Rap from the 1990s is the base for much of the modern hip-hop that brings commercial success to today’s highest grossing artists. During the 90s, the mixtapes, cassettes, and CDs that were being released were diverse with different parts of the country developing their own unique flows, production techniques, and underground music scenes. While the Bronx in the 70s is what is known to be the birthplace of the “hip hop” movement and MC culture, between the periods of 1980-2000, an entire underground world of rappers, MCs, and producers, many from southern states, developed their own styles that have gone under the radar of what we think influences modern rap.
Much of the production in the 90s included rhythmic music accompanied by rhymes and high production quality funk. This was the standard around most of the country, bringing esteem to artists such as Salt-N-Pepa, Beastie Boys, and Warren G. There was, however, emerging subgenres appearing throughout African American communities in the southern states specifically in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Memphis. Each of these cities had their own style, but looking more closely, musicians and producers in the Memphis underground in the 1990s turned out some of the most stylistically unique and and influential musical elements into the hip-hop/rap genre.
1990s Memphis rap is categorized by utilizing fast flows, lo-fi sounds, down tempo beats, heavy use of the Roland TR-808, and the unique choice to sample movie-sound bites in song production. Using these sound bites from film dialogue and scores inspired an entire subgenre of Memphis rap titled Horrorcore. This subgenre of the rap scene was often rooted in lyrics and messages surrounding Satanism, suicide, slashers, and general violence. This transgressive music was not always the primary focus for all of the Memphis rap community, however, it did evolve into the modern genre that we today call Crunk music.
While much of the Memphis rap scene stayed underground for the most part, a few standout musicians developed a strong following that allowed these artists to propel themselves into the mainstream. The following musicians brought unique elements to the Memphis rap community and allowed the underground scene to thrive and continue to bring fundamental aspects of the subgenre into modern music:
One of the pioneers of the Memphis rap sound originated from DJ Squeezy’s stylistic use of the SP-1200 drum machine and Roland keyboard. Squeezy’s production talent was the backbone of some of the most well known Memphis rappers including: 8 Ball & MJG, Skinny Pimp, and Al Kapone. A few of the more well known artists like Juicy J and DJ Paul have been accused of using Squeezy’s samples and refusing to give Squeezy credit or profit from their music. Squeezy has created a solo career for himself as well, dropping albums such as On a Mission, Wild for the World, and Til We Die, all under his own record label, Mo Cheda Records.
Three 6 Mafia
Formed in 1991, this hip-hop collective is one of the most well known and celebrated musical groups to come out of the Memphis rap scene. Often described as one of the original crunk/horrorcore groups, their first official debut mixtape, Mystic Stylez, is revered as a perfect example of the early Memphis sound. The original two members of Three 6 Mafia, DJ Paul and Juicy J, began making music in their early tween years. Juicy was rapping by the age of 13 and DJ Paul was working his brother Lord Infamous as teengagers learning to play various instrements and making music. In 1989, the two brothers formed The Serial Killaz and started to distribute their mixtapes around the Memphis underground. Once DJ Paul was 14, he began to collaborate with Spanish Fly. With the high production quality that Fly could provide, DJ Paul was already making a name for himself on the larger scale Memphis scene. In 1991, Juicy began to work with DJ Paul to make music in the classic Memphis style, but with their own unique twists that stood out among the community.
Since their formation in 1991, the members that associate themselves with the group seems to be everchanging. Since the beginning, members the rap collective have included: DJ Paul, Juicy J, Lord Infamous, Koopsta Knicca, Gangsta Boo, Crunchy Black, Project Pat, Gangsta Blac, Playa Fly, La Chat, Frayser Boy, & Lil Wyte. Unlike many groups created during this period, Three 6 Mafia is still putting out music. The group won the Academy Award for Best Original Song at the 78th Academy Awards for their track It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp” from the film Hustle & Flow and has released a collaborative track in early 2019 with K-Bird titled All Day.
As far as original Three 6 Mafia members, Lord Infamous and Koopsta Knicca both died in the early 2010s. Lord Infamous suffered a heart attack in his home in Memphis. DJ Paul confirmed his death shortly after rumors emerged on hip-hop news platforms. Koopsta Knicca died of a brain aneurysm and stroke in October 2015. After the death of both of these members, hip-hop stars from Memphis and beyond sent messages of support and love to Three 6 and those member’s families.
