OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: Crystal Bridges museum to explore the 'Dirty South' in new exhibit

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  • “What you … know about the Dirty South?”
  • — Cool Breeze of the Goodie Mob, “Dirty South,” 1995

BENTONVILLE — If you want to know where the Dirty South starts, you have to go back almost 50 years, to a housing project apartment at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Morris Heights neighborhood of the Bronx, N.Y.

A family there, the Campbells, had emigrated from Kingston, Jamaica six years earlier. The teenage daughter of the family, Cindy, wanted some new back-to-school clothes, and she had an idea how to raise some money.

She asked her older brother, 18-year-old Clive, an aspiring DJ, to play some records in the building’s rec room. They’d charge a cover. Clive would get to play his James Brown records and that British progressive band he liked, Babe Ruth.

Clive was up for it.

He had been spinning records at parties for the past year or so, calling himself DJ Kool Herc. The name came from Hercules, which his basketball buddies called him because he was strong and tall. Clive had assembled a sound system, a portable rig consisting of amplifier, subwoofer, mid-range speaker, tweeter, a cross-fader equipped mixer, two Technics SL-1100 turntables and a microphone.

  photo  The African roots of Black music are explored in Kevin Sipp’s mixed media installation “Take It To The Bridge/Trance-Atlantic” (2009) which, via a gnarled tree branch, literally makes a linkage between a traditional West African drum and a modern turntable, the instrument of choice for many hip hop artists. (“Take it to the bridge,” was also one of James Brown’s favorite exhortations.) (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Philip Martin)  He modeled his sound system on the pickup-mounted systems popular in Jamaican dub music, and he had been experimenting with what we now call “turntablism” — using a turntable like an instrument to create new music by the manipulation of vinyl records.

Specifically what Clive — DJ Kool Herc — was doing was playing two copies of the same record, toggling back and forth between them to extend the percussion breaks and fill up the dance floor while he shouted improvised exhortations to dancers over the instrumental portion.

Herc could keep the break on Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” going for five minutes or more. What he did was transform the role of DJ from that of playlist curator and mixer to the creative engine of the music — a performer whose act on any given night would be different from another night, as he mixed and matched bass lines and beats from different songs to create original works.

Hip hop had a long gestation period, but you could say it was born on Aug. 11, 1973, when Cindy Campbell opened the doors on her Back to School Jam.

Word spread. Herc got work, and other DJs like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa copied and elaborated on his techniques. A new and deeply urban art form was born, and in the American way, soon dragooned into a commercial enterprise, with records being pressed and sold.

The business of rap rooted itself in the usual suspects of New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and northern California’s Bay Area. East Coast artists like Long Island’s Public Enemy, Brooklyn’s Notorious B.I.G., Harlem-born Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs (now also known as “Diddy”), Staten Island’s Wu-Tang Clan, Queens’ Mobb Deep and Philly’s Schoolly D (not to mention DJ Jazzy Jeff and 17-year-old Will Smith, aka the Fresh Prince) all developed singular styles.

  photo  The spirit of DJ Screw, who died at age 29 from a overdose of codeine cough syrup, presides over the exhibition “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, in the form of El Franco Lee II’s acrylic painting “DJ Screw in Heaven.” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Philip Martin)  EAST VS. WEST COAST

A different sort of vibe — a jazzier, more laid-back delivery style — developed on the West Coast (Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and Dr. Dre) though the lyrical concerns — drugs, poverty, racial profiling, crime, sexual conquests — remained much the same as the more aggressive-sounding, funkier East Coast rappers. Regional differences began to make themselves apparent.

It wasn’t until the late ’80s that hip hop artists from the South began to gain any national attention. Among the first were Houston’s Geto Boys, who broke through to the mainstream with the Rick Rubin-produced “The Geto Boys” in 1990, a reworked version of their self-released second album “Grip It! On. The Other Level.”

The album was a litany of violent criminal and misogynistic sexual fantasies, a sonic horror movie heavily influenced by Brian de Palma’s 1983 gangster flick “Scarface,” the title of which one of the group’s members, Bradley Terrence Jordan, appropriated as his stage name.

Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Resource Center and U.S. Sen. Bob Dole went hard after the Geto Boys; a lawyer for two Kansas teenagers charged with murder claimed his clients were hypnotized by the Geto Boys track “Mind of a Lunatic.”

