News » Cover Story

Cashville Underground

Nashville's hip-hop scene is poised to blow up



Gold grills, Coupe Devilles sittin' on 22s the Dirty Dirty baby, show 'em how the South do We pop pills, shoot to kill, you know what we 'bout and on behalf of G-Unit, welcome to the South

Working this wood wheel, y'all don't know how good it feel Just come to Cashville, y'all gon' see how 'hood it is We in the projects, cookin' chickens in the kitchen We go to prison, but get out and go back to get in it

Your hood ain't no harder than mine, bitch, we all thuggin' We fight in clubs, hit the parkin' lot, and start bustin' I know I'm country, I can't help it, I'm from Tennessee I'm throwin' up this Hennessy and blowin' up my enemies —Young Buck, "Welcome to the South"

No, you won't find these words in any Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau brochure, nor are you likely to hear them on the Grand Ole Opry anytime soon. They reflect a Music City far off the mainstream radar, perhaps indicative of the disconnect between the two Nashvilles, separated by both racial and economic barriers. And while this is true to some extent in all major cities, in Nashville, the other side of the tracks is perhaps even a little more "other."

When Young Buck broke out big a little over a year ago, it was a revelation to a lot of folks here that Nashville even had a rap scene. But Young Buck didn't materialize overnight, nor did he develop in a vacuum. He's just the most visible member of a simmering hip-hop underground here, every bit as ignored by the establishment as the Nashville that Buck sings about, and every bit as real. It's a scene that, given the right set of circumstances, could boil over at any minute. There are acts with names like All Star, Cadence, Jelly Roll, Glass Joe, Illicit Bizness, Cormat, Paper, Wicked Materiel, Nina Ross, Fluent Dialects, Calico, Aposoul, Pearl, Big Chopper, Lil Vac & Steezie, Beefy, Pure, Count Bass D and Pow Shadowz, some of whom have already tasted some success, others who are just getting started.

But don't try to take Nashville's hip-hop pulse at Tower Records; though the store carries the genre, only the most prominent local artists make the bins with the big national acts. On a recent browse through the West End Tower's hip-hop section, we found only Haystak, Pistol and Young Buck—even big players like Kool Daddy Fresh and Quanie Cash were nowhere to be found. Check out the Local Artists section, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a single rap CD.

And, though you can get a taste, don't expect to grasp the depth of the scene at local clubs. A few venues—The Rhythm Kitchen, Reflections Lounge, John Henry's, The 615, the Bar Car—feature local hip-hop artists once or twice a month, occasionally more, but the Outer Limits, which closed a few years ago, was the last thriving live rap scene in town (though, according to several local rappers, the recently closed Boots Reverb made a go of it for a minute).

And local radio stations? Nashville only has one major rap station, 101.1 The Beat (owned by Clear Channel), which will spin an occasional All Star or Haystak record, but that's about it.

So where and what is Nashville's hip-hop underground?

I claim the whole South as part of my home I been to many places but I'm Cashville's own Go to Swett's and get something to eat I don't care if you a Tennessee Titan, you better pack yo' heat

Hadley Park and the legendary Jefferson Street On Sunday Circle K be big like Freaknic It's so sick, I can't forget, you want to see some nakedness? 701 or Tiara's, man, you pick

On the south side we rock do-rags and flags Gold grills and T-shirts, well we started that Southern living, big women and fried chicken Down bottom country is a beautiful thing, and that's the way we livin'. —Cormat, "Southern Living"

Nashville's hip-hop scene is really a microcosm for what's going on across the nation. Just like rock 'n' roll, there are countless subcultures and styles in hip-hop, yet there are two broadly defined musical subsets: rap and hip-hop. While the term "hip-hop" is used to describe the entire cultural movement that includes DJing, rapping, breakdancing and graffiti writing, it is also used to characterize a broad subcategory of music styles—including conscious hip-hop (which typically deals more with political resistance, social issues and relationships), and hip-hop that may not be message-oriented but nonetheless isn't thuggy. "Rap" usually refers to the hardcore, gangsta stuff—streets, cars, drugs, money, guns and women are common themes. The beats are often more bumpin' and in your face, and entertainment is the mission.

