A viral sensation pulls back the curtain on Southern hip-hop
Ms. Peachez favors clown wigs, press-on nails, and pastel blouses over her beefy, middle-aged frame. In the video for her 2006 song “Fry That Chicken,” she raps in a voice deeper than my uncle John’s.
As with most immediately catchy songs, it’s so dumb it’s genius. It’s a nursery rhyme crossed with a Mardi Gras march, springy brass propelling the beat while high-register synth notes chime like Pavlov’s bell: “I got a pan, and I got a plan / I’m a fry this chicken in my hand! / Everybody want a piece of my chicken / Southern fried chicken / Finger-lickin’.”
The low-budget video takes place in the yard of a rural shack. The scene is a country barbecue, with Ms. Peachez holding raw chickens and taunting a group of children. Peachez’s blue hair, and her T-shirt bearing an oversized peach, are nearly consumed by smoke from the grill, which heats a giant pan of bubbling grease. She passes thighs and legs through a bowl of flour, massaging them with her hands in time to the beat. After dropping the poultry into the pan, she shakes her hips and gets the hot sauce ready.
“Fry that chicken!” the kids demand, looking half-crazed as they pound on the picnic table. Peachez advises the kids to wash their hands, “’Cause you’re gon’ be lickin’ ’em!” When the food is ready, the kids tear into it, eating with their fingers and then, yes, licking them.
There’s something innocent and funny about the video, but also something creepy. It vaguely recalls a 19th-century blackface skit, although none of the participants are white and the production appears to have been made in earnest, rather than as an ironic joke.
But a jive-talking, cartoonish drag queen hypnotizing a group of children with her Southern-fried bird—seriously? Could the video’s crafters possibly be unaware of its loaded, Uncle Tom stereotypes?
The oddness of the clip has been eclipsed by its popularity. It’s been seen 3.9 million times. But as “Fry That Chicken” went viral, it became one of the most politicized hip-hop documents in years. Many people saw it as the epitome of the troubling turn rap music was taking. Despite the fact that bloggers and other internet commentators knew nothing about Ms. Peachez—she didn’t have a record deal and had never done an interview—they called her a degrading minstrel act that was setting the gains of the civil rights movement back 30 years.
But the criticism only seemed to spur Peachez’s popularity, and she proceeded to release a series of follow-ups, each more outlandish than the last. Two and a half million more people watched her “In the Tub” video, a loose parody of 50 Cent’s “In da Club.”
The most provocative in the Peachez series had to be “From da Country,” which opens with a nearly toothless midget named Uncle Shorty, who wears a curly blond wig and chows down on watermelon. There’s a guy in a chicken suit, tractors, and Ms. Peachez showing off a plate of candied yams swarming with flies. Meanwhile, kids perform steps with names like “the Neck Bone,” “the Corn Bread,” and “the Collard Greens.”
Hip-hop started in the Bronx, was dominated by New Yorkers in the 1980s, and felt its center of gravity pulled toward the West Coast over the next decade, through the success of gangsta rap acts like N.W.A.
As Southern rap gained popularity in the 2000s, fans of “true” hip-hop said it played to our most base, childish instincts. Nursery-rhyme jingles, they claimed, would be the downfall of an art form that has evolved from the good-time rhymes of the Sugarhill Gang three decades ago to the enlightened compositions of Nas. By the mid-aughts, this criticism reached a fever pitch.
The problem wasn’t just Ms. Peachez, who was presumed to be Southern. There were plenty of other rappers to complain about, the ones responsible for the stripped-down, shucking-and-jiving ditties that were taking over the radio. These were “minstrel show” MCs, an epithet pegged to crunk artists like Lil Jon, who had a mouth full of platinum and carried around a pimp chalice.
But crunk was fading, and so the culprits became a new crop of young, blinged-out rappers whose songs often instructed listeners to do a new dance. These included the Atlanta rapper Young Dro, whose hit “Shoulder Lean” told you to “bounce right to left and let your shoulder lean” and whose video featured a man dumping a bag of sugar into a pitcher of Kool-Aid.
Then there was the Atlanta group D4L (“Down for Life”), whose ubiquitous radio jam “Laffy Taffy” sounded like it was mined from the presets of a child’s mini Casio. The song uses the wax-paper-wrapped confection of the title as a metaphor for a bulbous rear end.
Critics argued that these artists, and their record labels, were indulging in the worst black stereotypes for the entertainment of white people. “Record labels are rushing out to sign the most coon-like negroes they can find,” declared the popular hip-hop blogger Byron Crawford. Despite the fact that not all of the minstrel rappers were from the South, he insisted that the subgenre “obviously had its origins in shitty Southern hip-hop.” The Queens-bred rapper Nas, a charter member of New York’s hip-hop elite, even took a swipe at the alleged minstrel MCs.
In the early aughts, hip-hop began to be dominated by Southerners. OutKast’s 2003 album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below became the greatest-selling rap album of all time.
Suddenly, everyone on BET wore drooping, diamond-studded chains and drove candy-colored cars with outlandishly sized rims. Rappers, singers, and producers from Florida, Texas, Virginia, Georgia, and other Southern states began dominating sales charts and radio. Those trends continue. Music sales have been declining for years, but Southern rappers like Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, T.I., Ludacris, and Lil Wayne—as well as hip-hop focused Southern singers like T-Pain, The-Dream, and Usher—continue to go gold and platinum. Of the ten best-selling hip-hop singles of 2010, eight came from Southern artists.
