For years, Nashville hip-hop artists have been starved of national attention. That’s about to change. We profiled seven prominent Nashville collectives that are redefining Nashville hip-hop.
Scarcity is often an impetus of unity.
For years, Nashville hip-hop artists have been starved of the national attention and infrastructural help necessary to turn a city into a scene. Blanketed under the factory-styled regularity with which Nashville has produced genre-defining country talent for decades, the sound of Nashville hip-hop has seldom risen above an impassioned whisper. Record labels aren’t combing through the city to find a star; iHeartRadio has more than twice as many country radio stations in Nashville as it does hip-hop stations; venues have had a history of virtually blackballing hip-hop artists, thriving by solely catering a country music fanbase that had Garth Brooks going platinum in a week before any rapper.
Instead of withering away in prideful autonomy, Nashville hip-hop artists’ hunger for more inspired them to eat together, forming crews by pooling their individual resources, fanbases, and talents into a coordinated effort. And soon, the scene will get one of its biggest looks with the release of the compilation album Maturation of Little Ron 2: Welcome Home produced and guided by Nashville native, Grammy-nominated producer, and Dreamville’s secret weapon Ron Gilmore Jr.
Gilmore credits his time at Nashville School of Arts and work in the local music scene with helping build the Dreamville sound from those Nashville lessons. When J. Cole just needed a piano and a mic to pay tribute to Michael Brown for his 2014 performance of “Be Free” on The Late Show with David Letterman, it was Gilmore behind Cole on-camera and on the keys. In fact, since 2010’s Friday Night Lights, the world has never heard a single J. Cole project that Gilmore didn’t touch, including providing the signature piano sequence on the career-catapulting Born Sinner hit “Crooked Smile.” He has a production credit on seven of the 12 songs that make up Ari Lennox’s breakthrough debut album, Shea Butter Baby, including the smoky “I Been.”
He left Nashville in 2010 in order to fulfill his dreams. Now he’s coming back to unify the scene. “I came back to pour into the community of Nashville hip-hop, rap, and R&B, as well as give as many of my resources as I can to the creatives that play a part in creating this scene,” Gilmore Jr said. “It’s only right that I repay the community that birthed me.”
Before Gilmore’s return, Black artists have had a complicated relationship with Nashville as the kingdom of country music reigned supreme. In the 1960s clubs like the New Era Club and Club Del Morocco were where Marion James became Nashville’s Queen of Soul; where Jimi Hendrix learned to play guitar; where Little Richard got his first taste of fame; and where Etta James rocked the house and “reached heights never before captured in the studio,” according to pioneer R&B producer Ralph Bass. Nashville’s entire music identity as “Music City” is owed to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an acappella ensemble of Black students from the historically Black Fisk University, impressing Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom so much in 1873 she believed the entire city must be made of musicians.
That level of support missing from the city for decades has resulted in solidarity in and out of the booth. In June, protestors marching as part of Band Together For Justice: A March On Music Row chanted “Black music matters” throughout the famed Music Row section of Downtown Nashville where BMI, Warner Music, Sony/ATV, Universal Music Publishing Group, and a consortium of the most influential entities in the music industry have offices. Again, it’s the coalescing of disparate voices into one unified yell that is the best recourse for Black artists to wake the city up and prevent its Black music history from being lost.
“The hip hop scene is overshadowed by them calling us Music City and catering to Country music,” North Nashville virtuoso trap rapper Hard Liquor Shawty said. “The music scene is overshadowed by that alone. At the same time, we don’t have as many hip-hop venues to perform at. They took one of our biggest hip-hop venues to perform at — Limelight — a year or two ago.”
In 1987, decades before Buck was welcoming the world to Cashville, a trio of high schoolers known as The Blow Pop Crew — consisting of Walter D, Blow Pop, and French — were opening up for the likes of NWA and 2 Live Crew. They had a local hit called “Drop The Bass” that sounded like it came straight out of a Run-DMC session. Shannon Sanders, program director at Nashville radio station 102.1 The Ville, was part of Technik, one of the first Nashville rap groups to release a project from the city after putting out the funk heavy From The South EP on Chill Ville Records in 1989.
