Snap back to roots

So, southern hip-hop isn't 'real' because it's too simple and child-like? Sounds as if it isn't just the new jacks that need a history lesson ...

Hip-hop has never lacked for detractors. They come in waves, crying "Babylon!" every few years. In the late 1980s, conservative politicians, who don't often get pulled over for simply being alive while driving, tried to silence NWA's call to arms, Fuck tha Police; in the 1980s and 90s, musicians accused digital sampling of old records of potentially destroying creativity and the free market. Recently, a very loud talking head on Fox TV named Bill O'Reilly denounced the sexual content in Ludacris's songs but turned out to be entirely comfortable with sexual content when using it to harass a female co-worker. These assaults on hip-hop have come from without, but now hip-hop's hall monitors are MCs themselves.

On record, and in concert, the brilliant MC Ghostface Killah has criticised Atlanta's D4L for their lighthearted 2006 hit Laffy Taffy, one of a rash of dance-instruction songs. Last year, listeners also had the option of doing the Chicken Noodle Soup, the Shoulder Lean, or any number of songs coming out of Atlanta's fertile "snap" scene. (Snap dance moves usually involve finger-snapping, and the tempo of this music is slow and easy-going, making it user-friendly for those slightly shy about their dance moves. Check any of the many YouTube performances of the Chicken Noodle Soup to understand exactly how democratic this dance is.) Ghostface Killah has repeatedly described the snap genre as "bullshit", implying that it is too simple, child-like and somehow not "real" hip-hop. As an alternative, he proposed Eric B and Rakim's Eric B for President - a song his DJ sometimes plays during concerts to back up Ghostface's argument.

Ghostface is not the only high-profile critic. Fellow New Yorker Nas, who has long been considered one of hip-hop's finest MCs - a felicitous state of affairs for a rapper who made his one good album 14 years ago - released an album called Hip-Hop Is Dead last November. What exactly killed hip-hop is not entirely clear; it could be "commercialism", "self-hatred" and lack of organisation within the black community, or the inability to quote Big Daddy Kane in a timely fashion. On the title track, there is a reference - probably not affectionate - to southern rappers Dem Franchize Boys, and their song White Tees: exactly the kind of simple infectious rap Ghostface doesn't like. In a recent interview, Nas blamed current rappers for not "knowing the history of the music", which may be another way of saying they can't quote Nas in a timely fashion.

You can't help but suspect Ghostface and Nas's main objection to southern rappers may be that they sell more than New York MCs. The three biggest MCs right now are Lil Wayne, from New Orleans, and TI and Young Jeezy, both from Atlanta. But if we take Ghostface and Nas at their word, and look to historical ignorance as the culprit, what do we find? Hip-hop began, in the mid 1970s, as dance music, pure and simple, designed to satisfy the B-boys who danced during the instrumental breaks of old funk records. When rap records came out, they were party records. If rappers know the history of their genre, as Nas advises, they'll recognise the trends in southern rap as a return to roots.

This week's big rap release is the debut from Alabama's Rich Boy, and next week, Baby Boy Da Prince, from New Orleans, will release his first album. Both discs are hedonistic and musically simple, driven by elastic, stylish delivery and fantasy. There's no need to argue that they are going to stand the test of time, any more than there's a reason to deny their considerable charms. And no matter how many times I listen to Baby Boy Da Prince, Eric B and Rakim still sound as rhythmically and verbally stunning as they did in 1986. Academics would call what Nas and Ghostface are offering us a "false dichotomy". An MC would just say "there's room for all of us".

· Sasha Frere-Jones is the pop critic for the New Yorker. John Harris is away

Sasha Frere-Jones

The GuardianTramp

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