of iconic, having reverberated through hip-hop to be rapped over by everyone from David Banner ("Like a Pimp") to Lil Boosie ("Wipe Me Down") to Death Grips ("Two Heavens"). But while in Memphis the track was repurposed as a way to signal the impending creep of utter doom, in New Orleans “Triggerman” became the centerpiece of Bounce, the only music worth dancing to. As the legendary producer Mannie Fresh once told Cocaine Blunts, “A party ain’t a party without ‘Triggerman,’ not in New Orleans.”
By the time he linked up with Cash Money records Mannie Fresh had already irrevocably altered the course of southern hip-hop through his work as a Bounce producer, making albums with MC Gregory D. But as Cash Money’s in-house producer, he crafted indelible records for acts such as B.G., Juvenile, U.N.L.V., Lil Wayne, Magnolia Shorty, and Big Tymers, which he formed with Cash Money impresario Baby.
While Hot Boys’ Guerrilla Warfare wasn’t a straight Bounce album, it’s indisputably imbued with the spirit of New Orleans. The Hot Boys—a Cash Money-created supergroup consisting of local stars Juvenile, Turk, B.G., and Lil Wayne—were at the height of their powers. Juvenile and B.G. were already national stars thanks to their respective classics 400 Degreez and Chopper City (both produced by Fresh), and Wayne’s debut record Tha Block Is Hot was due out in only a few months. Fresh’s beats provided a perfect backdrop for the Hot Boys to project their rhymes, full of the swagger and invincibility of youth.
So much of southern hip-hop’s greatness is due to a combination of enterprise and artistry. Take Master P, who used his finest solo album as a way to showcase the talents of the mighty No Limit roster. Ghetto D features such integral No Limit soldiers as Silkk the Shocker, Mia X, Fiend, Mac, and Mystikal, all of whom turn in stellar performances when it’s their turn to steer the Tank. My personal favorite moment on this record is Mystikal’s threat to “piss on your porch, shit on your couch” on “Let’s Get ‘Em,” but you can put the needle down at any point on this collection and land on a ridiculously compelling moment. There’s “Captain Kirk,” which reimagines Master P as an extremely sexual James T. Kirk, the soulful, Isley Brothers-interpolating “Tryin 2 Do Something,” P’s off-kilter warble on “Stop Hatin’,” the timeless posse cut “Make ‘Em Say Ugh”.... The list goes on. Ghetto D might not necessarily be the most socially responsible rap album of all time (the original cover actually featured a picture of someone smoking crack), but it’s definitely one of the most fun. And beyond that, it’s hard to imagine what southern hip-hop might look like without it.
Is Virginia the South? Are Pusha T and Malice “Southern Rappers?” Is Hell Hath No Fury a “Southern Rap Album?” Well, this is my list and not yours, so I’m saying that the answer to all of these questions is “Yes.” If you don’t like it, write your own list, nerd. All I know is Hell Hath No Fury is one of the greatest rap albums of all time. Malice and Pusha T were flamboyant, flagrant, and fucking ferocious on the mic, while the Neptunes’ beats were icy, minimal, menacing, and totally unforgettable. The basic mood of Hell Hath No Fury is this perspective of, “holy shit I can’t believe we got away with all of this audacious, extremely dangerous cocaine dealing,” which is to say everything on this record is designed to make the listener feel FUCKING. AMPED. in the face of total moral reprehensibility, the same way that movies like Scarface and Wolf Of Wall Street ask the viewer to root for the villain even as they commit one unforgivable sin after the other. Then again, Tony Montana and Jordan Belfort’s best moments might never catch up with Push and Malice on tracks like the shuffling “Mama I’m So Sorry” or the harp-driven, frozen-faced “Ride Around Shining.” On Hell Hath No Fury, Pusha T and Malice didn’t make you want to root for the villain—they made rooting for the villain the only option.
It’s a common misconception that Young Bleed was signed to No Limit, and that Balls And My Word was yet another round fired from the chamber of the assembly line-esque No Limit Tank. But despite Master P’s presence on the record, and the fact that this album came out as a joint venture between No Limit and Priority, Young Bleed’s solo debut should be viewed as a separate entity from No Limit. For one, Bleed was from Baton Rouge and was a member of the local clique Concentration Camp along with guys like C-Loc, Max Minelli, and (eventually) his cousin Lil Boosie. Bleed’s raps are delivered in a distinctly BR drawl, and his BR homies C-Loc and Minelli are all over this LP. Meanwhile, the production of Balls And My Word was handled primarily by Happy Perez, a guy who was integral to giving Baton Rouge its unique sound in the late 90s and early 2000s, and who in the 2010s became a vital part of Miguel’s—yes, that Miguel—production team.