What characterizes Southern hip-hop? It’s often accused of being simple, and that’s how a producer named Zaytoven, who has worked with Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, describes it. Southern-rap lyrics are full of hyper-regional slang. Formal structures and metaphor-heavy rhymes are often forsaken in favor of chants, grunts, and shouts. Many MCs have distinctive, atonal voices. Lil Wayne sounds like a frog, and Lil Boosie’s voice resembles a 12-year-old girl’s.
Sonically, the music features tinny percussion, danceable rhythms, and big bass.
It’s party music, full of hypnotic hooks and sing-along choruses that get the ladies on the dance floor. But these are just generalizations, and flawed ones at that. After all, just because a song sounds like Southern rap doesn’t mean it is Southern rap. Many coastal rappers have appropriated Southern styles, lock, stock, and barrel. If they want to stay on the radio, they don’t have much choice.
The New York public-radio program Soundcheck addressed minstrel rap in 2006. Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal cited “anxiety” among middle-class blacks about hip-hop from below the Mason-Dixon Line, while New Yorker writer Kelefa Sanneh noted that the modern-minstrel-rap debate largely pitted urban, mainly Northern blacks against rural, mainly Southern blacks.
Naturally, Ms. Peachez worked her way into the discussion. Sanneh insisted that understanding the context was important in this debate, but that in the case of “Fry That Chicken,” it was impossible, since no one knew much about her intentions. Nonetheless, Sanneh was willing to make an assumption: “I think ‘Fry That Chicken,’ ” he said, “is very clearly a novelty and a parody.”
I figured the only way to get to the bottom of this was to hunt down Ms. Peachez.
From her MySpace profile, I learned she’s from Shreveport, Louisiana. Further inquiry showed she’s allied with a rapper named Rico Da Body.
Eventually, I tracked down the phone number for a Shreveport record studio called Millennia Music Group, run by Rico’s father, Dale Lynch. I began leaving messages there. No one called me back.
Not long after, I went to Shreveport. I still hadn’t lined up an interview with Peachez or anyone else, but soon after I arrived I received a callback from Dale. He said that, sadly, he couldn’t introduce me to Ms. Peachez, as they’d fallen out of touch, but if I wanted to talk to him and his son Rico, I could come by his studio.
I did, and for a couple of hours Dale and Rico unraveled the story of Ms. Peachez, whose real name is Nelson Boyd. (Yes, Ms. Peachez is a man.) Dale originally met Boyd, he explained, back when Boyd was a little-known MC. Boyd came to Millennia to record, and one day he began improvising a character he called Ms. Peachez. Dale enlisted her to provide comic relief for his free hip-hop DVD series, Double X-Posure. After outfitting himself in a dress, wig, and press-on nails, Boyd-as-Ms.-Peachez performed in spots for Dale’s advertisers.
Eventually, the guys decided Ms. Peachez should be a rapper, and she began performing songs Rico created. Indeed, according to them, Rico was something like the man behind the curtain, doing everything from composing her music to arranging her songs.
“Fry That Chicken” was Peachez’s first song; Rico wrote it in 2006, when he was a junior in high school. “I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t thinking about chicken or nothing,” he recalled. “I knew I wanted to involve children, so I was just trying to think of a chant they could say that would be catchy, that no one had done before.”
They filmed the video just down the street from the studio, on the property of a guy Dale knew. They chose the spot because, well, the man had chickens.
It was a true backwoods country home, Rico said, one that was perfect for their goal of shooting a different kind of rap video. “We just wanted to show what normal people do in everyday life,” he told me. “We fry chicken. It [the video] didn’t have to have no rims, no cars, no lies. Just the truth. I wanted to do something positive.”
“We live down South, and it’s country,” added Dale. “We’re used to horses, cows, chickens.”
They had no idea the track would cause an uproar, and Rico was surprised when nasty YouTube comments began pouring in. “There were a lot of racist comments, a lot of crazy stuff that’s off-track,” he said.
Neither man gives much credence to the charge that the Peachez character perpetuates stereotypes. “I can see why they would say that, but it wasn’t our point,” Dale said. “The video was pure innocence. It had nothing to do with coonery, no negative vibe at all. The world made it controversial. We’re used to seeing stuff like that in the South. We eat fried chicken! We eat watermelon!”
Recently, Dale finally tracked down Nelson Boyd’s number, and I caught up with him over the phone. He’s still astonished by how popular Ms. Peachez became, but it hasn’t been all fun and games. Someone nearly tried to fight him, he says, after hearing a little kid singing the lyrics to “In the Tub.” “Why you got those kids talking about they booties?” the man said.
He adds that he is too bowlegged to do traditional work, and survives off disability benefits. He and Dale had hoped to profit from Ms. Peachez’s success, but couldn’t agree about how to best market her as a rapper. By the time they finally secured a ringtone deal for “Fry That Chicken” and finished her CD, interest had waned.
Though he continues to perform the character at his stand-up shows, Ms. Peachez’s hip-hop career has been effectively aborted. Still, he maintains a soft spot for her. “She’s a real ghetto country backwoods person,” he explains. “She’s wannabe-city, wannabe-glamorous, wannabe-rich, and she’s trying to be in the entertainment business no matter what.”
Excerpted from Ben Westhoff’s new book Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop (Chicago Review Press). A version of this excerpt was published in The Oxford American (March 2011), “the Southern magazine of good writing.” www.oxfordamerican.org