Though these days they are seen are pioneers of Southern rap, back then the Geto Boys were marginalized as “horrorcore” rap. Similarly, emergent groups from Florida like 2 Live Crew were dismissed as bass-heavy cartoonish sonic pornographers. Southern rap did not get any respect at all.

It wasn’t until Atlanta-based OutKast released “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” in 1994 that a Southern hip hop act acquired any artistic credibility, and even that moment was met with derision.

Some people didn’t like how Andre 3000 and Big Boi rapped in their honest Georgia drawls. Most people from Arkansas can probably understand the dynamic — critics dismissed them, other artists ignored them; they weren’t from one of the coastal cultural capitals.

So when they were named Best New Group at the Source Awards in 1995, the crowd erupted in boos. Big Boi was able to power his way through his acceptance speech; his partner Andre 3000 was visibly shaken.

” … But it’s like this though,” he declared over the jeers and catcalls. “I’m tired of folks, them closed-minded folks — it’s like we got a demo tape and don’t nobody wanna hear it. But it’s like this, the South got somethin’ to say. That’s all I got to say.”

OutKast would go on to win six Grammy awards and make three or four classic albums before they split up in 2007. More importantly, they legitimized Southern hip hop. In 2002, it was estimated that between 50%-60% of all rap music played on the radio was made by Southern artists.

Atlanta is now considered a center of hip hop culture, and “the dirty South” has at least achieved parity with New York and Los Angeles.

  photo  A visitor to “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art examines Thornton Dial’s 1994 sculpture “Foundation of the World (A Dream of My Mother).” Dial, who died in 2016, said the piece was inspired by his own mother whom he never knew — as an unwed teenage mother she was forced to give him up. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Philip Martin)  A TERM IS BORN

It was just a matter of weeks after Andre 3000 made his stand on stage at the Source Awards that “Dirty South,” a single by the Goodie Mob featuring a guest appearance by OutKast’s Big Boi, propelled the term into the vernacular.

Today it can be used to describe a certain Southern attitude, endemic to Black Southerners, which manifests itself in a variety of expressions. Anything gritty and unabashedly Southern might be said to be Dirty South — the Drive-By Truckers, a white Southern rock band based in Athens, Ga., used “The Dirty South” as the title for its 2004 concept album that explored working-class existence in the region.

And now, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is hosting “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” through July 25.

The show — organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, specifically by Houston native Valerie Cassel Oliver — looks at the aesthetic and musical traditions of southern Black culture in the past century through the prism of this attitude. It presents more than 90 works across the spectrum of media — sculpture, painting, film, photography, music and soundscaping — in an attempt to show the spirit that shapes the traditions and practices of Black Southerners over the last century, and how the collision between these traditions and hip hop resulted in an identifiable Dirty South aesthetic.

It’s an immersive stab at codifying what Oliver has called the “philosophical landscape” — another word might be “swagger” — of the Black South, organized under three rubrics, “Landscape: Magic Realism in the South,” “Sinners and Saints: Religion” and “Black Corporality: The Black Body,” that rub against and off one another.

Works by academically trained artists mix with those by self-taught “primitives,” and leavens the big names represented (Nick Cave, Joe Overstreet, Minnie Evans, Clementine Hunter) with those of relatively new voices (RaMell Ross, whose 2020 photograph, “Caspera,” of a Black child draped by a black shroud and standing barefoot in a patch of red clay, serves as the exhibition catalog’s cover).

New Orleans street evangelist Sister Gertrude Morgan, a self-taught painter, sculptor, poet and musician who died in 1980, is represented by several works grouped near an installation of a mock-up of a typical sawdust-floored juke joint, while Morgan’s voice and rattling tambourine hang like weather in the air.

The naive charm of her humble works on paper — such as her 1965 mixed media “Self-Portrait/Revelations” and her crayon and paint rendering of “Rose Hill Memorial Baptist Church” from the same year — evince a simple and resolute faith that commands its own brand of dignity.

