Memphis Rap: Parting the Dark Clouds

More often than not, that somewhere else is Southern rap industry hub Atlanta, Georgia. While Memphis’ stars were smoothing their rougher edges for mainstream acceptance around the turn of the 21st century Atlanta artists like Lil Jon and Pastor Troy were channeling Memphis energy, putting their own twists on it and rechristening it as crunk. “Crunk came from Memphis, Tennessee,” explains expat hitmaker Drumma Boy. “Lil Jon is on the record as saying that.”

Though Atlanta’s formal crunk movement has long since past, its influence, and by extension Memphis’, still trickles down. More than one Memphis producer (Drumma, Jazze Pha) has jumpstarted his career by relocating to Atlanta, while others make the trip frequently. “The only difference between here and Atlanta is that in Atlanta more business gets handled,” says Gotti. “Look at Drumma Boy now, he wouldn’t have been able to produce [national records] in Memphis. You have to be in the studio with some of these people to even play this music for them.” Not everything that Drumma does with his Atlanta collaborators bears an explicit Memphis influence but it does pop up frequently, particularly in his work with Gucci Mane, whose rap style owes at least a bit of gratitude to Memphians like Playa Fly and Project Pat.

Virginian Lex Luger, currently hip-hop’s most influential producer, has repackaged the violent energy and the horror-film-pitch of Memphis’ cassette era, using it to bring Gucci’s aggressive understudy Waka Flocka Flame to the mainstream, before eventually selling it to pop stars like Rick Ross, Jay-Z and Kanye West. Within the current framework of hip-hop, Luger’s style sits closest to the legacy of gangsta rap. If a drug dealer (real or imaginary) makes a record anywhere in America today, odds are high that it owes something to Luger, and even higher that he’s completely unaware of what that sound also owes to Memphis.

While this is partially the fault of a lack of local cohesion, in a wired world, aesthetics are no longer explicitly tied to place. “That’s how you want your sound to be—global,” says Yo Gotti, and maybe to think otherwise is nothing but sentimental idealism. As the internet disperses styles at a rapid pace and radio playlists become increasingly streamlined nationally, the natural order is becoming a blur. This is advantageous for cities like Atlanta, which now absorb and turn over styles quickly, but it doesn’t favor less thriving regions. Where a city like Memphis was once able to bully its way into the spotlight by offering a unique product, today the industry simply distills the most potent fragments and spreads them around, leaving artists with few choices, slow grinding like Gotti or simply waiting for someone with enough pull to lift you up to take notice.

That’s what’s happening to Don Trip. A few years ago he was yet another underground rapper, flooding YouTube with videos of him in the vocal booth at his home studio, which bears the same makeshift vibe of Traphouse’s upstairs. The biggest of these proved to be “Letter to My Son” a hook-less and heartfelt (if deeply uncivil) custody battle ballad that ricochets its aim from son to mother. The video’s viral success caught the eyes of producers Cool & Dre who helped Trip land an Interscope deal through their Epidemic imprint. Now “Letter” is getting the label’s full push, along with an added chorus from Atlanta legend Cee-Lo. Trip falls firmly alongside Gotti in the globalist camp, citing New York rappers like Jay-Z and The Lox as his main inspiration.

“My music just sound like music.” Trip explains matter-of-factly, carefully avoiding any regional bias. “If you hear it you’d say I’m from the south, of course, due to the accent, but other than that you couldn’t pinpoint a place and say this is where he from.” And yet Memphis is where it resonates at the moment. If Yo Gotti is the king of the city, then Trip is its incumbent prince. With that royalty comes a certain obligation to the surrounding populace. Trip has been hitting the modern day chitlin’ circuit hard as of late. Earlier in the week he played clubs in the surrounding Tennessee cities of Jackson and Murfreesboro, and earlier in the day he played an on-campus show at University of Arkansas in Pine Bluff. At the moment, Trip’s about 30 minutes south of Memphis—straight down Route 61, The Blues Highway—at a small venue in Tunica, Mississippi. Tunica boasts a population of 1,300 and, at night, looks like nothing more than a wide sprawl of casinos and billboards.

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POSTED December 16, 2011 7:20PM IN FEATURES Comments (4) TAGS: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,




  1. A.T. says:

    Killer article. Very well done. You’ve reignited my love for this music. As someone from the Memphis area (North Mississippi) I can attest to the tape trading era of yesteryear. I remember some of those Memphis rap tapes trickling down to my neck of the woods when I was in high school. I had a friend trade me for my Beastie Boys License to Ill tape for a re-recorded Playa Fly Fly Shit tape. I still have that tape.

    Also, one time my friend and I went to the Mall of Memphis to get our Three 6 Mafia Chapter 2: World Domination CD signed by the group, they were up there promoting the record. We were the first ones there and they asked us what the hell we were doing at that mall (being notorious for homicide and other crimes and not the friendliest of places, they used to call it the Mall of Murder) and we told them we loved the record and we loved “Tear The Club Up ’97″. They signed and we drove back down the 55 to Mississippi to show it off to our friends.

    Seriously great article. Easily one of the best I’ve ever seen on The Fader.

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  3. Ross says:

    I feel as though in the 90′s, the south generated it’s own type of sound and that established it’s place in hip hop. But eventually it got played out because every young fella seeing how artist from Memphis/south area do it, they wanted to be like that. True, Memphis is dark as hell. Not really a suggested place to build a career, but when there’s no other option you have to go out and get yours. And this happens most of the time down south. That’s why T.I. says you grow up fast down here in ATL. Have to make a chance for yourself.

    Shit, Cali is killing it right now.

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