Naive, flimsy, idealistic. When country singer Brad Paisley, a white man from West Virginia, and rapper LL Cool J, a black man from New York City, buddied up in April for the duet Accidental Racist, critics, fans and tweeting detractors unleashed great booing rhetoric about how the song was a weak examination of race relations.
Paisley crooned: "I'm proud of where I'm from, but not everything we've done."
LL riffed: "Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood / What the world is really like when you're livin' in the 'hood."
The political brouhaha died quickly enough, mainly because the song's biggest miscue was that it was musically lousy. But amidst this fallout about racial differences, there lurked a simmering truth:
Rappers and country stars are actually a lot alike when it comes to their particular art forms. Weird and unlikely as it sounds, they share the same template.
In their redneck-vs.-'hood aesthetics, country stars and rappers mine similar themes: a strong sense of pride, the benevolent badass holding court; an even stronger sense of place, country folk and city dwellers; and a penchant for smoke-and-booze shindigs, the party vibe in full effect. They also excel at constant self-referential defenses of their genre (Gretchen Wilson's Redneck Woman and Blake Shelton's Kiss My Country Ass, Lupe Fiasco's Hip-Hop Saved My Life and Kanye West and Jay-Z's N----s in Paris).
I had a chance to talk to LL Cool J before his recent gig in St. Petersburg and tossed out my you-dudes-are-the-same theory. The rap icon paused, weighed it over and said: "Absolutely. In country music, when they talk about the truck and the bottle of Jack and the girl, it's the same as in hip-hop, when they talk about the block and the cars and the party. These are people talking about their feelings, how they live."
Now we're getting somewhere.
In the summer of 1989, Chuck D, the incendiary mouthpiece for New York City rap group Public Enemy, unleashed a thunderous rhyme in the song Fight the Power: "Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant s--- to me you see." That takedown didn't rankle folks as much as Chuck's followup kablammo: a profane snubbing of national cowboy John Wayne.
Truth be told, Wayne didn't mean much to me, either. Chuck D, on the other hand, both inspired and terrified this pasty college sophomore at Syracuse University. Still, my kneejerk thought after hearing Fight the Power was this: Chuck D is a modern-day John Wayne, an outlaw in the city, standing up against bad guys and bad news.
Not a stretch at all. Chuck D was a towering black man from a major city, speaking for the people surrounding him and taking zero guff in the process. Old-school icon Wayne (at least how he was portrayed on screen) represented the rough-and-tumble West. Both of them were crooked-halo outlaws, both defending their turf, both steadfast in their belief that they were right.
Sure, the Duke wasn't a singer, but fellow sequoias Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard sure were, and they reminded me of the swaggering movie cowboy. As far as I was concerned, Chuck D was a black cowboy, riding the blacktop trails of NYC.
It all starts with pride, says Orlando Davis, morning host and program director for WLLD-FM 94.1, a leading hip-hop station in Tampa Bay. I often toss my odder theories Davis' way. "Country is a proud, proper format," he says. "Hip-hop is proud, too."
Neither wants to budge. They're set in their ways. It's one of the reasons we love them — and one of the reasons we might think they're so different.
But they're not.
I'm out that Brooklyn, now I'm down in Tribeca
Right next to De Niro, but I'll be 'hood forever.
— Jay-Z, Empire State of Mind
New York City ain't no kind of place
For a country girl with a friendly face
If you smile people look at you funny
They take it wrong.
— Dolly Parton, Tennessee Homesick Blues
Country singers and hip-hoppers know where they're from and won't let you forget it. Rock, pop and jazz performers often exist in amorphous universes; a rock band might be from somewhere (say Motley Crue and the Sunset Strip), but they exist everywhere. With country and rap, geography is supreme. You're not real if you're not home.
St. Louis rapper Nelly, who in 2004 recorded No. 1 duet Over and Over with country star Tim McGraw, told Entertainment Weekly of the then-curious merging: "That's why it works, hip-hop and country, because they come out of poverty-stricken communities, so putting those together, it's gonna work — it just has to be done right."
Hip-hop was birthed in the cities and still primarily generates from there, be it Eminem's Detroit or Ludacris' Atlanta. Rap is so intrisically territorial, it once generated blood feuds, including the East Coast-West Coast battles of the '90s that led to the slayings of Brooklyn's Notorious B.I.G. and California's Tupac Shakur (never mind that Tupac was born in New York, raised in Baltimore).
Country is is inherently nonurban. Jimmie Rodgers is considered the father of country music and he's either from Mississippi or Alabama, depending on which mythology you buy. Hank Williams was from Alabama. When you refer to country and its singers, the catchall is to say they're from "Nashville," home of the Grand Ole Opry. But "Nashville" might as well be one big swaying cornfield.
Both genres are juiced by hometown pride. When Georgia boy Jason Aldean sings Tattoos on This Town ("There's still black marks on that county road / Where we dragraced our pickups and Mustangs") it's really no different than Tupac rapping on California Love ("In the city of L.A. / In the city of good ol' Watts / In the city, the city of Compton / We keep it rockin, we keep it rockin").
It's a chamber of commerce statement with ferocious, heart-thumping attitude.
Where we're from may not be perfect, but it's home.
You can find me in the club, bottle full of bub
Look mami, I got the X if you into takin' drugs.
— 50 Cent, In Da Club
'Cause I got friends in low places,
Where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases my blues away,
But I'll be okay.
— Garth Brooks, Friends in Low Places
Lots of genres dive headfirst into puddles of rye and bundles of weed. Heck, for rock 'n' roll, that's part of the job description. But no two genres spout the hands-in-the-air joy — and often times the mind-clearing solace — of ingestible vices quite like our not-so-strange bedfellows.
"Country and hip-hop are both entrenched in the party," says WLLD's Davis. "They usually party amongst themselves." A lot of the times it's hedonistic escapism: Kenny Chesney's Beer in Mexico and Wiz Khalifa's Champagne; Toby Keith's Red Solo Cup and Ice Cube's Smoke Some Weed.
In every other country song, some guy's got a beer tucked into his crotch as he's driving his pickup down a dirt road. Tipsy girls in jorts have their pretty pink toes on the dash. In every other rap song, spliffs are sparked, the booze is flowing, revelry rules.
But these besotted songs often deliver a certain peace — or at least a release from a bad day. Hank Williams sang There's a Tear in My Beer; Nas rapped Drunk by Myself. Rap and country celebrate the highs of Saturday night, then ease us through Sunday morning coming down.
Got Lil' Wayne pumpin' on my iPod
Thumpin' on the subs in the back of my crew cab
Redneck rockin' like a rock star.
— Tim McGraw, Truck Yeah
One of the hottest songs in the country right now is Cruise, a collaboration between country duo Florida Georgia Line and Nelly. Country-rap duets are still seen as relatively novel, but not as much as they were in 2004 when Nelly and McGraw's Over and Over broke.
Perhaps the worlds are merging more and more because country and rap stars are finally recognizing that common ground between them — as well as getting rich selling product to new fanbases who are also merging. In that light, the biggest problem with Accidental Racist was that it was so stuck in time, so unseeing, so retro-thinking.
It was old even when it was new.
It didn't realize that the world is already changing. Just listen to the tunes; just look at the party.
"When hip-hop started getting big," remembers WLLD's Davis, "you could go to (traditional country bars like) the Dallas Bull or the Round Up, and at midnight, they'd start dropping hip-hop."
And there's nothing accidental about that.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.