”Nashville has always had a thing. That thing has always been a combination of strong lyricism and musician-influenced production. There have always been two very distinct sounds, as well,” Sanders said. “The first is influenced by Nashville’s deep street culture. The second sound is influenced by Nashville’s strong academic culture. Nashville is home to Vanderbilt University, Fisk University, Tennessee State University, Belmont University, and Meharry Medical College. When you add all of that to Nashville’s unrivaled songwriter scene, something special is bound to happen.”
Those primordial roots sprouted rappers like Pistol whose husky voice floated on G-Funk-inspired production helping make him arguably the first breakout rapper from Nashville. He was signed to Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records in 1993 — two years before the NWA founder’s passing. Before Young Buck’s Welcome To Cashville shot up to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 2004, the southern twang of pimping purveyor Haystak’s 1998 Mak Million debut album was telling anyone who listened to “welcome to the down south Cashville.” Since the end of Buck’s mid-2000s run with G-Unit, Starlito’s sporadic success throughout the last decade has been the brightest light to emit from the scene.
The sound of Nashville hip-hop is an evolution of Black soul/R&B where stories matter more than the sounds. Whether it’s trap rapper Ganz with an aggressively melodic flow that confiscates your attention or blue collar MC Brian Brown telling gentrifiers Black people are “too dirty dirty for them,” Nashville rappers are used to making their pain palpable with harmony like their R&B/soul forefathers. Nashville’s music scene being predicated on a level of musicianship that has attracted everyone from Bob Dylan in the 1960s to Baby Rose months ago is present in all facets of the scene. You’re just as likely to hear emotive sounds like morose bluesy bass lines and twinkling piano chimes in songs about doing hoodrat shit with friends, like Chuck iNDigo’s “Hoodrat Shit,” as you are in songs about community-induced insecurities, like the Legendary Spitta track “Insecurities.”
The multitude of the scene’s sound is what makes Gilmore’s compilation album a rare moment to make Nashville unmistakable to hip-hop fans across the country. It’s authentically Nashville down to the walls that housed its creation. Largely recorded in Nashville studios Omni Sound Studio and Layman Drug Co, Gilmore enlisted tastemakers Eric Holt, co-founder of long-standing independent Nashville concert promotion company Lovenoise, iHeartRadio’s Joe Major, and hometown producer A.B. Eastwood to gather the best from around the city. Gilmore also necessitated artists either work in or originate from Nashville to be part of its collective roar to the industry.
I need a Nashville artist and producer roll call! Who is working in the city?
Either retweet or reply with you who you are or who your favorite urban artist in Nashville is. #Nashville #blackmusiconly
— Ron Gilmore (@RonGilmoreJr) February 14, 2019
Eric Holt, co-founder of independent concert promotion company Lovenoise, has brought Black talent like Jill Scott, Nas, and Rakim to Nashville for more than 15 years and remembers the days where just being Black meant not getting booked. He vividly remembers hearing venues in the early 2000s tell him “We don’t do Black music; Black music isn’t played here.” It’s the memory of those dark days that makes him view Maturation of Little Ron 2: Welcome Home as a blessing for the scene.
“Rons been to the top of the mountain and him intentionally coming back to the city is a powerful thing,” Holt said. “By individually working with different artists, he forced the scene to level up to what he knows the next level is.”
In anticipation of the album’s release, we decided to profile seven prominent Nashville creative collectives that joined together to grow the scene.
Black City, Funky Tenn
Members: The BlackSon, Reaux Marquez, OGThaGAWD, Brian Brown, Dope, Josephfiend (producer), BizzoWorld, Kaby
Similar to: Dreamville
Molded after historical hip-hop institutions such as Chris Lighty’s Violator Management, Wu-Tang Clan, and Tech N9ne’s Strange Music imprint, the collective “Black City, Funky Tenn is structured as a centralized umbrella helping foster each individual artist’s career while affording them resources and support. In 2017, the crew established a headquarters by snagging a four-bedroom home in North Nashville. They transformed the garage into a recording studio, turned an office space into a photo studio, and named the home “The Compound.” They then proceeded to produce hundreds of songs, including hosting a three-day Revenge of the Dreamers 3-style rap camp called The LinkInn Sessions that at one point had 50 creatives from around Nashville making music. The same group members that would help bring an album to life are the same ones that will binge-watch Netflix’s Blood of Zeus, engage in roasting sessions, and go to trivia night at German Town Pub. More than anything, the sound of Black City, Funky Tenn is that of organized brotherhood.
