The ‘sound of money’: Country music embraces hip-hop

06/06/2014 3:52 PM

06/08/2014 6:33 AM

About a year and a half ago, as country superstar Blake Shelton was working on songs for his latest album, “Based on a True Story,” he reached out to John Esposito, the president of his label, Warner Bros. Nashville.

“I get a text from Blake saying, ‘Espo, we have just recorded the sound of money, lots and lots of money,’ ” Esposito recently recalled in his Nashville, Tenn., office.

Shelton is one of the genre’s leading lights – coach on “The Voice,” co-host of the Academy of Country Music Awards – and he knows money. So, intrigued, Esposito drove down Music Row to Ocean Way Studios, where he heard Shelton’s rainmaker “Boys ‘Round Here.”

Surprisingly, the noise money made was the sound of Shelton rapping. And he wasn’t wrong: Eventually, “Boys ‘Round Here” would rise to No. 2 on the Billboard country chart, and achieve his highest position on the Billboard Hot 100.

And so here is a sign of the Nashville times: One of the genre’s reigning traditionalists (a tricky one, but still) diving headlong into what may have seemed like a passing fad, the overlap of hip-hop and country, and finding success with it.

Country has been on a collision course with hip-hop for the last few years, and Shelton’s embrace of it, however fleeting, was an indicator that what was afoot was more than a flirtation. Rather, it reflected a change in country music’s DNA, and was also a harbinger of its more open-eared future.

There has been no escaping the sonic shifts that have been reconfiguring country music of late. Already the country-rap crossover – collaborations with rappers, hip-hop slang sneaking into songs – has a partner in the recent spate of country songs produced with flourishes of electronic music.

The floodgates are opening because of generational shifts in Nashville and demographic shifts in listenership that have shown that country can no longer afford to be walled off from the rest of the world and has to re-imagine itself as a result. That’s meant Luke Bryan’s spring break anthems, Lady Antebellum’s soft rock, Jason Aldean’s fight songs, and also any number of songs – by Bryan, Aldean, Florida Georgia Line and more – that incorporate rapping, and songs by Keith Urban, Jerrod Niemann and Jake Owen, among others, that nod to the dance floor.

Country is likely as broadly successful as it’s ever been – it is the most popular radio format – but as it becomes more widely embraced, it struggles mightily to retain its core values. A genre saddled with moral superiority and social inferiority, it wants to police its borders even as what’s inside is evolving radically. There is a widening and not fully reconciled distinction between country as a genre (i.e., what gets played on the radio) and country as a set of lived practices (i.e., what country folks do).

“So many of our artists came from small rural backgrounds, and they never really escaped the boundaries of their backgrounds until they hit it big. A lot of the tenor, the flavor came from where they came from,” said Mike Dungan, chairman and chief executive of Universal Music Group Nashville. “Much of the innocence of that narrow view of the world has been infringed.”

What that means for country is a generation of stars – mostly in their mid- to late 30s, old enough to have grown up with hip-hop as a fact of life, even in the small towns they hail from, who think nothing of sprinkling a little bit of it into their music.

“Nobody grew up more country than me,” said Bryan, maybe the genre’s biggest star of the moment, “and we listened to Eazy-E and 2 Live Crew.”

Bryan’s climb to the top has been a long one, and he developed his fan base playing not just in honky-tonks but also at college parties and spring break ragers. “We watched what the D.J. played afterward,” he said. “Right when I got offstage, they started playing Juvenile and Outkast.”

This natural hybridity has made for a new category of stars – Bryan, Aldean and, most notably, Florida Georgia Line, whose hip-hop-inflected hit “Cruise” was one of last year’s dominant pop singles. It was helped along by a remix with the rapper Nelly, who was also part of the other significant hip-hop-country crossover record of the last decade – “Over and Over,” the 2004 Tim McGraw duet. (Florida Georgia Line will tour minor league baseball stadiums with Nelly this summer.)

“Jason and Luke busted down the doors,” said Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line. “This sound is part of the evolution of country music.”

Imagine the country-rap world as the new underground, made up of fans true to country values but who are left cold by mainstream country music.

But what’s creating the tipping point in country music as a whole is the top-down embrace of hip-hop, with established stars like Aldean borrowing a little bit of the style and attitude to diversify their approach.

It’s probably not a coincidence that, not long after Aldean took country artist Colt Ford out on the road as an opening act in 2009, soon after Ford had released his debut country-rap album, he decided to record his own version of Ford’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” which went on to become the highest charting hit of Aldean’s career on the Billboard Hot 100.

“As much as I like Colt, the way we were going to do that record, our approach was going to be different,” Aldean said, adding that the success of his version, different from Ford’s only notionally, in that it was a singer doing the rapping rather than a rapper, “let people know it was OK to do things like that.”

Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” which was released in 2010, was the line in the sand, the first broadly successful country-rap song and an almost complete outlier at the time.

Things have changed. “Right now, to write a country rap, it’s almost predictable,” said Luke Laird, one of Nashville’s most promising young songwriters. “It’s more of a risk to write a traditional country song.”

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