Written by Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy (@danielmondon)
Green Cottenham was a slave more than forty years after the system of slavery had been abolished. Born the child of freed slaves in Alabama, he was jailed in 1908 on account of “vagrancy”—a trumped-up charge enforced throughout the southern states. After his sentencing, he was sold to U.S. Steel by the sheriff and put to work in the Birmingham mines alongside black men placed in the same situation. He died later that year, diseased from the harsh conditions in the mines and broken by the abuses of his new masters. By the end of 1908, almost sixty men had died alongside him. Their graves were unmarked. Their stories were, by and large, unrecorded and unacknowledged.
Codie G is the manager to much of Alabama’s cultish hip-hop scene, in particular the recently reunited duo G-Side and still-bubbling space-rave producers Block Beattaz. In-between releases from his acts, he has been one of the voices driving the blog Original Mattress and the curator of compilations like last year’s Young Guns. Like that earlier compilation, The Greene Cottenham Project is a collection of fourteen rappers—each one credited alongside the regional scene they represent—working on their craft and strengthening their voices. Some of these songs are very good and bolstered by strong performances: J NICS, a former DJ Burn One collaborator from Miami, concocts a particularly brutal slab of messy emotion with “Seasons.” Some of these songs aren’t successful, as they stall the tape’s momentum with a number of embryonic Cole and K.R.I.T. impressions in the latter half. Yet many of the songs share similar traits mid-tempo beats, mournful horns, and stories of incarceration and dead friends. These tracks, good or bad, are meant to compliment one another.
The interim cover art to this compilation is a selfie of Codie G with a cotton field sprawled out behind him for what seems like miles. An arresting image, one that doesn’t immediately connect with the music presented one that feels like an empty posture at first. On reflection, it’s a challenge from Codie G—once you learn about Cottenham’s struggle and the era he lived in, the allegiances drawn are made clearer. He stated on Twitter that the title was a metaphor towards the overlooked, that the artists presented are important voices stifled by the powers that be. A little digging goes deeper than this industry-based concept: the fourteen artists presenting their tracks are assembled from across Nashville, Oakland, Huntsville and Miami, all areas affected by the post-Civil War network of neo-slavery. The selfie puts a fine point on this lineage: the under-represented and unadvantageous American past is the under-represented and unadvantageous American present.
A couple of tracks are distinctive for being a lot less recent than the bulk of the tape. “Diamonds” from Oakland spitter Young Gully’s HM5 resurfaces here, a reminder of his skillful rapping. (Go and listen to 2011’s “The Go In,” his finest moment.) The other oldie comes from G-Side affiliate Kristmas’ 2011 album W2 Boy, an overlooked and charming album. On many guest appearances and on his own records, he has a bonafide regular-dude charm, depicting a long-time worker bee looking to indulge in the trappings of life as a rapper and hold down a full-time job. W2 Boy’s finale resurfaces here, a downtempo track appropriately titled ‘”Slavin.” Pissed off at the lack of opportunities given to ex-cons, he stresses and rages, a million miles from his otherwise agreeable personality. Puffed out, he confesses: “I been working for these crackas six years, my nigga, and ain’t gave me no raises yet.” A sample of a chain gang’s singing accompanies his words. The track’s confession closes out the compilation, its inclusion making Codie’s final point: free or not, post-slavery or no, people of the South are still held down and meant to accept their diminished societal roles. Codie G politicizes these songs and gives them historical relevance, regardless as to whether they are stoned or horny or forlorn or furious. They are all recordings of the Black American experience, an experience Cottenham was denied to share with future generations. In their own way, these songs are to be vicariously lived by the past.