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My Ringtone Weighs a Ton #2: Ringtone Killed the Real Hip-Hop Star

How "Ringtone Rap" helped kill the "Real Hip-Hop" mentality.

by Andrew Winistorfer
Aug 12 2013, 4:35pm

My Ringtone Weighs a Ton is a column that celebrates ringtone rappers, those titans who once dominated cellphone data networks. This edition covers Young Dro’s “Shoulder Lean,” Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s,” Unk’s “Walk It Out,” and Mims’ “This Is Why I’m Hot”

“A lot of the music that comes out of the south, it’s simplified,” said 50 Cent in an interview with MTV from his bulletproof tour bus during the peak of the ringtone rap era. “I think it’s because they just wanna have a good time. They don’t want to think about what you just said…They just wanna hear something when they’re actually partying. And it works for them.”

That criticism—that ringtone rap was “simplified”—was the most prevalent amongst unimaginative detractors of the genre, from Ghostface wondering aloud on Fishscale how he’d been passed by D4L and “Laffy Taffy,” to Nas naming his album Hip-Hop Is Dead in 2006, as a barely denied shot at ringtone rappers. Calling ringtone rap “simple” was shorthand for 50 Cent and Ghostface (as well as their boosters on message boards and comments sections) to say that the brand of hip-hopthey were making/listening to at the time was “better” than what was dominating hip-hop airwaves. But really, 50’s quote might as well have been, “The south is ruling hip-hop now, and as a guy from New York, I resent that.”

For years, conventional wisdom held that important rap music could pretty much only come from New York or Los Angeles. Vital regional rap from places like New Orleans, Houston, Miami, and Atlanta was marginalized, and great groups from below the Mason Dixon were treated with outright hostility (Outkast and Geto Boys were booed onstage in New York) or a wall of indifference (UGK weren’t given their canonical recognition until they’d been recording for nearly 20 years). But as the stranglehold of the media hubs on the coasts began to loosen—and the Internet opened up listeners everywhere to music from anywhere—the holes in the New York-and-L.A.-only argument were impossible to plug with G-Unit sweatsuits.

By 2005, Atlanta was the epicenter for current hip-hop culture. Ghostface, Nas, and 50 commenting on the South’s ascendance was only necessary because they were no longer the true movers and shakers of the culture. By 2005, OutKast were the biggest rap group on earth, thanks to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and this is still probably true, even if it’s clear that 3 Stacks is more invested in being a professional beard-trimmer than releasing an album (the thirst for a solo Andre album continues to keep the lights on at 1000 rap blogs). Lil Jon and his army of 3XL-shirted crunk lieutenants taught a bunch of tweens across the world the filthiest phrase they knew (“skeet skeet skeet”), and had clubs feeling like controlled demolition sites. T.I. was on his way to becoming the most unlikely pop-star/reality show Danny Tanner from the Atlanta scene, thanks to his 2006 album, King. Ludacris’ undeniable singles (he still has more A1 film performances than he does A1 albums) were welcome on rap radio from “Fantasy” on, and Young Jeezy had captured hearts and minds of street rap fans around the country with Thug Motivation 101.

But the ringtone rap era finalized Atlanta’s position as hip-hop’s 21 century Mecca with strip clubs, and most importantly, it did so by highlighting everything that was great about Atlanta hip-hop culture. It’s a scene where the real/fake hip-hop dichotomy did not exist; all that mattered was becoming the soundtrack to the city, for however brief, and breaking through nationally was a happy coincidence if it happened. It’s a place where production could become a bigger star than the rapper, as crunk became snap, and snap became trap, jerk, and other splintered styles across the city and America at large (which we’ll talk about in the next Ringtone Weighs a Ton). Being “lyrical”—which is roughly as definable as “pornography”—was less important than how you delivered the words, which of course is an idea that is as old as music itself. Atlanta was an epicenter for that aesthetic choice: It was accepted there more than other places that being a great rapper and being good at rapping are not mutually inclusive.

