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Discovering Nashville’s Christian hip hop scene

In the home of country music and traditional American values, Dazed delves deeper into a growing subculture of god-loving rappers

Taken from the May 2001 issue of Dazed

Music City, USA. The Mecca of country with the largest network of studios and industry fat cats outside of LA and New York. Set within a bowl of green hills, this mini-metropolis is also "the buckle of the Bible Belt", with over 800 churches and an industry that publishes more copies of the Good Book than anywhere else in the world.

Although the city's musical exports are still fully countrified, times are changing. As sales of traditional country music wane, renegade stars like Shania Twain are baring their navels and watering down the Nashville sound into fluffy "new country". Madonna's even bought a house there. Oh, and the artists who rule the airwaves aren't dressed in rhinestones, Wranglers and cowboy hats anymore. They're not even called Chet, Tammy or Hank. Today, the city's most listened-to radio station plays hip hop. "The big thing in hip hop now is introducing people to a new city – discovering that there are rappers in St Louis, Atlanta or New Orleans. It's not just New York and LA anymore."

Such is the verdict of Bonafide (Teron Carter) a member of Grits – Music City's first hip hop trailblazers. "Country's dominating the charts," adds fellow MC Coffee (Stacy Jones), using the "C" word in its broader sense. "Master P, Cash Money and Nelly are all country artists and they're huge worldwide. A couple of years ago that would never have happened." Timing is everything and after honing their skills for seven years, Grits (an anacronym of Grammatical Revolution In The Spirit) have been picked up by the booking agency that promotes Busta Rhymes. But unlike their Brooklyn-born colleague, the band are profanity-free and don't spit rhymes about bitches or blunts. Grits are Christian MCs who, in a bizarre hip hop twist, combine Nashville's religious traditions with an uncompromising art form. Their sound is high-energy, mixing hard East Coast beats with "southernplayalistic" diversity and tongue-twisting, poetical wordplay. Their subject matter might have morality at its core, but they're not preachers.

"We're not imposing our beliefs or saying, 'Hey everyone! We're Christians!'" Bone explains. "We just make hip hop and our lives influence it. For years Christians have been in everybody's face, with all the 'You're going to hell!' speeches, instead of just living their lives so that people realise there's something different about them. No one ever had a problem with GangStarr for being Islam – they're just dope." Grits feel that true hip hop lovers will feel the same way. But unfortunately the city's "good ole boy" club owners are yet to open their doors to Nashvillean MCs and the feeling is that the town has consciously tried to stifle the hip hop scene. As a result, Nashville artists tend to play outside and when they eventually break big, it will almost certainly be via recording studios rather than clubs.

“If we were here last night there would have been dealers and crooks hanging out on the street. They’re not here today because people try to respect what Sunday represents” – Bone

After a stirring Saturday night performance (along with turntablist DJ Form) to mochaccino drinking teenagers in a downtown coffee bar, Grits, explain what makes the Nashville scene different. "Nashville is a weird place – nobody's from here," says Bonafide, who moved to the city 11 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida in order to "get out of trouble."

"If you go out and talk to ten people on the street, maybe only one of them will have been born here," continues Form. "It's a melting pot. There are people like our crew, Factors Of Seven, who're from the outside. Then there's the Nashville-bred hip hop, mostly gangster stuff. Some represent the projects and there's even a white rapper, Haystack, who's representing the trailer park for real."

Grits use Nashville's tight community as an inspiration for their music. "Hip hop started as a neighbourhood-based culture and an outlet for people to express their feelings," Bone says. "But even though it's become a commercial entity (big cars, diamond necklaces) we're doing it more like jazz artists. We're not interested in money or me-ism."

"Kids in the projects hear rappers glamourising violence and materialism," says Coffee. "Artists don't realise that their entertainment is contributing to a mindset that is literally killing people. We're trying to show that you can be successful without striving for those things."

The band have toured with the likes of Ice Cube and Outkast, winning over fans outside Nashville with anthems like "Imma Showem", which sets out to prove that hip-hoppers don't need to sow immorality to rock the show. After Sunday service, Grits head to their favourite family-owned soul food joint, Swetts, located in one of the poorer areas of town. Although boiled pig's feet are one of the local delicacies on offer, everyone settles for something more conventional.