8 Ball & MJG
Originally meeting each other in 1984 at Ridgeway Middle School in Memphis, Premro “8Ball” Smith and Marlon Jermaine “MJG” Goodwin began writing together at a very early age. Once seniors in high school and being introduced to the legend DJ Squeezy, the team debuted their musical talents together on their first EP, Listen to the Lyrics. By 1995, the duo was considered some of the South’s best rappers with releases such as On the Outside Looking In and On Top of the World. One of the biggest successes of the team’s career started with a collaboration with the other biggest rap group in Memphis, Three 6 Mafia. With the two groups working together, the hit song Stay Fly peaked at #13 on the Billboard Hot 100, a point of great success for both groups.
Playa Fly began rapping at the age of 16 in Memphis. After releasing his first solo track Don’t Never Test His Pimpin, artists Juicy J and DJ Paul brought on Fly to collaborate on mixtapes and features for Triple 6 Mafia (later renamed Three 6 Mafia). Playa Fly worked closely with the duo, even assisting in writing the groups first mainstream album, Mystic Stylez. By 1995, Triple 6 Mafia and Playa Fly began to butt heads over money distribution to the group members and “philosophical differences” on how to develop an album. With the dispute ragging on, Fly released Triple Bitch Mafia, dissing each member of the group and officially burning all bridges. The dispute is still alive today, with the most recent incident in 2016 with Playa Fly and DJ Paul firing shots at each other over social media.
Kingpin Skinny Pimp
Starting to rap in 1985, Skinny Pimp began his music career by working with DJ Squeezy. After a few years of a stagnant career, Skinny decided to ditch Squeezy and work with DJ Paul and Juicy J of Three 6 Mafia. Skinny even began to put out DJ Squeezy diss tracks while working with Three 6. After the success of Mystic Stylez in which Skinny was featured on two tracks, the group produced Skinny’s own album titled King Of Da Playaz Ball. After getting into monetary disputes with DJ Paul and Juicy J, Skinny Pimp left the group and jumped from label to label on the underground rap scene. Skinny is currently signed to Lil’ Flip’s Clover G’z label.
Gangsta Blac’s rap career began with being a member of the Three 6 Mafia. Putting out two albums in collaboration with the rap collective, Breakin Da Law and Can It Be?, Blac solidified his name in the Memphis rap scene. Soon after the release of Can It Be?, Gangsta Blac cut all ties with Three 6 Mafia most likely due to monetary disputes. Since the mid 90s, Gangsta Blac has put out solo albums, with his most recent release being in 2017 on a collaborative album with Kingpin Skinny Pimp.
At the young age of 15, Don Trip began to teach himself how to rap. By the late 2000s, Trip had began to release mixtapes and singles including Surviving Da Drought, The Threat, and Terminator, all of which had elements of the classic Memphis rap sound with his own unique musical interpretation. By 2012, the rapper had been signed by Interscope Records and landed himself on the XXL Freshman list that same year. In a unique twist, one of the best known mixtapes from Trip’s discography includes Step Brothers, a collaborative project with Starlito that is filled with inside jokes referencing the 2008 Judd Apatow comedy by the same name.
After being released from jail, Blac Youngsta began to make music that he felt described his life accurately with his own twist of lyrically diverse verses and a heavy bass flow. With his first mixtape Fast Brick being extremely well received, the underground Memphis scene embraced the rapper’s unique style. Being noticed by one of the biggest names in the rap scene at the time, Yo Gotti, Youngsta was offered a spot touring with Gotti’s crew. After a successful few months working together, Blac Youngsta was offered a sign on deal with GMC Records and Epic Records. Since then, Youngsta has been the center of a handful of reported criminal activities including shooting at Young Dolph’s tour van and felony charges that are still being decided upon in court.
A critical member of the Three 6 Mafia, Frayser Boy was signed early on to Hypnotize Minds, the label run by DJ Paul and Juicy J. Under the label, Frayser Boy released some of his biggest hits including Gone on That Bay, Me Being Me, and Da Key. Alongside those solo projects, Frayser Boy had a large part in writing and performing It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp with other Three 6 Mafia members, winning an Academy Award in 2006. Frayser Boy continues to put out solo albums with his most recent release being It Don’t Matter 2 Me in 2018.
Tommy Wright III
Starting to write in the early 90s, Tommy Wright III released 10 self-produced albums between 1992-2000. Wright’s style is specifically his own in the way that he utilizes backbeats, aggressive/grotesque lyrics, and a fast paced flow. During the early 2000s, Wright created his own rap collective named Ten Wanted Men, putting out two more albums with this group. Refusing to do interviews since the early 2000s, the air around Wright’s personal life has always been somewhat of a mystery. Wright has been known to post vlogs that somewhat delve into his personal life, however, these videos seem to raise more questions than answers.
