From the southernmost point of the Mississippi Gulf Coast all the way north to Memphis, nearly 200 dark blue markers commemorate the Mississippi Blues Trail and a history that has led to the Magnolia State being called “the birthplace of America’s music.”
The influence of the blues, however, isn’t limited to the B.B. Kings and John Lee Hookers. Its impact has echoed throughout other genres — including hip-hop.
“People who were pioneers of their field, those people were born and bred right here in Mississippi,” said Brad “Kamikaze” Franklin, a lifelong Jackson resident who, along with David Banner, was a member of the state’s first famed hip-hop duo, Crooked Lettaz. “Hip-hop is born from the blues. It’s the biggest selling form of music in the world now. It’s the voice of the younger generation, revolutionary generation. You have to invite us to the table when you’re talking about music — about history.”
When Franklin was a kid, before hip-hop made its way to Mississippi, one of his good friends spent a summer up north. He came back with a souvenir for Franklin — a mix tape from a New York City rap radio station.
“It just blew my mind; I wore that tape out,” Franklin said. “I hadn’t been exposed to the other hip-hop music — what wasn’t getting played yet on the radio down here.”
Franklin, like most in Jackson, had just gotten access to cable TV shows that played music videos. He caught the bug, and was also cast in a couple of Business Television Series.
“When I got into it, there weren’t a lot of people around Jackson doing it,” Franklin said. “It was still a fad at the time, not really popular. I was really one of the first generations of guys to seriously pursue hip-hop.”
Fast forward to December 1995. Franklin had connected with David Banner, and, realizing they meshed well and challenged each other lyrically, the two decided to record a few songs.
“There wasn’t a representation in the world for Mississippi hip-hop. We needed to tell our story,” Franklin said, “(Banner) said, ‘Let’s call ourselves Crooked Lettaz, paying homage to Mississippi.’ So we formed a group.
So, on an icy December day, Franklin and Banner slowly and carefully made their way to a man’s home studio to record their first album. A year later, they signed a major record deal.
“The rest, as they say, is history,” Franklin said. “It was a critically acclaimed album. People are still saying it’s one of the best to come out of the South. We were a guinea pig for a New York label. They didn’t know what to do with Southern artists. We were setting the blueprint.”
After a few years together, the two went their separate ways for successful solo careers. Earlier this year, Banner released his new album The God Box, his first in seven years, which highlights the experience of being a black man in America.
“It’s more than an album. It’s an art exhibit,” Banner said of his new release. “It’s sort of like a secret. It’s something that people are going to have to come to their own conclusions on. Everyone will get something different out of the album, and I’ll let the listener decide what that is.
“Technically, I’m not the first Mississippi rapper, but I’m grateful to help change the way people feel about our people in general,” Banner said. “Our people are some of the greatest leaders, sports figures and business moguls.”
And, as time has gone on, the list of famous Mississippi-bred hip-hop artists has grown to include such acclaimed rap artists as Afroman, Rick Ross and Nate Dogg.
Just three miles from the house where Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, two brothers named Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee grew up in the Ida Street housing project. As children, the brothers found solace in listening to hip-hop music and later taught themselves to DJ, make beats and even record songs.
Today, the brothers are known as Rae Sremmurd, a rap duo that has been featured at the BET Hip Hop Awards and on The Tonight Show landed on Billboard’s Hot 100 and Top 40 lists more than once.
Another Mississippian taking the hip-hop scene by storm is Meridian’s Big K.R.I.T, named Justin Scott at birth. His most recent album, 4Eva Is a Mighty Long Time, was released in October with wide critical acclaim.
“Hopefully, it encourages people to want to see where it is I’m from,” Scott told The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. “Or at least take more notice and not be caught up in what Hollywood or movies paint the place as. There’s a lot of soul. There’s a lot of beautiful heritage, there’s a lot of good things where I’m from — and not just in Mississippi, but in Alabama and Arkansas, too. It’s me wanting to put that in the music and the lyrics — telling a story about a place that’s not a vacation destination for most people.”
While Big K.R.I.T, Rae Sremmurd and others make a name for Mississippi rap artists outside of state lines, others are doing what they can to promote the industry within the state.
“I have complete faith that the scene (in Jackson) is well on its way to becoming a very much streamlined industry with the current uptrend of our local artists and businesses,” said Shanel Jones, CEO of Jackson Hip-Hop Scene and founding partner of the Jackson Hip-Hop Awards. “Yes, (the scene) is strong, but not strong enough. But that’s changing each day because of people that are making these moves and remaining in the city because they are really making it big here in the city limits.”
Franklin believes Mississippi will continue to influence the world of hip-hop.
“Our music has twinges of gospel, blues, country, bluegrass, even some island flavors in it. Mississippi is a melting pot,” Franklin said.
“A lot of people are making a lot of noise in the new landscape of hip-hop,” Franklin said. “People don’t need to underestimate or sleep on what we’re doing. We’ll be a major player.”