Memphis' Hip-Hop Takeover Is 25 Years In the Making

The attention surrounding Memphis―both old and new―feels like the beginning of an eruption.
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“If I am worth anything later, I am worth something now. For wheat is wheat, even if people think it is grass in the beginning.” —Vincent Van Gogh

I. “Memphis Music Always Travels” —DJ Squeeky

“We been doing it for 16 years and it seems like our lives just started back over,” DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia told Joan Rivers on the red carpet of the 78th Academy Awards. Joan, along with the majority of middle America, was oblivious to whom stood in her presence. 

Juicy J would later tell Tom Breihan, a contributing writer for Pitchfork, that the interviews following their historic Oscar night in 2006 were with publications who had no prior knowledge of the Southern rap group. E! Entertainment was just one of many who called, completely unaware of what had been unfolding within the underbelly of Memphis, Tennessee.

Three 6 Mafia breaching the white picket fence consciousness made the title of their eighth studio album, Most Known Unknown, an ironic testament to their iconic stature. After nearly two decades scratching the surface between regional superstardom and widespread notoriety, it was a combination of the single “Stay Fly” and a movie about a fictional Memphis pimp-turned-rapper that catapulted the group to global success. 

12 years after “Hard Out Here for a Pimp” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, Three 6 Mafia is having a second coming of worldwide conquest. It’s not a resurgence rooted in reinvention, but resurrection. A$AP Ferg’s “Plain Jane” and G-Eazy’s “No Limit” are commercially successful, roof-torching records released in 2017 but built upon a blueprint first made in 1993: Juicy J’s “Slob On My Knob.” To read the song title and not hear Future’s helium voice in 2018 is nearly impossible; the Atlanta melody maestro recently engraved the phrase into the heart of Jay Rock’s highest charting single, “King’s Dead,” and subsequently into the minds of a new generation of rap listeners. 

“Slob On My Knob” has stood the test of time as a cult classic since its 1999 remaster and re-release, but no one foresaw the raunchy record becoming what Rolling Stone recently called the most influential rap song of 2018.

Those who remember the Mafia’s 2005 mean-mugging club anthem “Side 2 Side” will identify the electrifying keys that add another layer of vibrancy to Rae Sremmurd’s “Powerglide,” which, of course, features Juicy J. Project Pat’s classic "Chickenhead" single was sampled and interpolated on the similarly-titled "Bickenhead," but it's Cardi B who transforms a deep-fried Southern classic into a universal bop for the ages with her infectious vocal performance. G Herbo's freestyle over “Who Run It” revived a 19-year old artifact from the days of Crunk past. There are no wrinkles on the bloodthirsty riff or signs of age on the heavy drums; the beat sounds like a new behemoth and not an old fossil. 

In all of these cases, the DNA of the songs resurfacing is in natural synergy with the sound of today. 

“We clearing so many samples right now, that's another thing I haven't told anybody yet, we clearing so many samples now that my lawyer had to hire two extra paralegals to come in, just to help us get all of it done fast enough. So we clear like three samples a week, sometimes I would do three in a day. It's a lot of songs coming out that's sampling Three 6 Mafia. Man, I'm like this is making me feel old out of this motherfucker. [Laughs]” —"DJ Paul on why Three 6 Mafia is forever and the origin of the #WhoRunIt Challenge"

The 15 years predating their arrival to the Oscars wasn’t time wasted. It was in those years where Three 6 Mafia achieved their timelessness by ushering in a sound far ahead of its time. 

II. “Memphis Is the Brain” —DJ Squeeky

Metro Boomin was only two years old in 1995 when Three 6 Mafia released their debut album, Mystic Stylez

“I grew up on Three 6 Mafia,” the acclaimed St. Louis-born producer tweeted two years ago, along with a video attached. The short clip previews the FrightFest trap reminiscent of early DJ Paul and Juicy J production. This is the Triple Six that also raised and bears a heavy influence on a surging Miami rap movement pioneered by artists like Denzel Curry and SpaceGhostPurrp. It makes sense for trap’s flagship producer to be a child of the Mafia's horrorcore era—the very trap sound Metro is using to dominate the planet was born in Memphis. 

Three 6 tend to receive a lion's share of the praise for being early to menacing 808s, brutal bass, and jackhammer hi-hats as the canvas for their barbaric imagery. But they weren’t the first in their home city to curate a style around that sound. “Squeeky was the first to combine machine-gun-quick hi-hats, trunk-rattling 808 kicks, and wide-ranging sub-bass with lyrics about hittin’ licks, slangin’ rocks, and ridin’ dirty,” Lucas Foster wrote in the intro to his interview with DJ Squeeky, hailing the OG Memphis DJ and producer as the forefather of what would become the basic formula for trap music. 

Squeeky has expressed in numerous interviews how his production style―everything from drum patterns to sample loops―was stolen by Paul and Juicy J dating back to their early Underground mixtapes. Squeeky’s highly impactful ‘90s Memphis sound wasn’t without influence, either; the foundation can be traced back to fellow unsung Memphis innovator DJ Spanish Fly.

No matter the art form, there will always be the originator, the innovator, and the evolution that follows. Every rolling hi-hat and lo-fi horrorscape traces back to early 1990s Memphis hip-hop, back when the seeds of a burgeoning culture were stored on rare cassette tapes.

