Memphis Hip Hop: A Brief History

Memphis hip hop music played a central role in the city’s strip club industry as I observed as part of my dissertation. Zandria F. Robinson, the sociologist at Rhodes College, provided a scholarly interpretation of this soundscape in her 2009 piece “Soul Legacies: Hip Hop and Historicity in Memphis,” published in the first volume of Hip Hop in America: A Regional Guide.

According to Robinson, Memphis rap music started as part of the underground hip hop scene during the 1980s as homegrown rappers used drum machines, microphones, and recording devices to produce musical projects. Robinson credits the Great Migration and the integration of urban and rural Black cultures for the unique sounds of Memphis hip hop.

The History of Black Memphis

Prior to the industrial era, Memphis operated as a regional and national distribution center for cotton.  The city played a major role during the Great Migration as Black people moved through the city to head north or to the west down Route 61 known as the Blues Highway. Black people who moved from rural areas to the city settled in pre-established Black neighborhoods in the southern part of the city.

Many of these residents congregated on Beale Street, which Robinson describes as both the Main Street of Black America and the Harlem of the South:

“Beale Street… served as a formalized space in which business, blues music, juke joints, dancing, gospel music, churchgoing, and liquor drinking combined to serve as the cultural basis for contemporary black performative and spiritual cultures in Memphis and other regions” (p. 555).

Various factors contributed to the decline of Beale Street including the Great Depression, World War II, and anti-vice policies that targeted bootlegging and prostitution. Additionally, the assassination of Martin Luther King disrupted the music scene as did the rise of funk music and the death of Otis Redding, who at the time the star of Stax Records, a Memphis-based recording company founded in the 1960s.

This decline led many Black people to relocate to the southern region of the city as the government used urban renewal programs to reshape the area. Today, the city has commodified the space of Beale Street as a tourist attraction that includes bars, restaurants, and music-themed restaurants.

The Distinguishing Features of Memphis Rap Music

Robinson writes that this early sound draws on West Coast, East Coast, and southern gangsta rap music as well as soul and funk music.  Additionally, the legacy of this rap music also stems from the role soul music and the Civil Rights Movement played in shaping the city’s trajectory. During the 1980s, Memphis youth turned to hip hop as a form of political expression.

According to Robinson, Memphis rap artists stylized themselves as laidback pimps and sometimes used movement to communicate in addition to their lyrics. These songs also feature continuous eighth notes, continuous hi-hat symbols in sixteenth notes, a sharp snare drum on the second and fourth note, and a bass-drum as exemplified by Project Pat’s “Drive-By.” 

Another unique feature of Memphis rap music relates to the samples used by its artists. Many of the samples used by producers of this rap music draw on the sound of Stax Records. The use of these samples to layer tracks gives Memphis rap a slower beat than rap music from some other regions of the U.S.

Memphis rappers added a gritty edge to these soulful samples as they narrated about the violence and poverty they experienced or how they coped through an illicit activity like pimping and selling drugs. Through their music, Robinson writes, rappers from Memphis revealed how these country folks went through very urban problems.

The History of Memphis Hip Hop

I learned from Robinson’s essay that crunk music started as a type of call and response that Memphis DJs engaged into hype crowds at local clubs. These call and response chants found in songs like Three 6 Mafia’s Hit a Muthafucka also motivated dance movements known as buck jumping, the gangsta walk, and jukin’.

Memphis clubs in Black neighborhoods served as an important site of sharing the underground sound as DJs collaborated with consumers to influence the Memphis hip hop sound during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some of these neighborhoods included Whitehaven, South Memphis, Orange Mound, and North Memphis. Artists like 8Ball & MJG, Three 6 Mafia, Gangsta Pat, and Al Kapone worked with some early labels to make Memphis hip hop the new sound of the city.

Memphis rappers also used mixtapes to help share their sound. DJs at radio stations like Hot 107.1 KXHT FM would play underground music during their sets. From 1997 onward, many artists made albums that would go mainstream and lead rappers to gain international fans. Robinson describes the signature sound of the early twenty-first century rap music as “southern-gangsta-pimp sound.” Once beats were exchanged through computers and social networking sites, this sound took off to be featured throughout the U.S.

Furthermore, the 2005 film Hustle & Flow brought Memphis rap to the silver screen and signified the city’s hip hop cultural institutions including the Crystal Palace skating rink. Overall, Robinson’s essay shows how Black leisure culture in Memphis shaped the city from the end of the Civil War to the early twenty-first century.