Memphis’ Duke Deuce, born Patavious Isom, can rap. When he hops on the mic, ear-shattering ad-libs and a passionate delivery ensure you feel his presence. His ability to add explosiveness to each bar is impressive, but his shockingly limber dance moves might be even more commendable. Last month, when I asked Duke, 27, what his sales pitch would be to convince somebody to press play, his answer should come as no surprise.
“I’d catch them somewhere, turn the music up loud, and start gangsta walking,” Duke says with bravado over the phone. “That’ll get their attention.”
Of course, walking up to millions of prospective fans across the country is easier said than done. Instead, the rapper is doing the next best thing: unleashing that same high-octane energy in music videos.
Take the visual for “Crunk Ain’t Dead,” where Duke revisits Project Pat’s southern classic “If You Ain’t From My Hood.” In the first scene, a gas canister resuscitates Duke Deuce in the studio before he dances on top of the monitor while the entire room is hyping him up. His undeniable charisma keeps you glued to the screen, as he uncorks riveting flows, seemingly finding a new pocket with each bar.
For his age, Duke Deuce has accomplished plenty: songs with Memphis royalty Project Pat and Juicy J, a video for “Crunk Ain’t Dead” that has generated more than 12 million views, and a record deal with Quality Control.
Duke’s relationship with the label sparked when Atlanta dancer SheLovesMeechie posted a clip of himself dancing to “Whole Lotta,” which caught the attention of Offset. The Migos rapper hit Duke Deuce in the DMs, and soon, the nimble-footed rapper became the newest artist on their roster. “That was always the label I looked up to,” Duke says.
Even before Duke started rapping, however, music was in his blood. In growing up in the home of veteran producer Duke Nitty, it was impossible to ignore the sounds from the streets of Memphis.
The two shared a room for much of Duke Deuce’s young life, and he witnessed some of the city’s top spitters make music with his father. One record, in particular, left a lasting impression: “It was a legendary song from the city called ‘S.O.U.T.H. Parkway,’ by Gangsta Blac,” Duke says. “I could never forget it. Hearing it on the radio, it was crazy.”
Songs like “S.O.U.T.H. Parkway,” where Gangsta Blac creates a bar from each letter in the title over Duke Nitty’s sinister production, did much to shape Deuce’s identity as an artist. He channels similar energy on “Crunk Ain’t Dead Mob,” creating an acronym out of the title and emphasizing it with a raucous hook.
Naturally, Duke credits his father for teaching him about production but says he learned the finer points of rapping on his own. When I ask if he’s taught his father anything over the years, however, he doesn’t quite know yet. “That’s a good fucking question; I’m gonna have to ask that when I see him,” he says.
These days, Duke’s feeling good, now that he’s finally released his newest album, Memphis Massacre 2. Duke worked on the tape for about a year and admits he felt an elevated sense of pressure. Still, he’s following the same formula that made the prototype a success: memorable hooks, unique cadences, and production steeped in the Memphis culture he knows so well.
“Feel Like That” sets a thunderous tone right from the jump. The song’s brooding sonics become a theme across the tracklist, and Duke slices his way through frame after frame, the human embodiment of a chainsaw in a Halloween horror movie. Follow-up track “BHZ” is the natural progression from “Crunk Ain’t Dead,” complete with unnerving keys and a flow that glides effortlessly over the drums.
Duke takes a detour on “Body,” an impressive switch-up where he shows admirable vocal range. The simple yet effective hook is undeniable ear candy, while the verse has enough inflections to be just as catchy. “Big Dog” highlights these same strengths but tells a gloomier story, seemingly finding no joy in the newfound riches due to anxiety about the roadblocks that may lie ahead.
The elder Duke produced two tracks on Memphis Massacre 2, “Fat Mac” and “Bad News,” of which DJBooth Managing Editor Donna-Claire Chesman tabbed the latter as a sleeper hit. The other, “Fat Mac,” rolls along with its imposing bassline, a leisurely cruise on a long stretch of asphalt in the late-night hours.
It hasn’t always been easy to make it out of Memphis, but in 2020, social media is unsurprisingly playing a significant role in Duke’s rise. Not only did Instagram facilitate his deal with Quality Control, but several viral moments have brought him increased recognition. In fact, his first self-affirming moment came when he posted a single from an old mixtape on Facebook and instantly started seeing praise filter in from friends and family members.
“Stuff was getting a nice amount of attention, like 2,000 or 3,000-5,000 [views],” Duke says. “That was a lot of attention back then.”
Social media has undoubtedly made it easier for us to find Duke and discover his music. Still, he notes how he has many more tools at his disposal, tools that weren’t available to prior generations of Memphis talent. “Connections that we have, they didn’t have then,” he says. “My pops didn’t have [music] videos, Three 6 Mafia didn’t even have a lot of videos back then. The shit we have our hands on, they didn’t have their hands on.”
Duke is adamant that his best work is yet to come, that we’ll continue to hear a dramatic improvement. “I’ve improved on a lot of shit,” he says.