The Anniversary

Deliverance Turns 20

Beat Club/Interscope
Beat Club/Interscope

“Twenty million other white rappers emerge!” That was Eminem in 2002, reflecting on the changes that he might’ve wrought on rap music. In the late ’90s, before Eminem erupted onto the national scene, white rappers were a punchline, a relic of the misbegotten early-’90s moment when record labels assumed that it would take a pale face to get rap into pop-radio rotation. Vanilla Ice and House Of Pain and 3rd Bass had all come and gone, while the Beastie Boys tended to their boho-hipster flock, leaving rap’s mainstream entirely alone. Eminem was a different story, a furious rap technician with sharp pop instincts and the backing of the biggest-name rap producer in history. When Em rapped that line, he was dealing with the immediate aftermath of his Marshall Mathers LP selling more than any other rap album ever, riffing on the idea that he might become the proverbial rap Elvis that so many feared. Eventually, Em’s prediction would come true, and G-Eazys and Macklemores and Iggy Azaleas would run rampant across the globe. In the moment, though, there was really only one white rapper who’d emerged. His name was Bubba Sparxxx.

Admittedly, there were other white rappers in 2003. The backpack underground had plenty of them: El-P, Aesop Rock, Eydea, Sage Francis, Sole, all those guys. On a very different wing of the underground, there was Haystak, an ex-drug dealer from Nashville with an independent album called Car Fulla White Boys. There were Eminem’s enemies the Insane Clown Posse and their whole Juggalo extended universe. There were the rap-metal chest-puffers, who had varying degrees of relationship to rap. But Bubba Sparxxx was the only other white rapper trying to be taken seriously within rap itself, linking up with an iconic producer and making a run at the radio. Bubba Sparxxx and Eminem both grew up working-class and provincial, but they sounded, acted, and moved nothing like one another. On his breakout single, Bubba made the contrast explicit: “This is Bubba’s moment! I put my mother on it! I said my mama — it seems as if I love her, don’t it?”

“Ugly,” the song that made Bubba Sparxxx famous, is a truly fascinating and ridiculous time capsule. It’s a Timbaland track, from that prime era when everything that Timbaland touched took you to a different galaxy. In this case, though, the voice that came paired with that beat wasn’t imperious like Jay-Z or otherwordly like Aaliyah. It was a husky drawl with a whole lot of personality, and it belonged to a big white guy who looked like he should be playing a linebacker in Varsity Blues. Bubba Sparxxx had played linebacker, and he’d been all-region in high school. Falcons player Steve Herndon, one of Bubba’s high school teammates, was a constant presence in his videos.

The “Ugly” video turned Bubba’s white rural upbringing into a wild, vivid cartoon. It looks like a combination of Hype Williams and Harmony Korine, from the era before Harmony Korine tried to make his films look more like Hype Williams videos. Bubba spends much of the video wrestling pigs, spattered in mud. At the end, Missy Elliott appears, riding a pink tractor. The song was catchy, and it was a legitimate top-20 pop hit. But it was also a weird culture-shock mindfuck. Who was this guy?

This guy was Warren Anderson Mathis, and he grew up on a cattle farm outside LaGrange, Georgia, a small town a little more than an hour south of Atlanta. Bubba’s hometown was racially mixed, and he learned about rap from a friend, a Black kid from New York who spent summers with his grandparents at a nearby farm. Bubba wrote his rhymes in his room rather than trying them out in public; it was years before he ever even considered that he might have a career in rap. Bubba’s college football career didn’t work out, so he moved to Athens, where his friend Steve Herndon was playing at the University Of Georgia. Bubba Sparxxx doesn’t have too much in common with R.E.M. or the B-52’s, but they started their careers in the same place. Bubba found a manager and released an independent album, and that album got him signed to Interscope, the same label that brought Eminem to the world.

Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine, following the Eminem playbook, paired Bubba up with Timbaland, and Bubba joined the roster at Tim’s Beat Club imprint. (Iovine first tried to team Bubba with Swizz Beatz, and they made some music, but that combination didn’t really make sense.) “Ugly” came out at the right time, and it made Bubba famous. Bubba’s 2001 debut album Dark Days, Bright Nights didn’t do anything like Eminem numbers, and it didn’t produce a second hit, but it went gold. Bubba Sparxxx wasn’t a star, but he had a seat at the table.

Over the next few years, Bubba Sparxxx hung around on rap’s periphery. He rapped on a deep cut from Justin Timberlake’s debut album Justified. He got together with Jadakiss for “They Ain’t Ready,” a single from a Ruff Ryders compilation, where he unfortunately rhymed “Yonkers” with “hot as bonkers” and “these cow feces” with “it shall be me.” Bubba made those connections through his Timbaland association, but more importantly, he also found a spot with the Dungeon Family, the legendary Atlanta rap collective. In 2001, the Dungeon Family released their underrated group album Even In Darkness, and Bubba held his own alongside Big Boi and the Goodie Mob on the track “White Gutz.” The Dungeon Family were on the verge of splintering at the time, but Bubba still got to be part of a historic movement.

