Memphis can feel pretty barren to the uninitiated. Locals tend to herd visitors instinctively, if not to Graceland then to its eerily under-populated downtown, a small, riverside metropolitan strip filled with hotels and barbecue restaurants. An ominous 300-foot tall onyx pyramid sits at its northern border. Once a sports arena, it’s recently been leased by Bass Pro Fishing Shops. At the core of downtown Memphis sits the famed Beale Street and, on it, a stretch of unapologetically tacky gift shops where everything from door frames to toilet seats have musical notes on them. Here European tourists are cordoned off to celebrate Elvis, B.B. King and the absence of open container laws. For a city where musical heritage is the largest cultural attraction, its institutions seem almost willfully oblivious to its rap history. “Memphis is a dark city,” says Memphis rap icon and lifelong resident Playa Fly. “There’s always been a dark cloud over the city. They killed the symbol for peace here.” The 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel forever reverberates in the city, perhaps nowhere more visibly than in its musical world. The subsequent racial tensions proved to be the catalyst for the fall of the once peacefully integrated Stax Records soul music empire and, by extension, lead to the dissolution of Memphis as a recording hub for black music.
The clubs remained, of course, but when the ’80s rolled around, those discos were consumed by hip-hop, as they were everywhere else. Like much of the south, Memphis gravitated to the trunk rattling sound of 808-driven hip-hop, handed down from the genre’s early pioneers in New York. The clubs of the city turned that thump towards aggression, scoring the riotous stomp dance of choice—buck jumpin’, which later became known as jookin or gangsta walkin’. Local DJs like Spanish Fly, DJ Squeeky, Juicy J and DJ Paul spread their sound in the clubs, but also through a homebrew cassette culture. Their numbered volumes, usually labeled sparsely with typewriter fonts on plain white stickers, sold through car stereo shops and exchanged hands through bootleg streams. (Those tapes are now nearly extinct, mostly exchanging hands among European collectors who, thankfully, have been kind enough to post many of them to YouTube.) In the ’90s, Memphis’ grim sound grew even darker as drum machine skeletons were given flesh by way of slowed and menacing vocal samples and John Carpenter horror score samples. Rappers chanted penetratingly and honed machete-sharp double time flows, using both to exaggerate the boasts of classic gangsta rap into gruesome tales of murder and mayhem. Some, most notably Memphis mainstays Three 6 Mafia, pushed those dark themes to their logical extreme and embraced on-record Satanism.
As extreme as they may have been, some rap stars ultimately built careers on the backs of those early tapes. Three 6 Mafia turned their devilish rage to a more focused and nondenominational chant rap, Eightball & MJG took Memphis to more lyrical and introspective ends and Tela smoothed it all out for a strip club appeal. While these acts took over the mainstream, dozens of lesser known but no less revered rappers like Playa Fly, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, Gangsta Pat and Tommy Wright III kept to the core formula and cultivated their following locally.
Today those names still ring out in the Memphis streets, though the sound they pioneered is less common. When speaking on their personal preferences, local rappers are more likely to mention national stars like Lil Boosie, Rick Ross, Jadakiss or Wale and the watered down rap styles reflect that. “We stopped having our own sound,” says rapper Miscellaneous, whose song “Memphis Walk” became a local hit in 2006. “We’re too busy trying to sound like somewhere else when somewhere else is trying to sound like us.” These days it’s not tape hiss drowning out the Memphis rap aesthetic but the din of national homogeneity. Its producers are beholden to whatever the non-specific Southern rap template of the moment might be. But even disconnected from its lineage the city’s talent does its best to trudge on.