Willie Nelson is the only human on Earth to out-smoke his friend Snoop Dogg, and live to stagger another day. Shotgun Willie has graced the mic and contributed to performances of both L’il Wayne and Mr. Dogg—who once referred to Johnny Cash as “a real American gangster.”
Willie and Snoop recognize and appreciate the connections between Outlaw Country and Gangsta Rap, musically and culturally. So let’s explore some of them.
“The Midnight Special” is a traditional American folk song made famous by ex-con Leadbelly, then rock legends Creedence Clearwater. It tells a tale of not-so-fun times in prison:
“And they march you to the table/You see the same old thing,
Ain’t no food upon the table/And no pork up in the pan.”
The same struggles of eating food not fit for a mad dog, are told in Ice-T’s “The Tower,” in which he chronicles prison life in the 1990s:
“Then a bullhorn sounds/That means it’s time for chow,
My first prison meal/The feeling was foul,
It wasn’t quite my style/But my stomach growled,
So I flushed the shit down.”
But it’s arguably Cash’s most popular song, “Folsom Prison Blues,” written in 1953, and released in 1955, that’s synonymous with the Outlaw Country genre.
It takes the perspective of a prisoner “stuck in Folsom Prison” for a cold-blooded murder. The song’s structure, lyrics, and themes parallel some of the most famous Gangsta Rap tracks. To keep up with the thumping bass and guitar that mimic the chugging of a train and “sense of monotony,” the verses carry on to the next with no chorus, in what is called “strophic form.”
Over four decades later, no genre incorporated strophic form more than Gangsta Rap, including popular songs like “Straight Outta Compton” (NWA), “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” (Geto Boys), and “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” (Nas). But there’s one song in particular that touches on the same themes Cash does in a bonafide Gangsta Rap/R&B classic called “Locked Up” by Akon.
Released in 2004, it shares the account of a drug dealer who ends up in jail. The hardened lyrics come from a place of authenticity as Akon served three years in jail and lived to tell this tale:
“I’m steady tryna find the motive/Why I do what I do?/The freedom ain’t getting no closer/ No matter how far I go.”
Though Cash’s fictional crime is more egregious, like Akon, he expresses self-contempt for his actions. Just pondering on the thought of freedom as the outside world (the train) whistles by, leads Cash to hang his head in sorrow.
During the 50s and 60s, Cash’s lyrics resonated with inmates of San Quentin (like Merle Haggard, who witnessed Cash perform his first -of many- prison concerts in 1958, while behind bars for a burglary charge). Akon’s “Locked Up” served as an anthem for convicts serving time in the 2000s.
Emily Dickinson famously wrote that “mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled.” Her sentiment rings true for every desperado living on the edge. Merle Haggard dedicates an entire song to his mother with, “Mama Tried:”
“No one could steer me right but mama tried, mama tried,
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied,
That leaves only me to blame ‘cause mama tried.”
Rap duo, brothers, and ex-drug pushers, Clipse, got to the point in “Momma I’m So Sorry:”
“Mama, I’m so sorry, I’m so obnoxious/Got two hot rocks in my pocket/Mama, I’m so sorry, I’m so obnoxious/ My only accomplice my conscience.”
In Loretta Lynn’s “Women’s Prison” (2004), as her character faces death due to a brutal murder, she hears her mama in the crowd:
“The crowd outside is screamin’/’Let the murderer die’
But above all their voices/I can hear my mama cry.”
Her mama is the only one supporting her as death awaits, something that Tupac corroborates in his unsettling track, “16 on Death Row.” The song chronicles the progression of a teen caught up in street violence who eventually faces the horrors of death row in prison.
It opens with: “Dear Mama, I’m caught up in this sickness/I robbed my adversaries but slipped and left a witness.”
After the teen writes about the horrors behind bars, he calls to his mama: “My mama, pray for me,/Tell the Lord to make way for me/
Prepare any day for me.”
The cross-pollination of Gangsta Rap and Outlaw Country is continually heard in other verses like the first few lines of “Frankie’s Gun” (2007), by The Felice Brothers. The group references Notorious BIG’s classic line in “Hypnotize:” “Escargot, my car go…” when they write: “My car goes/Chicago/Every weekend to pick up some cargo.”
The Felice Brothers remarked that they’re influenced by gangsta rappers like Wu-Tang Clan and 50 Cent. In “Cocaine Blues,” Johnny Cash sings, “Took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down.”In “Slippin,” DMX reflects on the real-life consequences of drug use as well: “I did some coke, Now I’m ready to take somethin’.”
These legends make it clear that lives are at stake when lines are crossed (or sniffed).
Yes, Outlaw Country is still mostly associated with white folks from rural areas, while Gangsta Rap mostly comes from an urban perspective, typically reflecting the hardships of living in America’s disenfranchised inner cities.
Uncovering the connections between musical styles, lyrics, and themes, from Cash and Haggard, to Akon and Tupac, can help bridge the gap between cultures and renew a younger generation’s interest in legendary artists.
– Sam Daponte
Photo: Johnny Cash (Public domain)
PS — While we’re on the topic of Rock History, you might enjoy our YouTube series of daily one-minute nuggets of memorable moments…