I saw some interest in the 90s Memphis hip-hop scene here recently. Here’s a little overview of the scene, a little bit about 25 essential tapes, and a 100+ song youtube playlist if any of you guys want to check it out more. – Lucas Foster (posted as u/swolepocketshawty)
The past few years have seen a noticeable increase of interest in the ’90s Memphis underground by everyone: hypebeasts to music journalists to internet kids to metal nerds to old heads, in addition to a heavy influence on the internet-centric cloud rap scene. In the 90s and 2000s, however, it was obscure and almost unknown outside of Memphis and European hip-hop nerds. They had a unique problem of making music that’s arguably 20 years ahead of its time on equipment probably 10 years behind. As the music industry shifted to CD’s, the underground scene in Memphis was distributed almost exclusively in cassette tapes for most of the decade. This coupled with an extremely niche and foreign sound to the rest of the country meant a lot of really talented and creative artists never were able to take off.
Luckily for the past 5 years or so there has been renewed interest in this very fruitful creative period due in part to a “revival” scene and the magic of the internet. Artists like Rvdxr Klvn, Tommy Kruse, DJ Smokey, Bones, Xavier Wulf, LIl Ugly Mane, $UICIDEBOY$ and even A$AP Rocky (largely due to SGP’s influence) have drawn heavily from the 90s Memphis sound and aesthetic. In fact if you break down much of modern Southern hip-hop and cloud rap there are some serious overt similarities to music made in Memphis 20 years ago.
As early as 1990, Memphis’ sound was distinguished by hi-hat and 808-driven beats which showcased MC’s like Lord Infamous, Skinny Pimp, Tom Skeemask, Princess Loko, and a prepubescent Yo Gotti (as Lil Yo) using double time and triplet (“Migos”) flows. Instead of the polished, digital crispness of modern trap, producers in Memphis were mostly working with a very lo-fi sound and using a lot of samples. The sound and subject matter is often very dark and haunting, with menacing vocal samples, organs, violins, Eastern and Arabic zitars, harpsichords, and keyboards being used to add an appropriately dark soundtrack to the bleak post-industrial economic reality of Memphis in this time period. Memphis rappers weren’t just rapping about banging, pimpin’ and murder, they added a horrorcore and even Satanic element to their subject matter which sometimes felt more than just performance.
Though it is now largely associated with it’s darkest and grimiest lo-fi sound fetishized by internet kids from 4chan to Soundcloud, it also had some more conventional gangsta rappers and producers that fell within the Memphis sound like 8Ball And MJG, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, Shawty Pimp, Indo G & Lil Blunt, and Tela.
The sound (and arguably much of modern Southern hip-hop’s sound) has largely been credited to being initially developed by DJ Spanish Fly, although the history of the scene is not thoroughly publicly documented. By the late ’80s he had really crystallized Memphis’ signature production techniques. Clubs where he had worked since he was 16 weren’t interested in his more explicit mixes which centered largely around banging, armed robbery, and pimping, so he released tapes of them independently. Other local producers/ DJs such as Dj Zirk, DJ Sound, DJ Squeeky, Tommy Wright, DJ Paul, Juicy J, Shawty Pimp, and 8Ball & MJG started building off his formula and by 92 the sound was solidified
It was a very DJ-driven scene, in part because a lot of DJs had home studios where many of the tapes were recorded, and also in part because the scene was mostly interested in atmosphere, mood,and aesthetic. For this reason I’m gonna suggest a lot of DJ tapes when possible. Most of a DJ collaborators’ best songs ended up on tapes as well. Rappers were of course vitally important in the creative process, but in some ways vocals were more used as an instrument than the main focus of songs. Because of this, rappers were trying out tricky flows that would sometimes change up in unexpected areas (not just double time or triplet, listen close and sometimes you’ll hear quick change ups between bars and just at odd times), and messing around with singsong deliveries that, while not as obvious as many rappers working in a post-Lil Wayne world, were still dramatically different from the more straight up/ monotone style preferred by most of the industry’s most popular rappers in that time period.
Here are albums that I’ve listened to and I think are a good representation of this time, and most key contributors. European collectors grabbed everything they could get their hands on and uploaded really obscure homie/ neighborhood tapes, so there is a huge amount to choose from, and a lack of mainstream coverage or discussion means there is no real consensus on what is and what is not essential. Because of this, I listed the 10 or so most popular tapes and 15 tapes that I’m partial to that are a fair sample Memphis Underground’s various sounds. It’s in no ways a complete guide to every tape, there are literally thousands. Feel free to correct anything or suggest more essential tapes I might have missed.
Koopsta Knicca – Da Devil’s Playground
Truly a must listen for any fan of hip-hop, “Torture Chamber”’s eerie sitars and esoteric hook (“Scars of the ancient’s mutilation’s/ Torture chambers filled with bodies in my basement”) is a gripping introduction to the sound Memphis is known for. Da Devil’s Playground, released in ’94 and re-mastered in ’99, is probably the definitive tape of the genre, and maybe the most popular on the internet at the moment. DJ Paul’s production on here is perhaps the best of his lengthy career. The tape is as good as any contemporary projects were at creating and maintaining a menacing, black, and oppressive mood without becoming redundant (a trap that many similar projects attempting to keep a dark mood throughout fell into). This may be in part due to better sound quality in the 99 remaster, as sometimes surviving recordings of tapes sound quality is so poor that it ventures beyond lo-fi into unlistenable territory. Koopsta’s unique rap voice does as much for this tape as it’s good recording quality. His soft, subdued, slightly singsong delivery has a certain pained and haunting quality, he makes this project his own and always has a great delivery no matter if he’s in single, double, or a speed shifting delivery where the middle of a few bars a he enters into double time for any number of syllables before falling back into a slower and laid back delivery.
DJ Zirk – Underworld
Most Memphis tapes aren’t exactly concept albums, and really all that you are usually looking for is consistency in quality. Underworld may be a sort of compilation album, with songs recorded years apart, but it well put together and features many of Zirk’s frequent collaborators and himself at their best. There is a lot of variety in this project, from the menacing, sitar-sampling intro “Anna for you Hoes,” to the relaxed complacency of “Supa Strait” and finding perhaps it’s best moment on the almost desperately tragic and minimalist “Stay Paid.” DJ Zirk earned his stripes and this album shows how, and also that not every Memphis album requires outlandish horror movie samples to be somber and nihilistic.
Tommy Wright III – Runnin & Gunnin
Pretty much every Tommy Wright and Ten Wanted Men tape is an essential. Tommy’s got a unique production style and is an OG of this shit. This and Ashes II Ashes are probably his best projects, and I love when he goes more funky and simple but beat-break-free with songs like “Chrome Thang” and “Still Pimpin,” but his fans seem to like everything he touches.
Kingpin Skinny Pimp – King of Da Playas Ball
Kingpin Skinny Pimp is one of the more “mafioso” of Memphis rappers, this is basically the Supreme Clientele of Memphis, some more laid back pimp shit for him to shit talk about how hard he’s flossing in a cool way. His flow is really on point (if you haven’t noticed, most of these dudes have great flows) and so is his beat selection and sound quality. KODPB is more a complete album than a tape, and although it is occasionally moody it is definitely not anything as bleak as Niggaz of Destruction, Graveyard Productions, or Frayser Click. The best song on the album is “One Life To Live,” a more laidback string sample beat perfectly suited for Skinny. This tape is one of the maybe 5 or 10 most popular of 90s Memphis for a reason.
8Ball & MJG – Comin’ Out Hard
Although not quite the obscure Satanic rap group many associate with Memphis, 8Ball & MJG’s 1993 debut is a classic hardcore Memphis gangsta rap album and ahead of its time in many ways. This sample-based, approachable, and melodic brand of Southern gangsta rap is a sound found in Lil Keke, Tom Skeemask, Z-Ro, Paul Wall, Gangsta Blac, Master P, Juvenile, and Lil Wayne (and similar acts) records released for the next 12 years. Contemporaries might have released very similar sounding records provided they had access to the same equipment. The lyricism on here, while not exactly tongue twisting around multisyllabic words, is a very solid display, especially the story telling on “Armed Robbery.” The title track is a stand out. Also listen for all the times this album’s vocals are sampled on other regional 90s albums for hooks etc.
Three Six Mafia – Mystic Stylez
Must listen and consensus classic.
Gangsta Pat – Deadly Verses
This is a very popular album, and features more original production than sampling. It has some solid tracks and was made in a studio. It’s kind of a polished version of the gloomy and satanic style popular at the time, as really it was a huge diversion in theme and sound for industry-connected 80s veteran Gangsta Pat in response to the growing regional power of Triple Six and others who were dominating the local scene. Contextually making the lead single “Smokin’ Wit Da Devil” is kind of forced, but all of these guys were performing and had influences. It’s a pretty solid album and very popular.
DJ Squeeky – Summa Mix 94/ Volume 9
It’s really hard to put less than 3 DJ Squeeky tapes from the mid 90s on the essentials list here. He really defined the sound in that he was able to balance well between the more funky pimp shit (which some find trivial or a poor G-Funk imitation) and the darker sounding tapes (which in all honestly often can be extremely monotonous and boring and veer into cartoonish ridiculousness). Squeeky was really great at making both melodic and dark rap songs and “mixes” (basically instrumentals with a lot of vocal samples, and though being so prolific means some of his songs just do not sound given their low fidelity, he made a huge contribution to the genre. This two are his most consistent tape outside of greatest hits, and is definitely a good representation of Memphis’ sound. Many also love volumes 6, 8 and other Summa Mixes from the mid 90s. (I gotta say right quick Squeeky’s most underrated track is “Real Nigga Shit”).
Juicy J – Vol. 9mm: It’s On!
Juicy J is a solid DJ in addition to rapper, and here he lets fellow Triple Six members as well as MC Mack, Lil Fly, Lil Noid, Lil Glock & SOG, Al Kapone, and Skinny Pimp do their thing. This is probably his best solo underground tape and a great showcase of all the different sounds and talent in Memphis at the time.
Shawty Pimp – Still Comin Real
Shawty Pimp produces much more light and airy beats than is typical of what would be expected of a mid 90s North Memphis gangsta tape, but his songs have a melancholy in them that’s every bit as effective at setting mood as the more aggressive projects his friends were making. He has undeniable ear for soul and funk loops, even when it’s as simple as the Roy Ayers loop on “One Mean Stang,”, they just work. He makes extremely playful and dynamic songs about violence in a way that creates a curious and enjoyable duplicity. The album can seem a bit monotonous, but Shawty Pimp’s talent as a producer is undeniable.
Ten Wanted Men – Ten Toes Down
The Tommy Wright led super group’s best album.
Graveyard Productions – The Havoc
Production credits on this two-man, one woman outfit are unclear, but rather trivial when you consider that 3 songs are built from simple loops of the same Isley Brothers song and nearly identical drums. “Devyl Shyt” is Graveyard Productions’ most popular song, but it’s easy to make an argument for “Grab My Mask”‘s slightly more engaging sample and haunting harmonized chorus to be better. The rapping about demon possession might be more inventive but what sounds like the description of the last moments of an armed robbery victim’s life leaves a much longer lasting mental impression.
Tom Skeemask – Solo Tape 94
Tom Skeemask is one of the best rappers to come out of his area, with a killer hesitation delivery, double time flow and great breath control. Him, Tinimaine, and Killa Murphy created the best track out of the oft-used Isley Brothers piano loop on “Niggaz Watch Yo Back” because they all killed their verses. I love the few lines Killa Murphy sings in a falsetto towards the end of his verse: “Duh-rifitin in a memor (OOOHH EEOO OOHH) Stangin’ bustaz fo they cheese.” The tape stays interesting with the extremely fast-paced and almost jazzy ode to smoking blunts “So High/ Cloud of Smoke” and a desperate story about keeping a younger brother out of the gang life on “Annamosity/ Visionz of a Gangsta.” Probably 3 of Squeeky’s 15 best beats on this tape.
Criminal E & Underground Sam – In Gatz We Trust/ Tom Skeemask – 2 Wild 4 The World / Gangsta Blac – I’m Da Gangsta/ Project Pat – Ghetty Green / Playa Fly – Movin On
In the late 90s traditional stalwarts abandoned really dark and abrasive records and polished up what they were doing. These records are stylistically similar to and on par with many more popular Houston and New Orleans records released in the same period. While all but In Gatz We Trust lack Houston’s singing chops, Houston guys often just don’t have the Memphis’ mastery of delivery and flow. I’d say if you like Lil Keke, B.G., Juvenile, Z-Ro, Big Hawk, Big Moe, and Fat Pat’s 90s releases you’ll probably like these albums as well.
Lil Gin – Shake Junt
One of many noticeably young Memphis MC’s (an extremely young Yo Gotti went as “Lil Yo” and rapped as fast as anyone ever over these 80s action movie sounding beats) Lil Gin’s very youthful voice on his earlier projects is a nice contrast with lyrics about murder and lurching Triple Six production. “Scopin Wit Da Red Dot” is a classic.
DJ Sound – Vol. 8
If you’re looking for some real dark lo-fi shit this is probably a good answer. DJ Sound was a consistent force in the darker shit, and though he occasionally lays an egg he has a lot of quality material.
DJ Livewire – Vol 5. (Butcha Shop Mix)
Another important Memphis DJ. One of the 10 lyrics that stuck with me more than any others are on Rollin Wit Da Butcha Squad: “Watch out fo the chilren and the babies mane, fuck dat shit/ Shoot anybody who be standin in my fuckin way/ Watch out for the shadow doin 80 ridin to the lake.” That and Tru Playa are some of my favorite uses of sampling by Memphis DJ’s. Barry White on both I believe. I’d kill to have a really good quality version of this. DJ Livewire is worth checking out more.
Frayser Click – Broken Halo
DJ Sound’s mixed gender crew made some of the best dark Dirty South music on this tape. Sound’s slowed down vocal samples help create a drugged out atmosphere reminiscent of what DJ Screw was doing a few hundred miles South, and the numerous vocal styles of Frayser Click rappers help keep the tape from getting dull.
DJ Sound – MC MONEY & Gangsta Gold
Two solid female rappers work with DJ Sound’s signature sound to make a really genderless gangsta rap album. The samples on here are almost hallucinogenic and creaking behind tales of women killing and robbing in a really haunting way.
Niggaz of Destruction – Niggaz of Destruction
Well-regarded among fans, this Tommy Wright supported effort is shorter but very consistent.
Evil Pimp – Da Exorcist’s Return
Evil Pimp is interesting because he kept making the real devil shit after most of the scene either stopped rapping or moved on to an updated/ more marketable sound. This 2004 project is one of the better darker sounding releases because it’s not over the top and doesn’t sound like it was recorded in a toaster oven (IMO some of the underground tapes on the darker side are a bit too lo-fi). This album is good and consistent front to back and checks all marks for what fans of the dark shit are looking for unless you need extreme lo-fi.
Mr. Tinimaine – 19-Tini-5
Frequent DJ Zirk and DJ Squeeky collaborator Tinimaine proved he could carry a solo project on this 1995 project. His beat selection is good and decidedly in the darker side of things, and his mellow singsong delivery matches the evil sound of his instrumentals. It’s as good as any similar experiments in dark ambience because it’s believable and consistent.
La Chat – Murda She Wrote
La Chat is one of many great female Memphis MC’a who defied rap’s rigid definitions of gender roles, not so much in that rappers like her, Legend Lady J, Princess Loko, Gangsta Boo and Peaches were very butch or masculine, but in that they confidently asserted their sexuality and agency without any protest from males in the industry. This tape doesn’t showcase La Chat as some sort of sexual fantasy (the cover assures you of this) like many record labels do with female MCs. Instead, La Chat is just a straight up gangsta rapper. Gangsta Boo’s verse in RTJ2’s “Love Again” was hailed as some sort of high watermark for feminism in rap when 15 years earlier DJ Paul helped La Chat twist the 3 6 classic “Slob on my Knob” to “Slob on my Cat.” The scene loved female rappers and didn’t constrict their opportunity or define them based on gender. Regardless of context, La Chat shows off a hard-hitting, aggressive flow in her signature bassy voice which is perfectly suited to DJ Paul’s turn of the millennium Memphis crunk style. This album may have been recorded in a quality studio in 2000 rather than a basement in 1995, but it’s unapologetically hardcore, underground shit.
Royal Famlee – Ghetto Life
I evangelize this tape like a Mormon Missionary. This musical project is the most obscure project of undeniably excellent quality I know of. It’s a seamless blend of Gospel choir, Memphis bump, and Houston funk that speaks a lot emotionally. The first song, “Ghetto Child,” has this beautiful and powerful horn sample with these constant sung adlibs that comes together really simply but pretty damn moving. You can hear real emotion, it’s pain but it’s also a daring hope. The whole tape is only 4 songs and a little acapella interlude, but they all have really great soulful instrumentals and great sung hooks. All 3 vocalists remind me of Z-Ro and they sound like they also spent some time in choir when they were younger. I’d say it’s up there with any hip-hop release of 1996, but these the only songs I can find by them, and they got like 2,000 Youtube views on their songs. If you like Southern hip-hop you’ll love this tape.
Throughout this Youtube playlist I dropped some modern “revival” songs so fans of those artists can check out some older similar albums and also see how ahead of their time some of the artists of the scene were.