Can a growing genre that's built on a black art form and embraces the rebel flag ever be more than a curiosity?
In the months leading up to a planned July concert headlined by Upchurch the Redneck at Alrosa Villa, flyers started to appear in the neighborhood surrounding the North Side venue.
“[Upchurch] misrepresents Hip-Hop Culture to advocate white supremacy,” the flyer read. “He also makes YouTube videos vilifying African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, women, and the LGBTQIA community.”
The flyer also included a section labeled “in his own words,” though all of the selected passages, largely taken from Upchurch videos posted to YouTube, weren't entirely accurate.
“You must stone cold stoner to death every radical Muslim you can find,” one read, bold text included. In the YouTube video, posted the day after President Donald Trump's election win, Upchurch actually says, “You must stone-cold stunner as many radical Muslims as you can find,” referencing a move popularized by professional wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
Of course, in the same video, Upchurch doesn't shy from some of the more legitimate criticisms lobbed his way in the flyer.
“Go ahead, call me racist,” says the controversy-courting country rapper, born Ryan Upchurch outside Nashville, Tennessee. “Fuck you. My president's white.”
But in early June, with more than 2,000 tickets sold for what promoters said was going to be Alrosa's first outdoor concert in 17 years, Upchurch abruptly canceled his appearance just six weeks out. The rapper's management followed up with a statement that read, in part, “We are now reevaluating the remainder of the dates for the year and are having to cancel the show at Alrosa Villa due to the protesters and negativity surrounding the date.”
“This genre, and especially an artist like Upchurch, is very controversial,” said Lancaster, Ohio, rapper and tattoo artist Rich Regal, who, working with Columbus Events Group, helped organize the Upchurch show (CEG and Regal are responsible for booking virtually all of the country-rap concerts in the Southern Ohio region). “I anticipated at some point there being some negativity.”
In recent years, country rap, often called hick-hop, has grown from a musical curiosity to a regional force — despite receiving little to no assistance from the mainstream music industry — making stars of artists like Upchurch, Colt Ford and Big Smo. The Lacs, a Georgia duo whose name is an abbreviation for “loud-ass crackers,” has even landed two albums in the top five on both the Billboard rap and country charts, and artists within the genre regularly register millions of views on YouTube. The 2017 video for Upchurch's “Hillbilly” has now been viewed more than 17 million times, and his 2015 video for “Can I Get a Outlaw” has racked up 35 million views.
Locally, the growth has been slower but noticeable, with an increase in bookings both large (Alrosa has become one scene hub, hosting concerts on a bimonthly basis; next up is the Lacs on Saturday, Aug. 25) and small, with market-building shows featuring smaller names staged at venues such as Bethel Road Pub on the Northwest Side.
Country rap has also stirred its fair share of controversy, ranging from Upchurch's YouTube diatribes, which frequently contain racially charged language that has led to him being suspended from social-media platforms on multiple occasions, to fans and artists within the genre who openly embrace the Confederate flag — a symbol of racial hatred to many that some critics consider incongruous with hip-hop, which is foremost a black art form. (In a September 2017 video for the online site HipHopDX, Minneapolis rapper Murs examined this dichotomy, asking, “Does hick-hop have a right to exist?”)
Artists within country rap have generally addressed any controversy surrounding the rebel flag by brushing aside any racial connotations, describing it as a symbol of Southern pride and nothing more.
“This is 100 percent a symbol of ‘I'm proud to be from Alabama,' which is why it's tattooed next to the Alabama state flag,” said country rapper Mike Bama prior to an early August headlining show at Club Voodoos in the Brewery District, pointing to the dual flags inked on his bicep.
Outside of the growing-but-isolated hick-hop scene, however, the image can carry a heavier, more painful weight — existing as a reminder of slavery, as well as of the racial hatred and violence that continue to exist in its wake. (For instance, Dylann Roof, a white supremacist and neo-Nazi who shot and killed nine African-Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, posed in photos with the Confederate battle flag in the months leading up to the 2015 massacre.)
“[The Confederate flag] 100 percent represents racism. … It's everything American ideals are not supposed to be,” said Columbus rapper and musician Sarob. “I'm an outsider to hick-hop, and there are some details that I'm just ignorant about, I'm sure. But the Confederate flag is just not welcome. It's not welcome to me as a hip-hop artist. It's not welcome to me as a black person. It's not welcome to me as an American citizen. It's not welcome to me on any level.
“I wish there was a more profound way to say it, but hip-hop is something that was created by black and brown people, that has very political roots. I don't know if [country rap embracing] the Confederate flag is a conscious attempt to undermine what hip-hop represents, but I do think it's an insult to the genre and to those roots.”
