by Kristofer Kay
Between all the layers that make up modern hip-hop, few are as self-explanatory as country-rap. Sometimes referred to as hick-hop or rural rap, its ingredients are simple: Southern, blue-collar culture distilled through rap lyrics and beats. Through mixtapes and local followings, there are more country-rap acts than you might realize (anyone remember Bubba Sparxxx?). But of those looking to emerge from the backwater and into the mainstream now, the safe money bet is on Big Smo.
Born John Smith (no, really, that’s his name), Big Smo’s grassroots campaign to the big time started back in 1999. Raised in Tennessee, Smo dabbled in DIY production to build a strong following in the region. After success via Youtube, Smo’s major label debut studio album, “Kuntry Livin’,” was released in 2014, where it would eventually land on three Billboard charts. That same year, Smo was the subject of an eponymous reality television series on A&E that began in 2014. With four records now released, Smo’s latest—entitled “We The People”—will be released on July 22.
ED: If you don’t mind me saying, “Say My Name” is reminiscent of other songs by rappers looking to establish who they are. Snoop Dogg’s “What’s My Name” and Eminem’s “My Name Is…” first, come to mind. Was that intentional?
Smo: Oh absolutely! I appreciate the compliment next to artists such as them. In the entertainment business, the primary goal at the end of the day for any artist is for people to know your name, say your name, and be familiar with your brand. “Say My Name” is intentional as I’m looking to move beyond the south and more into the mainstream rap community.
ED: So even though you’ve released four records and starred in a reality show, would you consider “Say My Name” as your breakthrough song?
Smo: In a way, yes. I’m looking to broadening my listener base. Before people just knew me as a country-rap artist. But I’m just a rapper, period. Whether I’m from the country or not, now is the time for more people to discover my music because I’ve grown as a man, and evolved as an artist.
ED: Some critics have described you as a cross between Hank Williams Jr. and Kid Rock. Is that fair? Or would you rather just be considered a hip-hop artist?
Smo: Country music is a major influence for me, probably my very first influence. But more than what genre I sound more like I consider myself a storyteller. Representing Tennessee is what I do because it’s my natural element.
ED: While Dirty South is familiar, it is not what one would find by definition coming out of Tennessee, correct
Smo: Yes, I come from a place that is reflected in my rhymes. It’s the way we kick back, it’s our lifestyles, it’s about family, all of that. I’m in the south, but my music is different. It’s rap but just from the country rather than from the big city.
ED: “Say My Name” is a departure from your older tracks. It sounds like it would be played at a strip club. And seeing as though hip hop and strip clubs are two sides of the same coin, were you excited to have it featured on the new Strip Joints compilation?
Smo: Yes I was, very much! I mean, what better way to experience my music than in a strip club. I’m excited to be reaching out to this type of listener and the DJs. I think they’re like what they hear.
ED: You’re on tour right now in the days leading up to the release of “We The People.” Do you have some downtime to visit clubs?
Smo: I don’t, actually. We’re doing three or four shows a week. And I’m also the father of three teenagers, so I don’t have the chance to go.
ED: Since your reality show took off, you’ve made an effort to grow your fanbase. “Say My Name” helps the momentum, too. With more and more musical acts packaging their music with other projects, like reality TV, is that something you’d want to continue in the future?
Smo: The show’s over. We did two great seasons, and it served its purpose. I’m proud of what we did there. You know, I’m just a fan of working. I love to work, to create. To me, though, music is and will remain my focus. It’s one hundred percent my art.