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How Memphis made its mark in the hip-hop world

Juicy J, left, and DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia perform during the 2023 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on Friday, June 16, 2023, in Manchester, Tenn. (Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
Juicy J, left, and DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia perform during the 2023 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on Friday, June 16, 2023, in Manchester, Tenn. (Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

In the years since hip-hop originated in New York, many other cities have fueled its global success. Memphis, Tennessee, is one of them. It’s brimming with talented musicians and storytellers who have innovated rap to reflect the city’s own history and culture.

Regional dialects, lingo and specific musical characteristics have always been central to the genre as it’s evolved. Zandria Felice Robinson knows that personally; she’s a native of Memphis, a writer and associate professor at Georgetown University.

“Place histories shape what we listen to,” she says. “It shapes how the music is made.”

The history of Memphis hip-hop, as told by Zandria Felice Robinson

The foundations of Memphis rap and hip-hop culture

“A lot of hip-hop artists in Memphis, and just the hip-hop culture in general, is descended from and pays homage to Mississippi Delta roots. These were people who migrated up from other parts of the Delta and other parts of Mississippi, more broadly, to come to Memphis. And they brought the sounds of the blues, and they brought Gospel and the labor songs that they would do in the fields to keep pace and keep time.

“Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, so fast forward to the late 1980s and early 1990s, as hip-hop is sort of taking the country by storm, Memphis is still grappling with the assassination of King. And you’ve got a new generation of folks who have come up into a time where the promises of the Civil Rights Movement seem to just not have been fulfilled.”

Signature sounds of Memphis rap

“There’s a lot of grief in this music. There’s a lot of anger, and there’s a lot of darkness. Memphis hip-hop is going to bring you those minor key melodies on a loop, a great deal of chanting.

“Memphis hip-hop is also going to have certain kinds of beat signatures. You’re going to hear the snapping snare a great deal. You’re going to hear the hi-hat. Memphis hip-hop artists also have another aspect of their signature sound, which is how they deliver the rhymes and the rhythms like the triplet sound, which you can hear in DJ Zirk’s ‘Lock Em in da Trunk.’

“The ‘Lock Em in da Trunk’ refrain comes from a song by The Showboys called ‘Drag Rap.’ It’s a bit of a murder ballad, which were very popular in the mid century and come up out of the Blues tradition. They’re specifically about murder or revenge. It’s violent and hyperbolic, but that’s kind of the point of that particular tradition.”

Three 6 Mafia’s seminal ‘The Most Unknown’ album

“Memphis rap is doing its thing throughout the [1990s] but it’s really the mid-2000s album, Three 6 Mafia’s ‘Most Known Unknown’, that wakes people up to what’s been happening in Memphis. Southern hip-hop was marginalized in the music industry for such a long time.

“The East Coast-West Coast beef was going on, and there was this sense that like these outsiders were here and corrupting the stayed traditions of hip-hop. And there was a broad perception that Southerners didn’t have the sort of lyrical IQ or intelligence to be able to deliver rhymes.

“You have to keep in mind at this time, Southern hip-hop has Miami bass. It’s got New Orleans bounce. It’s got this gothic dark music from Memphis and so there was a sense that all those people want to do is dance. These ideas are rooted in a kind of South/North dichotomy that emerged in the wake of the Great Migration.;The South is accommodation. The South is about letting the white man hit you over the head. And then the North — and the West, by extension — is about Black power, is about Black resistance.

“We can see a lot of critiques from East Coast and West Coast artists at the time about the rise of Southern hip-hop. There was this sense that corporations were making Southerners into coon representations of Black people, and that the political edge of hip hop was being taken away. I think there is still a little bit of an edge there, but you simply can’t deny the place of the South in hip-hop more broadly and globally.”

Establishing the Southern hip-hop sound

“Southern cities had to work together to both build and articulate their own sounds and build a sound that was fundamentally a Southern sound. I think that Memphis certainly always had a little bit of a chip on its shoulder because, for a lot of reasons, our local music industry had collapsed.

“Stax Records had closed in 1974, and there wasn’t a lot of outside major record label interest in the city like there came to be in places like New Orleans, Atlanta and Houston. Memphis was kind of really scrappy doing things creatively and innovatively, but not having access to the resources that other places had.

“This was actually a boom for Memphis because it allowed far more diversity and creativity in the sounds. If you look at what major record labels came to be expecting from the Atlanta sound, a lot of it was being dictated. So Memphis had a smorgasbord of things from which to sample, and we’re seeing the manifestation of that creativity today.”

Southern hip-hop takes over but loses regional distinctness

“When we begin to see the Southern hip-hop sound be extracted from Southern hip-hop artists, it becomes less regionally marked and more just, this is what hip-hop is. Some folks might disagree because he does have a daddy from Memphis, but Drake is one of the people who takes and popularizes the Memphis sound and Memphis beats. And that’s great for Memphis in a lot of ways, but it also flattens the regional distinctiveness because Drake is a national and international, global hip-hop star who, to be fair, will take anybody’s culture.”

The distinctive voice of Memphis rapper today

“To have a distinctive place sound, one of the few things you have is your own voice. And I am consistently amazed with artists coming out whether it’s GloRilla, Key Glock, or the late Young Dolph.

“These people have fantastic Memphis voices. They have a particular southern accent that is an integration of Memphis and Mississippi Delta. And a lot of the appeal of these artists is the timbre of the voice, the turns of phrase, real country things that people are saying that mark them as distinct and that can tell us a lot about that place. It can tell us about the ingenuity of the people in that place from making something with what they had. That is an element that hip-hop is known for and that continues to push the culture forward.”

A playlist of quintessential Boston hip-hop

Blessed” by GloRilla

Watch on YouTube.

Lock Em in da Trunk” by DJ Zirk

Watch on YouTube.

Poppin’ My Collar” by Three 6 Mafia

Watch on YouTube.

Where Dem Dollas At” by Gangsta Boo

Watch on YouTube.

Hold Up Hold Up Hold Up” by Young Dolph

Ciku Theuri produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Theuri also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.