Is Country Rap Finally the Next Big Thing?
Those who predicted years ago that hip-hop would eventually seep into all other forms of music were right. It took a while, but you can hardly listen to music anywhere without hearing traces of it, even in country. It wasn’t always so, but to many modern ears the combined sounds of country and rap feel completely natural. Some say this cross-pollination of music styles is certainly not going away, and it may be on the verge of a major breakout.
The Bellamy Brothers rippled the waters in 1986 with a tune straightforwardly titled “Country Rap.” From the very first lines of the song, you knew exactly where they were coming from: “Hillbillies talkin’ ‘bout turnip greens, cornbread, sweet potatoes, pork and beans. Country roads, farm and ranch, drink a little creek water from the branch”. Thirteen years later, Kid Rock joined the two genres with a shotgun wedding of a song called “Cowboy.”
Many major country acts soon followed suit. Landmark recordings through the years include Tim McGraw and Nelly’s “Over and Over”, Jason Aldean and Ludacris’ reworking of Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert’s “Dirt Road Anthem”, and Florida Georgia Line’s remix of “Cruise”. Many other established country stars have dabbled with rap. From Trace Adkins and Toby Keith to Brad Paisley and Blake Shelton. Back in 2019, a previously unknown artist named Little Nas X topped the pop charts longer than anyone in history with a borderline-novelty hybrid called “Old Town Road”. More recently, rapper Lil Durk teamed up with Morgan Wallen for the crossover hit “Broadway Girls”, inspired by Nashville’s nightlife scene. Such synergy is always good news for artists like Dusty Leigh. “I look at the bigger picture, and I think this helps us all.”
Born in 1990, Dusty Leigh doesn’t see anything unusual about such mergers that were once seen as musical mismatches. The Louisville, Kentucky native was drawn to urban rap from a young age. But later became aware of an entire country rap movement down in Georgia in the early 2000s. Younger practitioners like him look up to Bubba Sparxxx (real name Warren Mathis) as sort of a godfather figure. Sparxxx had a major label hit in 2001 called “Ugly”. The song featured rapper Timbaland, who also produced it and had an accompanying video that showed people break dancing in a muddy pigpen.
“Bubba Sparxx is definitely the originator, along with Haystak, and a few others,” says Leigh. “And on the next level, with not as much commercial success, there was The Lacs, Jawga Boyz, Demun Jones, and Colt Ford. Guys like that are the ones that kind of started the genre”.
Dusty Leigh was also influenced heavily by mainstream rappers like Eminem and Drake as well as grittier acts like Trick Daddy and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Another Kentucky act, Nappy Roots, had country leanings. And they may have helped him realize the path he would later take—more fully embracing his own Southern roots.
“A lot of people call it hick-hop or country rap, but I call what I do R&C, or Rhythm and Country,” says Leigh. “I sing also, so a lot of my music has an R&B vibe but a country vibe. And some Top 40 pop, as well. It’s a mixture of things.”
Doing big numbers
Dusty Leigh has seen a huge boost in popularity recently. And it could be a sign of even bigger things to come for him and other like-minded artists. As an example, his song “Like That” was a game changer. Featuring two guest artists he mentioned as pioneers in the genre, The Lacs and Demun Jones, it has 7.6 million views on YouTube at last count and 1.6 million streams on Spotify.
More generally, he’s also seeing drastically rising numbers of viewers and listeners on media platforms like YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Instagram, and Facebook. All those people tuning in means larger income streams that add up to support what he describes as a comfortable lifestyle. Finally, after years of not making much money from his music. “In the last year my numbers have almost tripled,” he says. “I feel like I’m one song away from changing my whole life, but really it’s already changed”.
His professionally shot, often comical, videos are a big part of his appeal. He believes they may be responsible for hooking in many of his new fans initially. But he consistently sees steady upticks on audio-only services, too.
The Radio Factor
The missing piece of the puzzle for Dusty Leigh, and other independent artists in the world of country rap, is exposure on traditional airwaves. That would increase their audience exponentially.
“Radio doesn’t play any of us because we’re not signed to a major label,” Leigh says. “And it’s not just me. It’s also artists like Upchurch and Adam Calhoun as well as Demun Jones and The Lacs. These are artists are making millions and millions of dollars nationwide and doing bigger touring numbers than major artists”.
He’s hoping the radio situation could change before long, and he believes it will, judging by the passion for country rap that he sees at every turn. In fact, it could be the next big music bubble that’s just about to pop. “I think it’s just a matter of time,” he says. One hopeful sign is interest from influential hip-hop producer Polow Da Don (real name Jamal Jones). He helped bring artist Kane Brown to fame. The music mogul took over a radio station in Nashville a couple of years ago and revamped it as WYCZ-FM, or YoCo. His urban-meets-rural playlist aims squarely at the same Young Country (YoCo) demographic that Leigh and other country rappers are after.
Turning a corner, Dusty Leigh believes his recent winning streak is also a result of his cleaning up his act. Both personally and professionally. He’s not as edgy as he used to be. Making a conscious decision to leave profanity and adult content out of his lyrics. His newer videos are still a little racy, but they’re not raunchy. He’s deliberately targeting more of a family audience, and it’s partly because of his own maturity.
“The music I’m making now fits who I am as a person more,” he says. And once he made those adjustments, his popularity exploded. “It’s not even in the same realm,” he says. “Everything completely changed. I’ve seen the money go up, and the festivals I’m invited to are bigger ones, too. And it’s crazy because I’m talking about the same exact things in my songs as I talked about before. I just don’t cuss in them”. He pauses a beat, and adds, “I’m just saying ‘butt’ now instead of ‘ass.’”
While many country acts have skillfully squeezed hip-hop elements into what are otherwise more traditional modern country songs, Leigh is coming at it from the other direction. He’s pushing more of a country attitude and sounds into a more hardcore rap style that he’d developed for years. He’s building on a foundation that was laid around 20 years ago, when he was not quite a teenager. And is helping to move the country rap genre into the future.