The South Got Something to Say

Jessica Lynne reflects on Grits & Biscuits, a Southern hip-hop party spreading across the country, and the roots of black nightlife in America.

Image via Grits & Biscuits

The scene: It is 11 pm on a humid Friday night, and, though you have long considered yourself a grade-A homebody, you somehow find yourself walking along 5th Avenue headed to Southpaw in Brooklyn. Your girls have decided that the best remedy for a long, hard week is a night of dancing. And not just any dancing. They’re talking the kind that leaves you drenched in sweat, your thighs burning and your eyeliner smudged. “There is a new party that we have to go to,” your friend says during a phone call earlier that week, “everyone is talking about Grits & Biscuits.” You smile at the absurdity of a party named after your favorite breakfast meal. How familiar, you think.

So, here you are, out on a Friday night in your cutest pair of jeans walking into Grits & Biscuits. You are not quite sure what to expect. You think you hear UGK’s “Diamonds & Wood” blaring from the speakers and that is comforting. How Southern, you think.

Grits & Biscuits is a party without pretensions. That is to say, it is not the party to attend if you require top-shelf bottle service. You should not wear heels. You should arrive very hydrated. You will only hear music from Southern artists, specifically Southern hip-hop artists. This last fact is very important. And it is this fact that made Grits & Biscuits unique when it entered the New York party scene in 2010. “The party was really just an idea and we just wanted to break even. Over 500 people ended up attending,” founders E.Z.Mo Breezy told me during a phone interview. The Breezy moniker is used to represent the collective voice of the party’s three co-founders: Maurice Slade, Alzo Slade, and Erika Lewis. “We had no idea it would become this big.”

As graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the Grits & Biscuits founders pulled from the atmosphere that was all around them during their time as students. Any HBCU graduate will likely tell you that there is no party like an HBCU party. “In some respects, our party speaks to this culture,” the Grits & Biscuits team told me. This is not to say that theirs is the first mega-party centered around black Southern cultural aesthetics; Freaknik, the infamous Atlanta-based spring-break festival began back in 1982. And Grits & Biscuits is not without its critics, many of whom cite the ticket prices as an attendance barrier or push back against a perceived commodification of Southern identity. Still, fans abound.

“When I think of Southern cultural aesthetics, I definitely think about how trap music is super popular in hip-hop right now, which is interesting because its origins are definitely in the South but people in New York love it. I think a lot of black people in the city have connections to the South and it’s a nice opportunity for them to experience it,” Michelle Marques, a Grits & Biscuits partygoer, told me via email.

Marques’ statement points to two things: the geographic legacy of the Great Migration and, to a certain extent, a reassessment of the Southern Black musical continuum in which hip-hop is rooted.

What you building? I ast.
Jukejoint, he say.
Way back here?
No further back than any of the others.
I don’t know nothing bout no others, only bout the Lucky Star.
Jukejoint sposed to be back in the woods, say Harpo.
Nobody be bothered by the loud music. The dancing. The fights.

—from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple

Much has been written about the lives of African Americans in the rural South just after Emancipation. It was an era characterized by the poverty of the sharecropping system, the persistent physical violence of lynchings, and limited, if any, opportunities for education. Several important cultural institutions arose in response and in opposition to such atrocities. Juke joints emerged as one such institution, becoming a gathering space for African-American self-expression outside the oppressive confines of white Southern society. The juke joint was the party. For many poor, rural African Americans, time spent inside these often one-room shacks or houses situated out back, far from a town’s main roads, offered the only opportunity for fun and pleasure during the week. They were unglamorous in appearance yet provided a much needed support system. Historian Valerie Grim writes, “Inhibitions could be overcome at juke joints. Gambling, excessive drinking, dancing, love affairs took place…People who spent long days at work used the juke joints as places for relaxing with friends.”

The juke joint was also a place where black music, most notably the blues tradition, developed and thrived, particularly along the Mississippi Delta. Musicians found these informal social clubs fertile ground for courting new audiences and refining their performance skills. In this way, juke joints became important secular sanctuaries.

Such was also the case for many popular nightspots in Northern cities after the Great Migration. Like their Southern counterparts, big-city jazz clubs were the entertainment destinations for African Americans on the party scene. In Harlem, the Savoy Ballroom was frequented by everyone from Count Basie, Langston Hughes, and Ella Fitzgerald, who would became the house vocalist. Unlike its neighbor, the whites-only Cotton Club, a Saturday night at the Savoy Ballroom brimmed with black cool, and if you weren’t an ace on the dance floor before you entered, someone would ensure you were by the time you left. The Savoy was the birthplace of the Lindy Hop after all. Still, it was more than just a dancehall. In an article for The New York Times, Manny Fernandez describes The Savoy as a “blocklong rhythm factory that set New York’s jazz-fueled tempo in the 1930’s and 1940’s.”

Intimately intertwined with the evolution of black music in the 20th century, these spaces were key sites of fellowship, self-fashioning, and, well, fun. Moreover, they were responsible for breathing life into mainstream pop culture, the remnants of which can still be felt today.

Which brings us back to Grits & Biscuits.

When OutKast’s Andre 3000 took the mic after winning Best New Artist at The Source Awards in 1995, few could have imagined that his acceptance speech would live on in infamy. The South got something to say. Hip-hop was embroiled in a bitter coastal battle as the titan cities New York and Los Angeles squared off. The South had barely registered on the Richter scale. Yet, at the time, some of hip-hop’s most dynamic music was coming out of the region—New Orleans Bounce and Miami Bass, for instance. Reflecting on the genius of OutKast in his essay “Da Art of Storytellin’,” Kiese Laymon describes the duo’s sound as “an urban Southern stank so familiar with and indebted to the gospel, blues, jazz, rock, and funk born in the rural black South.” OutKast and their contemporaries such as Atlanta’s Goodie Mob and Houston’s UGK, represented a new sonic aesthetic that was slowly gaining mainstream appeal. By the turn of the millennium, Southern hip-hop had declared itself an unstoppable force.

Twenty years after 3000’s declaration, ironic perhaps best describes the success Grits & Biscuits has found above the Mason-Dixon and elsewhere. The five-year-old party hosts iterations in Washington, DC; Chicago; Los Angeles; and Philadelphia. And though a tribute set celebrating each region’s musical icons is played at every venue, the rules are always the same: Southernness comes first. “From a social perspective, Southernness is warmth and acceptance with indifference to who you are and where you come from. It’s walking into someone’s home and not being a stranger,” E.Z.MoBreezy said as we continued to talk, “We try and offer that at every party.”

Still, with its mobility, Grits & Biscuits has been able to reproduce an ethos of Southern hospitality for a contemporary market that is deeply influenced by the region’s culture. Only time will determine how the party will keep on going. For now, E.Z.MoBreezy just wants you to get loose. “When you walk into the doors, we don’t care if you are tall, short, thin, or fat, we just want you to have a good time.”

So, there I am, 3 am, eyeliner smudged, trying to hail a cab on 5th Avenue as my friend saunters towards me. Her shirt is tied in a way that exposes her stomach and she is still bopping along to whatever is playing inside. A Missy track maybe? “What did you think,” she asks, putting her arm around my shoulder as a cab pulls up. “Let’s not wait for me to have another bad week before we do this again,” I say as I pull her into the cab and we begin to make our way home.