“Black City, Funky Tenn is like city and state,” member Justin Causey said. “Black City is the home they come to that they’re safe at and Funky Tenn is what they represent.”
Wordsmiths like BlackSon and O.G. DA Gawd remind you of the physicality of rap while josephfiend’s production lends itself to an a similar penchant for similar sonic eclecticism that Dreamville is known for. Then, there’s Brian Brown, a rapper so adept at relating to the common man he can make a late-night work shift sound visceral in a way similar to J. Cole.
“Everybody’s individual relationship among each other is all unique, different, and it really sticks out as a whole too,” Brown said. “No two folk are alike but all of us as one is some real deal rap voltron shit.”
Lil Queze & Ganz
Essential Listening: “Head First;” “Jungle”
Similar to: Lil Baby & Gunna
East Nashville rappers Lil Queze and Ganz are trap symphony co-conductors where violent 808 bass drums offset by bright piano chimes envelope the pain and paranoia of the Nashville slums. As common with most Nashville rappers, Lil Queze and Ganz unload their pain and retribution with machine-gun intensity, only relenting for a second to let the other start shooting off some bars. But Ganz’s tales of police surveillance is harmonized with the same auto-tuned temerity as his dreams of “getting married to my chop, singing like Beyonce.”
“To me, we never really had our own type of sound where if you hear the music you could tell it comes out of Nashville,” Ganz said. “It’s a real authentic sound.”
The dynamic between 25-year-old Ganz and 19-year-old Lil Queze is that of a mentor and mentee from as far back as Queze’s pre-rapping middle school days. The pair admit they were both fighting criminal charges, spurring anger within them that propelled the pair to record their debut album, Most Wanted, in a week. While Ganz used to record with local Nashville rapper Quannie Cash back in 2015, Queze has only been rapping for roughly a year and is already part of five music videos with more than 250,000 views on YouTube, including two with his partner Ganz — “Airplane Mode” and “Gangsta Party”— that combine for more than 750,000 views.
“Most of our love came from the streets. We bump into actual fans who live in Nashville and tell us to keep pushing,” Queze said. “The support of the streets is really what drove us to get those type of views.”
Third EyeMembers: Chuck iNDigo, Ron Obasi, Chef Cam, $hrames, Jxdece, Ryanne, Demo, Intro, Jordan Xx, MixedbyCole(engineer/producer), Jet Springetti (Engineer)
Similar to: Zero Fatigue
Third Eye sounds like the group’s name — abstract views of the experiences that connect us all. Ron Obasi may start a song suggesting “maybe Jesus wasn’t perfect” or Jordan Xx may connect “a bag boy at Wendy’s slinging a number 3 with cheese” with “a missionary spreading words to the youth.” Or Chuck iNDigo may reason that God is a woman that probably looks like his mother because of the support he’s received. You can find these abstractions cresting on top of soulful and emotive sound beds imbued with a sense of gloom even in the joy. Even when Indigo’s nasally high-pitched vocals ventures into trap — like on “Hoodrat Shit” — the convivial is underscored by somber piano perfect for a funeral procession.
“Ain’t none of my niggas I fuck with in no position to make money off their shit if they blew,” iNDigo said. “So, I was like, ‘let’s team up and make a label.'”
More than a group, Third Eye is a community of resources. Take Chuck iNDigo’s No Moor Bad Days for example. It’s an album that has garnered attention from the press and every feature artist on it is a Third Eye member. The entire project was mixed by Third Eye’s in-house engineer, MixedByCole; the videos are mostly shot by Seck, a new director whose avant garde visual aesthetic is impressive. When they’re not together, they’re in their home studios built from equipment borrowed from each other, a fact they wear as a badge of honor or a birthmark of a new beginning.
Members: ABK Gatez, Six Shotz, Hard Liquor Shawty, 615 Exclusive, Mac Drama
Similar to: Yo Gotti’s Collective Music Group
One Cashville isn’t a crew, it’s a family whose genesis is centralized in Jo Johnston projects in North Nashville, where Six Shotz and founder Hard Liquor Shawty grew up. The collective shatters any monolithic view of Nashville ghettos. Six Shotz and Mac Drama are Nashville’s version of drill music, ABK Gatez operates on an unfiltered gutter bluntness; 615 Exclusive has a PartyNextDoor tinge to his music; and Shawty provides the group’s emotional core.
