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When I Say Dirty, You Say South

June 10, 2010

Actor Craig Robinson hosted the event.

This week Vh1’s 2010 Hip Hop Honors celebrated music from the Dirty South, aka the Dirty Third or the Third Coast. Southern Hip Hop, once overshadowed by East and West Coast rap, has seen a spike in its popularity over the past decade. The show featured performances by artists from Atlanta (Jermaine Dupri, Lil’ Jon), Houston (Geto Boys, Paul Wall), Miami (Luke Campbell from 2 Live Crew, Trina) and New Orleans (Juvenile, Mystikal), among others.

Rapper Cool Breeze is often given credit for the term “Dirty South”, which was then popularized by Organized Noize, an Atlanta-based Hip Hop production company. In an interview with Access Atlanta, Ray Murray (from Organized Noize) explains that “dirty” means “lawless” in the sense that someone or something “can’t be contained”. Dirty South Hip Hop covers a range of  geographic area and styles, and represents both poor rural living as well as urban living.

Clearly when it comes to Hip Hop, where you come from matters.

Chingy: not from the Dirty South.

This was the first time that Vh1 had honored a particular geographic region for its Hip Hop celebration. But place (e.g., block, neighborhood, city) has played an important role in Hip Hop from the beginning, and is often highlighted in language through local slang or regional accents. In fact, it’s through listening to Hip Hop that several linguists came to be aware of important regional differences in African American English. Renee and I are two of those linguists (at NYU–along with Sonya Fix and Simanique Moody). In the early 2000s, a number of St. Louis Hip Hop artists like Nelly, Chingy and J-Kwon, were saying things like “herr” (for “here” and “hair”), “thurr” (for “there”), and “err’whurr” (“everywhere”). While some argued that these artists were just doing it for a stylistic effect, and had maybe even invented it for their music, we decided to go down to St. Louis to find out what was really going on. What we found was that this accent feature, which we call the “urr” variable, is indeed a part of St. Louis African American English, used by people everyday and not just in Hip Hop. We also did some archival work which suggests that the “urr” variable has been around since way before its introduction to Hip Hop (probably since the mid-twentieth century).

But we’re not the only linguists who have looked at the intersection of language and Hip Hop. H. Samy Alim and Marcyliena Morgan have both done a great deal of work in that area, and of course we have to give a proper shoutout to Jennifer Bloomquist, who focuses on the Dirty South. Jennifer shows that as Southern African American culture begins to be received more positively by the mainstream (in large part through Hip Hop), there is a newfound acceptance of Southern dialect features in African American English.

Check out video footage from Vh1 Hip Hop Honors: Dirty South here.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2010 1:27 pm

    If you’re looking for other places where the ‘urr’ variable in AAE might vary, I think Philadelphia may be one. I have a distinct memory of noticing (in 2007 probably) when the African American owner of our local hardware store, in West Philadelphia said something was ‘turrible’. The neighbourhood is at least 90% African American – we were two of three white people on our block.

    At the time, I related it to that Philadelphia white shibboleth, the merryMurray near-merger (people say ‘Murray Christmas’) – but, if it’s heard elsewhere in AAE, then that might be the reason. The hardware-store owner was from West Philly but, after growing up there, had travelled all over as an adult in the Army – he’d come back after leaving the forces. Knowing him, he was very unlikely to be hearing it in hip hop, as his religious convictions lead him to not listen to that kind of music.

    • Wilson Gray permalink
      January 20, 2017 6:24 pm

      WRT ‘turrible’: it’s absolutely heard elsewhere. Indeed, it’s heard probably everywhere. If there were a standard Black English – I prefer not to use the term, “African-American” – _turble_ would form part of its lexicon. I’m a black native of Marshall, Texas, who grew up in Saint Louis, living there from the age of three in 1940 to the age of 25 in 1962. “Turble” has its ordinary meaning and, as slang, it has the same meaning as “bad.” Since 1962, I’ve lived in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Boston, and Wilkes-Barre, I’ve served in the military, and I’ve visited dozens of other places. Urrwhurr it be bruz n cuz, they say “turble.”

  2. William L. permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:59 pm

    I am interested in the manner that linguistic characteristics specific to a region of the US like the use of “hurr” reach the national conscious through rap. It seems that for many, rap music is the only way of becoming aware of certain linguistic features in AAE.

    It seems possible, interestingly enough, that the appearance of this linguistic diversity might contribute to the misconception of an AAE homogeneous across the US. Most likely, most listeners of Chingy do not associate the rappers’ linguistic features with a specific region of the US. It would seem that these linguistic features might then get molded together into a vague notion of African American English.
    The most immediate example that comes to mind is the song “Ay Bay Bay” by Louisianan rapper Hurricane Chris. I only recently discovered his Bayou origins years after hearing is music. Upon first hearing the song, I was confused and drawn by the mystery of his mannerisms and linguistic features.

    I wonder if the distinction rappers of different regions strive for through the emphasis of linguistic features does in fact distinguish their origins or simply highlights the African American English.

  3. Zorra31 permalink
    July 1, 2013 11:58 am

    Yes, thank you! I am from north St. Louis county (which is upwards of 95% African-American demographically speaking) and the “urr” variable IS a thing, and no it is not just something Nelly made up or that folks who live around here copied from rappers. Plenty of people who do not even listen to rap or hip-hop speak with the “urr” variable! 🙂
    Whenever we travel even 15 minutes outside of St. Louis, we have people thinking my kiddos are from “down South” and asking if we’re from Georgia or somewhere because of how cute my kids’ “Southern” accents are (e.g. “Mama, it’s hot in herr. Are we fittin’ ta go soon??”). They’re often surprised to find out that we’re from St. Louis because folks from west St. Louis county and south St. Louis county don’t talk with this accent, and very few folks who live in south county or west county ever go to north county for any reason so they’re not always aware of the north county accent.

    • stavinchain permalink
      January 20, 2017 6:37 pm

      “north St. Louis county (which is upwards of 95% African-American demographically speaking)north St. Louis county (which is upwards of 95% African-American demographically speaking).”

      Wow! When I was growing up in The Lou, ca. 1940-1962, the county was 95% white. Black people lived only in Kinloch and in Webster Groves. Even in the city, there were only two ‘hoods, Downtown and the West End, which included the Ville. Even East Saint Louis was a white town, operating semi-dual educational system. Athletes and the Talented Tenth went to East Saint Louis High School. The rest of the colored went to Lincoln High School.

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