The ten greatest Southern rappers of all time
It took a long time for the South to be recognized as a major player in the hip-hop scene, and it still has a ways to go to be held in the same regard as the East and West coasts, but with the emergence of a new breed of countrified rappers such as Big K.R.I.T., Future, Yelawolf and 2 Chainz (and even hyper-influential artists like Harlem's A$AP Rocky, whose flow is reminiscent of the old Houston flow and whose style strongly evokes that of Three 6 Mafia by proxy of SpaceGhostPurrp), the Southern brand of hip-hop is clearly on the rise. They say that to understand where something's going, you need to understand where it came from. Continue on for the ten greatest Southern hip-hop rappers.
10. Three 6 Mafia
Founded by Juicy J, Lord Infamous and DJ Paul, Three 6 Mafia cultivated one of hip-hop's most distinctive and alluring aesthetics -- dark and exciting, disturbing yet entrancing. Triple 6 has been making music almost as long as Southern hip-hop has been viable, but the crew didn't release an official studio album until 1995. Eventually, the group's image softened a bit, and it wasn't until 2000 that they blew up in a major way with "Sippin' on Some Syrup," which helped reignite hip-hop's on-again-off-again love affair with lean, coincidentally, just months before the death of DJ Screw. Three 6 also earned the respect of the most dignified of audiences by winning an Academy Award in 2006 for Best Original Song for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," from Hustle & Flow, which featured another Southern stalwart, Ludacris.
T.I. might have the smoothest, most effortless flow in all of hip-hop: He sounds like he's just talking, but he's also rhyming and clowning his haters at the same damn time. The key is an almost imperceptible assonance that Tip uses to string out his thoughts, which indicates a tremendous amount of effort on his part. In other words, he works hard to make it look so easy. His sophomore effort, Trap Muzik, popularized the style that has now transcended rap and captured a large portion of the EDM market, and T.I., though his career was derailed by an eleven-month prison sentence in 2010, has been making stellar records ever since, with four going platinum. Last year's Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head continues to be a fixture.
8. Missy Elliott
Missy Elliot is one of the best-selling MCs of all time, male or female, and she possesses one of hip-hop's most unique, inimitable styles. Each one of her first five albums went platinum, with her sixth and latest, 2005's The Cookbook, going gold, an even more impressive feat considering that she's executive-produced all of them with the help of Timbaland. She's won five Grammys along with a boatload of other awards and nominations. In addition, she created one of rap's most unforgettable tracks, "Get Ur Freak On," best remembered for its twangy synth loop, Elliott's distinctive hollers and pauses and the indelible image of her hawking a loogie into an unsuspecting man's mouth in the video.
Ludacris burst onto the scene in 2000 with "What's Your Fantasy," a fatuous, borderline gross aphrodisiac of a song that nevertheless demonstrated Luda's well-refined flow, lyrical dexterity and magnetic charisma and humor. By the time his second single, "Southern Hospitality," hit, Ludacris's talent for writing stone-cold hits was evident. His debut, Back for the First Time, would go on to sell over three million copies, which would then be eclipsed by his sophomore effort, Word of Mouf. Luda has sold more than thirteen million albums, acted in several films and owns his own label and cognac company, making him one of the South's first true hip-hop superstars.
6. 8Ball & MJG
While UGK was expanding on the Geto Boys sound in Texas, 8Ball & MJG were re-framing the gansta-rap sound to suit the Memphis pimp's perspective. The group first made waves with their 1993 gold release Comin' Out Hard, which plays at times like an instruction manual with tracks like "Pimps," which sets the record straight about one of the world's oldest professions, and "Armed Robbery," a vivid, almost cinematographic robbery tale set to the Mission Impossible theme.
5. Lil Wayne
Though the quality of his music has taken a dip since his Carter series and Da Drought tapes heyday, Lil Wayne, thanks mostly to Drake and Nicki Minaj, his Young Money Cash Money Baby proteges, remains on top of the rap game. In his prime, Wayne brought the now ubiquitous stream-of-consciousness lyricism to the public eye, and he has been a champion of style-over-substance rap. Without Wayne, there is no A$AP Rocky, Danny Brown, Future or Lil B, and though you can argue that these figures deprive hip-hop of its voice, you could just as easily argue that a dull lack of personality would beset the music without them.
UGK (Underground Kingz) was the first Texas act to capitalize on the buzz that Geto Boys generated with We Can't Be Stopped. And while they saw relatively limited success (three gold records) compared to what later Southern acts would see, UGK, along with 8Ball & MJG, was essential listening for later, best-selling MCs like Ludacris, T.I. And Nelly. Pimp C's death from a drug overdose in 2007 is one of hip-hop's great tragedies, but Bun B continues to make music to this day, both as a solo artist and as a respected guest on tracks by some of the South's brightest up-and-comers.
3. DJ Screw
Few artists can ever say they created something totally unique completely by themselves, but chopping-and-screwing, as its name suggests, can be attributed entirely to DJ Screw. Screw's slowed-down style began to gain local traction in the early '90s, when the DJ would take small money orders to create his now-legendary tapes. The immense popularity of these tapes brought not only a Houston hip-hop renaissance, but a paradigm shift in culture and substance abuse; screwed music vibes unmistakably with the high from promethazine and codeine (aka syrup, purple drink, lean) that found mainstream consumption with Screw's 2000 death, in which the drug is thought to be a cause. Since then, chopped-and-screwed versions of major-label albums have gone on to sell tens of thousands of copies and can still be found on sites like Datpiff, where aspiring screwheads hope to recapture the flame that began more than twenty years back with this one DJ.
2. Geto Boys
When it comes to the history of hip-hop in the Dirty South, it begins with Geto Boys and their self-titled, Rick Rubin-produced debut. The group had existed, though with a different cast, since '86, but it wasn't until the turn of the decade -- when it got major distribution and released We Can't Be Stopped -- that the outfit turned heads on a national level. N.W.A. had just started making headlines a couple years earlier, and gangsta rap had a firm grip on the West Coast-dominated airwaves, but it was Geto Boys, from Houston, that emerged as the only group who could seriously challenge N.W.A. for the rawest gangsta sound. The Geto Boys' success was the blueprint for virtually any Southern hip-hop success story until the Dungeon Family featuring Goodie Mob and OutKast paved a different path mid-decade.
No surprise here. Andre 3000 and Big Boi make up one of the most formidable duos in hip-hop history. Though they have found the most commercial success of any Southern hip-hop act, they are also the most sonically and thematically dissimilar on this list; the production style on Aquemini forward was uncharacteristically sophisticated for Southern rap at that time, and their thoughtfulness was uncommon for anywhere -- two key components in their mainstream appeal. Their double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is the top-selling album in hip-hop history, and that's considered one of their weaker offerings. The pair blew the minds of rap fans and detractors alike with their forward-thinking, tranformative, classic album Stankonia in 2000, but to hard-core OutKast enthusiasts, ATLiens and Aquemini are the most beloved.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.