Led by a wave of new talent and equipped with a Drake co-sign, can Memphis finally keep its head above the underground and become the hip-hop mecca it has the potential to be?
Whenever the conversation surrounding the biggest and most influential hip-hop cities in the southern U.S. comes up — Memphis hardly ever gets a fair shake. Atlanta, Houston and Miami have long been regarded as hip-hop hot spots, but that narrative is finally starting to shift to include a city with a rich hip-hop history and a new one that is forming right in front of our very eyes.
The origins of Memphis hip-hop date back to the early nineties and were often characterized by double time flows over slowed down beats with a lo-fi aesthetic. Acts like Al Kapone, 8Ball, MJG and Three 6 Mafia all brought legitimacy to the city’s distinct hip-hop sound as they would all enjoy varying levels of success after making a name for themselves on the underground circuit.
Three 6 Mafia remains by far the most successful hip-hop act to come out of Memphis with an Academy Award for Best Original Song, two Platinum albums and a lasting impact on today’s rap stars who are shaping cultural tastes in 2018. Juicy J has also become Three 6 Mafia’s solo success story after reinventing himself as a member of Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang imprint and working with pop stars like Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus. Still, other acts from the city found difficulty gaining a bigger audience outside of their region and were relegated to remain underground because of it.
Memphis has always had the juice like that, but the city’s budding hip-hop talent hasn’t always had the exposure it deserves. That started to change around the time Drake dropped the video for his 2013 hit single “Worst Behaviour,” which was solely shot in Memphis and featured cameo appearances from Juicy J, MJG and Project Pat among others. Much like he did with Toronto, Drake brought his father’s hometown into the mainstream spotlight and once it became known to everyone in the hip-hop industry that its biggest superstar rocked with the city — a new door suddenly opened for its talent.
Yo Gotti, a Memphis rapper who had been hustling on the underground circuit for years, finally got his first megahit with “Down in the DM” in 2015 and his eighth album ‘The Art of Hustle’ peaked at No. 4 on the ‘Billboard’ 200 and No. 1 on the hip-hop and R&B charts. Interestingly enough, Drake also spent time around Yo Gotti when he would visit his father in Memphis and learn about the music industry watching his come-up in the city.
Unfortunately, beef is also still prevalent in the city as Yo Gotti rival Young Dolph has also made quite the name for himself and gone on to work with the likes of Gucci Mane, T.I. and Migos. On the flipside, Yo Gotti’s Collective Music Group has also spawned the promising careers of Memphis rappers Black Youngsta and Moneybagg Yo — two young stars on rapid upward trajectories.
BlocBoy JB also entered the next Memphis rap star conversation with his smash single “Look Alive” featuring Drake still bubbling out there. The 21-year- old dropped viral singles like “Shoot” and “Rover,” the latter which was boosted with a previously unreleased 21 Savage verse. As of mid-March, he is rumoured to be in talks about a deal with OVO Sound though nothing is confirmed at the time of publishing.
It’s clear Memphis has come a long way from its underground roots and the impact of a Drake co-sign in the current hip-hop climate cannot be undersold. The city’s talent is growing every day and rappers now have the confidence to think bigger outside of Memphis knowing that others are on the rise as well. While it remains to be seen whether Memphis can follow in the footsteps of other great hip-hop cities — it’s certainly well on its way.
Words by Patrick Cwiklinski.