"Where have the hip-hop summer jams gone?" a friend recently lamented. "There hasn't been one this year yet." I understood her plight. The new issue of XXL, for instance, lists a summer rap hits top-10 for every year between 1988 and 2003. But 2004—despite cuts like Federation and E-40's "Hyphy," Usher ft. Lil Jon's "Yeah!," and Petey Pablo's "Freek-a-Leek"—just doesn't seem as active somehow. Then I realized that there are, in fact, great summer radio singles; it's just that this year, hip-hop's usual roost-ruling role has been usurped by, of all things, country. And the main perpetrator is a duo every bit as eclectic, shameless, and smart as hip-hop's recent rulers Timbaland, the Neptunes, and OutKast: Big & Rich, the duo behind "Wild West Show," "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)," and the debut album both come from, Horse of a Different Color (Warner Bros. Nashville)—not to mention Gretchen Wilson's great "Redneck Woman" (Epic), co-written by the duo's John Rich.
Rich used to play bass and sing for country hitmakers Lonestar; he and partner "Big" Kenny Alphin, a former psychedelic rocker, make music every bit as try-anything idea happy as their hip-hop brethren, and just as hooky. The duo formed after several years of woodshedding along with a cast of dozens at a Tuesday night social club in Nashville called the Muzik Mafia. "We became songwriting partners," Rich says of Big Kenny. "We started writing all these songs that were great, but didn't fit [into] Nashville; that led to us starting the Muzik Mafia, which was . . . pop singers hanging out with punk rockers, rappers hanging out with country singers."
Horse of a Different Color has a pronounced hip-hop element, thanks in good part to Cowboy Troy, a large, trilingual rapper (who also has a master's degree in economics), as well as to the Dirty South–style "what-whats" on "Save a Horse," which also has the most blinged-out video on TV right now, with a marching band, scantily clad dancers, cowboys, and whatever else you can imagine crossing a bridge together. ("That video shoot was insane," says Rich. "We had dwarfs, we had giants—it was like The Wizard of Oz going across that bridge.") Horse also works in funk and R&B rhythms and rock guitars without watering any of them down, while remaining distinctively country at core. (That's mainstream country, by the way, not alt-country, thank God.) Undoubtedly, hip-hop isn't going anywhere. But even if Big & Rich are a one-time anomaly, Horse is a bold step for the genre, and it's helping make this a pretty damn pleasurable summer.
Big & Rich open for Tim McGraw at 7 p.m. Sat., July 17, at the Gorge Amphitheatre. $40.45/$67.50.