Contrasted with more sophisticated works like Romare Bearden’s remarkable collage “Three Folk Musicians” from 1967 or El Franco Lee II’s 2016 acrylic painting “DJ Screw in Heaven 2,” which hangs like a benediction over the exhibit, we might detect a common ferocity of spirit emblematic of “Dirty South” culture.

  photo  Harlem Renaissance painter Charles Henry Alston’s “Blue Singer No. 1” (1952) is the first in a series of oil paintings he did to illustrate the music around him. A few years later Alston would become the first Black instructor at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Philip Martin)  CHOPPED AND SCREWED

Houston-based DJ Screw, whose real name was Robert Earl Davis Jr., was born less than two years before DJ Kool Herc and his sister Cindy’s “Back to School Bash” and died of a overdose of prescription codeine cough syrup in 2000. He, like Herc, was a pioneering turntablist who invented the “chopped and screwed” technique, which involves slowing down the tempo of a song to 60 and 70 quarter-note beats per minute and applying techniques such as skipping beats, record scratching, stop-time, and affecting portions of the original composition to create a “chopped” version of the song.

Neil Strauss, writing for The New York Times in 2000, memorably described DJ Screw’s work as sounding “like rap records played underwater on an old cassette deck that’s running out of batteries and needs its tape heads cleaned. It is not music to dance to but music to lose yourself in, as if it is the last sound echoing in your head as you drift off to sleep.”

Chopped and screwed rap was music to nod off to; its slow jams went hand in hand with the culture of “syrup sippin'” that was a Dirty South fad. (See the video for Memphis rap group Three 6 Mafia’s “Sippin’ on Some Syrup,” which shows people with a substance, ostensibly codeine cough syrup in baby bottles.)

While the exhibition is more about the spirit that overcomes trauma rather than the trauma itself, there are some very dark passes in “Dirty South.” Kara Walker’s wool tapestry and felt piece “A Warm Summer Evening in 1863” depicts a silhouette of a hanged young Black woman over a print taken from the August 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly showing white rioters burning a Black orphanage on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

There’s a large “Cabinet of Wonder” that resembles a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit — among the items encased are one of Bo Diddley’s Gretsch guitars, Ornette Coleman’s saxophone, stage outfits worn by James Brown and CeeLo Green, and some of DJ Screw’s “grey” mixtapes.

In conceptual artist Felandus Thames’ “Just Hanging” (1974), a pair of basketball hightops is suspended from a spider web-like matrix. The work deconstructs the practice of “shoe tossing,” the practice of throwing a pair of tied-together sneakers over a power line.

While the hanging shoes are often — incorrectly and stereotypically — ascribed to drug dealers, Thames points out it’s often done to mark an occasion or a neighborhood, and might simply be an idle athletic accomplishment.

  photo  Romare Bearden’s “Three Folk Musicians” (1967) is a sophisticated large-scale collage influenced by Cubism that combines layers of hand-painted papers with photographs from magazines. Bearden was one of the co-founders of Spiral, the collective of Black artists that formed in advance of the 1963 March on Washington. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Philip Martin)  CADILLAC ON DISPLAY

Outside the exhibition proper, parked in the museum’s South Lobby, is a customized 1990 Cadillac Brougham d’Elegance titled “SLAB” — a acronym for “slow, loud and bangin'” — the work of New Orleans rapper International Jones that’s reminiscent of Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac El Dorado that’s on display at the STAX Museum in Memphis.

Cadillacs hold — or held, in 20th-century America — a unique place in the Black community as tangible symbols of economic success and social status. Black families could be redlined out of neighborhoods and denied mortgage loans, but a Cadillac was still attainable.

In hip hop culture the Cadillac was often treated ironically, as the aspirations of high-rollin’ players ran to more exotic vehicles like Maybach and Lamborghini. But the Cadillac retains a totemic presence as a signifier of respectability. “SLAB” is, like quilts (and works that appropriate the quilt motif), elsewhere in the show, a reminder of the resourcefulness of artists converting everyday objects into art.

A jubilant video installation by Rashaad Newsome, “King of Arms” (2015), that documents a New Orleans Mardi Gras processional peppered with vogueing Indians and high school marching bands, is balanced by Arthur Jafa’s seven-minute video installation “Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death” (2016) which sets disturbing footage of police assaults, archival video of civil rights leaders, found photographs of Black leaders and icons and footage of anonymous people in states of agony and ecstasy to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.”

Jafa’s work is a stunning, harrowing end note to a revelatory exhibition that — while not a comprehensive history of Southern hip hop — describes of the uniqueness of the individual Black experience in the non-monolithic South and the solidarity of Black Americans throughout our history.

It reminds us of the inter-relatedness of visual and sonic arts, of the regenerative and creative impulses that allow the mistreated and marginalized to rise above both their assigned stations and reasonable grievances.

Black Americans have a troubled history in the South, yet it has provided a place where stubborn traditions have rooted and joy has thrived.

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