Mainstream country music is bending toward hip-hop — and the proof isn’t limited to just “Old Town Road” and “The Git Up.” There’s country’s rapidly evolving sound, which is straying further from its acoustic roots in favor of trap-style beats, clap and snap tracks, sleek studio production, and “country rapping.” Then there are its aesthetics, which seem to draw more and more from hip-hop imagery, borrowing the visual signatures of classic ‘90s rap videos. Country artists are collaborating with rappers right and left, and many are even borrowing some of rappers’ buzz-building tools to promote their music. How is hip-hop propelling the evolution of country music? And what’s with all the genre crossover?
Turns out it’s nothing new. Country and hip-hop share a long and complicated history, with a common lineage in the black music of the American South. Despite this shared heritage, the two genres often seem like they’re worlds apart today. The beginnings of this divide trace back to the birth of the recording industry in the 1920s, when record labels began separating performers into racially defined genres. This is what’s known as the segregation of the music industry, and its effects last up until today. Yet a segregated industry has never stopped artists from engaging in cross-genre dialogue.
To understand how this genre hybridization has shaped today’s country and hip-hop, we spoke with Kevin C. Holt, an ethnomusicologist at Columbia University who’s studied the relationship between country and Southern rap, with a focus on Atlanta hip-hop culture. Holt broke down the many commonalities that country and hip-hop have had all along — including both genres’ special emphasis on roots, authenticity, storytelling, and lived experience. He explained that in the digital-streaming era, the boundaries between genres like country and hip-hop are becoming more diffuse. That’s how we get artists like Sam Hunt, dubbed the “country Drake,” and it’s also how we got country-trap anthems from MCs like Young Thug and DaBaby. We also took a look at the rise of the year’s biggest genre disruptor, Lil Nas X, who shook up both country and hip-hop with his category-defying smash hit “Old Town Road.”
What role do gatekeepers play in the genre debate — and what’s next for the country-hip-hop songs that topped the charts in 2019?
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Why Country Music Looks And Sounds Like Hip-Hop Now