Blend of hip-hop, bluegrass meant for Appalachian inmates

Monday, May 6, 2002

WHITESBURG, Ky. -- Some call the unusual blend of rural and urban music hillbilly hip-hop. Others call it hick-hop.

The collaboration of banjos, fiddles and drums set to a beat that would leave a rapper out of breath was created to reach inmates from big cities who are in rural Appalachian prisons.

Nick Szuberla, director of an eastern Kentucky radio show that caters to those inmates, brought bluegrass and hip-hop musicians together in Whitesburg earlier this month for a live performance on WMMT-FM. Dirk Powell, a banjo picker from Oberlin, Ohio, and Danja Mowf, a hip-hop artist from Richmond, Va., created music that lends itself to both clogging and break dancing.

"This is the first instance I know of where traditional mountain musicians and hip-hop artists joined forces," said Rich Kirby, head of June Appal Recordings in Whitesburg. "Both musics have deep roots in tradition, and if you go back far enough you will find the same roots."

The mix of genres is meant to show that urban and rural cultures need not clash, said Szuberla, whose hip-hop program "From the Holler to the Hood" airs weekly.

That message is important in central Appalachia, he said, where urban and rural cultures meet daily in prison.

"In the past 10 years, prisons have been popping up in rural communities across Appalachia," he said. "You have inmates from urban areas in the Northeast being shipped 15 hours away from home to these rural communities. What has happened is a cultural clash."

For many inmates from cities, even listening to the radio has changed: Country music rules the airwaves in central Appalachia, allowing room only for the occasional rock or oldies stations.

Szuberla said his station tries to supplement bluegrass and traditional music with hip-hop, punk, heavy metal, jazz, R&B, reggae and, now, the odd new musical blend.

Appalshop, a media arts center in Whitesburg, is producing a TV documentary about the growth of prisons in Appalachia. The mixture of music will be used as a soundtrack.

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