It's no wonder that journalistic surveys of Nashville's hip-hop underground typically frame the mere fact of its existence as a big reveal. To a large degree, the scene here is the creation of Black music-makers and entrepreneurs who came up in the city or surrounding region. But it has long existed in the shadow of a country music industry coded as a white domain – thanks, in part, to the contributions of BIPOC music-makers being continually written out of the historical narrative — that is also the prime draw for transplants seeking careers in music, the main attraction for tourists and, in many ways, the centerpiece of Music City's brand.
As far back as 2004, Young Buck, then regarded as the rare Nashville representative in rap's big leagues, expressed impatience with a glaring divide in his hometown. As a Nashville Scene interviewer paraphrased: "He wants the city to stop ignoring the gifts of the African-American community living within walking distance from some of the best recording studios and the biggest record companies in the world." By the dawn of the 2010s, the Nashville music industry would indeed take an interest in hip-hop, but not in the way that Buck had hoped.
Commercial country began adapting elements of hip-hop's aesthetic — vocal cadences, melodic patterns, performing postures, beat-making techniques and other textures — for the templates that numerous white, male stars would use to score hits. (The floodgates really opened up after the duo Florida Georgia Line got its remix swagger on with a walloping programmed beat and gung-ho guest verse from Nelly.) But for all the profit made off of its identity, the industry took little notice of the communities connected to and specializing in hip-hop, including the one growing in its own backyard.
Those intimately invested in Nashville hip-hop and its R&B offshoots took it upon themselves to lay the groundwork for their scene. By 2001, Nashville native Shannon Sanders was in the studio with India.Arie, the first of many neo-soul luminaries he'd work with, on top of his gospel and country songwriting and production. It wasn't long before his cohort, Eric Holt, then fresh out of law school, formed Lovenoise with several like-minded colleagues in order to make room for conscious hip-hop and neo-soul in a live music landscape inhospitable to those styles, instead catering to country-loving tourists and industry showcases.
"For a long time, the Black musicians really didn't participate in that pipeline," Holt explains. "So the attempt for Lovenoise was to kind of create that first starting point and to establish a community, and then from that community get into the actual industry in a legitimate way."
The leaders of Lovenoise were joined by a number of others striving to give these artists platforms worth staying in town for, since the perception is that there are greener pastures elsewhere. Says Holt: "Everyone talks about this: If you're talented in urban music or Black music, the first thing you need to do, if you're living in Nashville, is to move to LA, New York or Atlanta. And we are really trying to change that narrative."
Accomplished singer Jason Eskridge started hosting local practitioners of grown-up, jazz-and funk- and folk-inflected R&B at a small rock club twice a month, branding the event Sunday Night Soul. The Boom Bap Nashville began drawing crowds of dancers with its lineups of crate-digging DJs. D'Llisha Davis, founder of the blog 2 L's On a Cloud, put on events that reflected the styles and sounds of younger generations of hip-hop heads. More recently, Red Bull Music joined the show promotion game and took it to another level, and Jamila McCarley and Thalia Ewing, the business minds behind the Nashville Is Not Just Country Music initiative, began hosting R&B-centric writers rounds, modeled on the stripped-down showcases that have long been an important outlet in the city's mainstream songwriting ecosystem.
Since hip-hop occupies a separate world in Nashville, one without industry infrastructure or clear paths for advancement, locals Young Buck and Starlito caught their big breaks elsewhere during the aughts, and the generation of rappers, singers, producers and videographers who came of age here since have grouped up in informal circles of collaboration and proudly repped collectives. BlackCity and Third Eye are two among them. This pattern has fostered a fierce sense of solidarity in the scene, beyond simple camaraderie, while also enabling music-makers to be more productive--to flesh out networks and develop specialized skills, so they can call on peers to build beats, drop bars, shoot videos, sharpen branding and self-release music. All this woodshedding hasn't generated a distinct Nashville hip-hop sound, so much as an ethic of attention to all-around craft.
Artists like Mike Floss, who first turned heads in the early 2010s under the moniker Openmic and has since become a
"Jumping up and down and doing shows and getting numbers on streaming and blogs and press, it wasn't enough," observes Zack Cobb, who came up as a schoolmate, friend and fan of respected local rappers like Petty, and ultimately took on a management role. "It just seemed like we kept on knocking on the door and no one was answering. So, you know, we find the third door."
