Raised in North Memphis’ Ridgecrest Apartments, Yo Gotti cut his teeth as a teen in the tape age. “I remember the first time I seen Skinny Pimp in a drop top 5.0,” he says. “That was the first time I seen an artist with my own eyes and it looked like he had money. It made me say, Aw yeah, I’m gonna be a rapper.” Fifteen years after he began his career, Gotti’s the biggest rap star in Memphis as well as the city’s most visible export, a position he seems to have attained by little more than sheer tenacity. Though it’s been five years since he released a proper album, his buzz continues to heighten organically, through the six-and-a-half volume Cocaine Muzik mixtape series, through high profile cameos with Gucci Mane as well as an unexpected number of his own hits.
Gotti’s voice is definitively Memphian, like many locals he tends to drop rolling Rs into certain words—Cocaine Merrsic. But his aesthetic choices lean broader, often bending to the will of his collaborators. As the city’s biggest star, though, he remains a proud ambassador. When one local radio station advertises his music they drop his name as “Memphis Yo Gotti.” He’s the only Memphis rapper whose name or music I heard on the radio over the course of a weekend in the city. As one of the last men standing from his era, he wonders where it might’ve all gone wrong.
“I think when some of them people had their spot they didn’t allow it to grow,” Gotti says. “They done what they done and they done that good but they didn’t grow.” He’s taking corrective measures, doing his part to put his city on the national radar, starting with his protégé, South Memphis’ Zed Zilla, no stranger to a slow boil himself. Zilla’s been at it for nearly a decade, producing mix CDs that showcase his elastic flow to lukewarm fanfare. “He saw the grind and respected it,” says Zilla, who’s banking on the Gotti cosign as being the next step in his crawl out of the underground rap slum. “For him to keep his ears to the street, to reach out and help an artist from a whole other side of the town, that was major.” “I ain’t got to do nothing,” Gotti continues. “Nobody helped me. I mean, the city helped me, the fans helped me, the radio stations helped me. But no artist or nothing helped me coming up so I could be on that. But I love the city that much and I feel like I owe it to the people around here.” Zed Zilla represents just one sliver of the many rappers trying to break out of the city. But Gotti can’t bring them all with him. So the everyday hustle continues for burgeoning talents, men with names like Young Dolph and OG Boo Dirty, whose lives revolve around studio time and small venues, hoping to replicate what Gotti did on their own time.
Just a few miles east of the Mississippi, nestled between a T-Mobile store and a home offering psychic readings, sits Traphouse Studios, one of the city’s breeding grounds for new talent, though you wouldn’t know it from the outside. It’s literally just a large residential house, its white exterior withered and chipping like many in Memphis. An intensely secure front gate is the only indication that the building is even occupied. In fact, it’s so barren and protected that it’d be easy to mistake it for an actual trap house, but its inhabitants only slang dope music inside its doors. Signs posted in the house read: No weed smoking, no firearms, no soliciting, no bullshitting.
The main recording studio downstairs has all the fittings of its professional analog—mixing board, leather couches, flat screen, soda machine—while each room upstairs has been gutted and lined in bare bones fashion, with either a slipshod vocal booth or a simple Pro Tools rig. These makeshift setups recall the slapdash home studios of the 2005 Terrence Howard-fronted film Hustle & Flow, which offered a close-but-not-quite perspective on the Memphis rap scene and now elicits a chuckle from most locals.
Traphouse’s tour guide is No Soda, a heavyset dude with a mouthful of gold and a dopey grin. When not rapping/growling about his grind, No Soda works with his uncle installing office spaces in hospitals and hopes to open his own installation business so he can finance his record label. “Other than that I’m here doing this, doing the music,” he says. “The studio don’t close.”
No Soda ostensibly has come to Traphouse to record but it’s quickly becoming a social gathering, thanks in part to the natural ebb and flow of the studio, but also to Soda emptying his phonebook excitedly in the presence of an out-of-town reporter. The topic of discussion leans towards the scene’s present stalemate, attributed to many of the same woes present in most local rap scenes: radio stations failing to spin local records, too much thematic focus on aggression, murder and the dope game and an overall lack of unity. Miscellaneous reminisces about the glory days of the city, bemoaning its now fractured legacy like a sage. “This is the only city I know where we let our legends die,” he says. “If you go to the club with us tonight you won’t hear [Three 6 Mafia’s] ‘Tear The Club Up,’ you’re not gonna hear Playa Fly, you’re not gonna hear Project Pat’s ‘Gorilla Pimp.’ You’re gonna hear Gucci Mane. We let it die here.”