Memphis Hip Hop

Sam Crespo | September, 2018

When you think of Memphis music legends, where does your mind go? Elvis? B.B.? JT? The truth is, “The biggest thing to come out of Memphis musically in the last 30 years is rap,” explains James “IMAKEMADBEATS” Dukes, CEO, producer and engineer at Unapologetic, a record label and production company in the home of the blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, Dukes adds, “In September 2018, four out of the top 10 Billboard songs were either by artists from Memphis or produced by Memphians.”

On the production side, those hits featured Drake and Cardi B; on the artist side, MoneyBagg Yo and, maybe most famously, BlocBoy JB. “You can go to any village in Mongolia and people will be doing the dance,” Dukes laughs, calling out the viral moves featured in BlocBoy JB’s “Shoot” video. But it’s BlocBoy JB’s recent collaboration with Drake, “Look Alive,” that’s catching on this time. Drake, whose father is from Memphis, is known to visit and work in the city from time to time. Watch him rap from Soulsville to Beale Street in the video for “Worst Behavior.” 

But back to “Look Alive”—the song was produced by Memphian Tay Keith, who can also claim Eminem’s “Not Alike” to his credit. 

Blockboy JB at Beale Street Music Fest 2019 | Sean Davis

Blockboy JB at Beale Street Music Fest 2019 | Sean Davis

It’s common for rap stars rising out of Memphis to namedrop local influences, especially Three 6 Mafia. Layering vocals and drum machine beats to create entrancing, haunting sounds, the group helped to pioneer not just the niche of Memphis rap, but the entire genre of Southern rap. In time, Three 6 blasted out of Memphis’ underground scene into the ultra-bright lights of L.A., where they became the first rap group to win, and perform, at the Oscars (2006). They won Best Original Song for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” co-written with Memphis’ Frayser Boy for a fellow Memphian’s creative project—Craig Brewer’s film Hustle & Flow. In 2012, Three 6 was among the first class of inductees to the Memphis Music Hall of Fame

You can dig deeper into Three 6 Mafia at the Memphis Music Hall of Fame museum. But what if you want to listen live to the city’s thriving scene?

Get tickets to Mempho.

The music fest takes over Memphis’ Shelby Farms Park each fall. Past line-ups have featured local rap legends Al Kapone, Frayser Boy, Juicy J (a founding member of Three 6) and Project Pat, Juicy J’s brother and a legend in his own right. Look out for even more hip hop stars in the near future. 

Return for Dope on Arrival (DOA) . 

Event founder Stephanie Chambers describes DOA as “a hip-hop/rap showcase dedicated to providing a platform for local artists.” With each recurrence—DOA happens five or six times year—fans can expect a unique experience with a concert atmosphere. Follow @dopeonarrival on Facebook for info.

And/or DreamFest Weekend.

Annually around MLK Day, hip-hop, soul and dance artists creatively explore Dr. King’s dream through public performances. “[It’s] always a good way to find out who’s on the ground here,” Dukes offers. Follow @dreamfestweekend on Facebook for fest updates and tips on other happenings throughout the year. 

Join in on the Yo Gotti & Friends Birthday Bash.

Yo Gotti, the self-styled “King of Memphis,” throws a birthday bash that fits the title. Over the past six years, featured performers have included T.I. and Nicki Minaj. Watch for tickets as summer nears.

Keep an eye out for one-offs.

While not dedicated to hip-hop, a few Midtown Memphis venues have been known to host essential artists on the local scene. PreauXX and Marco Pavé have performed at the Hi-Tone Café; in 2018, Crosstown Arts featured Don Lifted and Railgarten helped legendary duo 8Ball & MJG celebrate the 25th anniversary of their studio debut.

Keep an ear out for emerging artists.

Post-high school, Dukes left Memphis for Manhattan. After recording his own album and engineering for artists including Common, Ludacris, Missy Elliott and Solange Knowles, he found himself back in Memphis asking questions like, “Why can't this place be known for what it’s already known for, and more?” Dukes’ answer was to build it himself in the form of Unapologetic, a platform for activating and supporting local artists who aren’t afraid to express their “absolute and shameless individuality.” Currently, the Unapologetic roster includes Cameron Bethany, A Weirdo from Memphis, PreauXX and Aaron James, but you never know who Dukes will work with next. “Memphis is creating so many creatives every second. And historically, you know this place makes great music—it’s already in your veins. You’d be surprised what people believe they can do just because someone did it before them,” Dukes says.