Memphis has long celebrated a rich musical and cultural heritage. Its rhythm-n-blues, soul, and rock-n-roll foundations are exemplified by Beale Street, Stax Records, and Graceland, respectively, while jazz and gospel have also historically called Memphis home. In the 1940s and 1950s, Memphis radio stations such as WNBR and WDIA promoted African American music and culture, thus expanding both black and white audiences. At the close of the twentieth century, another musical form asserted a strong presence in the city. Hip hop now claims a prominent place within the cultural fabric of the South, as it also continues to grow and draw upon the many musical threads associated with Memphis.
From the 1970s through the early 1990s, New York and Los Angeles represented the centers of rap and hip hop commercial activity. East and West Coast rivalries dominated the industry, resulting in high record sales supported by a strong mass market. Though southern artists were active during this period, their style and content largely followed East/West Coast conventions. The mid-1990s, however, witnessed a surge in hip-hop activity that consciously promoted a southern identity. This trend also mirrored larger post-civil rights developments that re-oriented African American interest and pride in a southern home. Atlanta-based LaFace Records (1989), for example, cultivated a roster of artists that actively diverged from New York and Los Angeles styles. Artists such as OutKast and the Goodie Mob drew upon southern legacies of rock, gospel, soul, jazz, and blues to craft their own brand of hip hop. By 1995, Atlanta’s OutKast was a platinum-selling act, helping to shift commercial interest from the East and West Coasts to the South.
Director Craig Brewer’s 2005 film, Hustle and Flow, highlighted the hip-hop scene in Memphis and catapulted one of its primary acts to international acclaim. With the track “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” Memphis’s Three 6 Mafia captured a gritty slice of urban life while speaking to some of the inherent economic challenges facing inner-city African Americans in the twenty-first century. This song eventually won the group an Oscar, serving as a capstone of sorts to a career that began in Memphis’s mix-tape underground in the 1990s.
In this setting, Memphis artists produced and released their own recordings on independent labels. New York and Los Angeles’s relative industry monopoly forced southern artists to develop their underground style and sound to compete effectively. The use of word-of-mouth through the club scene established popular reputations for artists such as the Three 6 Mafia, 8ball & MJG, Ray the Jay, Tela, and DJ Spanish Fly. This grassroots approach to recording, audience building, and record sales therefore helped to generate and define the Memphis hip hop scene.
Beginning their career in the eighties, 8ball & MJG are now considered elder statesmen in Memphis hip hop, as national acts like Ludacris and OutKast routinely cite them as key influences. This Memphis duo received and digested the popular East and West Coast sounds through the radio, and their artistic sensibilities were further refined by their close proximity to the musical foundations established by Al Green, Otis Redding, and Stax Records. Mixing these influences with their own musicality, 8ball & MJG helped to create the viable underground culture that Three-Six Mafia currently expands and celebrates. In 2007, Three 6 Mafia even took their Memphis style and Oscar status to California, starring in an MTV reality series called “Adventures in Hollyhood.”
Throughout the 1990s, the Memphis hip-hop scene, as well as hip-hop centers throughout the South, fell under slang banners such as southern rap, the Dirty South, and Crunk. Three 6 Mafia is generally credited with one of the first Crunk singles, called “Tear Da Club Up ’97.” Alternating between a state of mind and distinctive musical style, Crunk is characterized by prominent bass beats and repetitive single-line chanting that resembles older call-and-response patterns. Though this type of hip hop is largely featured in club scenes throughout the South, its substance is not strictly defined by its association with party music. The dynamic nature of the Memphis tradition is evident within this highly popular and commercially successful sound. Some adherents even contend that the southernization of hip hop has contributed to a more fully developed form, integrating samples and electronics with traditional instrumentation and unique song structures.
Hip hop remains an important aspect of Memphis culture. Rather than representing an anomaly within the long history of the city’s musical development, this music is an outgrowth of a varied and dynamic heritage. It is also fits within a larger post-civil rights trend in which African Americans are re-claiming their southern identities through art, music, and culture.
Darren E. Grem, “‘The South Got Something To Say:’ Atlanta’s Dirty South and the Southernization of Hip-Hop America,” Southern Cultures 12 (2006): 55-73;
James C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (2005);
Tamara Palmer, Country Fried Soul: Adventures in Dirty South Hip-Hop (2005).