The line that divides these two trends is blurry, and some artists understandably resent the attempt to pigeonhole. There are quite a few rappers whose music refuses to fit neatly under either heading, but for the most part, local MCs, DJs and record store managers openly acknowledge the distinction, and all seem to agree on one thing—rap is what sells now.

"Kanye West, Common, that's hip-hop," explains C-Wiz, a local rap jack-of-all-trades—DJ, producer, consultant and buyer/manager for New Life Records on Charlotte Avenue, one of Nashville's main rap outlets. "Mike Jones, T.I., 50 Cent, that's rap. It all falls under the same umbrella, but it's different. When you rap, it's more of an entertainment situation. With hip-hop, it's more to educate, or as KRS-One would say, 'edutainment.' Like, 'I got something I need to get out.' Rap is more about the beats."

C-Wiz says that hip-hop has never sold well for him. "If you compare a Kanye West album to a T.I. album, T.I. will outsell Kanye West in our store. But you gotta understand, we never sold a shitload of Destiny's Child, either. We've always sold rap."

And right now, when it comes to rap, the South is where it's at. Anyone moderately familiar with the state of rap is familiar with the term Dirty South, a reference to the sounds and scenes in Atlanta, Memphis, Houston, New Orleans, Kentucky and, increasingly, Nashville.

"The South is selling records right now," C-Wiz says. "I'm not saying the stars don't sell. But the South is what's selling. If you listen to the radio, we run the radio waves. I mean, Snoop Dogg still does his thing. 50 Cent still does his thing. Kanye West still does his thing. But right now, we run it."

My advice is to get your business straight.... It don't take money to get your business straight. Know people, get out here and grind, network—if you don't have your business together, you're not gonna go nowhere. The music business is 80 percent business, 20 percent talent. —Nina Ross, one of Nashville's few successful female rappers, in Hiphop Cashville, a documentary by Monteon Jones

Four record stores provide the geographical and commercial focal points for the local hip-hop scene. In addition to New Life Records, there's Platinum Bound Records on Jefferson Street, SoundStream Records and Tapes on Clarksville Highway and Cat's Music on Gallatin Pike in East Nashville. (New Life, Platinum Bound and SoundStream are independently owned.) All of them feature a wide variety of local and national hip-hop artists, and on any given day you'll see guys dropping off CDs and fliers promoting their new releases. The staff at all these stores know their local rap artists—tell 'em what you like, and they'll tell you who to check out.

But much of the business is transacted on the streets, hand to hand. Wander down Second Avenue on a weekend night, go to a TSU football game, stop at a gas station, hit the clubs or go to a mall, and you might run into a local rapper selling his wares, either out of the trunk of his car or a backpack. Trunk sales are a big part of the local rap economy. "You can sell CDs for 10 dollars a pop out of your trunk," notes Reece, the head of Nashville rap label Felonious Records, "or if you go through a distribution company, you may get 7 dollars. So all those 3 dollars help once you add 'em up."

A large portion of those street sales are mixtapes. No, they're not actually tapes—mixtapes are CDs made by DJs or rappers that typically feature a local artist rapping over the instrumental tracks from a major artist's recording. The local rapper will sometimes leave some of the star's vocals in the mix, and often will get more prominent rappers to do guest vocals. Some mixtapes will include a few original tracks. Others still are almost totally original, but may include a chorus or two from a famous rapper's CD. Many include a volume number in the title. Mixtapes are often sold fairly cheap and frequently include website and contact info—a sort of rapper's business card.

The legal issues surrounding mixtapes are murky. (Almost all are stamped "For Promotional Use Only.") Many artists are fine with the practice, as it ultimately promotes their music. "Some artists and producers are flattered by the use of their material," says Jesse Johnson, a.k.a. DJ Infamous, co-owner of Platinum Bound Records. "They see it as a form of acceptance, it being used by the peers, like they're getting respect. And a lot of artists get their start with mixtapes. 50 Cent started with mixtapes."

