Before we begin, which musical genre does this song belong to? A kid who had it really tough growing up in a neighborhood where he had to fight to survive, witnessed some serious stuff but made it out and is now wanting to tell you all about it in his own unique, musical way. Country or Rap? Answer: Correct.
When you ask someone what kind of music they’re into a lot of the time they’ll come back with something like, “I listen to a little bit of everything…” which makes sense in today’s world where we have access to a little bit of everything all the time wherever we go. Long gone are the days of agonizing decisions at Blockbuster Music where you’re going to spend the 15 dollars you just earned from mowing a lawn that morning. But, how often does someone say they listen to a little bit of everything but then immediately follow it up with, “except country” followed by a look of disgust streaking across their face? It’s like when you were a kid and you asked the concession guy for a ‘suicide’ combination of soda where he’d make a cocktail of all the sodas he had on tap but would leave out Diet Coke per your request. Anybody know what I’m talking about there? No? Let’s move on.
People have strong opinions on country music. In fact, I’d say it’s the most polarizing of all the musical genres. So many hate it while so many love it. And for those that hate it, I get it. So much of what Country does is a required taste. There is a mountain of great country songs (yes, they exist) you’ve got to give a few listens to before you can fully appreciate them. And what country artists sound like, what they look like, what they sing about can all be a turn off to a lot of people. I understand. We’ll get back to some of what I mentioned above but if you’ve gotten this far, and you hate country music, please stick with me because I bet I’m about to talk about a musical genre you do like. Which would be…
Hip Hop. In its own right, Hip Hop is almost universally adored. Or I guess it’s better to say if you’re 50 or younger there’s a good chance you have at least a few Spotify playlists you could run through and either bounce your head to or that’d give you some nostalgic feels of a time when you were a little less, say, parental. Hip hop is an easier sell on its first listen. A Hip Hop song’s intro so often is meant to grab your attention with a catchy beat or a catchy line. And Hip Hop music just gets you hype. I think that’s a big part of why it’s so loved. Country music? Not so much, but a good Hip Hop song to start off a workout session or to listen to before a basketball game gets the blood flowing in a way a good country song can’t. And a good beat is universal. You don’t need to understand the language the Hip Hop artist is rapping in to listen to a Hip Hop song that makes you want to get up off your couch and shake it. Country? Well, it helps to know what they’re saying.
If you’re a fan of one genre over the other, I’m not here to convince you to like the other. And I am certainly not here campaigning for more Hip Hop/Country collaborations. I guess at the very least I’d like a country fan who isn’t a hip-hop fan to see what the other genre is all about and develop an appreciation for it because there are way more similarities between the two than you think.
Before we move on, we need to understand what type of hip hop and country I’m comparing. I’ll make it easy. The good versions. When I say ‘good’ Country I’m referring to artists like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Jerry Jeff Walker, Robert Earl Keen Jr., Waylon Jennings, Lorretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and on. When I’m talking about good Hip Hop I’m referring to artists like Outkast, Nas, Jay-Z, Eminem, Lauryn Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Beastie Boys, Kanye West, The Wu Tang Clan, Talib Kwhali, 2Pac, Biggie, etc.
Without further ado, I present to you the definitive reasons why hip hop and country music are similar and why they should be appreciated by fans of both genres.
Reason #1: Both Hip Hop and Country music artists like to go by pseudonyms.
Snoop Dogg is really Calvin Brodeous, Patsy Cline’s given name was Virginia Patterson Hensley, Jay-Z’s mom named him Shawn Carter while country music legend Hank Williams was born Hiram King Williams.
Why do these artists do this? Well, first off their stage names just sound cooler and sell more records but I also believe they do it because they’re playing a character. To both Country and Hip Hop artists, they represent something bigger than themselves. The stories they tell in their songs so often are either things they witnessed growing up or things that happened to them personally and they’re relaying these tails through a character and through someone their audience relates to.
And what do we relate to? That brings me to…
Reason#2: Hip Hop and Country artists love to talk about their rough upbringing
So many good Country and hip hop songs lay out how tough times used to be and how they got where they were today and the lessons they learned along the way. One of my favorite hip hop songs that executes this beautifully is Grits by RZA. The song by the former member of the Wu-Tang Clan starts out like this, “When I was small, we had nothing at all, we used to eat Grits for dinner, it was pain, almost drive a man insane” It’s an amazing song that I suggest you give a listen but I also ask you to consider, couldn’t that exact line be used in a Country song? I mean, when Loretta Lynn used to sing her hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and say, “in the summertime, we didn’t have shoes to wear, but in the wintertime, we’d all get a brand new pair” can’t you imagine her and the RZA having just something in common when it comes to a rough childhood? I obviously say so and would personally like to live in a world where we could see someone like Loretta Lynn and the RZA sit down somewhere and talk about where they started and how they got here. What a beautiful sight.
Reason #3: neither Country nor Hip Hop are always nice talking about the ladies
Now both Hip Hop and Country have more than their share of mega female artists but both genres of music can be criticized for point #3. Growing up, I had to hide the Hip Hop albums I bought for this reason, and frankly, my parents might’ve had a point. Some of the things Hip Hop artists say about women are deplorable. I think it’s unfair to make a sweeping generalization that all Hip Hop songs are this way as my parents would’ve, but it’s there. But it’s also there with country music. How many songs do you know from Country that talk about cheating on your girl, or having more than one girlfriend or one night stands, etc.? They’re there and they’re tolerated in certain households while the hip hop versions are not. Another blog for another time.
Reason #4: Both hip hop and country artists like guns
Reason #5: They both take major liberties with the English language and we love them for it
Here’s Eminem in an interview defying people who say orange can’t rhyme with another word. In the same way, Country music is famous for doing things in English you’re not supposed to be able to do like using double negatives, the word ‘ain’t, and often times just making up words (both Hip Hop and Country artists like the word ‘fixin’). Why do we allow this? Because it’s creative and it’s also authentic. For so many of them, it’s how they talk or how people talk from where they’re from. Which takes us to our next reason:
Reason #6: Both Hip Hop and Country artists are extremely loyal to where they grew up
I mean, can you get through a NAS song without him mentioning Queensbridge? Can you listen to Merle Haggard without thinking of Muskogee, Oklahoma? And with both genres, it makes sense that this is such a big part of what they write about. They must paint a picture and they must write/rap/sing what they know and what shaped them. For so many of them, where they grew up got them to where they are today. When you hear good Hip Hop and good Country it’s good because it’s real. You feel it in the lyrics that they’re writing about something they lived, witnessed or heard about as a youth and it connects with their audience. There are countless examples of this but I’ll just give you two. Give NAS’s “2nd Childhood” (A song worthy of its own blog post) a listen as well as Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Pick up Truck Song.”
Reason #7: They both like outlaws and secretly (or not so secretly) want to be one
Back in 1975, Willie Nelson put out an album called “The Red-Headed Stranger” which tells a story of a preacher whose wife cheats on him, leaves him, he tracks her down, shoots her (and the guy she’s with) and then goes on the run. Pretty gangster. Johnny Cash’s most famous song is probably “Folsom Prison Blues” where the protagonist kills a man in Reno just to watch him die. Pretty cold blooded, pretty gangsta style.
Reason #8: If you watch a Source awards show and then follow it up with the CMT version, who do the artists thank first?
God. Now, how airtight is their theology and reasoning? Again, a blog for another time, but it’s clear that God was part of their upbringing in some way and gets incorporated into their music often.
And last but not least, reason #9 Hip Hop and Country are more similar than you ever thought: Mama
Both Hip Hop and Country artists love they mamas.