Ugh like honestly if you don’t own this record what in the actual fuck is wrong with you. Do you hate sound? Were you personally victimized by Pimp C? Did Bun B accidentally step on your foot one time? Seriously though, there’s something epic about Ridin’ Dirty. And not in the stupid internet nerd “this is a big deal therefore it is EPIC” sense of the word, like Ridin’ Dirty is an epic in the same way that The Odyssey is epic, the same way that Ben Hur is epic, the same way that Lord Of The Rings is epic, the same way that any other actually epic shit is actually epic. Between Pimp C’s gorgeous, country-rap productions, his and Bun B’s literary verses, and Smoke D’s touching interludes straight from the pen, Ridin’ Dirty creates a world, introduces you to Bun B and Pimp C as personalities, and then runs them through the ringer of the Southern experience. There are bluesy lamentations (“One Day,” “Diamonds & Wood,” “Hi Life”), tough talk (“Murder,” “Touched,” “That’s Why I Carry”), slice-of-life narratives (“3 In The Mornin’,” “Good Stuff”), and “Fuck My Car,” which is just its own amazing entity that uses car-fucking as a metaphor (no cars were actually fucked in the making of Ridin’ Dirty). UGK were a product of the insanely fruitful Texas rap scene, which gave us guys like the Geto Boys, Swishahouse, Devin The Dude, and A.B.N., not to mention the legendary DJ Screw—whose work as a selector, DJ, and leader of the Screwed Up Click slowed down and redefined the sound of hip-hop.
Scarface has been on record saying that he does not like a single Geto Boys album. Not even We Can’t Be Stopped? “Not even that motherfucker,” he once told Noisey. Which is nuts when you think about it. Like, the Geto Boys are one of the most important groups in the history of music and you should listen to their records even if one of the main guys in the Geto Boys doesn’t like them. But in deference to the views of the legendary ‘Face, I opted to put his sprawling, ambitious solo LP The Diary on this list rather than a Geto Boys record. It’s a wholly engrossing work, and a pitch-black one as well. Nearly every song finds Scarface confronting death—his death, your death, and everyone else’s too.
There are many people who will tell you that ATLiens is the greatest southern rap record of all time, and they’re probably right. ATLiens was the album that brought legitimacy to the South, not by selling a bunch of copies or yielding hit singles (although the record did indeed do that) but because it painted a vivid picture of life in the south while offering a strain of Afrofuturistic, country-fried psych-hop that was quite unlike anything else out there. ATLiens was a deconstruction of what hip-hop could be, from the bubbles that runs through “13th Floor” or Andre 3000’s hook on “Millennium,” which merely consisted of mumbles. Meanwhile, both Big Boi and Andre 3000 had expanded their rhyme palates from the slick talk of their classic debut Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik, and were now men of the world. Big was the technician, his basso profundo and dense rhymes revealing him as a talent who could rap circles around the New York rappers the group had been compared unfavorably to. And Andre 3000 had begun his ascent to a whole nother plane of existence, swearing off drugs and alcohol while exploring philosophy and spirituality. “Let me hold it down, because they shut you down when you speak from your heart,” he rapped on “Babylon,” cementing the central duality that made OutKast so great: he and Big were the player and the poet, the Atlantan and the alien. ATLiens is at its core a record about being abandoned by society, creating something new with whatever flotsam and jetsam has been left around you.
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While ATLiens often has a hopeful bent, Soul Food—the seminal debut by 'Kast’s Dungeon Family brethren Goodie Mob—is concerned simply with survival. “I live for today, motherfuck another hour,” rapped Cee-Lo on “Thought Process,” before declaring, “I wanna lie to you sometimes, but I can't / I wanna tell you that it's all good, but it ain't.” The son of two preachers, both of whom died before he reached adulthood, Cee-Lo embodied the simultaneous spirituality and disillusion that colored Soul Food. The album also features the first use of the term “Dirty South,” on the track of the same name, by Dungeon affiliate Cool Breeze (whose record East Point’s Greatest Hit you owe it to yourself to track down). Recorded at Curtis Mayfield’s studio, Soul Food is a desperate, dystopian record, one whose sheer depth and gravity belies the youth of those who made it.
Though Atlanta was always an integral part of hip-hop, it wasn’t until Jermaine Dupri set up So So Def Recordings that Atlanta became to urban pop what Detroit and Motown had once been. Executive Produced by a pre-Crunk Lil Jon, the So So Def Bass All-Stars compilation showcased the hottest Atlanta bass records and just so happens to be one of the most entertaining and straight-up greatest dance albums of all time. Before it gets into more ridiculously great bass music than you can shake your ass at, So So Def Bass All-Stars treats you Ghost Town DJs’ “My Boo,” the definitive R&Bass record that still reverberates through culture to today.