There's a line in Nashville rapper All-Star's 2007 track "Gangsta-est Swag of the Year" that more or less embodies the entire Tennessee hip-hop movement: "If you were looking for me, you would." Despite fielding major label acts like Young Buck and Knoxville's Mr. Mack, bona fide superstars like Three 6 Mafia and a whole raft of underground auteurs like Just One and 24/7, the whole world seems to look right past us. This is where the Tennessee Music Conference and Hip Hop Awards come in.
Happening at the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel on Sept. 6 and 7, the conference will include industry panels, artist and DJ showcases, a statewide awards show and the "Ms. Ten-a-key" beauty pageant. The confab's organizer, Robert Grady, is hoping that this event, the first of its kind around these parts, will be the jump-off point for greater scene unity, national recognition and, hopefully, a bigger chunk of a billion-dollar industry. "It is time for Tennessee to support Tennessee," he says. "We want to unite the state, connect younger artists with established artists, develop our network, and build our market." Lofty goals indeed, but not out of reach considering that most of the South has being co-opting Volunteer State talent and style for years. (Looking at you, "Hot"-lanta. We need to have a little talk.)
One hypothesis for Tennessee's relative anonymity on the world stage is that you have to go elsewhere to make it big. Be it 8-Ball & MJG trekking down to Houston in the late '80s, Young Buck camping out in '90s New Orleans, or Lil' Goonie recording his Jive Records debut in ATL right now, artists with any drive have to, well, drive to get ahead in this game. Even though Tennessee can lay claim to one of the world's greatest concentrations of music industry infrastructure, that infrastructure tends to have its head up its collective ass in regard to anything that doesn't look like Barbie or sing about Baby Jesus—the Nashville Curse is bound by no genre. And sure, the argument can be made that relocation can help the creative process, but shipping out every skilled cat that pops up bleeds the talent pool of experience, knowledge and energy. Hip-hop, like produce, is best when it's grown locally—that's when it's the freshest.
The other glaringly obvious reason why Tennessee hip-hop has yet to pop off in the national imagination is that, unlike other scenes, ours doesn't have a really obvious, easy-to-grasp gimmick. Texas has choppin' and screwin', Georgia has its snap sound, NOLA can bounce, Florida has wayward corrections officers and Virginia has coke-addled skater nerds. Tennessee, on the other hand, has good old fashioned lyrical finesse—which seems to have been banned from the airwaves somewhere around 1998.
Take, for example, another track from All-Star's Starlito's Way II mixtape, the six-minute monologue "Life Story." It breathes with logos, pathos and ethos; it's full of hardscrabble characters, self-doubt and braggadocio all wrapped in a time-shifting narrative that paints a complex portrait of an artist acutely aware of his own strengths and weaknesses. Same goes for Young Buck's "Taped Conversation," Buck's answer to 50 Cent's Nixon-esque approach to dealing with business associates. And there are hundreds of other examples of richly detailed, thought-provoking storytelling floating around on tapes statewide, but sadly that's exactly what radio program directors and label execs aren't looking for—just ask Soulja Boy.
Don't let all the literary bluster make you think for one second that Tennessee is wallowing in self-pity and Willa Cather novels and forgot how to party. With producers like Drumma Boy, Kia Shine and Fate Eastwood roaming through our area codes, you can be guaranteed that we'll be up to our eyeballs with hands-in-the-air club bangers for years to come—not to mention the youngsters fiendin' to steal their gigs. With new mixtapes popping up every week, and hot new producers, DJs and MCs crawling out of every nook and cranny on a monthly basis, the scene is developing and maturing at an astonishing rate, even when the national scene is choking on its own opulence.
"We just need to get all the cats from Memphis to Nashville to Chattanooga to Knoxville to wherever to get together," states Grady. "Then we can make some serious money." Now that sounds like a plan. Hell, we do have the gangsta-est swag of the year.
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