For years, “I like everything except rap and country” was a common refrain among many close-minded music listeners. But in 2019, that tired trope has been flipped on its head, as two songs fusing those genres have stormed to the forefront of pop culture. Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which blew up in March, has been the year’s biggest song, recently tying the record for most consecutive weeks ever at number one on the Billboard Charts. Hot on its heels has been Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up”—which, when released in May, promptly started its own viral dance craze and has since racked up 42 million streams on Spotify, currently sitting at number one on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.
The success of “The Git Up” can be partially attributed to the success of “Old Town Road”—in fact, Brown decided to rush-release his song right after he heard Lil Nas’ anthem. But for Brown, the synthesis of country and rap is nothing new: He’s been honing his particular hybrid strain, which he dubs “trailertrap,” for the better part of the decade. Brown is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer and engineer who has been working in Atlanta for years, collaborating with artists like Fergie, Kane Brown and Pitbull. A consummate insider, he’s perfectly equipped to capitalize on an unexpected cultural moment.
In a phone interview, Brown talked about the lineage of country rap, his initial reaction to Lil Nas X, African Americans in country music and more. Excerpts of the conversation are below.
TIME: In previous interviews you’ve talked about loving both Outkast and Johnny Cash as a child. How did you develop an interest in both rap and country?
Brown: Loving Johnny Cash and Outkast is just surface, but there’s so much more depth to it. I grew up in the projects of Atlanta. The first thing I learned how to do was to duck. You hear gunshots, you hit the floor.
When I went to the country and I heard gunshots, no one ducked. It was two different things. You knew they were hunting in the country. I would go to Butler, Georgia, in the country, and spend my summers there with my great aunt and my mother. I remember my aunty making her own seasoning, picking peaches off the trees, eating boiled peanuts. It was two different worlds.
The first song I heard and remember out there was Tim McGraw’s “Don’t Take the Girl.” When I heard it I was like, “Wow, this is a story—this is different from what I’m used to hearing.” Before that I was hearing Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye—I never heard that approach to music. It changed my perspective and broadened my senses. I could never get away from the storytelling.
Spending my summers in the country, then coming back to the projects in Atlanta, just bridged the gap. Honeysuckles in the country, they bloomed just a little bit longer. In the hood, they didn’t taste the same. But they were the same thing. They actually built that bridge for me that I needed: that it’s one big world.
Musically, do you think that combining country and rap is actually new, or is it an old phenomenon just now receiving mainstream attention?
When things become relevant again, no one really acknowledges the origin. When kids see bell bottoms, or fanny packs or afros nowadays, they think they’re something new. But they’ve been out forever.
If you go back to country music, you can find people that are already holding those elements, from Bobby Blue Bland to George Strait. It’s so much greatness out here, I don’t know how people are putting it in categories. But it’s history repeating itself.
What about your predecessors from the hip-hop side?
Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and E-40 made country songs. Nelly. Bubba Sparxxx. Nappy Roots had a country twang to them too.
And Outkast: you can’t really identify what Outkast was. You could say it’s rap, but it still had a country feeling. They had twang on it that was all from country banjo playing. “Ah ha, hush that fuss”: they were genius.
I guess you’d kind of say it was a sound developing in Atlanta from the Dungeon Family all the way up. They weren’t trying to identify as country—they were just being themselves. And that’s what I’m doing. I’m not trying to be country, I am country. Country ain’t just Nashville. Country is walking barefoot, eating pickled pig feet, pig ears. Snatching the butt of lightning bugs, making earrings.
It’s a way of life. It’s also an emotion. It’s what you wake up every day and do. It ain’t what you preserved, it’s what you are—it’s the essence of your spirit. My sound is not traditional country. But if I delete those drums, you can’t take back the fact that it’s traditional country that lies at the surface.
There haven’t been many African-American country stars. Was that something that was on your mind when you decided to start making country music?
It didn’t take someone outside of my ethnicity to tell me, “Hey, country music is this or that.” It was my closest friends, telling me, “This ain’t gonna work for you.” I was saying, “Look at [the African-American country rock star] Darius Rucker.” They said, “Well, Darius Rucker tricked everybody. He was in Hootie & the Blowfish first.”
I was like, “I don’t know if I could agree with that. Y’all may or may not have a point. But at the end of the day, I’m going to continue to create my sound.” I started doing traditional country in 2008. I added 808s [a drum machine common in hip hop production] in 2011, 2012. You see how long it’s taken me to put this sound out? We’re talking a long time.
Did you feel like you were held back in the country world because of your race?
I wouldn’t say that. Nobody was holding me back: It wasn’t the right timing. I didn’t present it. I would never blame music on a race thing. Because one thing I’ve learned about Nashville is, if they love what you have to offer and it’s authentic, they’re going to support it full-heartedly. They just want to make sure it’s not a joke. I feel like all genres should be more like that.
What did you think of “Old Town Road” the first time you heard it?
I thought it was jammin’ jammin’. I loved it, tell you the truth.
When I heard “Old Town Road,” I looked [Lil Nas X] up, and was looking for more records with that same feeling—to see what path it was on. And I couldn’t find anything. We’re two different artists weighed together. I’m a singer, he’s a rapper. We don’t even touch the same plane.
Like I said, you gotta be heart-driven. The only type of music [for which] you don’t have to be heart-driven nowadays is rap music. Nobody cares what they’re talking about. They’re talking about drugs, smoking, sex. Then you got the positive rappers: the Chance the Rappers and the J. Coles—I appreciate them because they’re rare.
It’s two different things. When I heard Old Town Road, I said, “This is gonna go.” The second thought was, “He beat me to country twang with 808s—but our sound is nothing the same.” But I don’t know if the consumer knows that. If you’re an enthusiast of country, you understand that a lap steel don’t make it country. It boils down to, “this is his heart.” And that’s what makes it country—My heart makes it country.
Did you and your label speed up the release of “The Git Up” after you heard “Old Town Road?”
I called the label president and said, “I don’t want to be looked at someone who put out his record after it started dying down. I want to get in the thick of things. I feel like my record is strong.”
The album had been mixed and mastered over a year. I did “The Git Up” in September of last year—and “Old Town Road” blew up in March. I definitely called the president of the label and said, “We gotta put this out now.”
When I released the video of me dancing, it wasn’t loaded up on iTunes or anything. We had no idea it was going to go viral so fast. We just had a video that had a lot of views and a Soundcloud link that had a lot of clicks. But we had nothing to show.
Now, I’m feeling so blessed. I wouldn’t change it for nothing in the world. Just to see people doing the dance and being so full of joy—it just brings me the most peace to my sanity.
What do you think of this phenomenon of meme pop—in which songs that originated as memes on TikTok are now charting and creating music superstars?
I don’t think anybody can change how music is consumed. You can’t force people to go back to a vinyl or an 8-track. When one thing changes the whole world shifts to complement that.
Now, music is being heard more through the visuals than just the ears. We live in a visual world. People want to see people reacting to songs. I love the process that music is going through right now.
Has the success of “The Git Up” changed your approach to making music?
I’ve been making country music since 2008. It ain’t nothing new for me. I got 80, 90 tracks ready to go. The first album mixed and mastered. The second album [is going to] be mastered. I’m just adding more elements or changing up things. I haven’t changed anything of the formula, because I didn’t just make up a formula. I know my sound is different sonically, because I’ve been a consumer of all my life.