Ten Gallon Hits: Why Hip Hop + Country = Pop In 2014

Jan 17 2014, 1:52pm CST | by

Ten Gallon Hits: Why Hip Hop + Country = Pop In 2014

At the top of the charts right now, Pitbull—nee Armando Christian Perez—yells “timber” while a daisy-duked Ke$ha dances over the wailing of a harmonica. A little further down, a Swedish EDM producer named Avicii has given us this decade’s “Cotton Eyed Joe” in “Wake Me Up”.

Look around, there’s more in the way of Country/Dance/Hip-Hop amalgams: On “4×4”,  Miley Cyrus—daughter of Country’s most famous one hit wonder—bellows out “round and round and away go” over a beat that screams to be rhymed with “swing your partner doh see doh”.

This summer, a remix of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” dropped to much airplay, becoming a crossover hit with all the trappings of a modern Hip-Hop anthem: mid tempo sample-replaced drums, an autotuned hook, and a feature verse by an established rapper looking to sow some wild oats (Nelly).

What exactly is going on here? When did Hip-Hop and Country co-mingle to the point that Toby Keith had to thumb his nose at the trend?  Is this genre mash-up a new phenomenon, or is it part of an ongoing tango of influences?

Most importantly, what does it signal for the coming crop of singles circa 2014?

Obviously, this current trend didn’t spring out of thin air. More than a few attempts to negotiate a treaty between these two genres have made their way into mainstream locations (Jason Aldean performing with Ludakris at the 2011 CMT awards; T-Pain and Taylor Swift teaming up for 2009’s “Thug Story”; Tammy Wynette lending her voice to KLF’s “Justified and Ancient” in 1991).

But these earlier attempts smelled of novelty—isolated incidents intended for shock or comedy. Now, with a flood of such material inundating the charts, something more pervasive is taking shape: these genres are truly copulating before our very ears.

This is certainly an achievement. After all, these two seemingly disparate genres have inhabited segregated landscapes (both demographic and geographical) for a long time. One could say both genres have been effectively ghettoized by niche programming and individual categorizations on the Billboard charts.

It might seem transgressive to call Country music “ghettoized”, but the statement holds water: the Country music scene is a closed knit community of artists and producers (they even have their own standardized musical notation for session musicians), and there is rabid hatred of the music they produce; indeed, with Country often characterized as the music of ignorant, gun-loving people, most of the criticisms lobbed at the genre and it’s fans have been volleyed against the Hip-Hop community.

The similarities between Hip-Hop and Country aren’t only culturally metaphorical—they’re musical as well: both genres have their roots in gospel music.  As anyone who saw the movie Ray (featuring sometime singer/rapper Jamie Foxx) might remember, a love for Country music within the world of R&B is hardly unprecedented.

What’s significant now, in the nascent months of 2014, is the breakthrough into mainstream territory, and the consistent colonization of such territory: not only are these two genres making beautiful music together, but the rest of the country is taking major notice—again, I present you with “Timber”; when a stylish Cuban-American has a number one hit co-opting the lingo of the white south through the medium of the black Bronx, we have one hot melting pot on our hands.

But how did this music become so popular? For the answer, we should look to a third, seemingly unrelated genre: Indie music. Trends in the Indie scene have laid down the pavement for this rise in country/hip hop hits. Indeed, Indie went Country long before Pop did.

Follow the Indie music of the last fourteen years or so, and we can see the rise in action: after a waning interest in the post-punk brand of indie rock (when a million Strokes copycats faded into the din), a vein of Country-inflected Indie Rock began to crop up in places like Seattle, Omaha, and Portland, where impactful bands/artists like Rilo Kiley, Bright Eyes, and M. Ward had their respective beginnings.

These artists—and others like them—blurred the lines between Rock, Country, and Folk. They effectively co-opted country’s sonic palette (its drum patterns, its pads of ghostly steel guitars, its harmonies and melodies). In doing so, they impressed a simultaneously ironic and fetishized sense of Americana upon a generation of dissatisfied, counter-cultural youths, who, as always, were looking for a better music to provide the soundtrack to their particular brand of rebellion.

The mainstream followed suit: within a few years of a band like Rilo Kiley switching to a major label, the charts began reflecting this alternative-countrified sound up the chain (Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers come to mind).

Such appearances in the mainstream primed the pop landscape in two ways. First, hits like “I Will Wait” tuned the ears of the public at large, familiarizing a larger berth of people with the sonic aspects of Country music. Secondly, producers began to take notice, and, in a bid to be more current than the next guy, pushed their music into the great wild west.

This is not unusual: producers have long been hip to the Indie scene, drawing upon indie source material all the time. Who could forget Kanye West’s collaboration with Bon Iver on “Monster”, for example?

The canny instinct to inject new life-blood into the genre of Pop is something that fuels the most successful producers. This is because, as renowned engineer Dave Pensado (who mixed “Single Ladies” alongside Jaycen Joshua) recently told me, “Pop is the only genre of music that isn’t a genre”.

In other words, there is no one kind of Pop music. Pop is determined in reaction to the expression of your tastes. If the public’s interests swing to living in a prolonged, hedonistic coke binge, Disco might just ensue. If the public’s tastes switch to living off the grid and reconnecting with countrified roots—like we see now, with the rise of off-the-grid movements such as Occupy Farms—the music is sure to follow; those who fashion the music will not let you forget it so easily, for it’s a producer’s job to be in tune with these underground rumblings, to look for musical aspects that might appeal to all demographics across the board.

This is where the musical truly serves the fiscal: a Pop song just different enough to stand above its contemporaries is one that will have a slightly better chance at longevity, and all the financial opportunities longevity affords (reissues, royalties, licenses, et-cetera). Everyone remembers 1994’s “Cotton Eyed Joe”; who remembers a contemporary hit single like Real McCoy’s “Another Night”?

2014 is like any other year in that artists are scrambling to make something indelible yet accessible, niche-friendly yet welcoming. The resulting equation, at present, is equal parts Hip-Hop and Country, and we’ve only now reached the tipping point in the mainstream. Expect many more amalgams to follow before the trend peters out.

Source: Forbes Business


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