Dax, Nelly, and RECORDS Nashville executive Barry Weiss discuss strategies behind two decades of rap and country’s cross-genre hits
Currently, listening to mainstream country music via radio or streaming portals highlights one incredible-seeming notion: Country music and hip-hop are closer sonic and music industry bedfellows than ever before.
From Blanco Brown and BRELAND to rappers-turned-singers like ERNESTand Jelly Roll, and pop-successful rap-trope adapters like Walker Hayes, the breadth of types and styles of emcees and takes on rap’s culture in country music is deeper than ever.
In 2020, RECORDS, a joint-venture label between Sony Music and veteran music executive Barry Weiss, opened in Nashville. The label is home to country artists like Matt Stell, San Francisco rapper 24kGoldn, and pop star Noah Cyrus. As well, two rappers at two separate points in their rap-to-pop-to-country crossover careers – Canadian newcomer Dax and hip-hop icon Nelly – are signed to the label.
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Weiss’ history includes serving as the CEO of Jive Records from 1991 to 2011. Notably, this makes him the only man in Nashville who can speak with deep knowledge about regional rap and R&B’s mainstream surge, from every No. 1 hit from Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and NSYNC to the tracks that established groups like Outkast, P!nk, and Usher as modern superstars.
As the executive behind pop-country hits and Jive-released tracks popular during the MTV “Total Request Live” era, Weiss is keenly aware of the past, present, and future of pop, country, and rap’s intersections.
He’s “excited” about “Birthday Girl,” Nelly’s forthcoming single with Big Loud-signed vocalist Chris Lane. However, he tells the Tennessean that he’s “fascinated” to hear how navigating the path tocountry and hip-hop’s commingling first requires making a not-so-obvious connection between Ray Charles and Nelly.
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Five years into their mainstream recording careers, each decided that their lucrative yet streamlined rises to success demanded a left turn into “country grammar” to best highlight who they wholly were as people.
Revealing their organic humanity via melodic and uniquely catchy pop music yielded perpetual appeal for each.
For Charles, his gold-selling 1962-released “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” was an unexpected detour. But it also brought him immediate critical and commercial success. The now globally beloved album expanded his radio airplay on pop, R&B, and country radio and allowed him to cross over into the genre for the rest of his career.
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Similarly, by 2004, Tim McGraw had become a comfortable and familiar staple of country radio airplay.As well, Nelly was a rapper who had sold over 30 million albums in two years.
For his third album, Nelly wanted to release two. “Sweat/Suit” was 25 tracks long. The former, “Sweat,” would be “energetic and more up-tempo,” while the latter, “Suit,” would be “melodic, grown-up and sexy.”
Via “Suit,” Nelly delivered “Over and Over,” a duet with McGraw. A 2020 review notes that the country-meets-rap track “works much better than it should.” It was a platinum-selling Top 5 Billboard Hot 100 hit in the U.S.
The song also marked Nelly’s now almost 20-year-long country career, in which he’s helped acts such as Florida Georgia Line (2012’s “Cruise,” 2021’s “Little Bit”) and Kane Brown (2020’s “Cool Again”) sell nearly 20 million singles.
“Everyone loves Nelly,” says Weiss. “He’s got such a lovable personality. And yes, every country music superstar loves ‘Country Grammar.'”
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He adds an important point about the demographics of Nelly’s St. Louis roots to the conversation.
“St. Louis is a country town,” Weiss says. “It’s Midwestern, but because of the migration there by so many of its residents, it’s also a heavily Southern city, too.”
It’s so Southern, he says, that when Nelly shows up in Nashville ‒ though he’s a St. Louis native ‒ he’s “treated like royalty.”
Chris Lane was “exuberant” about the chance to work with Nelly, Weiss continues.
Nelly’s intrinsic ability to merge country and hip-hop lanes “without premeditation” is what Weiss enjoys most about working with him.
Nelly recalls bridging genres throughout his career, noting early tour lineups saw him performing with “the biggest rappers on a hip hop ticket, and the next day we would be playing the county fair with country artists.”