“If Spanish Fly was the architect of the sound then Three Six Mafia represented the lean-sipping, gatekeepers of the energy that kept it banging through the 90s and beyond” —"Tennessee Rap is Finally Outgrowing its Underdog Status"

Crunk is a rap subgenre closely associated with post-Freaknik Atlanta, but it originally sprouted from the mayhem in Memphis; Lil Jon was working for So So Def clearing samples for Jermaine Dupri when Three 6 Mafia were initially tapping into the belligerent energy that incites clubs to be torn up. The loose, yet colorful street narratives Gucci Mane is known for telling were largely influenced by Memphis legends. During his early twenties, when rapping was still a fresh concept, Gucci listened to and channeled the styles of 8Ball & MJG, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, Tommy Wright III, and his favorite rapper, Project Pat.

Even the hottest flow of the trap era, the often recycled triplet pattern often credited to Migos, was wielded by the late Lord Infamous. In an interview with The New York Times, the late A$AP Yams recalled how Rocky’s first attempt at using a Bone Thugs-N-Harmony-esque double-time flow was on “Palace,” but that the end result came out closer to ‘90s Infamous. 

To remove the influence of Memphis, Tennessee from modern hip-hop would be no different than extracting the spine from the human body. 

III. All Earz on Memphis

“I think Memphis is underrated. People was saying Memphis was gone blow up before Atlanta and then Atlanta just took off. Memphis is definitely overdue. There's just enormous amounts of talent and history in the city of Memphis and I think it's just a matter of time.” —Drumma Boy (2014)

While the Memphis of old is being reimagined in the crevices of rap across all regions, a new generation has quietly risen from the shadows and is on the cusp of rushing into the spotlight. 

No rapper of 2018 is bringing infectious elation to street-edge trap with the enthusiasm of BlocBoy JB. The 21-year-old newcomer has released six mixtapes thus far, and each has generated bigger fanfare than the last. His Memphis drawl and vibrantly robust delivery have drawn comparisons to fellow Memphis native Young Dolph, but his youthful energy has far more sunshine than Dolph’s bulletproof bravado. 

Following up the 2017 viral dance “Shoot” with the Drake-assisted “Look Alive” ascended JB to the industry’s front door. If his forthcoming mixtape, Simi, meets expectations, that door will be knocked off its hinges. 

Speaking of Young Dolph, the self-proclaimed King of Memphis' hustle is relentless. Despite multiple attempts on his life, the rapper has been consistently flooding the market with mixtapes and albums in ways reminiscent of frequent collaborator Gucci Mane's overflow tactics. Keeping the streets fed has made him one of the biggest independent artists in hip-hop and has helped him to inch closer to stardom. Being one hit away doesn’t change how Dolph has cemented himself into the next echelon of Memphis greats. 

The ripple effects of Dolph's influence can be clearly heard in the music of cousin-by-marriage and Paper Route Empire signee Key Glock. One listen to “No Cap” or “Russian Cream” reveals a potential that would attract the attention of any label head, family or not. If molded and harnessed, Dolph’s young protégé could skyrocket along his side in ways that mirror the rise of blood cousins 21 Savage and Young Nudy

Yo Gotti needs no introduction. By the numbers, he is the most successful solo artist to emerge from Memphis. There’s an immortal quality to Gotti—the moment you think he has vanished, the elder returns with another street anthem. After 21 years in the game, he produced the highest-charting single of his career last year, the Nicki Minaj-assisted “Rack It Up.” The Platinum banger has only raised his stock. 

Gotti is also carving out a successful lane heading his own record label, CMG. One of its signings, Blac Youngsta, is seeing dual prosperity as an online personality and strip club whisperer, and recently scored his biggest hit to date with “Booty.” While Youngsta has the clubs, CMG’s Moneybagg Yo is trailblazing the streets and racking up millions of streams. CMG's well-rounded success across all three lanes (radio, clubs, and the streets) is the type of triangle offense that would impress Phil Jackson. 

Former Raider Klan affiliate Xavier Wulf has carefully carved out his own lane using SoundCloud as his launching pad, the raw nature of his music perfectly fitting in with the climate of rappers leaning into punk aesthetics. His explosive energy has amassed him a cult following; the video Metro shared on Twitter with the Three 6 Mafia inspired beat was flooded with mentions of Wulf. Like the Memphis trendsetters before him, there’s no telling if Wulf will make an attempt at breaking through the mainstream, but it doesn’t matter when the world is your oyster in the underground. 

It could be in the water, or the soil, or the spirit of Stix Records blessing the generations of music makers following in their footsteps, but magic exists in Memphis, Tennessee. As a city of hip-hop importance, Memphis doesn’t share the same acclaim as hip-hop hubs like Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles, but it has exported irreplaceable culture-shifting influence into the genre. 

I see change on the horizon. The change that has been in motion since the original members of Three 6 Mafia came together for Mystic Stylez. The attention surrounding Memphis―both old and new―feels like the beginning of an eruption. The legends are still active, the seasoned veterans sharp as ever, and the new blood are tearing down boundaries—the overdue breakthrough for hip-hop’s most overlooked hotbed could finally get the attention it deserves. 

The most known unknown city won’t be that way for long. 

By Yoh, aka Blocboy Yoh, aka @Yoh31

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