A former staff writer for the St. Louis Riverfront Times, Ben Westhoff's time in Cardinal country coincided with the rise of Southern-styled St. Louis rappers such as Nelly and Chingy. "Exciting times," says Westhoff, who caught the Southern hip-hop bug and soon began specializing in telling the stories of sub-Mason-Dixon rap stars.
Westhoff's new book, Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop (Chicago Review Press), is a reporting-intensive survey of the Southern scene that ranges from genre-launchers such as Miami's Luke Campbell, Houston's Geto Boys, and Memphis' 8Ball & MJG to current stars such as the subtitle trio. Westhoff returns to Memphis next week to discuss his book at Davis-Kidd. I talked to him in advance of his visit.
Flyer: How did the Southern rap scene become your chosen topic?
Westhoff: I grew up with the traditional, golden-era style hip-hop. Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, those East Coast groups. But then in college I got a copy of Juvenile's 400 Degrees, and it seemed so fresh, exciting, and different. Then, when I became a reporter in St. Louis, Southern hip-hop was super popular there. With Southern hip-hop, not only do I like the music better than other styles, but also the stories are so interesting and there are so many characters.
In the Memphis section of the book, you write about coming to town to interview 8Ball & MJG and how easy 8Ball was to contact and deal with. Did he stand out to you relative to other artists you covered?
One hundred percent. Of all the rappers I interviewed, he was definitely my favorite. He was very open and definitely has a lot of gravitas. He's very respected, but very humble too.
Popularly, the Memphis rap scene is not thought of in the same way as Atlanta, or Houston, or New Orleans. But did you get a sense from your reporting on other artists the degree that 8Ball & MJG were influential in other cities?
Absolutely. Almost every single rapper who came after them, that I interviewed, cited them as an influence. That's not an exaggeration. I hear their names constantly. It's not necessarily reflected in their sales, but if there's such a thing as a rapper's rapper, that's them.
In terms of the Three 6 Mafia portion, DJ Paul talks to you about his fascination with serial killers. Did you think he was putting you on?
No, I didn't feel like he was putting me on at all. He just has this dark obsession. He's almost nerdy about it, collecting these magazines. But at the same time, he was really real. I never felt like he was exaggerating things with me. Juicy J, on the other hand, talks real fast and sometimes seems like he's trying to be cool. But with Paul, I never got that sense at all. He seemed pretty at peace with himself.
Do you perceive Three 6 now as apart from the Southern rap scene somehow? What's your sense of where they are now?
It kind of remains to be seen where they're going to go with their sound. They're clearly aiming for a blockbuster album to reach these international fans. But I'm not sure it's working out how they want it to. It doesn't feel very focused to me. I have no idea where they're headed at this point.
Does the Southern scene still feel regionalized to you, with clear differences between the sounds from different cities, or do you sense it becoming all one thing?
I think there are still differences, especially in places like New Orleans and Houston. But at the same time, this stuff is getting sucked into the mainstream all the time. And I don't know that you're going to be able to identify a specifically Southern sound for much longer, because people from other regions keep borrowing the sounds because that's the way to make a hit.
Ben Westhoff will discuss and sign copies of Dirty South at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Monday, May 9th, at 6 p.m.