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Growing up poor in Southern Ohio, Regal said he often felt like an outsider. In past interviews he described living in a trailer with holes worn in the floor, under the thumb of a stepfather with whom he maintained a contentious relationship. As a youngster, he discovered some sense of camaraderie listening to hip-hop artists like Scarface, the Notorious B.I.G. and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. (Regal's daughter, Harmony Sincere, even takes her name from a combination of the Ohio hip-hop group, as well as Nas' character from the movie “Belly,” Sincere.)
“My mom did everything she could, but there were a lot of things in my life that made me feel like, ‘This is hell,'” Regal said. “I felt like a lot of the hip-hop I was drawn toward was people telling their stories. Like the Scarface song ‘Smile,' you listen to a song like that and you feel it. … Hip-hop explained a lot of the aggression and anger I was feeling, even if it was in different words than I would have used.”
In addition, hip-hop helped open up Regal's admittedly secluded, largely white world. “My grandpa, who I never met, went to the Boys' Industrial School with David Allan Coe, so you can get some idea of the close-minded country boys I lived near growing up,” Regal said, referring to the Ohio reformatory. “At the same time, my mom always pushed me to respect everyone. I literally have ‘respect' tattooed under my beard here, and that's for two reasons: One, because that's the word the world goes around on, and, two, because if you don't show me it you're going to be looking up at it.”
Most recently, Regal, who owns Modified Studios Tattoo Gallery in Lancaster, launched a program providing free cover-up work of hate tattoos, transforming swastikas into slices of pizza covered in dripping cheese, among other technically impressive feats of tattooing.
“Richie has made it a point to combat racism in very racist spaces like tattooing, and in rural areas,” said Columbus rapper Sam Rothstein. “That's not an easy stand to make, either, in Lancaster.”
Beginning with F.H.S.P., a currently inactive collaboration with rapper Zachariah Ka1ne, and later as a solo artist, Regal pursued a more straightforward hip-hop career for the better part of a decade. It's only been within the last year that the heavily tattooed MC started experimenting with hick-hop, believing it a better reflection of his upbringing and current lifestyle.
“Where did we fit in this whole time? We grew up in the country but we listen to hip-hop, and there was never any lane for that,” Regal said. “Now I'm doing a lot of the same things with music I was before, but instead of talking about pulling up to the club, I'm pulling up in the field, which is a lot more relevant for me. … Not that I was faking it before, but I couldn't express myself to that full extent, and now I can.”
Mike Bama expressed similar sentiments. Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, the MC, who announced himself onstage at Club Voodoos as “the loudmouth redneck from the 334,” would spend his free time fishing, hunting and riding all-terrain vehicles — a lifestyle far removed from the one flaunted by the hip-hop artists to whom he gravitated as a young music fan, including Atlanta rappers T.I. and Ludacris.
This started to change as country rap artists grew in prominence beginning in the early 2000s, particularly Bubba Sparxxx — a bruising MC often viewed as the godfather of the current hick-hop movement, which many trace to the 2001 release of his Dark Days, Bright Nights. (For his part, Sparxxx, who rapped from within a pigpen in the video for his breakout song, “Ugly,” has made a point to distance himself from the genre, telling Rolling Stone earlier this year, “I don't want to be looked at as starting anything that's not reflective of caring about hip-hop culture as much as I care about hip-hop culture.”)
“I went to high school with so many people who just listen to country and rap — exclusively those two genres. They like hearing country music when they're drunk and sad, and rap music when they're drunk and dancing at the bar,” said rapper Rothstein, who grew up in Lancaster but has eschewed appearing on bills aside country-rap artists for fear of coming off like a role player (“I would have felt like a poseur trying to act like I'm this hillbilly character, which I'm not”).
“From a marketing standpoint, hick-hop has a ton of potential because there are hundreds of small towns filled with people who want to express themselves, and who want to hear the music that's going inside of them,” Rothstein continued. “That's how any musical movement starts out: It's a reflection of what the people who support it want to hear. And who's to say that guy doesn't deserve a voice musically? That he doesn't deserve the peace and comfort that an artist who is speaking to his experience can give him?
“But it is interesting how popular it's becoming. And how separate and parallel it is to hip-hop. I guess that's where I let hick-hop off the hook. These guys aren't trying to bash their way into predominantly black hip-hop spaces. They're not trying to kick the door down and have everyone accept them. They're just off doing their own thing.”
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Country rap, by and large, does exist in isolation. Hip-hop circles have given the movement little credence (though long-running rap group Nappy Roots did perform select dates on the Lacs' 2017 “Deplorables Tour”), and thus far it's been a nonfactor on mainstream country radio.
“There's an inner battle going on about, ‘You're not country enough,' or that you have to be a certain level of country to do hick-hop,” Bama said. “And I'm like, ‘What is country enough?' Is there a rating system?'”
Because of this, rather than existing as a branch of the hip-hop family tree, hick-hop often feels siloed from the art form, which gives rise to fears in rappers like Rothstein, who expressed concern that hick-hop could become rap music for white, rural audiences who don't want to be around black performers or fans.
