By the time you get to Heber Springs, you’re just far enough from Little Rock that the big rap stations are starting to get hazy on the radio. Not that it matters. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Cleburne County is 98.2 percent white. This is Toby Keith country. Rap is something the judge does at the courthouse with his gavel. But inside one of Heber’s Norman Rockwellesque storefronts and just down the hall from the offices of a professional hypnotist, you’ll find something as odd in these parts as surfboards and fresh shellfish: a rap record label.
Crunkland Records is the dream of Chris Hogan. A native of Wynne, Hogan settled in Heber Springs in 2003. After purchasing an amusement park on the edge of town, he used an empty room on the property to build a small stage, which became a gathering point for the town’s teens. The opportunity to perform soon began attracting Heber’s small cadre of amateur rappers.
“I just really started listening, and I started liking it,” Hogan said. “It really caught on with me — the beats, the lyrics, just the whole basic lifestyle it had to offer.”
Six months ago, Hogan cashed in his savings and started Crunkland Records. Since then, he has signed seven artists, all of them white (though he was in the process of signing black rapper Alonzo “Zo” Robinson out of Steele, Mo., when we spoke), and has traveled with them to perform in rap festivals across the South. With a sheetrock-raw studio and an old mixing board, Hogan is trying to help rappers — most of them residents of what can only be described as hillbilly country — become nationally known stars.
Hogan will be the first to admit that Heber Springs and rap go together about as well as gin and buttermilk. There are really no local venues to play, no local rap stations to hit up for “spins,” no ’hood to write about, and only the vestiges of a rap-loving fan base. Still, Hogan and his stable of rappers said the town itself has been very supportive.
“There’s something for everybody,” said Britt “BCG” Grice, one of the first rappers signed to Crunkland. “People that hate rap music like our music. They meet us and like us.” Because of the Internet, Grice’s music casts a wide net. Copies of his album “Can’t Be Tamed” — with raps about selling pot and “shaking that ass,” looped over beats crazy-quilted together from sources as varied as slasher movies and the “Harry Potter” film soundtrack — have sold via the web as far away as South Africa.
“The world we live in now, it don’t matter where you’re from,” said Stuart “Studogg” Ramsey, one of the rappers signed to Crunkland. “It’s where you’re at and what you’re doing. The Internet will get you where you want to be even if you’re where you don’t want to be.”
Ramsey said that the acceptance they’ve found from the audiences — and the success of white rappers like Houston’s Paul Wall — proves that rap isn’t about color anymore. “We were at the convention (in Dallas) with 4,000 people, and it wasn’t white rappers and black rappers,” Ramsey said. “It was just rappers.”
For Hogan, however, acceptance and Internet sales are only bites of the larger pie. He envisions a rap label known both regionally and nationally. “Success for me,” he said, “would be to have the largest independent record label in the Southern region, and to put out the best music in the South … to just give as many Southern artists that break that we can.”
That dream — if it happens — is still a long, long way off. For now, for both Hogan and his artists, it’s about getting a chance to be heard.
“If you make music that comes from the heart, people will feel it,” Ramsey said. “That’s something that nobody else has. Like Janis Joplin — Janis couldn’t sing worth a shit, but people love her and love her music because she had heart. She had soul.”