We Know: Shawty Lo Epitomized Hip-Hop

Remembering D4L's Shawty Lo, a rapper who exemplified hip-hop in all its power—despite what critics said.

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Image via Complex Original
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On Chicago's West Side, a familiar-sounding song dominated summer 2016: "I'm Da Man," as performed by rapper Lud Foe. The original version, of course, is an 11-year-old record by Atlanta rapper Carlos "Shawty Lo" Walker, which appeared on his group D4L's 2005 debut, Down for Life. When Shawty Lo was killed tragically in a car accident early Wednesday morning at the age of 40, his musical legacy was still very much alive.

Lo’s passing was met with an outpouring of emotional tributes. Numerous artists and fans weighed in on the rapper's legacy across social media and in interviews—even his one-time rival T.I. issued a heartfelt salute on Instagram. It's touching, particularly because Lo's work was maligned for much of his career. His work, both in D4L and in his solo career, was widely panned by critics, or more frequently, ignored, even as songs like “Dey Know” were ubiquitous. Appreciation for Shawty Lo came in fits and starts while he was around, and then all at once when he passed.

D4L's debut album arrived at the apex of the "snap" movement, a dance-oriented party style originating in Atlanta's Bankhead neighborhood. Its spare, minimal sound wasn't its only contrast with the more dominant crunk style pushed by Lil Jon in the early-mid 2000s. Crunk had become big business, with homegrown, now-national stars like Usher and Ludacris landing glossy, showbiz-friendly hits that borrowed its sound. Snap, meanwhile, was a grittier underground phenomenon. "We've lived that life, so we ain't got to brag on that," Shawty Lo told Maurice Garland of Vibe in June 2006, for the first national story on the snap scene. "We just want to do something different and put smiles on people's faces."

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Indeed, with crunk as both a glossier and more aggressive counterpoint, snap music was mainly fun, silly music. With production primarily from K-Rab, the form emerged from the Poole Palace, a venue Vibe suggested was less lavish than its name implied: "a small home with a homely red awning and tiny red staircase." There, DJ T-Roc spun for a frequently packed house, launching hits for a cross-section of Atlanta artists whose work wasn't getting play in other venues: "Most Atlanta DJs won't play a lot of underground music," T-Roc told Vibe in 2006. "They play what's on the radio. So everybody would come to the Poole Palace wanting to break their music."

Of course, it wasn't underground for long; with Shawty Lo’s group D4L signing to Asylum and Jermaine Dupri unveiling Dem Franchize Boys, snap music became the last cohesive hip-hop scene to rise to the top of the Billboard charts, before social media and the Internet disrupted black radio's connection to the pop charts. "Laffy Taffy"—which didn't feature Shawty Lo because he was behind bars on drugs and assault charges when it was recorded—went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, in large part on the strength of online sales. Down for Life went gold.

And then came the criticism: from artists like Ghostface Killah, who mocked the group's dances on tour, to an incoming generation of gatekeepers, like the influential blog NahRight, which criticized the movement on both aesthetic and political grounds, suggesting rap’s new generation had failed to "maintain their integrity," and had instead decided to "strive for ignorance and mediocrity." Nas' Hip-Hop Is Dead, released at the end of 2006, was seen by many as a response to the South's new artistic regime, a disgruntled veteran dismissing the innovations of an entire region—or at the very least, banking on those who would dismiss them.

Shawty Lo found himself pushed into stardom by a fervent fanbase who recognized that his personality bubbled past his limitations, making questions of 'skill' irrelevant.

Shawty Lo did not fit in with the Jay-Z-style Great Rapper ideal. Frankly, Shawty Lo wasn't a great rapper—his verses had a fairly one-dimensional appeal, and his capacity for novel flows and patterns was limited. His half-sung, half-rapped bars nonetheless exuded a charisma that’s difficult to manufacture. It's apparent on "I'm Da Man," the first record he wrote himself, which became an immediate mixtape favorite. Originally intent on working behind the scenes, Shawty Lo found himself pushed into stardom by a fervent fanbase who recognized that his personality bubbled past his limitations, making questions of "skill" irrelevant.

Shawty Lo was skilled, though, just not in the ways hip-hop traditionalists typically celebrate. His facility for catchy, memorable songs on his 2008 solo debut, Units in the City, makes the record a more worthwhile document of mid-late '00s hip-hop than many of the albums that received far more favorable attention at the time. Though Shawty Lo's shortcomings are readily apparent—collaborator Gucci Mane, a much more craft-oriented lyricist, was considerably better at maintaining attention bar-for-bar—his strengths outweighed them. "Dey Know," his most successful solo single, is a jubilant borrowing of black Southern marching band music. It's the best version of that horn-driven sound, despite considerable competition from artists as diverse as Yung Wun, Young Buck, David Banner, Missy Elliott, and J. Cole.

"Dey Know" aside, Units is an odd trap record, as minimal in its construction as the snap music that fathered it. Alongside OJ Da Juiceman, Young Joc, Soulja Boy, and, of course, Gucci, Shawty Lo's sound in the late 2000s redefined and broadened Atlanta's. Aside from personal magnetism and a facility for songcraft, his strength was confidence; the lo-fi "Feels Good to Be Here" offers little more than a spare electronic framework, an understated performance, and straightforward lyrics. But its power comes from its autobiographical underpinnings, and Shawty Lo's refusal to oversell his story. "A young teen forced to be a grown man" would be boilerplate for most, yet for Carlos, simplicity sold. His assuredness that his story's emotional truth would come through between his words and the beat carries the work.

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With his passing, it's easy to look at the sentiments of artists or fans whose enthusiasm says more than any critic or hip-hop head: yes, Shawty Lo mattered. But as interesting to note are the ways in which his presence made a mark within the culture. There's his lilting jab at T.I. on "Dunn Dunn" ("Must be two sides!"), fulfilling Rakim's dictum that the rapper's job was to "take a phrase that's rarely heard/Flip it, now it's a daily word." (Rakim was also the one who warned fans "don't sweat the technique.")—"2 sides" later became a chorus for Killer Mike. The "Dey Know" dance—a kind of laid-back running man—would replicate itself in iconic videos for years to come (Chief Keef's "Don't Like" and Plies' "Ran Off on Da Plug Twice"). And then there's the undying success of "I'm Da Man," a record that’s been remade more than once—Young Dolph and newcomer Lud Foe have both scored undergound hits with their versions.

It's ironic that D4L were once accused of threatening hip-hop's very foundation; I can't think of an artist who better epitomized hip-hop at its core than Shawty Lo. He was an artist whose life and existence was by-and-large ignored by the mainstream gatekeepers, those who will celebrate Kendrick Lamar or Young Thug for being everything the genre that made them is not. Shawty Lo epitomized hip-hop in all its overlooked and misunderstood power. While most rappers chase things like superstardom, unending financial security, and a "classic" album, hip-hop is much more alive in its ephemeral connections. That’s where Carlos Walker shined. Celebrations of local culture, unique personal stories, the joyousness of dance, the way even a neighborhood dope boy whose swag is closer to drunk uncle than pop star can become, for the moment, a hero.

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