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Country Music Gets A Hip-Hop Infusion With 'Old Town Road' And 'The Git Up'

Two current country hits by black musicians are challenging traditional notions of the genre. Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" and Blanco Brown's "The Git Up" pulse with history and humor.

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Other segments from the episode on July 1, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 1, 2019: Interview with Casey Newton; Review of the two country-music songs, "Old Town Road" and "The Git Up."

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of two country music hits with a hip-hop sensibility - Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" and Blanco Brown's "The Git Up." "Old Town Road" found itself on the center of a controversy when Billboard Magazine initially removed it from its country sales chart for being not country enough. Ken says that "Old Town Road" and "The Git Up" are made by African American musicians with a sense of history and a sense of humor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TOWN ROAD")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Yeah, I'm gonna take my horse to the Old Town Road. I'm gonna ride till I can't no more. I'm gonna take my horse to the Old Town Road. I'm gonna ride till I can't no more. I got the horses in the back. Horse tack is attached...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: One of the biggest hits this past spring is sticking around to be one of the biggest hits of the summer. Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" is an interesting piece of music that behaves like a novelty song. What might immediately strike your ear is the use of a banjo, not your usual hip-hop instrument. Then there's the tempo, a loping beat that does a great job of making you picture Lil Nas X sitting on a horse that's trotting across an Old West desert. In this context, the languid vocal comes across as a drawl.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TOWN ROAD")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) I got the horses in the back. Horse tack is attached. Hat is matte black. Got the boots that's black to match. Riding on a horse, ha. You can whip your Porsche. I been in the valley. You ain't been up off that porch, now. Can't nobody tell me nothing. You can't tell me nothing. Can't nobody tell me nothing. You can't tell me nothing. Riding on a tractor. Lean all in my bladder. Cheated on my baby. You can go and ask her. My life is a movie, bull riding and boobies. Cowboy hat from Gucci. Wrangler on my booty. Can't nobody tell me nothing...

TUCKER: Maybe you've seen the video for the song that features Lil Nas X performing with country music guest star Billy Ray Cyrus. "Old Town Road" traveled a rocky road to success. Early on in the song's run, Billboard dropped it from its country music chart, saying the song, quote, does "not embrace enough elements of today's country music."

This was, of course, ludicrous, verging on something more serious. Public outcry made it an even bigger hit, and the song went back on the country charts as well as the pop and hip-hop charts. Lil Nas X recently released an EP of seven diversely styled songs that suggest he's not a one-trick pony.

Another artist, Blanco Brown, has a single that mixes hip-hop with country in both rhythm and instrumentation that is something altogether different. It's a new novelty hit called "The Git Up."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIT UP")

BLANCO BROWN: (Singing) Right now I just need you to get real loose. Get comfortable. Grab your loved ones, or grab your love partner. And if you're by yourself, no worries. Just follow after me. Gonna do the two-step, then cowboy boogie. Grab your sweetheart and spin out with them. Do the hoedown...

TUCKER: "The Git Up" is a devilishly clever number combining hip-hop rapping with a line dance rhythm. In the video for the song, Blanco Brown does a funky two-step that's caught on among both country and hip-hop audiences. Until now, Brown was best known within the industry as a producer. He's worked with Chris Brown, Pitbull and Childish Gambino among others. "The Git Up" isn't a masterpiece of songwriting, but it sure is catchy, a perfect summertime hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIT UP")

BROWN: (Singing) To the left, to the left now. To the right, to the right. Now take your left hand, and put it on your side. Gonna roll your shoulders, do the slip and slide. This next part's my favorite part because it's time to shine. Gonna do the two-step, then cowboy boogie. Grab your sweetheart and spin out with them. Do the hoedown, and get into it. Take it to the left now, and dip with it. Gonna throw down, take a sip with it. And lean back, put your hips in it. It's simple. You can do it. Slide to the left...

TUCKER: If you want to get serious about this, "Old Town Road" and "The Git Up" are the latest examples of the way black musicians' interactions with the country genre are most often treated like unusual events. That Lil Nas X's song had to pass some sort of purity test to join the Billboard country chart is, to put it mildly, distasteful. The African American presence in country music extends back centuries, of course, at the very least as old as the banjo itself. Nevertheless, it's great to hear these two songs in the current country context, providing enlightenment as well as entertainment.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" and Blanco Brown's "The Git Up."

Last month, HBO featured a mini-series dramatizing the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, the world's greatest nuclear disaster. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk with journalist Adam Higginbotham about the untold story of the Chernobyl meltdown. In his book "Midnight In Chernobyl," he writes about design flaws and shortcuts, human hubris, Soviet secrecy and the lack of imagination that led to the 1986 explosion. He talked to many eyewitnesses. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TOWN ROAD")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Can't nobody tell me nothing. You can't tell me nothing. Can't nobody tell me nothing. You can't tell me nothing... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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