"If we were here last night there would have been dealers and crooks hanging out on the street," explains Bone, tucking into his fried chicken, cornbread and macaroni. "They're not here today because for the most part people try to respect what Sunday represents, even if they are doing something that is hurtful to others."

Although Nashville has some of the roughest ghettos in Tennessee, it is a city of contrasts. Ten minutes' drive away from Swetts are the steel-faced skyscrapers which tower above downtown Broadway – a strip of country record stores, murals of Dolly Parton and honkytonks.

"They're a tourist attraction," comments Bone on the row of live music venues where bands jam all day and night. "You might say they're the country equivalent of 'Lyricist Lounge' clubs. It's how a lot of the legends started and fans go down here to hear the next big star." There is a sense that even the dishevelled buskers twanging their banjos on the street are waiting to be discovered.

"We're not really into country," Bone comments. "The first thing that comes into the mind of an African-American when you mention it are the prejudiced mentalities which a lot of the music carries."

Without public outlets for their music, local hip hop artists remain underground, often coming out when large acts come through town. At last year's Impact Urban Music Conference, held at the Opryland Hotel, Nashvillians recoiled at the behaviour of the visiting hip hop circus.

"They came along and tore everything up," recalls Form. "People were having sex on the balconies in the hotel. It wasn't good."

However, according to local funk historian, multi-instrumentalist and hip hop producer, Count Bass-D, this was a minor setback.

"The quality of local hip hop is reaching a level where it'll gain recognition worldwide. I think we've got a better shot than any other city in this country because of the wealth of recording studios. The industry just hasn't connected yet, but once it happens it's ad infinitum."

According to Count, Nashville is a great place to raise a family even if some of the stereotypical southern attitudes die hard. "It's the 'New South' – probably as racist as it ever was, only in a different way. It's not like someone will walk up to you and say 'Hey nigga, how you doing?' But somebody will probably do some sleight of hand thing, which is even worse. We're just trying to make music."

As well as collaborating with Grits on their latest album, "Grammatical Revolution", producing P-funkish solo releases and re-mixing for the Beastie Boys, Count has ties with many secular hip hop artists in Nashville.

"The gangster sound is huge in the south and a lot of the local independent label artists outsell acts like Jay-Z. Nashville MCs like Quanie Cash come from real thug perspectives and they push 20 to 30,000 units, selling their records from here to Kentucky to Alabama."

Nashville's gangster rappers share little of Grits' spiritual "edutainment", but while Bone and Coffee threaten to blow up nationally, "gangsta" rules in the projects of Nashville.

“It’s Country Music, USA, here and a lot of people on the outside don’t even know there’s any black people. Our main problem is getting love from our radio station – the only way you get airplay is by paying them under the table” – Cormat

One of the local rappers is Cormat. "The city's coming along," he says. "But it's Country Music, USA, here and a lot of people on the outside don't even know there's any black people. Our main problem is getting love from our radio station – the only way you get airplay is by paying them under the table." Cormat is promoting his next release by putting up poster boards and flyers as well as selling his records out of New Life records, Nashville's oldest hip hop record store, well away from the downtown hillbillies.

"We're known for southern hospitality, but I can take you to some spots where it ain't all peaches and cream," he drawls. "You got a different type of poor down here. It's cool though – we call it 'Cashville'. For me this is a hip hop city and as soon as one artist breaks, everyone will follow."

For the moment, though, hip hop has yet to seep into the city's consciousness. But you've been warned – it's only a matter of time. Back in town, Clay the cowboy struts up Broadway in Wrangler jeans so tight that they would choke many a lesser man. Working for the rodeo, Clay represents the tourist-friendly side of Cashville, light years from the Grits' hip hop crusade or thug rappers promoting illegal lifestyles. According to Clay, the best music clubs are out in the hills, away from downtown's neon commercialism. It's hard to resist asking him how he feels about the city's hip hop movement.

"Well, I'm not really listening to it – we listen to country out here," he mutters, confused, before stating: "This is probably the best city in the United States. We're just real nice country people – it's safe."