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Midwest Switch?

Philip Burrowes

Scout’s honor matters, even when you’ve never been a scout.

A year ago, when Nelly’s “Country Grammar” was atop the Billboard charts, it proved two things. The title track showed that nothing beats a good nursery rhyme. More surprisingly, the album revealed a deep sense of pride in a her Midwestern heritage, not a common sentiment in the hip-hop community. St. Louis’ ability to produce commercially successful rap is both a testament to the still burgeoning popularity of the genre and a contradiction of the “backward” image of the region. Nonetheless, it’s all pretty ridiculous.

Rap has long been a source of ironic regional braggadocio. Aside from cliques which emerged from areas such as Queensbridge and Compton, most popular rappers could not claim any distinct origins. Either they came from a very large city -- which is rendered unimpressive by virtue of its inherent frequency -- or from unknown communities with few redeeming qualities.

While residents of the dirty South could be forgiven for self-adulation in the face of a national culture that has overtly held them in disdain since the Civil War, the usual results of gratuitous representation are far less positive. Most people, for example, who in the mid-’90s started copying the Westside Connection’s signature hand gesture, had no idea what they were doing.

Those artists from even less respectable states or towns created and promulgated pseudonyms for their homes to avoid a negative association. Princetonians were no doubt thrilled to discover they were living in New Jerusalem, and not the Garbage State.

Before the two decades the rap industry took to foment its parochial posturing, the nation had shifted population patterns so that California had become the largest state. Whereas states like Nebraska and Kentucky had expanded as the frontier or in postwar migration, they have since stagnated, effectively being outpaced by western neighbors. Industrial strength and innovation, once staples of such Midwestern icons as Standard Oil and National Cash Register, are now more likely found in Texas or Washington.

During the genesis of rap, the region was anything but conducive to the novel. Although if any state could be viewed as a microcosm of the nation it would be Illinois, its neighbors rather easily fit the stereotypically monolithic middle America. Eventually immigration garnered the same political overreaction in South Dakota and Wyoming that it had long since achieved in border states, but endogenous change was still limited. Worse yet, such places lacked a decent nickname for aspiring rappers to hide behind.

Nelly found himself in the worst of all these worlds. St. Louis is a relatively large city which -- Gateway Arch or not -- was only recently brought into the national limelight by the Rams. Missouri is another state adjacent to Illinois that has seen decline since the previous turn of the century, when it had enough stature to house the World’s Fair. Yet Nelly’s artistic obligations (and probably simple self-esteem) dictated that he openly lay claim to the ‘Lou.

It might seem that such persistent action as an endorser would do well to counteract decades of musical and geopolitical balkanization. Paradoxically, however, in its steadfast adherence to existing methods, it instead perpetuates the old ideas. Rapping still lends itself to ultimately empty gestures to one’s home in a type of lyrical onanism.

The Midwest still stands starkly behind the times, entering to into the spokesperson sweepstakes behind such visionary burgs as the post/pre-Raiders Oakland (even its basketball team hides behind a nickname!). Frankly, Nelly hasn’t even taken his role as an ambassador from the heartland very seriously, often poking fun at the idiosyncratic slang he grew up with.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect otherwise. Rappers have long been negligent in utilizing their influence, either by disregard or overestimation. Likewise, the Midwest has been able persist in political Luddism by believing absolute numbers entitles them to define the mainstream. The same is true, however, of musicians in all genres (except Bono) and the rest of the states. What makes Nelly different is he’s had the advantage of seeing others act like chauvinists over Shaolin and still fell for it. Now Staten Island as a point of pride: that’s ridiculous.