“Coming from the Northside of Nashville, there’s nothing but hard times,” Shawty said. “That’s what influenced our music: the struggle, the poverty, the suffering, the losing homeboys to jail. That’s probably where the bluesy sound in the music comes from.”
Members: Starlito, Red Dot, MobSquad Nard, Tha Landlord, Trapperman Dale
Similar to: Cash Money Records
Whenever people discuss successful Nashville rappers of the last 20 years, Starlito’s name is the first name you hear after Young Buck. Starlito started Grind Hard in the early 2000s and has had four of his projects chart on the Billboard 200; his Stepbrothers series with Memphis rapper Don Trip has also garnered national attention. Beyond the acclaim, the group is powered by homegrown principles of trust and loyalty that will allow a rapper like Red Dot to come back into the fold after being incarcerated from 2011-2016. When you hear Grind Hard you hear how unity can be found even in the dog eat dog world of the streets.
Grind Hard sounds like concrete — immovably solid, authentically street, and the foundation to the modern Nashville hip-hop movements. The southern fried bounce paired with basslines too dirty to listen to them with anything other than a scrunched up face is reminiscent of early Cash Money records. A song like Starlto’s “Hot Chicken” is both an ode to Nashville’s most identifiable cultural staple and a rambunctious, no holds barred lyrical fest. After being around for 15 years, Grind Hard is one of the most prevailing sounds of Nashville hip-hop’s history.
“Those were the only CDs we had access to. We liked Star[lito] because he was really hand-to-hand in the streets,” Trapperman Dale said. “Being young, we didn’t really have money buying CDs. So I came up on stuff my cousins had like Hot Boys and Cash Money, but also Starlto.”
Dope Shit Only Crew
Members: Troy, Hunni Bands, Legendary Spitta, DJ Mob
Similar to: Maybach Music Group
Dope Shit Only Crew was formed by Legendary Spitta and Troy out of necessity. The pair realized street artists were not receiving the same live performance opportunities around the city as conscious rappers. So, they’ve hosted the Dope Shit Only Pop Up Shops around since 2017, which acted as neutral grounds for warring factions around the city where Spitta’s encouragement to squash beefs would be buoyed by his respect for giving the Nashville streets a voice. A generation of Nashville rappers like Hard Liquor Shawty and 100k Tucc can credit those pop up shows in converted warehouse spaces to some of their earliest live show performances in a city full of venues that haven’t been favorable to gangsta rappers.
Virulent baselines and dark 808s are typically complemented by soft piano twinkles that give most of the crew’s songs this dynamic of aggressive introspection as if they’re forcing listeners to see the world from their view.
“The projection of Nashville hip-hop that is put out there is not truly representative [of Nashville]. “Dope Shit Only Crew started out of necessity and that was how we were able to be so impactful,” Legendary Spitta said. “Nashville got real stories, real people, and real scars behind it just like any other place.”
Members: A.B. Eastwood, Tim Gent, Jamiah, Lauren McClinton, Bryant Taylorr
Similar to: Soulquarians
When you hear Nashville hip-hop, you probably hear Per$ona. In a similar vein to the Soulquarians in the ‘90s, Per$ona exists mostly in the background, spreading its unique brand of neo-soul and R&B vibes to the Nashville music scene as a whole. A.B. Eastwood’s production can only be described as sonic alchemy where thin air can turn into esoteric turn up in a matter of minutes. Jamiah and Lauren McClinton are both classically trained vocalists with penchants for breathy wistfulness and bedtime soft vocals. Above all else, the sound of Per$ona is quality bred from a level of professionalism seldom heard in the Nashville hip-hop scene.
The name Per$ona stems from the blue “persona” inscribed on each keycard of the East Nashville Uptown Flats apartment complex they all once lived in and has since grown to encompass the individuality of each artist in the group. Out of all the crews in Nashville, Per$ona is arguably the most accomplished. A.B. and Bryant Taylorr’s “Strange Rooms” was featured in the Netflix film Uncorked, Tim Gent has a publishing deal with Prescription Songs in February and had his song “Teammates” featured on ESPN months later, and Lauren and Jamiah have both sang background at the CMA Awards and Dove Awards. Per$ona is the sound of Nashville’s expansion.
“Our main goal is to expand outside of Nashville,” McClinton said. We don’t want to just be local artists.”
Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire