For decades, hip-hop seemed a story of two coasts. But while New York and Los Angeles dominated the conversation on a national level well into the 1990s, that narrow vantage point overlooked the regional rap scenes in other American cities like Houston and Miami.
The apparent industry bias and media ignorance of rap movements happening below the Mason-Dixon line made for insular communities and subcultures – ones that only in the digital era have begun to receive the international recognition due to them.
But with respect to all of the locales that helped make hip-hop what it is today, Memphis’s scene might have been the most influential on the genre’s modern landscape.
Early ’90s breakouts like Gangsta Pat and pioneers 8Ball and MJG gave local Memphis listeners some hometown heroes to get behind, and their impact stretched beyond the city limits via regional concert tours and independent record stores to help establish Southern rap’s identity. But Memphis’ most famous rap export is Three 6 Mafia, founded by DJ Paul and Juicy J.
In their early years, Three 6 Mafia and Memphis peers like Tommy Wright III pioneered a dark, lo-fi sound that sparked the horrorcore subgenre. This gothic aesthetic was also appropriated Spaceghostpurrp’s Raider Klan, who then laid the foundation for XXXTentacion and the darker edges of the Soundcloud rap wave.
Three 6 Mafia then channelled their energy into a more club-appropriate crunk sound. Between the late ’90s-mid ’00s, Lil Jon commercially and controversially co-opted crunk for Atlanta, considerably aiding in the battle to focus attention on the South. But that sound was rooted in the work done previously, and then concurrently, by Three 6. The Atlanta crunk wave led to the trap phenomenon, and so Three 6 Mafia’s influence was rightly acknowledged throughout the 2010s.
Nowadays, Memphis’ presence in hip-hop requires no justification. Yo Gotti, BlocBoy JB and Young Dolph became certified hitmakers in the 2010s, reclaiming trap as a product of their predecessors’ hard work. In recent years, these rap stars have often used their high profiles to elevate other artists from their city, including Blac Youngsta and Moneybagg Yo. As a result, Tennessee is teeming with talent at a time when all eyes are on the state’s rap capital.
Here are some of the contemporary standouts representing the new wave of Memphis artists:
Like Three Six Mafia legends DJ Paul and Gangsta Boo, Duke Deuce hails from the Whitehaven area of Memphis (known as ‘Blackhaven’ due to its large African American population). A fierce proponent of the crunk music his city birthed, Duke Deuce has reclaimed the term from hip-hop’s slang graveyard. His single Crunk Ain’t Dead shook the foundations with a sample courtesy of a classic by Project Pat. The video’s racked up millions of views, and Pat was impressed enough to hop on a remix with Lil Jon and his brother Juicy J.
Having struck up a friendship with Migos rapper Offset, Deuce inked a deal with their label Quality Control Music – also home to the likes of City Girls and Lil Baby – and he’s since relocated to Atlanta. But Deuce is still repping Memphis hard. His 2020 mixtape Memphis Massacre 2 features beats by his dad, an underground Memphis legend known as Duke Nitty, and he’s a proud practitioner of the gangsta walk, an old school Memphis street dance.
One of the first signees to Young Dolph’s Paper Route EMPIRE imprint, this South Memphis native has benefited greatly as the label owner’s protégé. While Key Glock’s mid-2010s mixtapes gave him clout, 2018’s Glockoma took his trap house flows to a new level with grim highlights Since 6ix and Bottom Of The Pot. He followed up Dum And Dummer, a late 2019 joint mixtape with Dolph, with one of the shrewdest moves of his career – an uncompromising no-features mixtape called Yellow Tape that reached the Top 20 of the Billboard 200 album charts.
Viral teenage hitmakers have become the new normal in rap, and this shouty Parkway Village upstart joined those ranks proudly with the 2019’s breakout hit Shotta Flow. That piano creep of a single led later that year to Cottonwood, a punchy EP named for the street he grew up on. He continues to thrive on collaborative tracks with young contemporaries like Roddy Ricch and Polo G, yet still finds time to pay homage to those who came before on the referential Camelot beat.
Another young local with obvious appeal, this Atlantic signee swiftly became one of Memphis’ rising stars with 2018’s Who Am I (Reloaded) and its even stronger successor Baby G.O.A.T. The boldness of that latter title belies an inherent gratitude of his station. Even as his beat selection can feel bubbly and bright, his lyrics remain deeply thoughtful and reflective, as evidenced by tracks like Leave Some Day and Pray I See Tomorrow. He practically breaks down on Crying Out Loud, a lamentful auto-tune ballad that many of his fans can acutely relate to.
For at least the past five years, this energetic spitter has been on her grind in the rap game, doling out solid projects from 2015’s Diamond In The Rough onwards. Her connections with the likes of Kash Doll and Rico Nasty further bolstered her following, but signing with Atlantic Records at the start of 2020 set off a whole new series of wins for Jucee Froot. Her rock-tinged Danger appeared on the Birds Of Prey movie soundtrack, which preceded her first major label outing Black Sheep, on which she deftly collabs with Kevo Muney and Juicy J.
Big Moochie Grape
Making himself known by way of a feature on Jay Fizzle’s single Now & Next, this East Memphis rapper is a self-professed fan of the 8Ball & MJG classics and Three 6 Mafia bangers that made his city move back in the day. Singles like Big Juice and Uh Huh Uh Huh Uh Huh show Big Moochie Grape’s almost Gucci Mane-esque propensity for straightforward yet memorable hooks and limber bars. The recently released Eat Or Get Ate EP for Paper Route EMPIRE keeps that same energy with the aid of Nashville producer BandPlay.
Not to be confused with the aforementioned Kevo, Kenny Muney is a South Memphis native who started uploading his songs to the internet before he was barely a teen. The viral YouTube track YTN Freestyle helped to raise his profile, as did signing with Paper Route EMPIRE. Thanks in part to that coveted Dolph cosign, last year’s Muney Talk project introduced him to an even wider audience of listeners, with highlights like Fr and flamenco-reminiscent Feeling Me letting him get his braggadocious bars all the way off.