Patrick Rodgers was born in West Savannah long before he started rapping.
No one outside of the city really pays attention to rap music from Savannah, GA. It’s strange, considering several of the city’s metal bands—Kylesa, Baroness and Black Tusk– have risen to international recognition. Lots of people know about the city. Ask a recreational drinker from the southeast if they’ve been to St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah. Ask Travel + Leisure where to find moonlight and magnolias without the pretension of Charleston. Ask Andre Leon Talley about the local art college’s annual fashion show. Plus, Midnight in the Garden of God and Evil. It’s a pretty well known city, but no one really pays attention to its rappers.
Savannah has a long musical history, especially the west side of the historic district. King Oliver, who mentored Louis Armstrong, died there in the early 20th century in a poorhouse on the west side. 1940s songwriting legend Johnny Mercer borrowed the cadences and messages of the west side’s African American preachers, for the tune “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.” And 50 years later, Antwan Patton, b.k.a. Big Boi of Outkast encapsulated a different face of “West Savannah,” but he did so from Atlanta. The common theme among most of the successful musicians with ties to Savannah is that they get out if they want to really make it. Sometimes the city has a problem supporting its own.
Some Background: AKA Subjectively Compiled Savannah Rap Highlights From the Past 20 Years
Big Boi’s climb to legend status might’ve put some extra shine on Savannah rappers for a minute. In the late-’90s and early-’00s, local rapper Camoflauge was poised to put the city on the map again. He got signed to a major and the radio edit known as “Cut Friends” started getting play. This was just before Southern rap reached that next level of mainstream consciousness after Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz made it acceptable for white America to have “skeet skeet skeet skeet” shouted at them by corporate-owned Top 40 FM radio stations.
The city’s hopes of getting its rap-famous merit badge ended when ‘Flauge was gunned down outside of the studio where he’d been recording. He was holding his newborn son in his arms, but the killers let him put the kid down before they pulled the trigger. That’s one of the stories I heard, anyway, and I don’t vouch that it’s 100% factual, but it’s definitely badass.
A lot of people around the city have Camoflauge stories, so you hear all kinds of craziness, especially after a couple of drinks. He’s probably the single most important icon to every trap and struggle rapper born and raised in the city known as C-Port. There are young kids who were barely born when he was killed who know every word of his “Strictly 4 Da Streets” mixtape because their moms, aunts, uncles and cousins still play it all the time. In the end, ‘Flauge’s real mistake might’ve been sticking around the city too long.
A few years later, a Savannah-born rapper named T. Waters was getting some attention from Jermaine Dupri and even had a deal with So So Def for a minute. During an interview with Waters that I did for Georgia Music Magazine (the now-defunct quarterly publication produced by the state’s Music Hall of Fame) two things happened:
- Waters had just seen a horse get hit by car and it messed up the car but the horse was okay (he had video of it on his phone).
- And, Waters explained that every artist who was serious needed to get out of Savannah or else risk being what he called a “’posed-ta-be” (as in they were supposed to be something, but they weren’t gonna make it because the city would inevitably sink them).
That was right after Waters’ mixtape Tears in My Eyes came out, which I originally heard because I ran into his manager Justin at the Waffle House on Abercorn and Eisenhower at 4am. He handed me a mixtape after someone told him I wrote about music. Until then he was asking $5 for the CD. Hustling CDs is something kids in the future will really never understand (maybe they don’t already), but it was an art form and still is in some corners of the South.
The mid-to-late-‘00s were a productive time for music in Savannah. R&B singer/songwriter Anthony David was born and raised before he bounced to Atlanta. India.Arie made a stop in Savannah before going on to bigger things. Danny Swain was still based there when he first got signed to Def Jux. But he had bounced by the time Where is Danny? got leaked and then released. Brittany Bosco was just getting started in Savannah then, too, but she (wisely) bounced to Atlanta and after several years of grind is getting some attention for an EP called Girls in the Yard on Fool’s Gold.
But that’s mostly stuff from the past, which is strangely fitting, because Savannah is a city that’s famous for its past. People travel from all over the world to wander among its stately Victorian homes, cobblestone streets and Spanish moss-dripping Live Oak trees. And sometimes all that Antebellum nostalgia obscures the fact that the city’s present is actually more deserving of attention.
Sometimes that focus on the past also obscures the view just beyond the historic district, where there are some of the south’s most ruthless streets, fraught with inter-generational poverty, drugs, and the strain of senseless violence driven to unnecessary extremes by kids’ total lack of hope for a better future. It’s like a crazy gangster movie script almost all the time. The local-born Chief of Police got locked up on a handful of charges; cops in uniforms with marked cars were providing transportation protection to traffickers and dealers on the west side and he was getting a cut. As goes the city, so goes its rap scene.
The Street Side of Savannah
Like most of the south, the street-side of the city’s rap ecosystem is very focused on trapping and struggling. There’s a higher-than-average per capita number of gangster rappers in Savannah. It seems like everybody knows someone who’s been shot (usually over bullshit), and a couple of people locked up (ditto). Not every kid in Savannah is pointed toward the streets, not even close, but a whole lot of kids are and it provides a bumper crop of inexperienced rappers mimicking the style of whoever’s hot. But, if you can sift through the wackness, there’s a lot of talent down there putting out some of the realest stuff you ever heard—like getting goosebumps on your arms from the realness.
In that category, the first person who comes to mind is Taz Gutta, easily one of my favorite rappers in the city. I don’t say this lightly: he’s got a certain Tupac quality. Real, but with some poetic awareness. This is one of my favorite songs from his recent mixtape, Public School Product. A slow burner.