But it's maybe more accurate to say that they're searching for multiple doors: Despite the tumult of 2020, which kicked off in Nashville with an early March tornado gutting historically Black North Nashville neighborhoods and bohemian East Nashville enclaves, this has been a banner year for the city's hip-hop. That's partly because of the quality of the indie projects released in 2020, including the mischievously expansive sci-fi imagination of Namir Blade's concept album Aphelion's Traveling Circus; the poetic quickness and wily, woozy flow that Brian Brown displays on Journey; the nimbleness of Chuck Indigo's pivot from the introspection of Indigo Café to the enlightened ferment of No Moor Bad Days; the sure-footedness of EP's by Daisha McBride, Tim Gent, Yours Truly Jai, Jordan Xx and Ron Obasi, who also just dropped a mixtape. This is also the artistic community responsible for this year's most astute and authoritative reportage on threats to Black lives, in Nashville and beyond. And on the business front, the scene is making strides toward economic self-empowerment.
Read the miniseries:
- How singing rapper Tim Gent and rapping singer Bryant Taylorr used their skill with lyrics and melodies to open the door to the insular world of professional songwriting in Nashville.
- A.B. Eastwood traveled to the star-studded Miami studio scene to learn the fundamentals of production. He returned with a vision for elevating his hometown.
- Daisha McBride, The Rap Girl, has channeled her performing abilities, affably clever personality and college-level industry studies into her own version of artistic and professional equilibrium in Music City.
- Entrepreneurial Mychael Carney helped his poet-rapper sibling, The BlackSon, see music as a business. Their BlackCity collective has grown into a model of community-minded and empowered economic self-sufficiency.
- The rapper Namir Blade has parlayed a lonely childhood into a singular, extraterrestrial vision of hip-hop.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
For years now, contemporary country hits have relied on sounds and vocal styles borrowed from hip-hop and R&B.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRUISE (REMIX)")
FLORIDA GEORGIA LINE: (Singing) Baby, you a song. You make me want to roll my windows down and cruise.
NELLY: (Rapping) Leggo (ph).
FLORIDA GEORGIA LINE: (Singing) I've got my windows down and the radio up. Get your radio up. What up, Nelly?
NELLY: (Rapping) All right.
INSKEEP: At the same time, hip-hop performers around Nashville have cultivated their own entirely separate homegrown scene. Jewly Hight reports.
JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: There's a popular image of musicians journeying to Nashville with guitars slung over their shoulders to pursue their dreams, dreams that don't necessarily sound like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRETTY WOMEN")
BRYANT TAYLORR: (Singing) Look, all these pretty women on your mind. You ain't never, ever had that type (ph).
HIGHT: That's a recent song by a Nashville native named Bryant Taylorr. He's a singer-songwriter of alternative R&B in his mid-20s, and he's got clear memories of not relating to the city's reputation as a music-making destination.
TAYLORR: I mean, growing up here, it's weird to me when I meet somebody that came here for music. I'm like, you moved to Nashville? I don't even see it as a place of opportunity for music.
HIGHT: It certainly wasn't the land of opportunity for the music he wanted to make. Nashville's famous industry infrastructure was primarily built for the business of making and marketing country music. People invested in growing a scene for hip-hop and its R&B offshoots have worked for years to give its promising rappers, singers, producers and DJs a reason to stay in town.
ERIC HOLT: You know, everyone talks about this. If you're talented in urban music or Black music, the first thing you need to do, if you're living in Nashville, is to move to LA and move to New York and move to Atlanta.
HIGHT: That's Eric Holt, who co-founded an event promotion company called Lovenoise to open up a bigger pipeline for hip-hop and R&B to the live-music landscape.
HOLT: For a long time, Black musicians really didn't participate in that pipeline. So the attempt for Lovenoise was to kind of create that first starting point and to establish a community and then, from that community, get into the actual industry in a legitimate way.
HIGHT: The music makers themselves improvised an informal network for collaboration and formed their own collectives like BlackCity...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANIFESTIVAL")
THE BLACKSON: (Rapping) I could be dishonest to get membership. I could lie to kick it. I could pivot in my limitless. I could pull up flexing, no tents 'cause we rented it. I could go Christianless. I could be the stimulus. I could never let a dollar bill make me sensitive. I could never let a dollar bill make me sensitive. I could never let a dollar bill make me sensitive.
HIGHT: ...And Third Eye.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLESSED SIDE")
CHUCK INDIGO: (Singing) We living good on the blessed side. Grateful I belong to the best side. Make sure wrap it on, keep me steps right until the next life. We living good on the blessed side (ph).
