by Ben Westhoff
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Ben Westhoff’s Dirty South caused controversy the second its cover art hit the web. Showing a back-facing image of rapper Lil Wayne, his tattoos and sagging pants on full display, the subtitle “Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop” has gotten him championed by a region often relegated and unrecognized as well as death-threat tweets from sanctimonious teenage hip-hop fans who find his usage of “reinvention” to be blasphemous. Perhaps this is a reception that would have met the book regardless of presentation, as it seems even the most “I’ve always been down”-type cultural studies major in rap academia is still reluctant to acknowledge the contributions to the genre and the culture made from below the Mason-Dixon line. By letting the often silenced section speak, Westhoff does his subject justice with Dirty South.
What makes the book stand head and shoulders above other rap books, especially ones that involve any sort of investigative reporting, is that Westhoff gets out of the way and lets the South shine in. While his contemporaries feel compelled to base rap books around “Gee whiz, can you believe I’m really where all these rappers were” hack journalism, Westhoff only briefly mentions himself when discussing the process of getting in touch with these artists, an approach that rightly reflects the lives of the artists themselves. Instead of doing a character study on himself, he’s clearly more interested and focused in capturing the rap world around him.
From the Geto Boys and Eightball & MJG through No Limit and Cash Money, to even those debatably outside the South but nonetheless influential like 2 Live Crew and Nelly, each artist, sub-region and sound gets its own chapter. Through a combination of painstaking research and hearing the artists’ histories in their own words, Westhoff makes the case for each chapter’s relevance to the South’s story as well as artistic merit without the slightest hint of a pseudo-intellectual “deconstructing of the other.” But what elevates this from being merely a good music history book to a great read is the tone Westhoff strikes as a writer.
Dirty South could have easily been a defiant, aggressive refuting of the region’s most vocal critics. As the most misunderstood mothership of the most misunderstood popular genre, a vicious grandstanding rebuttal, while justified, wouldn’t have made many converts or helped the case for real hip-hop coverage in 2011. Westhoff calmly shows both sides of the coin, showing he understands why people hate the likes of Soulja Boy and Gucci Mane, but also pointing out why he and millions more favor them. Further, it’s a book about rap music that isn’t concerned with much more than why the music sounds the way it does and why it’s, in his opinion, so good. From talks with Houston’s Trae in a strip club to Lil Jon articulating the history of “crunk,” Westhoff may have pulled off the definitive retrospective of the South. By finding the perfect balance between being inclusive enough for new listeners as well as detailed enough for longtime devotees, Dirty South is college course in a book, including stories rowdy enough for a freshman dorm on a Friday night.
by Chaz Kangas