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A History of Hick-Hop: The 27-Year-Old Story of Country Rap

From Bellamy Brothers to Colt Ford, Nelly to Ludacris, a chronological look at country’s infusion of rap

Colt Ford and Florida Georgia line backstage at the 2013 American Country Awards

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There's just no ignoring the hick-hop phenomenon. It's spawned a reality show, viral videos and a thriving fringe scene, along with the traditional measure of country success — chart-topping singles. This current trend was preceded by over half a century of talking-blues-style recordings: Western swinger Tex Williams's "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)"; fiddling Southern-rocker Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia"; funky picker-narrator Jerry Reed's "When You're Hot, You're Hot" and Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue"; to name just a few.

But Cash and Co. weren't technically rapping. Animated, syncopated sing-talking was their way of putting storytelling ballads across with panache. The tradition of rhythmic country recitations primed such outsized personalities as Toby Keith, Trace Adkins and Big & Rich to begin drawing on hip-hop influence. The country-rap aesthetic crystallized once a network of music makers from Georgia — home to the Southern rap capital of Atlanta — made their presence felt in Nashville. Soon, country-leaning mainstream rappers migrated to the country format and a new generation of fans came up on twang, rock and Tupac. Here are the milestones of the movement, in timeline form. By Jewly Hight

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Jason Aldean’s ‘Dirt Road Anthem’ (April 2011)

The song's authors, Brantley Gilbert and Colt Ford, had already released their own versions of the rural nostalgia tune "Dirt Road Anthem," each featuring the other's vocal contributions, when Jason Aldean put his own out as a single. Aldean not only sang the chorus hook, but rapped the verses too, getting an assist from Ludacris on the remix. As a proven arena headliner and hitmaker making his inaugural venture into this territory (he'd return with "1994"), Aldean became the first act to take a true hick-hop song to the top of the country chart. 



Struggle’s ‘Outlaw S–t’ (November 2011)

Here's a bold-faced symbol of generational shifts: Struggle the rapper is Waylon Jennings' grandson, and the younger Jennings nabbed the hook of "Outlaw Shit" from his uncle Shooter Jennings' latter-day remake of his granddad's song, "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out of Hand." The other profile-booster on this track was the fiercely working-class, Southern rapper Yelawolf, who mellowed his typically aggressive vocal attack to match Struggle's broody flow and the sobering subject matter — feeling trapped in a cycle of poverty and crime, with mouths to feed. Listen to what Struggle did with Jennings' song here.

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Florida Georgia Line’s ‘Cruise’ Remix (April 2013)

With "Cruise," Florida Georgia Line became the first new country act to blow up with a hip-hop-influenced debut single. Even before Nelly hopped on the remixed version, the slippery cadences of the phrasing and the brash swagger in the lyrics' invitation for a leggy young woman to climb up in a tricked-out truck felt decidedly rap-schooled. Terrestrial country radio is notoriously conservative when it comes to playing unproven acts with unproven sounds, so it was satellite airplay that first fueled the fire for FGL, a scenario that's repeated itself with kindred acts like Chase Rice and Cole Swindell. Still, it was the appearance of Nelly who helped set "Cruise" ablaze.

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Brad Paisley’s ‘Accidental Racist’ (April 2013)

When Brad Paisley released Wheelhouse, "Accidental Racist" became the album cut heard round the world. Not since Cowboy Troy had a country act attempted to address the racial implications of cultural stereotypes and genres rubbing up against each other. Though Paisley had always done well with rock critics, he and his featured guest L.L. Cool J still expressed surprise at the intensity of the attention the song received from media outlets that seldom covered country. A hick-hop collab on the album that received far less attention? The sample-stocked "Outstanding in Our Field," the result of Kanye West and Jay Z producer Mike Dean reaching out to Paisley to collaborate on a track. 

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Blake Shelton’s ‘Boys ‘Round Here’ Video (May 2013)

Given that Blake Shelton had cut the song "I Wanna Talk About Me" before it was offered to Toby Keith, and that Shelton drifted close to hip-hop when he teamed with Trace Adkins on "Hillbilly Bone," it wasn't a big surprise to hear him go all-in with the macho backwoods boasting of "Boys 'Round Here," complete with a featherweight programmed beat and a chanted refrain about chewing tobacco. The music video played out the rap-to-country crossover narrative in reverse. At the beginning, Shelton, riding in a jacked-up pick-up, exchanged nods with African-American men in a lowriding Cadillac. Before it was over, those same men had crashed Shelton's barn dance, and brought their Dougie-dancing skills with them. 

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Laura Bell Bundy’s ‘Two Step’ (July 2013)

Mainstream country and hip-hop are both largely boys clubs right now, so it's no surprise that female performers working from a hick-hop angle are few and far between. Young singer-rapper Sarah Ross has appeared on a couple of Average Joes’ Mud Digger compilations and former Blake Shelton Voice mentee and current Big Machine signee RaeLynn has demonstrated her feel for hip-hop in songs like "Boyfriend." But the biggest splash so far was made by RaeLynn's label mate Laura Bell Bundy and her song "Two Step," a club single for independent women, featuring Colt Ford. Bundy's small production company produced the video, which included a choreographed, hip-shaking line dance, something else that set her apart from her stationary, spectating male peers. 

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Jerrod Niemann’s ‘Drink to That All Night’ (October 2013)

Country's seen its share of loops and programmed beats in recent years, especially on remixes. But that hasn't necessarily been the case with Auto-Tune, the robotic-sounding vocal effect made famous by T-Pain. Jerrod Niemann used it all over the verses of his country club banger "Drink to That All Night," and scored the second country Number One of his career. That's one feature of the track that remained unchanged when Pitbull was hired to do a pop remix. Here's the video for Niemann's original version.

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Buck 22’s ‘Achy Breaky 2’ (February 2014)

One thing that can be said for "Achy Breaky 2” is nobody saw this YouTube video coming. Over two decades after Billy Ray Cyrus was crowned sex symbol of a line dance craze, a rapper going by Buck 22 — who turned out to be Damon Elliott, the hip-hop-producing son of Dionne Warwick and jazz drummer Bill Elliott — convinced Cyrus to sing his familiar hook over a bass-heavy, sci-fi track. Even more amazing, he got BRC to go along with gratuitous references to his daughter acting out, and to do all this surrounded by twerking women in barely-there alien costumes. Following that brief bust of attention, Buck 22 aimed a more by-the-books single called "Country Pride" at country radio.     

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Big Smo’s Reality Show (June, 2014)

After ABC's Nashville became popular by mixing soap opera storylines with stylized portraits of the modern country music industry, it was only a matter of time before the parade of country-music reality shows kicked off. A&E first tested the waters with the non-starter Crazy Hearts: Nashville, before premiering a show focused on likable country rapper Big Smo the same month he released his major label debut, Kuntry Livin’. During the pilot episode, Smo made his style sound like a no-brainer: "It's country music, with a twist of Southern rock & roll, delivered in a rap form."

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