“I've seen it, and I try to stay away from those artists,” said Regal, who said he generally takes extra care while booking shows to avoid bringing in acts he views as problematic. (Regal rejected one hick-hop artist who inquired about performing in Columbus after listening to a song that included the line, “And fuck Black Lives Matter.”)
Mike Bama, in turn, said a lot of the responsibility for this falls on the shoulders of those within the genre, many of whom, he believes, haven't done enough to give due credit to the black artists who pioneered the form.
“Half of hick-hop wants to be so country that they only talk about the country people they listen to and not the rap they listen to every day,” said Bama. “That's some of the disconnect, I think. Too many people haven't paid homage and said, ‘Thank you for allowing us this opportunity.'”
Regal agreed. “If you're going to do any art form, you should have some understanding of how it originated,” he said. “I study tattooing and learn as much as I can about how the art started so that I can get a better idea of where it's going. It's the same thing with music. Most good guitar players know their history, and they pay respect to the vets. You don't pick up a guitar and say, ‘Forget those guys. … I created this.' No. It all started with this base.”
Regardless, there will always be select country-rap fans for whom race remains a factor, if not an outright draw. One white, 30-something audience member at the Club Voodoos showcase headlined by Bama and Regal drew a clear color line in conversation. “Hip-hop speaks mainly to their culture, where hick-hop speaks to our culture,” said the man, who wore a T-shirt advertising the group “Bikers Against Radical Islam” and said of the Confederate flag, “It has no racial meaning to it whatsoever.”
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While not prevalent, the rebel flag was present during the Club Voodoos concert, appearing on what looked to be a fan-made Upchurch T-shirt (complete with “I (heart) Upchurch” written in puff paint) and tattooed on the arm of headliner Mike Bama.
“I get the issues people have with the flag, but I had the opportunity to open a show for (R&B singer) Bobby Valentino in Alabama back in 2015, and I was the only white person in the building,” said Bama. “I had a rebel flag shirt on, sleeveless, so you could see my rebel flag tattoo, and never once was I questioned.
“If it offends someone, I'm always willing to have an open and engaged conversation with them. What about it offends you? … Most of the time when I tell people what it means to me, they see there's no disrespect.”
“You know what? We've listened to [white, rural America] a very long time. … Maybe they have to extend that courtesy to other people, too,” countered Sarob. “White people have advantages, so when they tell other people they need to listen, or when they tell black people they need to listen, or they tell Arab or Muslim people they need to listen, or Hispanic people or immigrants, it's like, no. We've had to accommodate. We've had to extend courtesies. ... We've had to learn how to acquiesce to whiteness and white dominance and white supremacy. I feel the most privileged thing you can try to do is tell somebody else how they should feel about something when they've been oppressed for so long.”
Even within hick-hop, embrace of the flag is not consistent across the board. Artists like Big Smo and Struggle Jennings haven't promoted it, and even the Lacs, which proudly launched the “Deplorables Tour” just last year, has distanced itself from the symbol slightly, with the duo's manager telling Rolling Stone early in 2018 that it had stopped selling rebel-flag merchandise.
Regal, for his part, said he can see the flag hindering the genre's growth, particularly in a Northern state like Ohio. He also doesn't view it as essential to hick-hop's existence.
“I think if they pulled it out of the genre entirely, it wouldn't make a difference to the music, at all, and I think the genre could only progress,” said Regal, who also said he couldn't envision instituting a no-flag policy at the shows, pointing to fears of censorship and the potential for right-wing blowback. “Not all of us are flying that flag. We can do this without it.”
It's a difficult balance for Regal, who would like to see increased racial diversity at hick-hop shows, which he said are currently dominated by white audiences.
In an effort to cultivate ground between hick-hop and hip-hop crowds, Regal even hosted an after-party at the August Club Voodoos concert featuring more traditional Columbus rappers such as Drew West, who spoke to the difficulty of the mission. “It's kind of hard to cross those genres,” West said. “It's hard to say, ‘I love hip-hop but I love the Confederate flag.' It's like, ‘Whoa.'”
“I would feel weird going to a show like that,” said local rapper Devin “Trek Manifest” Thomas. “I would feel on the defense the whole time, my head on a swivel. What can I expect? I don't know what type of energy is going to be at the shows. Am I going to be a target because of a song they're singing or rapping or whatever?”
Regal understands these fears but remains undeterred. In the future, he plans to add traditional hip-hop acts to his hick-hop bills and vice-versa, searching for a commonality he still believes exists within the forms.
“I want to try and change minds,” Regal said. “Where I'm from, you go to any of those country bars down there, they're playing country most of the night, and then right about midnight everything changes and you get Flo Rida and ‘Drop It Low' and they're out there in boots and cowboy hats dropping it low. And it's been like that forever. I know I can make this work.”