Son of the original drummer of the Blues Brothers, Willie Hall, Gangsta Pat began his own music career in Memphis in the 1980s. At the start of the Gangsta Rap era, Pat was one of the first underground Memphis artists to be signed onto a mainstream record label. After beginning to work with Atlantic Records in 1991, his first official album #1 Suspect made few waves in the mainstream and eventually sent Pat back to indie labels. Jumping around from label to label, Pat had a difficult time finding success outside of the Memphis rap scene. Attempting to turn his style a little darker similarly to other rappers at the time, Pat still could not land national sales for his music. In a final attempt to gain traction in the industry, Pat released a track dissing Three 6 Mafia, however, this did not translate into the publicity he had hoped.
Kia Shine is a modern rap artist born in Memphis. One of his most acclaimed singles is Krispy, which is his biggest single off of his debut album Due Season from 2006. Shine has worked alongside some big name performers including Yo Gotti, Nelly, and Drake. Shine is known as one of the highest grossing independent artists, winning the Southern Entertainment Award for Best Underground Artist in 2008. The rapper ran into a controversy with Drake in 2009 in which Shine was not given credit for which he claimed he wrote 25% of the track Best I Ever Had. Drake denied Shine’s contributions to the song, yet Shine was still part of the Grammy nomination for the same song.
Indo G began to rap with another Memphis native, Lil Blunt in the mid-90s. Together, the duo released two albums titled Up in Smoke and The Antidote. Soon after the release of The Antidote, Indo G began to work closely with Three 6 Mafia, putting out the album Angel Dust in 1998. Indo’s studio album the 2007 Purple Drank is his most recent release.
Project Pat is the older brother of Juicy J. During the early 1990s, Project Pat worked closely with DJ Paul and Juicy on some of their early work. After serving a few years in prison for robbery charges, Pat came back strong with the release of Ghetty Green in 1999. Working steadily up to 2001, Pat released Mista Don’t Play: Everythangs Workin which was well received and given radio play. Since then, Project Pat has consistently released studio albums that have included many hit songs that have reached the Billboard Hot 100. Project Pat’s most recent release was his 2017 album M.O.B.
Criminal Manne is best known for working with Memphis legend DJ Squeezy and selling mixtapes out of his trunk in the early 1990s. While working with Squeezy’s Mo Cheda Records, Manne gained major clout for his single Buck & Naked, which later on brought him a sign on deal with Relativity Records in 1998. Soon after his new deal, Criminal Manne brought together the rap group Project Playaz, which included members Thugsta and Yo Lynch. After the success of their album The Return, Criminal Manne went independent and has been releasing solo albums and mixtapes with his most recent release occurring in 2002.
Al Kapone is known as one of the legends of the underground Memphis rap scene. Kapone had a cult following in the scene until the success of the film Hustle & Flow in which the rapper wrote and performed the track Get Crunk, Get Buck. Kapone was then offered collaboration opportunities with big name artists including: Lil Wayne, E-40, and Mike Jones. Kapone stuck to his Memphis roots and has been featured on some of the more recent releases from Three 6 Mafia and 8 Ball & MJG. Kapone still works to keep the Memphis underground rap scene alive by including lesser known Memphis artists on his more recent releases.
Moving to Memphis at the age of 2, Young Dolph started to teach himself to rap in high school. Dolph has always been known to vent his frustrations with his childhood and past traumas through his music, which made him a standout in lyrical comparison to other Memphis rappers. In 2008, Dolph released his first mixtape, Paper Route Campaign. This debut mixtape propelled him into the industry of popular music and brought him an enormous amount of attention. By 2016, Dolph was offered a studio deal with producers Mike WiLL Made-It, Zaytoven, and TM88 to release his first studio album titled King of Memphis. In 2017, shots were fired at Young Dolph that left him in critical condition for a handful of days. Yo Gotti, another Memphis based rapper, was named the main suspect at the time of the shooting.
Gotti started his rap career at the early age of 14. In 1996, Gotti released his debut album Youngsta’s On a Come Up under the alias Lil Yo. He went on to release From Da Dope Game 2 Da Rap Game (2000), Self-Explanatory (2001), Life (2003), Back 2 da Basics (2006), Live from the Kitchen (2012), I Am (2013), The Art of Hustle (2016) and I Still Am (2017).
His standout track “Down In The DM” immediately became a catch phrase as the song charted at #31 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and #1 on the Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop chart. It was featured on The Art Of Hustle in late 2015.