“Underground, heard we major bound—shinin’ either way” –Brian Brown, “Come On In”
Nashville is indeed known globally as The Music City, but much of Nashville’s music reputation is attributed to its decades-old roots in both country and pop music. Many of the city’s musical monuments, like the Grand Ole Opry and the Music City Walk of Fame, accentuate Nashville’s musical heritage outside of hip-hop, often resulting in the city’s hip-hop scene being overlooked by music fans.
It’s not that Nashville has never been acknowledged in mainstream hip-hop conversations; it’s that those conversations haven’t lasted very long. In 2004, Young Buck released Straight Outta Cashville on G-Unit Records after a stint with Cash Money. The album is certified Platinum by the RIAA, selling over a million units in the United States and peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200.
Starlito, too, rose from the streets of Nashville to garner mainstream attention after working with artists such as Yo Gotti, Young Jeezy, and Lil Wayne, culminating in a record deal with, you guessed it, Cash Money Records. After his time with Cash Money came to an end, Starlito chose independence, releasing music through Bandcamp and touring like a madman while building a loyal and sizable following.
Aside from Young Buck and Starlito, you can count the number of Nashville rappers who have managed to break out of their immediate environment and gain national attention on zero fingers. It’s easy to attribute this reality to a lack of talent and opportunity, but that would be a great disservice to the incredibly gifted creatives who call Nashville home. The talent is present and has always been present.
To help you, the reader, get in tune with the local scene, we spoke with seven active Nashville artists about the hip-hop scene in their city: four rappers (Brian Brown, Ron Obasi, Chuck iNDigo, Jordan Xx), one R&B artist (Yours Truly, Jai), one producer (AB Eastwood), and one engineer (Mixed by Cole).
Through these conversations, we aimed to capture a picture of Nashville’s current state, and two major themes emerged: Quality & Community.
“You ain’t from where all my n****s from / You ain’t done what all my n****s done / You ain’t workin’ how my n****s work” –Ron Obasi, “Perfect Timing”
A defining feature of Nashville’s hip-hop scene is the absence of an established sound. Whereas other cities have developed definitive sounds that momentarily capture the attention of the rest of the country—such as Atlanta’s several-years-long modern trap takeover—Nashville has forgone a signature sonic appeal, opting instead for quality as its outstanding feature.
“Nashville’s hip-hop scene truly deserves the country’s attention because of quality, above all else,” explained Nashville rapper, Ron Obasi, over email. “A lot of cities thrive off of created sounds and trends, but Nashville has developed quality.”
Obasi’s words ring true when surveying Nashville’s independent Third Eye record label, of which he is a part. Obasi is a meditative lyricist, often spitting thought-provoking bars over soulful jazz beats. His most recent release, Notes on a Scale II, features four tracks emphasizing the delivery and weight with which his lyrics hit the listener.
Then there’s Chuck iNDigo, one of Obasi’s closest collaborators and Third Eye labelmates. Whereas Obasi’s style is singular and dependable, iNDigo’s music is more flexible. The buoyancy in his voice is reminiscent of an Acid Rap-era Chance the Rapper. On his 2019 album, iNDigo Café, iNDigo often bounces between acrobatic, high-tempo rapping, like on “Ugly,” and slowed down soulful singing, like on “Don’t Fall.”
Jordan Xx, also a member of Third Eye, on the other hand, strikes a middle ground between the two, rotating between self-assured boasts and vulnerable storytelling. On his debut project, Surfing: Highs N Lows, released earlier this month, we witness Jordan Xx’s artistic duality in contrast between stand-out selection “Illuh” and closing track “Roses.”
The former, alongside Chuck iNDigo, features a boastful Jordan Xx bragging about stealing someone’s girl in a bass-driven atmosphere on the song’s chorus. The soundscape of the latter, however, is reminiscent of a 2014 Forest Hills Drive-era Cole, with Jordan Xx spitting clear-as-day confessionals over dusty, soulful instrumentation.