In 2003, Bubba Sparxxx released the album of his life. Deliverance, which turns 20 tomorrow, is a deeply strange piece of work, an attempt to fuse rap and country aesthetics at a moment when nobody knew whether that combination might work. People were still getting used to white rappers; the very idea of a country white rapper was a hard sell. Bubba himself wasn’t sure about it; the album’s sonic direction seemed to mostly come from Timbaland trying to test himself and do something new. But Bubba went along with it, and he found new, powerful ways to present his story to the world.

The country music influence on Deliverance had very little to do with the version of country that ruled the airwaves in 2003. The country stars of that moment pulled arena-rock moves and presented them through Southern sitcom-dad perspectives: Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley. (This was the moment just before the Nashville industry blacklisted the Chicks.) Instead of that stuff, Deliverance drew from bluegrass and old-timey jug-band music. Timbaland had clearly been spending a lot of time with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. In the video for the Deliverance title track, Idlewild director Bryan Barber pretty much restaged the Coen Brothers’ down-south caper.

The title of Deliverance has plenty of its own associations. It’s about redemption, transcendence. But it’s also the ’70s backwoods thriller that affected the perception of poor Southern white folks for generations to come. Timbaland produced most of Deliverance, building a sonic template of fiddles and harmonicas and acoustic guitars but running them all through his particular future-funk sensibility. There’s plenty of Southern rock and HBCU marching-band music on Deliverance, too. Bubba consistently shouts out the phrase “New South,” the two words tattooed across his forearms. It’s a concept that came up after the Civil War — the ideal of a modernized South where the old racial hierarchies were abandoned, before Reconstruction destroyed any progress that had been made. Deliverance tries to present a holistic, utopian deep-South musical identity, where sounds float through the air and cultural boundaries vanish.

Deliverance is produced entirely by Timbaland and Organized Noize, the production team behind the Dungeon Family. Based on that alone, it’s worth hearing. We’re talking about two of the greatest rap production entities in history, both operating near the peak of their powers. Even better, you can’t always tell which tracks are Timbaland and which are Organized Noize, since they’re both exploring the same ideas. Bubba later said that Timbaland pitched him on the idea that his second album should sound the way that the “Ugly” video looked. Bubba was skeptical, but Tim sent him a beat that flipped a Yonder Mountain String Band sample, and that beat became the song “Comin’ Round.”

Maybe Bubba Sparxxx was intended to serve as the vehicle for Timbaland’s musical explorations, but he was more than that, too. On Deliverance, Bubba Sparxxx comes off as a soulful storyteller, doing his best to put his own upbringing into the context of early-’00s rap music. After an introductory Big Rube spoken-word meditation, a staple of Dungeon Family albums, Deliverance opens with Bubba describing himself sitting on a Greyhound bus with a package of eight pounds of dope. He’s on the run from the law, wondering if his cousin can help him sell his out in Wichita, far from this opera forevermore. And on “Comin’ Round,” Bubba raps his ass off, asserting his place in the conversation as an agent of disruption: “Is it baby balls or a miniature erection that makes you view change with degenerate dejection?”

On Deliverance, Bubba Sparxxx tells stories. That’s what great rappers are supposed to do, and it’s also what great country songwriters are supposed to do. “She Tried” has a bittersweet hook from Ryan Tedder, another Timbaland protege who hadn’t yet become famous for fronting OneRepublic or writing maudlin ballads for pop stars. Timbaland’s mournful fiddles and mouth clicks could sound parodic, but they don’t, mostly because Bubba tells a story of real regret about cheating on his first love and losing her: “Last I heard, she was in Birmingham/ Livin’ with a good hard-workin’ man/ And lookin’ back on it, that’s exactly what she wanted/ Not a rebel with a passion for the moment.”

“Nowhere” is even more vivid, with Bubba Sparxxx describing what it’s like to grow up poor and rural, sometimes in terms that are downright gross: “To catch the fish, you bait the hook with little Dylan’s poopoo/ On Mr. Allen’s property — he catch you, he will shoot you.” Bubba says that his family “loved some Jimmy Carter, but we never even voted,” and he gives thanks for his father still being in his life: “How you held it down when them other clowns disappeared/ Taught me how to seek to scope, shoot, and leave with the deer/ Then made me drink the blood to show me life was precious.” Bubba even walks back his subliminal “Ugly” line about the other big white rapper: “Eminem’s incredible, but did I really have to say this/ For y’all to leave my soul at rest and add me to yo’ playlist?”

There’s some silliness on Deliverance. Bubba continues to mention pigshit more than he probably should, and he says this line: “Fuck with me, I doubt that you really can/ When I get to do that hillbilly dance.” (He makes that line sound cool, though.) On songs like the Organized Noize-produced single “Back In The Mud,” Bubba dives into revved-up rock guitars, and the result works, but it gave the album a tough commercial road. When Deliverance came out, Bubba went on tour with Blink-182, and the video is an early example of the Travis Barker rap-video cameo. Someone must’ve really thought that combination would work, but I truly can’t imagine why.