But not everyone is thrilled with them. "The people that get hurt most on the mixtape market are the artists," says Sonny Paradise, owner of Street Flavor Records and Haystak's producer and business partner. "These mixtape DJs—some of them are my friends and might get mad when I say this—are robbing the game. They're making money off of other people's beats, and convincing the artists that being on their mixtapes is going to help create exposure for them, which in some cases it will. But it floods the market, and it's not legal. If you're going to have an artist on your album, pay him something." (To make matters more confusing, some artists who are making all original beats and vocals also call their CDs mixtapes.)

Some people may use them mainly as a way to profit from other people's work. But for a lot of young rappers with limited financial means, mixtapes are really just a way of getting heard. And for some of them, mixtapes have helped build a reputation and allowed them to get to the point that they can afford the studio time, producers or equipment it takes to make their own beats. (Witness 50 Cent.) There's a lot of gray area in the debate, and—just like a lot of other areas of life—it's much easier to take the ethical high ground when you've already got some paper in your pocket.

Niggas talk about me, but when I come around, they mumble now, I'm the reason why some of these cocky artists humble now I sold mixtapes by the thousands, y'all at hundreds now, You might as well be dead, 'cause ya always gon' be underground The streets don't believe you, 'cause none o' you punks hustle I promise I'll call ya if I ever need a stunt double —All Star, a.k.a. Cashville's Prince, "Real Me"

It's almost unanimous among local rap insiders that All Star is the next big thing to break out of Cashville. All of 20 years old, he's parlayed a series of mixtapes, a ton of hustle, a verbal gift and a sharp business sense into a deal with Cash Money, the Universal Records-affiliated New Orleans label that's home to Juvenile, Lil Wayne and Baby, a.k.a. Birdman. All Star's first Cash Money release, Streetball, is due out the first quarter of 2006. (It should be noted that All Star's latest mix tape, Got Mine, Get Yours, Vol. 5, features almost all original beats by Fate Eastwood, his producer.)

"I started in November of 2003 with my first release," All Star recalls. "I pressed 'em all myself. I filled up a backpack, filled up my trunk. Everywhere I went it was hand-to-hand, selling discs. I did that with my first release, sold about 800 copies. My second release I sold about 3,500 copies. Every time, I've managed to escalate. This is my fifth release, and I've sold about 20,000 total, of all the releases. I was at club nights, high school and college football games, basketball games, anywhere there was a chance I thought there'd be a thousand people there. If I could hit 10 percent of them, then that's something. Then I move on to the next one. After a while, people either get tired of seeing you, or they'll start picking up on, 'OK, this dude, he may be up to something.' "

Glass Joe is another Nashville rapper making some waves in the region. Part of the Felonious Records roster (which includes Illicit Bizness, Zilla Da Felon, Clientel and New York artist Thoroughbred), Glass Joe has the kind of deep, menacing voice that could work just as well in a death metal band. He didn't come up on the streets like a lot of other Nashville rappers, but as his website bio says, "Just because Glass Joe didn't come up a thug, dodging bullets and pushing crack, doesn't mean he don't know what's up."

Felonious has been pushing hard on Glass Joe's Glacious, set for an Oct. 25 release. "It's all word of mouth," says label head Reece. "I try to tell five or 10 people every day something about Felonious. I may run into someone at a store, or at the gas station. I plant that seed in their head. I make it my job."

Joe nods his head in agreement. "Word of mouth is a motherfucker," he says.

"Our name has been out there ever since we took out an ad in [national rap magazine] Murder Dog," says Q, Felonious' head of A&R. "Everybody always remembers that ad. They gave Illicit Bizness four nuts, and in the year-end list, two of the writers made it their top album."

Like a lot of other labels, Felonious has street teams in different cities who put up fliers, work the streets and get the discs in the hands of DJs. But perhaps their most effective advertising tool, at least locally, is the Felonious Records van, emblazoned with images of Glass Joe and Illicit Bizness, and featuring a set of Davin 22-inch limited-edition spinning rims. A blind man could see it on a moonless night.

The rap world, locally and nationally, is even more male-dominated than rock or jazz, but don't tell that to Pearl, a tall, slender blonde with a Southern drawl. Pearl is working with producer Elisha Hoffman, who also produces and writes rock and R&B. (Hoffman's story could be a Hollywood script—born in Philadelphia...grandson of a world-famous rabbi and author...raised in Israel, where he befriended and recorded with Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle...winds up in Nashville, where's he played on Young Buck's demos and Juvenile's new record.) Pearl is overdubbing vocals for her next CD. Her voice has a sweet, raspy quality, suggesting what Macy Gray might sound like if she were a rapper.

