Foundations of Hip Hop: The Memphis Underground
The widespread influence of the Memphis underground scene in modern music.
by Avish Vijayaraghavan-Secretary
|Popular tapes from the era|
Memphis hip hop emerged from the underbelly of Memphis, Tennessee in the early 90s. While the genre was distinctly underground, it has pervaded through decades of hip hop that followed. Characterised by dark lo-fi production, triplet flows, and repetitive hooks, the subject matter consisted mainly of street tales from Memphis ghettos with occasional references to the occult. Samples from horror movies and soul drum beats were the finishing touches to the hypnotic music you find in the cassette tapes of the era.
The short choruses and minimal synth melodies that were commonplace in the region went on to shape much of the future American club scene. Three 6 Mafia, the most famous artists of the original Memphis cohort, birthed the crunk sound that was later expanded on by other artists in the South. Over the next 15 years, trap would evolve out of crunk, but it wasn’t until it re-acquired some elements of the Memphis sound again - for example, the triplet flow popularised by the Migos originated in Memphis - that it filtered into the mainstream and began dominating the charts. And artists are aware of this. Recent hits like “Look Alive” and “Powerglide” pay direct homage to the originals.
Outside of the South, Chicago had started to develop its own sound – drill music. And while drill was mainly built off trap with the help of people like Waka Flocka Flame and Lex Luger, Memphis managed to trickle in again. Chief Keef’s breakout hit, “Love Sosa”, that transported drill across international waters, uses a flow from the Three 6 Mafia song “Stomp”. Drill rappers don’t worry about metaphors and other lyrical tropes, instead focussing on gritty violent lyrics akin to those from the Memphis era. Both cities share heavy poverty and rife gang culture that combined to produce captivating music rooted in realism.
And this DIY ethos in the scene wasn’t a conscious stylistic choice but, rather, a reflection of the area’s reality. The distinctive drums (like the 808 cowbell) resulted from producers being forced to experiment within the limitations of cheap drum machines. Producers would use the same samples and sometimes sample each other’s music, creating a very recognisable sound. Most artists would have to make hand-drawn flyers and try to sell their tapes at the local record shops. They didn’t care so much for lyricism as they did for style and atmosphere, and this focus on aesthetics is integral to many of the hip hop subgenres that followed in the 2000s onwards.
The influence is especially prominent in the internet genres that grew out of the late 2000s like cloud rap and phonk. Cloud rap is one of the biggest subgenres that took clear inspiration from Memphis’ focus on atmosphere and mood. Many of its biggest proponents, like Clams Casino and Sad Boys, created dreamlike soundscapes that would serve as the basis for the SoundCloud and mumble rap artists that followed. In many of these genres, the focus on music is as important as the visuals - cloud rap and another microgenre called vaporwave both have artwork that takes inspiration from the layout and symmetry of Memphis album covers.
Phonk was popularised by one of the most important underground producers in hip hop, SpaceGhostPurrp (SGP). A member of Raider Klan, alongside prominent artists like Denzel Curry and Xavier Wulf, SGP gave his spin on the Memphis sound with his 2012 album Mysterious Phonk: Chronicles of SpaceGhostPurrp. He also worked alongside one of the other main producers of 2010s Memphis-style hip hop, Lil Ugly Mane (LUM). While SGP’s work followed the mould of the 90s work, LUM took the production and revamped it for the 2010s. His underground classic, Mista Thug Isolation, is an over-the-top take on hip hop culture that adds emotive synths and jazzy samples to the core sound. Without these two producers and Memphis, entire subgenres may not have existed and dozens of artists along with that.
This musical effect became more apparent when an emerging group of SoundCloud rappers started to build up a cult following around the world. Suicideboys and Ghostmane are two from that crop of artists that popularised the trap metal sound. They hover across a dark lyrical spectrum that draws on a lot of the horrorcore imagery from Memphis, combined with ideas from heavy metal, industrial, and emo music. Both of these artists sharpened the original Memphis aesthetic to give it a more abrasive edge, combining the drum patterns with more distorted bass and vocal aggression.
Looking outside of American hip hop, the impact is still there. British artists Dizzee Rascal and Novelist both pioneered a faster, colder form of grime called Ruff Sound that takes inspiration from the Memphis underground. The drums are skippier, and ice-cold synths replace the eerie pianos, but the sinister feeling of gangs in impoverished inner-city estates remains - it’s a distinctly English take on the Memphis sound. Early Memphis adlibs and hooks still get sampled frequently in modern music, occasionally beyond hip hop - alternative pop artist Blood Orange has used samples from Memphis legends, Project Pat and Tommy Wright III, on his last two projects.
The Memphis scene has taught us that what’s considered underground is dependent on time and location. It may not have been the biggest genre when it was around, but years later the impact is felt globally. Unfortunately, since this influence is often indirect, the scene doesn’t get the acknowledgement it deserves. But one thing is for certain, the cascading number of subgenres spawned by hip hop retain some part of the original Memphis scene’s DNA, even if they don’t always know it.