Timbaland sold Bubba Sparxxx on the Deliverance concept by telling Bubba that he’d only sell 10 million records if he tried something truly daring and rule-breaking. Timbaland and Bubba succeeded in making a great album, but they failed miserably at achieving lofty album-sales numbers of an Eminem or a Kid Rock. Deliverance got great reviews, but it almost instantly vanished when it came out. Bubba Sparxxx did not become rich. A year after the album’s release, Bubba appeared on the great Timbaland-produced Petey Pablo track “Get On Dis Motorcycle” and mentioned that his father was still driving a school bus. In 2006, I interviewed Bubba and asked him if that line was true, if his father was still driving a bus, and Bubba affirmed that it was: “He’s been driving a school bus for 30 years. He really does it for the health benefits, not so much for the money. They got a great, great health insurance package.”

I interviewed Bubba when he was about to release The Charm, his third album. Bubba was still on Interscope, but he’d split away from Timbaland. Instead, he’d moved to another team. Outkast had effectively broken up, and Bubba’s old friend Big Boi was starting a new label and crew called Purple Ribbon. It didn’t last long, but Big Boi assembled a lineup of artists that, in retrospect, was pretty amazing: Killer Mike, Sleepy Brown, a young Janelle Monáe. Bubba fit right in.

After Deliverance, Bubba Sparxxx was done experimenting. He wanted to make Atlanta street music, music for the clubs. Almost immediately, he came to regard Deliverance as a mistake. Bubba told me, “Rock people said it was too rap, rap people said it was too rock. You know how people have the need to put things in categories, so I think that was what hurt it… If I have a regret, it’s that to a degree I alienated people who supported my initial movement with ‘Ugly.’ I’m the kind of guy who enjoys going to the club, and with Deliverance I didn’t really do anything for the club.” On The Charm, Bubba comes just shy of saying that he’s sorry for his previous album: “Really don’t expect no forgiveness for Deliverance/ Then again, I offer no apologies; I lived the shit.”

The Charm had the antidote for all that. The album’s lead single was a cartoonishly clubby single called “Ms. New Booty,” and it found Bubba teaming up with crunk hitmakers the Ying Yang Twins and yelling about “booty booty booty booty rockin’ everywhere.” The song was practically engineered to annoy the critics who loved Deliverance, and it went top-10 on the pop charts, becoming the biggest hit of Bubba Sparxxx’s career. He’d washed the pigshit stink off of him.

But the success of “Ms. New Booty” didn’t win any respect for The Charm, a pretty good rap record that’s now mostly forgotten. By the time that the album came out, Bubba was dealing with a Percocet addiction. For years, he mostly disappeared. In the meantime, the combination of country and rap moved in strange new directions. In the immediate aftermath of Deliverance, Nelly and Tim McGraw had a huge hit with their understated duet “Over And Over.” Big & Rich, a rule-breaking country duo whose two members hadn’t yet become right-wing influencers, played around with rap aesthetics and released an album from a novelty country-rapper named Cowboy Troy. Eventually, the Athens native and former golf pro Colt Ford became a full-on cult phenomenon by releasing his own indie country-rap records. In 2011, the country star Jason Aldean — another guy with a right-wing influencer future — had a big pop hit by covering Colt Ford’s quasi-rap song “Dirt Road Anthem.” Ludacris appeared on a remix.

With the success of Colt Ford, a whole country-rap scene came into being — white guys with bad tattoos and dirt-staches spitting bars about drinking beers by the lake or kicking up mud with their big truck tires. Groups like the Lacs and Redneck Souljers quietly did big numbers and established a touring circuit. As it happens, Bubba Sparxxx and Colt Ford were old friends, and they’d been in a rap group together in Athens, before either got famous. That country-rap scene adopted Bubba, who signed with Ford’s label and came back from the brink with the 2013 album Pain Management. It didn’t chart, but Bubba’s Colt Ford collab “Country Folks” did millions of YouTube views and eventually went gold.

Bubba Sparxxx has continued to record; for a while, he was affiliated with Yelawolf, another culty rural Southern rapper whose career would’ve been a whole lot harder to imagine if Bubba had never made Deliverance. The cult of Deliverance grew; the title track now has nearly three times as many Spotify streams as “Ugly.” The fusion of rap and country aesthetics became less and less of a novelty, and it’s pretty much a fact of life now. Lil Nas X’s impossible-to-replicate experiment “Old Town Road” remains the longest-reigning #1 hit in Billboard history. Post Malone was talking about George Strait even before he went full singer-songwriter. Morgan Wallen sings over trap 808s, and he’s one of the biggest stars in America right now. Another huge success story in country music is Jelly Roll, a Southern-rock bellower with face tattoos who got his start as a post-Haystak mixtape rapper.

The present-day combinations of country and rap don’t sound anything like Deliverance, even when Bubba Sparxxx is the one making the music. I’d like that stuff better if it did sound like Deliverance, but you can’t really expect any of these producers to suddenly become 2003 Timbaland. Today, we can look at Deliverance as a noble failure, a path not taken. We can also hear it as a great rap record. The ideas on Deliverance weren’t yet fully formed, but that record anticipated something. Two decades later, we’re still discovering what that thing is, as 20 million other country-rappers emerge.

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