When I Say Dirty, You Say South
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.
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.