"I'm about to start working with a group out of Kentucky called Revolution Entertainment," Pearl says. "We met at a Carl Casper car show in Louisville. A lot of the underground scene, the people go to a show like that, rent a booth and push CDs all weekend, kind of like Pimp My Ride on MTV—rap fans are very attracted to cars, so car shows are a great place to push music."

Though he's also working with Hoffman, rapper Calico recorded and released his debut, Standard Issue, on his own and, even more impressive, programmed all his own beats. Like several local rappers, Calico is no stranger to trouble (two felony gun charges, one involving a high-speed car chase in Smyrna) and sees rap music as a way to get his life together. When asked about the R.I.P. tattoo on his arm, he explains it's in memory of a friend who was killed in a botched drug deal. "Calico's getting his life together," Hoffman says, "being a father to one child and two stepchildren. He works every day at 5 in the morning, at a division of Kodak."

"It sucks," Calico chimes in, "but it pays the bills and keeps my music going."

Why the tsunami kill so many men, women and children? Why the U.S. only give three-hundred-and-fifty-million? And why is it that we can afford a thousand times more for an illegal, immoral, unnecessary war?

Why thugs got bullet-proof vests and our soldiers don't? Why 50 got a bombproof truck and our soldiers don't? Why senators got health insurance and our soldiers don't? George Bush'll sleep fine tonight, our soldiers won't —Cadence, "Why"

It's about 10 p.m. at Lovenoise, a weekly showcase of hip-hop, R&B, neo-soul, spoken word, jazz, even rock, held every Sunday at the Bar Car in Cummins Station. Conscious hip-hop artist and producer Crisis (not to be confused with Crisis Tha Rhyme Don, another local rapper) takes the stage. The house band starts up a laid-back soul-jazz vamp, and Crisis launches into "Soul 2 Keep." The room is packed way beyond capacity, and the crowd around the stage is swaying back and forth, focused intently on Crisis as he hits the chorus: "This world, it can be so cold / So I'm leavin' you a piece of my soul / To have and to hold, to stay afloat when the struggle get deep / Yo, I'm leaving y'all some soul to keep." Crisis has a smooth flow and an arty New York City vibe that couldn't be more different than the thug image projected by most local rappers.

Though the harder rap dominates both the airwaves and the local scene, there's a small but dedicated conscious hip-hop community here that pushes on against the grain of popular trends, with acts like Crisis, Fluent Dialects, J-Prodigal, Pow Shadowz, DJ Wick-it, Aposoul and GRITS (Grammatical Revolution in the Spirit). A hip-hop duo with a Christian foundation—though their music is neither overtly religious nor preachy—GRITS is one of Nashville's longest-running hip-hop acts, having released their debut album in 1995. They sold 125,000 units of their 2002 release, Art of Translation. Then there's Count Bass D, a prominent player in the national hip-hop underground who's worked with The Beastie Boys, MF Doom and Van Hunt.

"The hip-hop stuff is kind of going against the local culture," says Eric Holt, one of the Lovenoise organizers. "Hip-hop artists have a harder time, so they're really underground. The prevalent culture in Nashville is to go to a hardcore rap party rather than to a more diverse event that has hip-hop, neo-soul and poetry. There are some people who teeter on this line, like Cadence. A lot of his lyrics are very conscious, but he has a hardcore rap appeal."

Cadence is the one artist cited by both the hardcore rappers and the old-school hip-hoppers as a talent to watch. But listen to a whole CD by any local rap or hip-hop act, and the futility of such attempts to categorize becomes apparent. Acts like Pearl and Calico could just as easily fit into either category. Then there's Big Chopper, whose Nite Time Trunk Muzik CD is heavily influenced by old-school funk and soul, but still has a street edge.

Even Pistol, one of Nashville's thuggiest rappers, has a sensitive side. "All I Know," from Drug Stories, features social commentary reminiscent of the early days of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: "I ain't trying to make the news or go popping some young thug / Trying to stick me up in the 'hood over some drugs / But still though, I got to keep my mind focused / Time to pay the rent, my mama done got a notice / The rent man won't let her slide / I'll be damned if I'm gonna let my mama live outside."

