There would be nothing remotely original about declaring Tennessee a haven of hip-hop music and culture. The state’s roots go back to the beginning of Southern hip-hop and it is home to some of hip-hop history’s most important characters. But I’m not here to ambiguously divulge the Tennessee music scene; I’m here to talk specifically about Chattanooga. If it weren’t for hip-hop music and textbook references during a high school American history class, I’m not sure that I nor many other people would even know that Chattanooga exists. Believe me when I say that’s not meant as an offense to the city. There are far too many places on this planet to know them all, and the number of small cities in the United States alone is overwhelming. But not many small cities have the intrigue and the promise that has long been bubbling beneath the surface of Chattanooga, and that is what brings it to the forefront of our conversation today.
Chattanooga, Tennessee is home to less than 200,000 people, but its strength doesn’t come from numbers. It comes from its location. The city lies centered in the world of Southern hip-hop, equidistance from Atlanta to the South, Charlotte to the East, Louisville and St. Louis to the North, and Memphis to the West. Every new sound, new wave, and new style that erupts in one of the hip-hop capitals surrounding Chattanooga gets to the others by way of the transit routes and radio waves through the city, making Chattanooga its own mini music mecca and one of the fastest growing influences on hip-hop’s direction. I know what you’re thinking:
It’s 2018. Music is passed through the internet and geography plays no role in its growth. No one is peddling mixtapes in order to build their audience.
In some ways, you’re right. The internet has become the platform from which new music is discovered and played, but you’d be wrong in assuming that geographical assimilation plays no role. A look into the demographics of any Southern hip-hop artist will display a fierce local pride that proves word of mouth is perhaps still one of the strongest factors to an artist’s growth. Also, if you think that no one is still out there pushing physical tapes, you’ve never been to the South.
Southern pride is a predominant factor in the modern sound of Chattanooga hip-hop. Although the city lies closer to Atlanta than it does to Memphis – the state’s longstanding hip-hop capital – it is first and foremost a Tennessee city. Its style therefore is more reminiscent of the past Tennessee greats like Three 6 Mafia and Young Buck than it is reflective of the modern hip-hop movements that Gucci Mane, Future, and Migos have created in Atlanta, that J. Cole, Travis Scott, and Rae Sremmurd have birthed in Carolina, Houston, and Mississippi, and that Smino and Bryson Tiller have established in St. Louis and Louisville. There is something instantly grabbing about the Tennessee hip-hop sound so it’s unsurprising that modern artists hailing from Chattanooga are more inspired by it than they are by other popular Southern styles. A combination of unbreakable pride, a thick Appalachian accent, an aggressive delivery, and a nostalgia for the roots of Southern hip-hop is what defines Tennessee hip-hop the most, and in the modern scene, no city in Tennessee is representing better than Chattanooga.
As powerful as Tennessee has been in the hip-hop game, a group outside of the state’s bounds has a stranglehold on the roots of Southern hip-hop. There is no artist more influential to the modern waves than Atlanta’s Outkast. Isaiah Rashad felt inspired as a young boy while listening to ATLiens, and soon found himself on tour with Juicy J, Joy Badass, and Smoke DZA. In 2013, after a couple years of SoundCloud hustle, a 22-year-old Rashad earned himself a deal with TDE that would bring the young rapper and his city – Chattanooga – into the limelight for the first time. He exploded onto the scene in 2014 with the release of his debut album, Cilvia Demo, which to this day remains one of the most impressive debut albums by any artist. Having available the production and feature list that TDE has to offer, some of the magic is certainly thanks to their contributions, but Isaiah Rashad quickly made it obvious that he was deserving of his good fortune. The style of Cilvia Demo and his most recent project, the critically acclaimed 2016 album, The Sun’s Tirade, shares a clear and heavy influence from his Chattanooga roots. Rashad’s heavy accent, slow, smooth flow, and frequent allusions to his home city and state result in a sound reflective of Tennessee legends like Yo Gotti and Xavier Wulf, with a more lyrically focused twist thanks to combination of Chattanooga’s adjacency to Carolina and Atlanta and TDE’s influence on Rashad’s finished product. A finished product that today can be scene as the first brick in the strong foundation of Chattanooga’s signature sound.
Rashad’s fame on the global hip-hop scene has shone a light into Chattanooga to see what else the city may have to offer, and a goldmine of unique artists, whose ways have been paved by a rich hip-hop history and the breakthrough of Isaiah Rashad, have been discovered. The Chattanooga sound may be strongest and truest in the music of the incredibly talented and unique Bbymutha. Her Southern twang and her raw, honest lyrics make her one of the most unforgettable acts in hip-hop today, and one of the most respected female rappers in the game. Though she has been making a splash on SoundCloud for a while, Chattanooga’s continued rise to prominence has kept her popularity and reach rapidly expanding. As Chattanooga continues to gain a global audience, she will be one of the most important players in the process.
Every city on the rise needs some sense of togetherness and collaboration, and no city is doing that better than Chattanooga. Respected rappers, YGTUT, Michael da Vinci, and $hoey all come with their own unique takes on the Chattanooga wave, creating timeless music as solo artists while also coming together like a practiced, well-balanced group. YGTUT has a meditative, deliberate delivery and a lyrical gift that gives him a strong sense of wisdom and power. Michael da Vinci has the factor necessary to take the energy of a track to the next level. And $hoey had the reach and the wherewithal to bring all these artists together and release a project displaying the force of the Chattanooga style – The Four Two Three EP – which also features Bbymutha.
Though the heartbeat of the South seems always shifting between Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, Miami, St. Louis, and Carolina, not long ago were the days when Three 6 Mafia and Yo Gotti sat on the throne in Memphis. With the current music climate becoming especially focused on unique and grassroots artists and with the attention that Tennessee’s proud past and Isaiah Rashad’s recent global success have dawned on Chattanooga, it’s not hard to see that with the continued effort of the city’s talented artists, Chattanooga may very well be the next Southern capital. Chattanooga’s got next.
Check out work from Chattanooga's royalty below.