The only attribute these three artists have in common is their shared desire not to chase a sound or employ a formula. It’s more of the same with Yours Truly, Jai, 24, and Case Arnold, all integral parts of the Nashville hip-hop scene. Jai is a captivating presence with a voice like silk; 24 employs a laid-back delivery perfect for nighttime smoke sessions; Case Arnold is a knowledge-dropper with a flow smoother than the Cumberland River.
Echoing the paramount importance of quality over a unified sound is AB Eastwood, a Nashville producer who works with several artists coming out of the city. “Nashville is special because we don’t move according to a sound,” Eastwood said. “Our consistency isn’t with a sound, but of a consistent fullness.”
We can feel this idea of a “consistent fullness” on a spiritual level when listening to Brian Brown’s 2020 album Journey. The album never floats on a surface level. Each listen leaves the listener feeling a little more whole than they were before. It’s easy to connect with Brown’s humanity through his honest lyricism and conversational flows.
In today’s music landscape, it’s difficult for an album to stay relevant past its first week, never mind over five months. Yet, Journey was named one of DJBooth’s favorite albums of the year, so far, because of its inherent fullness. It’s an album made for real life, one that listeners can live and grow with. That’s Nashville’s quality.
When I asked Brown how Nashville’s current group of artists have influenced his music, Brown gave me a simple explanation: “Iron sharpens iron,” he said. “That’s really what it’s all about.”
“I won’t let you down / I want you to confide in me (we need some lovin’)” –Yours Truly, Jai, “Sirens”
Mixed by Cole is an engineer and producer who has worked with Jordan Xx, Ron Obasi, Yours Truly, Jai, and many more Nashville artists, such as Demo, another Third Eye artist, and Jyou, who’s currently enrolled at Tennessee State. When I asked Cole to name Nashville artists whose music excites and inspires him, the 21-year-old starts excitedly listing off name after name, proving just how willing he is to share the spotlight and hold up his peers.
“There are people who have music out that inspire me like Brian Brown; I love Journey; Chuck [iNDigo], obviously guys like Ron [Obasi] and Jordan [Xx],” Cole said. “But, there are artists who a lot of people haven’t heard of yet like Yours Truly, Jai, that’s the homegirl—I love her to death.”
Cole continued: “24 and her music is super tight. Jyou is coming with it; he’s a spark of energy. We’re all looking at him right now because he’s got some stuff cooking up that’s crazy. Demo, too, of course. There’s just so many dope people. I’m probably leaving some off the list, but there’s just so many dope artists in Nashville right now.”
Cole is right. There is also Petty, whose BUBBA album is looked at as a bar-setter in Nashville rap, as well as Mike Floss, AC Noel, Namir Blade, and Reaux Marquez. “AC Noel raps like the next 3Stacks; Namir is legit who I aspire to be musically; Reaux has intentionality and attention to detail in his music I’m striving for,” Chuck iNDigo said.
Then there’s $avvy, who Yours Truly, Jai described as “eccentric and someone that brings forth hella diversity.” His most recent release, “bag/purse,” featuring Mike Floss, highlights $avvy’s melodic approach to music, putting his charismatic wordplay on full-display.
“Tim Gent [a Clarksville, TN rapper] has an elite work ethic,” Eastwood said. “As an artist, he’s able to get so personal and meet his intention on inspiring others, but he can flip the switch easily and give you a top 40 hit in the same session. Bryant Taylorr’s story will be one that generations for a long time are going to be inspired by. These [artists] take their art seriously and continue to push themselves, and I’m always on my toes because of them.”
For Nashville, atmosphere and community make the ultimate difference within the scene. The love is real, and it leads to a healthy, competitive environment in which artists build each other up, share resources and avenues, and experience success on a communal level. Speaking with Jordan Xx, he summed up this idea perfectly.
“Exposure is currency,” Jordan said. “But, especially with social media, that currency is free to give and receive, so it’s great when everyone raises each other up and shows love, especially when it’s a dope body of work. It’s just all about showing love.”