They're bringing Dirty South back.
Over a decade ago, while the mainstream portrayed hip hop as a genre populated exclusively by East Coast or West Coast artists, a number of innovative rappers, DJs and producers from Texas to Florida nurtured a developing underground scene south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Eventually, hiphop combos like Goodie Mob, Geto Boys and OutKast succeeded at drawing much-deserved attention to a movement dubbed "Dirty South."
And once above ground, that scene -- as is standard-practice in popular music -- quickly lost its way. In recent years, that gritty Southern-rap sound has been usurped by mainstream-rap largely indistinguishable from the processed product now emanating from America's left and right coasts.
Enter producer and Georgia native Ryan Wisler, aka Kno, and a Kentuckian rapper billed as Deacon the Villain. Choosing Lexington, Ky., as homebase, the duo joined forces seven years ago to release an independent mission-statement called Will Rap For Food, credited to (groan) CunninLynguists.
And it was good. As have been subsequent CunninLynguists albums that have seen the duo expand to a trio and delve into soulful new sounds steeped in Southern tradition.
"We want to create music you can feel," Kno declares. "Modern mainstream Southern rap has gotten away from a lot of the hardship and pain I see in older music. I'm not just talking about rap; I'm talking about blues and soul and jazz -- all the styles that have been part of what Southern music is about.
"Nowadays, that is lost. It's so concentrated on party music. It has gotten away from that grittiness, that honesty, that emotion. You don't see it anymore, because I guess it doesn't sell. But you have to have that side heard. You can't always have party music. You don't party 24/7. You need that balance -- the ups and the downs. The failure of rap is the loss of that balance."
Hence, CunninLynguists will invite you to the party, even as they reflect on the challenges that still face America's still-struggling, impoverished Southern states.
("If they have the time to hate a whole race," Kno demands to know in Georgia, a track from the trio's latest album Dirty Acres, "how do y'all have the time to tell me about my faith?")
"The way we look at it," Kno explains, "the best artists have shown vulnerability. The best artists have shown the two sides of humanity. So Deacon may mention that he does believe in God but in the same song he'll talk about smoking weed. It's human nature to be fallible."
That fallibility is further embodied by the addition to the group four years ago of Natti, a convicted felon whose gravelly voice has further sharpened CunninLynguists' edge. (Kno concedes Natti may not be present at Tuesday's Babylon show. Canada's border guards have been less than welcoming to the rapper in the past.)
Natti's arrival came on the heels of the departure of Mr. SOS, whose contributions to CunninLynguists' 2003 album SouthernUnderground were significant. And, Kno now says, occasionally overwhelming.
"When SOS was involved we had a hard time gelling as a trio," Kno says. "He has always been more of a solo rapper; he was used to writing whole songs on his own. It's hard for someone who is geared as a solo rapper to work within the confines of a group, and he hadn't been in a group before he joined us.
"Natti's been there before; he knew when he joined how to operate as part of a group. And he knew what we were going for."
The return of the Dirty South.