Horses in the Back

By Dr. Joycelyn Wilson


Updated June 17, 2019. Originally published June 13.

Let’s say it again for those in the back: Trap music is the most significant cultural innovation to arise from Southern hip hop — and one of the most critical discoveries in American black music over the last quarter century. The latest example comes from Montero Lamar Hill, the 20-year old Atlanta rapper named Lil Nas X who, in just six months, has disturbed the groove of the country music industry with his viral hit “Old Town Road.”

Lil Nas X has turned the discussion of cultural appropriation on its head … again.

“Old Town Road” was first released on YouTube in December 2018 against a backdrop of visuals from the Old West-themed video game “Red Dead Redemption 2.” That video has now passed 73 million views. Hill then uploaded the tune to SoundCloud and used “country” as one of its categorizations. He also uploaded it to TikTok, a social media app for creating and looping music videos for 3 to 60 seconds. Thousands of fans responded with their own versions.

By April 13th, the song leap-frogged from No. 15 to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. After Hill signed with Sony Columbia Records, the song charted at No. 19 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs — only to be removed a week later. Apparently its instrumentation, lyrical phrasings, and overall melody did not fit the requirements for what constitutes “country”. In other words, “Old Town Road” was too trapped out. Or should I say the song was just too black for a white male-dominated country audience and industry?

Lil Nas X has picked up where St. Louis’s Nelly and Atlanta’s Ludacris left off in the mid 2000s and early ’10s, when each recorded rap records with country artists. Nelly featured Tim McGraw on “Over and Over” (2004), and Ludacris jumped on a remix for Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” (2011).

But Little Nas X’s approach was different. From the outset, “Over and Over” was a rap song featuring McGraw on the hook. It peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, but never showed up on the country charts. It also placed on Billboard’s Adult Top 40, Hot Rap Songs, Mainstream Top 40, and Rhythmic charts. But it never made the country charts.

Why? Keep reading.

On “Dirt Road Anthem”, Aldean went to Luda for the remix, which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs. A digital download of the remix was not released until Aldean performed it with Ludacris at the 2011 CMT Music Awards. It makes me wonder if Billboard would have resisted putting “Dirt Road Anthem” on any of its hip hop charts if Team Aldean had pushed for it. The song is country rap, and Aldean raps on it (which proved that despite his other skills, he ain’t no rapper). Nevertheless, it met the musical composition requirements for consideration on country music charts.  

Soon after Billboard yanked “Old Town Road” off its country charts and Billy Ray Cyrus saw an opportunity, Saving Country Music, the decade-old site edited by contrarian critic Kyle ”The Triggerman” Coroneos, wrote:

“Old Town Road” is no more country than The Beastie Boys’ “High Plains Drifter.” Including Wild West signifiers or references to horses in no way qualifies a rap song with a trap beat as country. Furthermore, Lil Nas X is not professing to be a country artist. He’s not signed to a country label, and has no affiliation to the country industry whatsoever. Lil Nas X has no ties to the greater Nashville music campus in any capacity. There are no country artists guesting on the track like you had with Bebe Rexha’s collaboration with Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant to Be.” There appears to be absolutely no credible reason to include this song on a country chart aside from a bigoted stereotype bred from the fact that horses and cowboy hats are referenced in the lyrics.

Would Coroneos have made a similar assertion about Aldean and Ludacris’ “Dirt Road Anthem” remix and its recognition as a country rap song? There is no credible reason just because Aldean raps on it, right? There are no boom baps or trickling hi-hats or a series of hollow 808 drops. Aldean isn’t signed to a rap label and has no formal affiliation with the rap industry. I guess, then, an artist must identify as a country artist for their music to be considered country rap, country trap, or country hip hop by the country music industry, where most of the chart-topping country artists are white and male.

It’s important to note there are two ways of understanding country rap. The country music industry defines it as a fusion genre of popular music blending country music with hip hop (or) rap styles. I prefer the Louisiana-born/Texas-bred rapper Pimp C’s definition for what constitutes country rap: that it’s a style created by rappers who grew up in the country, that it centers rap and trap music’s social and cultural sensibilities amid the country, soul, and gospel influences of rural life. Perhaps “Old Town Road” would be on the country and rap charts simultaneously if Billboard and Nashville thought like Chad “Pimp C” Butler and me.

In an ever-growing music streaming era where diverse, genre-bending listeners rely on streaming services like TikTok and SoundCloud – platforms that allow for unabashed creativity – “Old Town Road” acts as a wake-up call to primitive ways of thinking about musical hybridity, race and identity, performance and audience. Florida Georgia Line got the memo. So did Billy Ray Cyrus.

There is no doubt Hill is living his best life. He earned 143 million music streams in a week, breaking Drake’s 2018 record. Going into last week’s CMA Fest, “Old Town Road” was in its ninth week at No. 1. on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. Nas X shared the CMA Fest stage with Billy Ray Cyrus and Keith Urban, who, weirdly enough, rapped Lil Nas X’s second verse. In hip hop, rappers spit their own verses unless it is something like a posthumous celebration of an artist’s music. In a mashup like this, Keith Urban should’ve written his own verse to perform — just as Ludacris did for his guest spot on “Dirt Road Anthem.” If country music is sticking to its rules, shouldn’t it also recognize the rules of rap music? Exactly.

Furthermore, Hill has no time to go back and forth with folks who accuse him of jacking country music or exploiting hip hop. He represents the future. And he knows this.

The week before CMA Fest, Hill surprised a gym full of screaming elementary students in Ohio with a performance of his viral hit. He described it as the biggest show of his life. Do you think the kids were trying to figure out if the song was country or rap? Watch the Instagram video, and you’ll see the kids don’t care one bit. (The song song even appears to have helped a 4-year old autistic boy speak his first words.) The week before that, Chris Rock, Vince Staples, Rico Nasty, Diplo, HaHa Davis, Billy Ray Cyrus, and YoungKio, the song’s producer, all appeared in the official “Old Town Road” music video. And while I’m on the subject of music production, Hill spent less than $30 making the original track, which is built using the series of acoustic string plucks found on Nine Inch Nails’s “34 Ghosts IV”.   

The notion that Lil Nas X is exploiting country music is flawed. It implies he is somehow “Elvis-ing” a genre rooted in white culture. That he’s pimpin it out for cash and fame. Close to a century removed from the days when African Americans played key roles in the formation of country’s storytelling style and sonic architecture, I can see how some people would think country music is by white people and for white people.

It’s more complicated than that. Jim Crow and segregation overshadowed the many contributions made to white artists by black musicians. Consider DeFord Bailey, a blues and country music harmonica player who was the very first performer – not just the first black performer – in the 1925 debut episode of “Solemn Old Judge” George D. Hay’s “WSM Barn Dance” radio show in Nashville. That show has never died; we just know it today as the Grand Ole Opry.

And yet Lil Nas X is still shut out from Billboard’s country music charts. Go figure. But it’s safe to say DeFord Bailey is smiling down on Lil Nas X.