Literary Crunk

You don't ordinarily expect to find a young white woman from San Francisco digging deep into the heart of crunk country. But Tamara Palmer did just that in the course of researching her new book, Country Fried Soul: Adventures in Dirty South Hip-Hop, which includes interviews with such playas, impresarios, entrepreneurs, and game-spitters as Goodie Mob, 8 Ball & MJG, Ludacris, Lil Jon & the Eastside Boys, Luther Campbell, Jazze Pha, I-20, and the Ying Yang Twins. Palmer also relates the Southern female rapper's perspective through the eyes of Jacki-O and Chyna Whyte, and even includes Bay Area good ol' boys E-40 and Too $hort, who have long enjoyed significant fan support from the land of Daisy Dukes, peach trees, moonshine, and gators.

Among the book's revelations: Chyna Whyte has found religion after a life of considerable sin, 2 Live Crew leader Campbell is a political activist, and strip clubs are the ultimate proving grounds for a song's crunk-titude. Apparently if dem gals can twerk to it, it twerks. In fact it's reported Lil Jon never releases a single until he has first seen the reaction at Blue Flame, an infamous Atlanta gentleman's club.

"You'd never think that that would be a phenomenon anywhere else," explains Palmer. "You think about strip clubs and California and like, Metallica, whatever. But what people have explained to me is, especially in Atlanta, the strip club is like the regular club. That's where the people go to socialize, that's where the good music is. I think it's hard for people to get their heads around it."

It has also been difficult for those who aren't from the South to wrap their collective noggins around crunk's seemingly sudden rise in popularity, which attained critical mass in 2004 with "Yeah," Lil Jon's terror-alert-raising collaboration with Usher. But, as Palmer points out, the South has been doin' it and doin' it and doin' it well for some time. "I think that the people who could have predicted [the crunk explosion] are the people in the South who have been working for years and years," she says. "You can see this incredible momentum people have had, and it's kinda like, 'How could we not break through?' But in terms of our perspective in California and New York and the mainstream media, I think it's a shocker, it's kinda like, 'Oh!' People don't understand that in some ways, it's been kind of a self-supporting scene for so many years." As is the case with California's indie rap scene: "There's people who can make a fantastic living and not have their names known anywhere [else]."

Palmer's book profiles several of those regional success stories, including Jazze Pha, a superstar in the South who is practically unknown beyond the Mason-Dixon line (those are his Kraftwerkian touches on Ciara's "1, 2 Step"). "There's all kinds of songs that Jazze Pha produced that don't fall into the funk category," she says, adding that while Lil Jon may have created a formulaic sound with songs such as "Get Low," "Get Crunk," and "Bia Bia," his resumé also includes dozens of wide-ranging songs, from Miami bass and Atlanta bounce to reggae/hip-hop remixes. The overall scope of Southern music is much wider than people on the West and East coasts realize. "A lot of people only know Lil Jon and Ludacris," the author adds. "There's so much more. It's a huge spectrum."

The six-month process of writing the book was not only an adventure for Palmer -- a confessed Eighties synth-pop head who began writing about electronic music for URB magazine in the early Nineties and now freelances for various publications, including New Times -- but also an educational experience. "I think it's pretty obvious that I was learning as I went along," she admits. "I approached it from a fan's perspective and not in an authoritative-type way." However, she adds, "If it was so much for me to learn, there's a ton for people who haven't really dove into it before." Such as the "rawest groupie scandal ever," which Palmer cryptically describes as involving members of Outkast and a valuable piece of jewelry that went missing "amidst a session of large-scale sexual sharing."

Speaking of sex, Palmer doesn't seem to be bothered by Southern rap's rampantly rowdy and often misogynist attitude, at least not to the point where she's personally offended. She generally takes an it's-all-good approach without editorializing much, other than to point out that Jacki-O -- whose "Pussy (Real Good)" was banned from MTV and BET even after being renamed "Nookie" -- appears to be firmly in control of her own image. "To call Jacki-O a sexpot somehow seems like a huge understatement," writes Palmer in Country Fried Soul.

For those who want to get into the Down South sound but just don't know how, Country Fried Soul also includes a resource guide of recommended albums and singles, Internet links, radio stations, DVDs, zines, and magazines, as well as a glossary of definitions for Southern slang terms such as skeet, grippin' grain, whoadie, yeek, and, thoughtfully, crunk (which Tamara defines as "to have or create energy").

It's somewhat amazing that her book might be only the second one about the Southern rap scene to be published. "As far as I know," says Palmer, "the only other book on the Dirty South is [Hey Ya! The Unauthorized Biography of Outkast], written by a fellow [Chris Nickson] that writes celebrity biographies on people like Ricki Lake." (Soul is published by Backbeat Books.) She personally knows of writers who have tried shopping drafts on the subject to snobby New York publishing houses, to no avail. But she hopes her book -- and the music's continuing popularity -- opens the floodgates for other authors.

"A year or two from now I think you're gonna see four or five books on Southern hip-hop on the market," she predicts. Meanwhile she's praying Country Fried Soul will help convince nonbelievers "that Southern rap is a viable art form."