Some artists see it as a difference between enlightenment and exploitation. " 'The Message,' by Grandmaster Flash, talks about drugs, violence in the 'hood, all of those things," Crisis says. "Look at 50 Cent: he talks about drugs, violence in the 'hood, all those things, but it's two very different things. It's not to bring awareness, it's to exploit it and profit from painting images, and portraying yourself as a kingpin, crime boss, whatever. That's become a very popular thing—and a very profitable thing."

A few local rappers are quick to point out that, to some degree, conscious hip-hop might be a luxury afforded to people who aren't struggling to get out of poverty. That's not to say that some conscious hip-hop artists didn't arise from the streets, but if you look around, many of them don't appear to have grown up impoverished. "The gangsta element, people may view it as derogatory," All Star says, "but it's one story, and if you grew up in the streets, it's very very real. As a genre and art form, it's its own craft. It combines elements of rhythm, harmony and a story. Everyone's got their own unique story, and the good artists have their own unique way of bringing that out."


"The problem in Nashville is that it's not unified like some of the other cities," says Street Flavor Records head Sonny Paradise. "Atlanta has a community that works together. There's not as much 'fuck him' or 'screw them' or 'we're the shit.' It's more like, 'Hey man, this cat's got hot beats, this label's doing this, let's all come together and do this.' There's no reason why Nashville shouldn't already be on an Atlanta status or a Memphis status."

The other problem, he says, is that Nashville radio doesn't support Nashville acts. "End of story. If you look at the markets that do real well, like Houston and Atlanta, these are markets that have stations that support local artists. When a station supports the artist, the community supports the artist."

But a growing community of underground entrepreneurs and fans are trying to bridge these shortcomings. A year ago this month, Rob Ski started, a website that features a nightly webcast, "The Rob Ski Show," as well as message boards, forums and a line of Rob Ski merchandise—shirts, caps, coffee cups, even a thong.

You may not recognize his name, but you've probably seen his face. By day, Rob Ski works on a Metro trash removal truck, and he's one of the four guys whose faces are on the side of the trucks, as well as on all the related brochures. (He's the one in the ski cap.) "I started the site because radio does not support local artists here," he explains. "There's so much raw talent here." is another community site, started by local hip-hop artists Kamoshin and Aposoul. (Kamoshin performs with DJ DVST8, pronounced "devastate," under the name Fluent Dialects.) Musically, they lean more toward conscious hip-hop, but they emphasize that they embrace all forms of rap and encourage all rappers to participate on the site. "It all came from the same place," Kamoshin says, "and it just branched off. Everyone has their own flavor, their own way of doing it." is another Nashville-based website and features both local and national music videos.

And the live scene? "Wooo!" Rob Ski exclaims. "It's dead, man, dead. I blame some of it on some of the early promoters, who were always trying to beat and cheat somebody. Outer Limits was a great place for a while. That was pretty much the last one." In fact, when  Rob Ski puts on shows now, he goes to Columbia, Tenn., to a club called The Mix. "We get a good crowd from Columbia, and people from as far away as Huntsville. But not too many Nashville people."

One way to bring the limelight to Nashville's underground hip-hop scene, as well as the urban underground music scene in general, has been the Southern Entertainment Awards, started by Platinum Bound's DJ Infamous. "I started it to fill a void," he says. "Most of the awards shows today stem from record sales. The Grammies, the AMAs, don't pay respect to anything underground. They say they're not based on sales, but they are."

Like everyone else, DJ Infamous feels Nashville needs to come together. Though the SEA has proved successful for him, the Nashville community hasn't turned out. "We looked at the attendance, who showed up—artists, industry, sponsorships—and none of it really came from Nashville. I think that's a shame, especially being Music City."

He also sees egos as a stumbling block. "A lot of artists blamed us for not being nominated," he says. "But the nomination process was on the street level too. We put ballots on the streets and took the Top 10 in each category, and that goes on the final ballot. That eliminates bias." The lack of local support has led him to move the awards to Tunica, Miss., for 2006.