Unk’s “Walk It Out” encapsulated a lot of these ideals of Atlanta hip-hop in one inescapable song. It hardly had lyrics—it was 85% chorus, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who can recite the verses. The production was sparse, and its incredible remix boasted verses from both members of OutKast, guys who were as close to New York-style “real hip-hop” Atlanta had at the time, and who never bought into the “simple” designation of ringtone rap (Jim Jones was on it too, rapping about ATL strip club staple Magic City. Anyways, more on him later). But most importantly, “Walk It Out” was the sound of Atlanta for longer than it was the sound of cellular phones across America, proving that what could move hip-hop listeners in Atlanta would soon move listeners everywhere (thanks to the then-new YouTube, “Walk It Out” would be one of the first “viral” singles).

Young Dro is the poster boy for doing more with less: though his sprawling mixtape discography showcases a confident MC who can rap his ass off when he wants to, Dro luxuriates in being able to knock out sound of the city street singles (like 2010’s “Freeze Me”) with seemingly relative ease. For better or worse, he’s known for his lone national hit “Shoulder Lean,” a song from his 2006 album Best Thang Smokin’, and for being a “underachiever” because he has yet to release a sophomore album, and instead has released a grip of good-to-great mixtapes (I Am Legend is a gem). He’s probably as much a victim of being marginalized thanks to a writing off by New York-bias types who refuse to see him as the logical descendent of goofily post-lyrical New York yell-rappers like Onyx, as he teds to only insert himself into the conversation in four year cycles (he’s like the midterm elections of Atlanta hip-hop).

Rich Boy, meanwhile, became one of the most obvious “it’s the delivery and the voice, it’s not the lyrics” rapper of the ringtone era, as his, uh, rich voice and uber-confident flow masked the fact that on paper, most of his crack-slinging tales were about as interesting as Seinfeld episodes centered around buying a car. Still, you didn’t have to care that “Throw Some D’s” was about tires to realize it was one of the best rap songs of 2007. The production—a beautiful soul-sample concoction by Polow Da Don—was such a strength on that track (and Rich Boy’s self-titled debut) that the ultimate break-out artist from that was Polow, who briefly became Atlanta’s producer du jour thanks to helming hits for Fergie, Usher, and Gucci Mane. Like “Walk It Out” before it, “Throw Some D’s” spawned an epic remix, featuring Andre 3000, The Game, Nelly, Murphy Lee, and, in another instance of carpetswagging, Jim Jones.

Jones’ willingness to jump on the remix to every big Atlanta ringtone hit of the time helped his own ringtone-rap single “We Fly High” become a smash, but he, along with Byrd Gang cellie Max B—who more than probably ghostwrote “We Fly High” for him—were diamond-chained, ad-libbing canaries in a coalmine. Jones and his shiny, shiny neck illuminated the fact that it behooved the New York rapper to occasionally cast his gaze southward for inspiration. The painfully earnest Mims (Music is My Savior) was the first N.Y. rapper—he was from Washington Heights, NY—to commit outright to sounding like he was from Bankhead, as his “This Is Why I’m Hot” was a “Shook Ones Pt. II” and “Jesus Walks” sample away from being a Dem Franchize Boys song. Mims eventually paid for breaking ranks too early—he has virtually disappeared, the mixtape fame of other ringtone rappers post-hit was not afforded to him (although he recently dropped an out-of-nowhere banger)—but he was presciently innovative considering the sound of New York rap today.

Many of the leaders of contemporary New York rap, such as A$AP Rocky, French Montana, and A$AP Ferg, have internalized a lot of the stylistic tics of southern rap, and often sound less like they came up only listening to Illmatic. Instead, they sound more like region-agnostic sponges who have internalized a million different styles of rap and are creating something that’s a true and genuine reflection of who they are, not just something in the tradition of a certain city. That philosophy is the one that will allow rap to grow as an artform, and that might be the ultimate victory of ringtone rap, and Atlanta’s dominance of hip-hop in general. Today, only the most unreasonable among us expect rappers to be boxed in by specific stylistic, lyrical, musical, and regional expectations. Real Rap is whatever feels true to you; it's not what someone else says it is.

Andrew Winistorfer's ringtone is currently "Fireworks" by Katy Perry. He's on Twitter - @thestorfer