HIGHT: They produced tracks for each other in their home studios, dropped guest verses and shot music videos, developing distinct voices and specialized skills. Every so often, a journalist from outside Nashville would write an article marveling at all of this underground hip-hop and R&B talent. Zack Cobb watched this play out, first as a fan and friend of Nashville rappers, then a manager. He could see that generating buzz didn't really set them up to make a living from music.
ZACK COBB: It seemed like jumping up and down and doing shows and getting numbers on streaming and blogs and press, it wasn't enough. Or maybe we just didn't have the right infrastructure in here to support hip-hop in Nashville like that. But it just seemed like we just kept on knocking on the door, and no one was answering. So, you know, we found a third door.
HIGHT: Cobb was convinced that a publishing deal was the door for one of his clients. Tim Gent had relocated from Clarksville an hour away and earned a regional following with his perceptive lyrics.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAIN PILLS")
TIM GENT: (Rapping) That's on Benjamin, I bet a Benjamin. I see the problem, got to be the time, new millennium. They breeding proper, need to be refined, we be caught up in what don't matter. I see coffins with mothers and fathers, kids and coppers with loaded revolvers, Gent, gotta get focused quick. Wide open, they hocus pocus kids, that can't be. My kid ain't going out like no sucker, never. On my mama, Gent. Might see the drought but might hit you with the drench. And I'm getting off, I gotta get it for the rent (ph).
HIGHT: The Nashville office of the pop publisher Prescription Song signed Gent up in February.
GENT: This is, you know, a milestone, not just for me but for the independent artists that are in Nashville, more so in the hip-hop, R&B alternative vein. This is a lane for us to have some foundation and help build ourselves up financially and career-wise and our network.
HIGHT: Gent walked into his first meeting with Prescription intent on sharing the opportunity. He purposefully pitched tracks that showcased some of his musical partners, like Bryant Taylorr.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DISHONOR")
GENT: (Rapping) My people chief. We keep it brief. We bob and weave, straight on my sleeve. Oh, how (Unintelligible). I'm gonna go get it regardless the ticket. I got just run up that digit, the digit. These niggas be stunting (ph). (Singing) The angels sat me down (ph).
TIM GENT AND BRYANT TAYLORR: (Singing) They couldn't keep it a hundred (ph).
HIGHT: After the publishing company heard Taylorr's gauzy singing and spectral melodies, he was able to trade restaurant shifts for writing appointments, including one that yielded a tune for a K-pop star.
TAYLORR: That changed up everything where I'm writing on cue for something specific. I'm diving into something that I wouldn't dive into. And I'm making it come to life. So that's really how I have been altering my brain. So it really helps me when I'm recording my own music so I can just be free.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE ROOMS")
TAYLORR: (Singing) Keep my eyes up. Trying to hold conversation. What would I say at all? Speakers up loud, act like we got no neighbors, no neighbors (ph).
HIGHT: Another standout in the scene, Daisha McBride, who goes by the handle The Rap Girl, opened a path for herself by studying the inner workings of the industry at Middle Tennessee State University.
DAISHA MCBRIDE: I was like, you know, I really want to learn the business so when I go into these meetings and I go into these settings, I really know what they're talking about.
HIGHT: Equipped with that knowledge, McBride worked out a deal where she owns her own songs, but a publishing company takes care of licensing them to movies and TV shows.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOLLA$")
MCBRIDE: (Rapping) I'm just saying. I'm to the point if I want it, I got it. I'm making deposits. I throw it, he caught it. You know I don't want it if there is no profit. I'm just being honest. Please, pay me. Where the rest at? I'm getting stacks. Your two cents won't affect that. So please give me dollas. I need dollas. Give me dollas. Pay me in dollas (ph).
HIGHT: McBride's also figured out how to use her technical skill as a rapper and her quick-witted playful personality to convey an image that's made pop and country acts want her on their tracks.
MCBRIDE: Ultimately, rap to me is work, but it's fun. And when I think of hip-hop as a genre, I think it's fun to me. So that was kind of where I was just going creatively, just a balance between just having fun, being able to actually rap, but then actually make the songs somewhat commercial, too.
HIGHT: That's not too much to ask, that hip-hop get a piece of the music city pie. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "S.O.B.B. STORY")
LAUREN MCCLINTON: (Singing) Sick of being broke, sick of being broke. I'm sick of it (ph). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.