Rob Ski is equally frustrated that Nashville's rappers were MIA at the SEAs. "You had Wendy Day from the Rap Coalition," he says, "you had major people in this city giving free knowledge on how to get started, what steps to take. And none of these guys were even out. They wasn't nowhere to be found."

Everyone agrees that one of the solutions is for successful acts to give new guys a hand—like when Young Buck brought out All Star on BET Television. "They were doing a Top 50 Dirty South videos countdown," All Star recalls. "He introduced me to the world with something like, 'This is the next big artist out of Nashville. Remember his name. He's on Cash Money records.' …It was a really good thing for me."

Even though he's just starting to hit big himself, All Star already feels a commitment to spread the love. "It would be vain and selfish of me to focus all of my attention on myself as an artist," he says. "I'd rather take the things I've learned along the way and help someone else—especially when I see they have the same drive, the same hunger that I do. I have an independent label now, Loyalty Records. I have one artist signed, named Paper." (Ski cites Paper as his favorite local act.)

All Star says he's trying to work with anybody who's doing something positive for the hip-hop music scene. "If you doing something and making progress over there, I want to take what I'm doing and get with you and make it happen. That's the only way we're all going to wind up prospering in the end. Otherwise, we're just going to be a cancer to one another. Where I come from, opportunities are few and far between. Hip-hop is my opportunity."


A look at some of Cashville's most notable rappers

Young Buck may be the first Nashville rapper to get serious mainstream success, but there are several artists who've become legendary in the hip-hop underground far beyond Tennessee's borders, and have earned a living in the process. Ask any local rappers who the real veterans are, and two names always emerge: Kool Daddy Fresh and Pistol, a.k.a. P. Gates, both of whom came up in the early '90s and are still at it today. Haystak and Quanie Cash have also earned top-dog status while developing large regional followings.

"Nashville's rap scene really started in the late '80s with acts like Blowpop Crew and Top Secret. I came in on the end of that," Kool Daddy Fresh says. "I started rapping when I was 13, in 1987. I started out at Hadley Park, doing contests. I won like every freestyle contest, and from there I put out my solo album in '94 on an independent label, For Real Records. It sold like 110,000 copies. I opened for Eazy-E, The Geto Boys, Rakim."

Fresh recently released a mixtape CD with DJ Whitey, a.k.a. The President—Snatchin' the Streetz—and is about to release a new disc with a new group, Mobb Mafia. "I'm guaranteeing that Mobb Mafia is gonna be the hottest group album to hit Cashville since Organized Crime [a group Fresh was in several years ago]," he predicts. "I want you to quote me on that," Fresh adds, chuckling.

Pistol is one of Cashville's hardest rappers, about as tough and ballsy as it gets around here, and he's got a gift for beats and rhymes to back up his bravado. (If you have any doubts, check out "Cashville's Dopeman," from the CD Drug Stories.) "Pistol's a legend," C-Wiz says. "Pistol's been around for several years, done nine or 10 albums, first person actually in town to have a major record deal. He was signed with Ruthless Records, with Eazy-E—obviously, I'm talking about when Eazy-E was still alive, so it's been years." (Eazy-E, a founding member of gangsta rap group N.W.A., died in 1995 of complications from AIDS.)

Quanie Cash started a record label, Bottom Boy Recordz, in 1995, four years before he began his career as a rap artist. He's recently branched out into filmmaking and in 2004 released Loyalty & Respect, a graphic drama about street life that's not for the faint of heart. In June, he won the Best Director Award for a feature at the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival (held in Las Vegas, oddly enough). "I'm working more on being a mogul than an artist," Cash says. "I've got a few more movies in the works, and I just inked a deal with Warner Home Video. Loyalty & Respect is going nationwide in January."

Then there's Haystak, who, according to the DVD included in his latest release, From Start to Finish, has released six albums and sold over 300,000 units without any videos or national radio support, an an impressive feat. A white rapper with a diverse fan base, he touches on what really connects most street rappers: growing up poor and underprivileged. The companion DVD is a treat—professionally produced and surprisingly touching. (Haystak's friend Lil Will tells a story about 'Stak's grandfather buying the rapper a pair of off-brand sneakers for a big performance; it'll move you to tears.)

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

Add a comment