Hip-hop snobs probably didn't lose any sleep on the night before Dem Franchize Boyz dropped, especially with the simple, bouncy "White Tee" ghetto-anthem-of-late that's dominating airwaves to the peril of the snobs' better cultural-preservation sensibilities. But Dem "White Tee" Boyz may be doing more to preserve the culture than they're given credit for.
A fascinating yet under-examined element of rap music is the "Where I'm From" song -- constructed around the various features of a particular region, city or hood distinguishing it from all others. When N.W.A. did "Straight Outta Compton," both the lyrics and accompanying music video provided visuals of a hip-hop culture that had an entirely different face and head of hair than the common NYC perception.
N.W.A. used Yo! MTV Raps to show how they do in South Central L.A.: black and khaki Dickies hardware suits with slippers or flip-flops, all-black locs (sunglasses) and Jheri curls -- a peculiar and juvenile, if not somewhat feminine appearance to those baptized in NYC hip-hop aesthetics. But you couldn't entirely write off the L.A. style, because it was so much more gangsta than its East Coast rival. Since then, many rap artists have found it necessary to include the "Where I'm From" song on their CD, to explain to the world how they do in their hometown. Jay-Z had his "Where I'm From" on In My Lifetime -- he put it down for Brooklyn, even if Digable Planets had already done it two years earlier. C-Murder had his for New Orleans, while more recently Supreem Da Regulata's "Where I'm From" claimed Philly.
Enter Dem Franchize Boyz, whose first song on their fairly impressive and self-titled disc is "Where I'm From." But since they're from Atlanta, they're a lil' late: We've already had the Dirty South capital represented to the fullest, from Outkast to Lil' Jon. What's interesting about Dem Boyz' song, though, is how it exposes the irony of trying to distinguish one's city in a time when mass-media imports and exports slang, fashion and culture at the speed of light -- to the point where it's become increasingly hard to tell one city from another.
So listening to Franchize's version we find that where dey from, they: "ride [cars] on big rims," "wear Dickie suits and Tims," "tote choppers and AKs."
Suffice it to say that you can visit Any Ghetto or Many Suburbs, USA, and find, guess what? Cars with big rims and people wearing Dickie suits and Timberland boots. Thanks to our stiff-dick GOP and pissy-pamper Dems in Congress passing that weak-ass assault weapons ban, and then letting it expire, we can also find choppers and AKs pretty much anywhere.
But that hasn't stopped Dem Franchize Boyz from representin' -- even if under the illusion that their practices are unique. My guess, then, is that the "Where I'm From" element of rap has become recontextualized to act not as a marker that spells out the regional differences among hip-hop youth, but rather now acts as a dialogue with other regional youth -- a dialogue that at its heart says, "Hey, I'm just like you."
In the "White Tee" song -- a song found utterly despicable by the more moral, upper-class and fashionably eccentric of us -- I see the same dialogue taking place. It's a call to the hip-hop generation that acknowledges uniformity in fashion that transcends region, and subtly searches for other common ground. Call it "ghetto" if you want, but there's something intellectually profound about the "white tee" phenom, for street dwellers who seek to confuse and elude the police -- a common enemy. What does a cop in pursuit radio in? "Be on lookout for a black male in a white T-shirt, Dickie pants and Timberland hiking boots." Which one do you grab?
Digging beneath the obvious you find a group that has identified a particular generational trait and acts to preserve it. A scarier thought is what happens when those brothers band together in uniform and begin yelling with a common voice. Beware of the message then inscribed on the shirts.