He adds that he has “genuine respect” for country music, and that resonates with his fans.
“Writing and collaborating with country artists feels natural and never gets old,” he says. “Backstage at [a country music show] is a mix of rap songs, hip-hop, and country.”
Weis says you don’t have to be as big as Ray Charles was in 1962 or Nelly in 2004 to break down barriers.
“As long as they connect ‒ however they connect ‒ left-of-center records that elude gatekeepers’ grasp are emerging and becoming commercially successful.”
Weiss notes that streaming’s post-COVID-19 quarantine ubiquity in the pop marketplace “denies bifurcation between genres.” He feels that this has spurred broader cross-genre acceptance from pop’s modern consumers.
For St. John’s, Newfoundland-born rapper Dax, eluding the grasp of gatekeepers in 2022 has keyed the growth of “Dear Alcohol.”
His ode to making an earnest attempt at sobriety earned him an audience via TikTok’s “mindful drinking” community. He now has over 1.3 million Instagram followers, 2.3 million monthly Spotify listeners, and 4.3 million YouTube subscribers.
“Dear Alcohol’s” success feels great, says Dax. “My poetical style music focuses heavily on the words and message [and is greater than] genres. It relates more to the human experience.”
Weiss mirrors Dax’s confidence that records like “Dear Alcohol” can reach ears – even without the marketing might and promotional reach of country radio in America.
“We don’t know if Dax is ever going to get on the radio,” says Weiss. “From our experience with Nelly’s album ‘Heartland’ (No. 45 peak on Billboard’s pop album charts), we had a Florida Georgia Line single on that one, and it still didn’t impact radio as we expected. But it’s still a triple-platinum seller.
“Country radio is still an important mechanism, but consumers don’t need it as much anymore to discover outlier records that are cutting through the marketplace.”
Weiss feels that country’s mainstream marketing, promotions and sales arms will eventually catch up to with the country music variant that is more defined by hip-hop’s culture and aesthetics is leading.
He strongly feels that mainstream music’s country-adoring consumers are inspired by rap’s “break rules now, ask questions later” mindset. However, he feels they are still ensnared by the country radio-defined ideal of four-to-12-month cycles for top-tier singles.
Highlighting artists like BRELAND’s “cross country” ideal for making pop-country records, integrating styles and vibes familiar to rap and country traditions, Weiss predicts that more “outlier” records that expand country fans’ expectations will achieve “streams through the roof.”
Weiss uses Dax’s “Dear Alcohol” as an early case study of where and how this movement galvanizes next.
Dax’s Canadian heritage has proved to be an unexpected aid in breaking the track to country stations north of the border. Notably, in November 2020, African-American female artist Mickey Guyton paired with Canadian country singer Dean Brody for “Boys.” The song reached No. 1 on the Canada Country singles chart. It was Guyton’s first career chart-topper, making her the first black woman to top Canada’s Country chart.
Dax will perform “Dear Alcohol” ‒ one of August’s most added records on Canadian country radio ‒ at the Canadian Country Music Awards. Weiss is hopeful that this success will create a boomerang effect to achieve American radio success for the track.
Making an attempt at radio alongside a strong streaming play falls squarely upon the shoulders of the track’s collaboration “remix.”
The new take features breakout American country star Elle King. Her performance reveals a soulful swagger heretofore unseen by the artist famed for her Miranda Lambert duet “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” and sharing the spotlight with Dierks Bentley for “Worth a Shot.”
Weiss made one call to RCA Records’ head of A&R, Keith Naftaly, about Dax working with Elle, and 72 hours later, “Dear Alcohol” had a “magical, amazing verse that made us pop a bottle of champagne to celebrate,” he jokes.
“Streaming is the new litmus test of how crossover records react and resonate in the culture,” he says.
To Weiss, from the days of “Total Request Live” to the modern era, pop culture erasing gatekeepers and genres in lieu of creating intersectional bridges between people is important.
“Every person has the ability to cross any bridge ‒ more than ever ‒ now. This leaves us with no rules, just hits.”
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