Taz isn’t just a rapper. He’s got crazy hustle. He’s making his own beats, designing cover art and flyers, plus shooting videos for himself and a ton of other players on the street-side of the city’s rap ecosystem. Taz’s ASN Media YouTube channel is turning into the radio for the streets down there. You can catch new music from a bunch of locals—anyone with enough bread for the shoot—and a lot of times these videos are their only real online presence. No Facebook. No mixtapes. Sometimes they’re hard to even Google.
When it comes to finding raw material from certifiable hustlers, one to watch is Rico Ru. His newest joint, “Up in the Air,” is a blunted vent session about the stresses of greed, thirst, and survival in the Port. The beat is cold and his flow is smooth. It’s enough to have reverends thinking about crumbling up, twisting and sparking. The opening line is about how he can’t put pictures of himself on the internet without compromising operations. And you don’t find much when you try to look for him online.
In that same vein is Don Doe. “Lethal Weapon, no Danny Glover,” he proclaims on “Wit Tha Shxt.” Not always the tightest flows, but certainly one of the meanest. He lets you know, waving a machine gun over rapid-fire hi hats and a deep, purple-tinged beat. Fuck a rapper with a stylist. This cut gets bonus points for having the perfect amount of auto-tune on YFN KAY’s hook. Too often abused below the Mason-Dixon, it’s done right here.
Savannah’s Hip Hop Side
Savannah’s rap ecosystem has a lot of different isolated habitats, a Galapagos-style archipelago of beats and rhymes. For a relatively small city, it’s crazy how it can host completely separate spheres that co-exist seemingly unaware of one another. You can have guys with crazy reps in one section that no one’s ever heard of in another. There are a few artists that dip their toes on both sides, but not many.
Beyond the street side, there’s a bunch of real hip hop heads holding it down, too. That scene centers on a long-running (more than 10 years now) hip hop night hosted at The Jinx on Tuesdays. Freestyle sessions, MC battles, beat battles, b-boys & b-girls getting down, DJs, graf artists, touring special guests—everybody’s chilling. Sometimes hip hop night is a crazy party busting out the doors and sometimes it’s a handful of true-school heads talking about comic books and how much Drake sucks. It all depends on the Tuesday.
At the epicenter of Savannah’s hip hoppers are the Dope Sandwich crew, who since the early ‘00s seem stuck on the outside of underground notoriety. They played Atlanta’s A3C festival the first couple of years it happened, back before anyone outside of the south knew about it. They’ve toured the country a few times, too, opening for some notable acts, but they never caught a break off of it. More than a decade later, perseverance does pay off, and there are some bigger things in the works, including upcoming label releases and noteworthy underground co-signs for one of the last members standing, Dope Knife.
He’s hands down one of the best freestylers the Southeast has ever seen and raps like a dude twice his size when he’s on stage. Raw power. His content is sharp, dark and cynical boom bap—a “live from the bomb shelter, lit by a single naked light bulb and counting down until the end of the world” type of sound. Or, briefly, sort of like R.A. the Rugged Man meets Run the Jewels. You’ll hear him say things like “Obama killed way more kids than Adam Lanza,” on his 2014 album, Iconoclast. Zero fucks given.
Supporting the dusty-loops-and-sharp-raps genre, Knife has another project with crewmate Miggs called Happy Thoughts. They dropped a nice self-titled album back in April. That’s definitely worth checking out, if you’re feeling this smooth-stalking cut, produced by Black Caesar.
Not everyone in that sphere is part of Dope Sandwich either. Maf, aka Carlito Baby, is criminally slept-on—known beyond city limits, but not equivalent to his talents as both an MC and a producer. A few weeks ago, he unearthed a couple of older projects that had never been released online. And, there are some jewels. On GANC, a collabo mixtape with North Carolina-based MC KO, one of my favorite joints is an Otis Redding-based anthem, “My City.”
Going back a little farther, this slick joint came off of Maf’s album, Circa ’78.
On the Come Up
There’s a new generation of locals that are picking up the flag—in part because of grassroots arts organizations that tried to impart skills and knowledge into a generation of Savannah’s kids. The South Indies crew all came through programs by All Walks of Life and Spitfire Poetry over the years—two organizations that used hip hop and poetry as tools to engage youth in arts and technology programs.
The South Indies have grown from being teenagers with potential to being on point, and now they’re repping #NewSavannah. For a taste, here’s ‘Quice and Ethan tearing up a local take on “Panda.”
Ethan Jeremiah, aka Lil EJ from da Pote, is one to watch. This joint is tight.
On the topic of city anthems, there have been a few that mattered, but in the past 10 years, this one might’ve been the best. The Chatham County Boys (who later grew up to be the Chatham County Bosses) a.k.a. CCB probably own the title for their “Savannah Anthem,” which dropped in 2010. The crew’s members, QD, Hoodstar Red, C. Baggs and others are still around the city, but only Red is still regularly releasing music. QD’s name still pops up occasionally, but not as much as it should considering his skills as both a producer and a hook-writing savant.
When “Savannah Anthem” came out, it was one of the only times I remember seeing kids from the streets and kids from the art college getting down to the same local jam. Even though it didn’t get radio play (there was no clean version), the song did manage to become a local media sensation late that summer because the kid who shot and edited the video used some footage of a local police officer that was originally shot for a different project and then used without the cop’s permission. Needless to say, the themes of the song and video didn’t match up with the officer’s worldview and there were newspaper stories and threats of legal action until the video was re-edited.
So, that’s a highly subjective trip through Savannah’s rap world. There are tons of folks who probably got left out of this, not because they aren’t also good and influential, but because there’s only so much that one person can type. If you’re still even reading this, thanks for the interest. Savannah’s crazy. It’s the kind of place that gets under your skin and then you can’t really ever shake it. I left four years ago and still keep an eye on what’s good there. Savannah’s rappers deserve more attention than they get. But, the rap game isn’t a meritocracy.