Every so often, a new hip-hop sound emerges from a corner of the US, throwing the entire scene off balance. In the late Eighties, there was jazz-rap. At the same time, Miami bass, or "booty" music, was blurring the lines of electronic music and rap. By the mid-Nineties, gangsta rap, and its notorious subject matter of cop-killing and criminal lifestyles, had taken over.
Now the world is getting acquainted with snap music, a modish sound that's everywhere in the States. Born in the "Dirty South" city of Atlanta, it quickly grew out of its birth-city's strip clubs to invade MTV and national radio. Snap's stripped-down form, based on simple tones, sing-along anthems and finger-clicks (or "snaps", as they're known to Americans), is so hot that it has dethroned crunk, the ruling Southern hip-hop sound of 2005.
Crunk - an amalgamation of "crazy" and "drunk" - was the vision of the DJ and rapper named Lil Jon, who wanted an energised, uninhibited, club-oriented style based on repetitive and sexually crude chants. Snap likes to keep things mellow without losing its attractive rhythm, and those who want to get in on the scene can learn its variety of dances, as were recently demonstrated by the Georgia-born contestant Paris Bennett on a recent episode of American Idol, and the self-proclaimed kings of snap, Dem Franchize Boyz. These four twentysomethings - Gerald "Buddie" Tiller, Maurice "Parlae" Gleaton, producer Jamal "Pimpin" Willingham and Bernard "Jizzal Man" Leverette - claim to be the originators of the style.
"We weren't planning on starting a trend," says Buddie, with a toothy grin. "It just happened that way." Sitting in one of the offices of So So Def Recordings, the biggest independent label in Atlanta, owned by the rap mogul and producer Jermaine Dupri, the foursome are immodest about their recent success. Two members hide behind dark sunglasses although we're indoors, and all four flaunt oversized T-shirts with the group's name plastered across the front. Every time they talk, they also expose sparkling "grills" - those metal accessories for your choppers decorated in diamonds, gold and platinum that are widely popular in the South.
Their current single "Lean Wit It, Rock With It" plays on a US cable channel on a widescreen TV in the background. The Boyz say that they are keen to capitalise on their new-found fame with the standard requisites of a 21st-century American rapper - a music label and a clothing line. "Snap music is really showing you a whole new DFB movement," says Buddie, "as a label and as a group of business partners."
You can understand their enthusiasm. Their debut single "I Think They Like Me" has had a stint as the No 1 rap song in the US, and also made a killing on the download charts, clocking up more than a million downloads and ringtones. And their debut LP, On Top of Our Game, has sold 500,000 records, making it certified gold. VH1 dedicated the month of February to the group, and, in their hometown, they are nothing less than heroes, inspiring other snap groups to emerge as well-known rappers to swipe the style. Lil Jon has created his own finger-clicking track called "Snap Ya Fingaz" - and it's not half-bad.
"Snap music is not just a Dem Franchize Boyz sound," Parlae states, with a languid drawl. "It's just that we're the pioneers of it, and the sound started on the Westside of Atlanta. Everything out of the Westside leaks out of Atlanta and anything out of Atlanta leaks out to the whole nation right now. All the hits on the radio, all the songs everybody sings, all the dances that everybody does, come straight from the Westside. We're contagious. Every since we stepped through the door, we've been trendsetters."
Dem Franchize Boyz formed in Atlanta's Westside High School, and they developed the style with a series of mix-tapes, and performing at the Poole Palace, a local nightclub and bar. They were signed in 2004 by Universal/Motown, and their debut "White Tees", a tribute to their favourite fashion, was an underground success. It caught the attention of Jermaine Dupri, who signed them to So So Def/Virgin. The song "I Think They Like Me" appeared on Dupri's 2005 compilation album Jermaine Dupri Presents... Young, Fly & Flashy, which served as the kickstart for the new sound.
Dupri, the president of urban music at Virgin Records and the man behind Mariah Carey's amazing comeback, ascribes the popularity of snap to its basic format. "Have you ever noticed when you listen to a record that you like, and they put a breakdown in the record, that's usually the best part that you like? The breakdown feels like it takes you somewhere else. That's what Snap music sounds and feels like."
Fa-bo, from the snap group D4L, who had a hit with single "Laffy Taffy", adds that the attractiveness of snap is more to do with it being the hipper option to the delirious crunk. "If you clap your hands and get crunk and stuff, you're gonna get sweaty, right?", he asks. "But there's always that player on the wall, that just got that little step that he do all the time, and he's snapping his fingers with it, and he looks so cool with it. That's who a female is going home with."
"Crunk is too wild," agrees DJ T-Roc, the in-house DJ for the Poole Palace. "It was cool for a minute, but people don't want to get stepped on, people don't want to get their chains broken, bumped into, drinks spilled on them. Snap is not really that violent. It's fun, and even the kids can do the dances. The music is real simple, and has a good beat where you can snap your fingers and dance to it."
Exponents of snap don't claim to be the greatest wordsmiths in the world, relying on a near cryptic vocabulary ("Laffy Taffy" means "bum", "what it do" means "hello"), or amateur word schemes that do little in the way of mental stimulation. Many hip-hop traditionalists have written off snap groups as novelty acts ("Fuck 'em!' growls Jizzal Man), and, in truth, the vibrant snap moves offer more in comedic value than skill. The most sober snap dance consists of shaking to the left and right, stopping to vogue on each side with a single finger-click, and throwing your head back in glee.
Snap music's growth is a wider indication of how rappers from the South are slowly dominating their northern counterparts in the US. Within the last few months, the Billboard chart has seen a range of Southern rappers or South-inspired songs all over the Top 10, provoking New York's 50 Cent to air his concerns over the region's supremacy.
"A lot of the music that comes out of the South is kind of simplified and I think it's kinda 'cause they just wanna have a good time," he told MTV.com. "They really didn't make sense, but they made sense in a way and they just wanna hear something while they're actually partying and it works for them. But when they don't take the time to make it the highest quality possible, it hurts hip-hop. People wanna make music they can get away with as opposed to the best possible music they can make."
Other rappers reckon it's a case of hip-hop moving with the times. "I think it's a natural progression," explains David Banner, a rapper from Mississippi who's released his own snap-styled single. "The door have been nudged on and pushed on for years, and it's sort of giving way now. If you research music, the foundation of most contemporary music originates from the South. It's just the natural progression of time and music that it comes back to the place where it originated from. I think it's beautiful, and snap is a new movement that allows people to stay current and allows people to dance again. Everybody wants to be hard, everybody wants to be gangsters. Yeah, that's cool but we also gotta learn how to have fun."
Dupri agrees. "It's a fully fledged takeover right now. And I want to say it's gonna stay like this because it's hard to sell records these days without having the people of the South buying your music."
The true test for snap will be in whether it manages to cross over internationally - something Northern rappers have achieved superbly. Last year, crunk came to the UK but vanished as quickly as it appeared. Still, tracks by both Dem Franchize Boyz and D4L have been heavily playlisted on these shores, and the Boyz are certain they can take on the world.
'On Top of Our Game' by Dem Franchize Boyz is out now on Virgin. D4L's single 'Laffy Taffy' is on AtlanticReuse content