Hip hop has always primarily been dominated by artists from the East and West Coasts of America respectively. However, during the late 1980s and all throughout the 90s, many Southern hip hop artists began to catch on and managed to gain exposure throughout the country. The rise to stardom of Houston act The Geto Boys, OutKast from Atlanta, 2 Live Crew from Miami and Three-6 Mafia hailing from Memphis laid down a platform for all future Southern hip hop acts to aspire towards. With this influx of exposure, by the turn of the century, Cash Money Records, No Limit Records and Hypnotize Minds become three hugely popular hip hop labels in America.
Consequently, due to the sudden rise of a few artists and with the majority of the focus being placed solely upon those few artists, many talented emcees and producers were left out to dry as blanket termed subgenres of Southern hip hop began to take over. These included subgenres such as “Crunk”, “Miami Bass” and “New Orleans Bounce.” Over time the “dirty south” unfortunately became notorious for its club bangers, simplistic rhymes and upbeat production, which was erroneous as only a dozen or so artists were really marketing this description and standard of Southern music.
This leads into the crux of my article as, in my opinion, both the most slept on city regarding American hip hop and also the city which produced some of the finest, most talented rappers possessing a plethora of incredible flows is indeed a Southern city: Memphis, Tennessee. For reasons primarily surrounding financial issues and lack of support from people in any sort of power as well as the infancy of the internet at the time, many Memphis hip hop artists never gained any sort of exposure or fan base outside of the streets of Memphis itself. Hence, the reason I am writing this article – to simply bring exposure to some of the best, primarily gangsta, hip hop emcees to ever grace a mic.
As you’ll notice as you go through some of the music I’ll be talking about later on, or you may even already know, Memphis is a region with strong connections to heavy, dark soul/funk music, political movements, pimping and gritty street life, all of which propagate from the hip hop produced by the Memphis gangsta scene.
The following is a list of my favorite Memphis hip hop albums of all time, which in my opinion (and hopefully yours, too) definitely do not hold up the negative stereotypes associated with Southern hip hop…well, not entirely at least (a little, maybe…however in these cases in a positive way!). Note: these are NOT in any particular order.
Three-6 Mafia – Mystic Stylez
Now, in all honesty, what rap fan doesn’t know about the legendary Three-6 Mafia? This album features all members of the original Three-6 Mafia with many other frequently occurring guests also featuring on the album. This album also features the original Three-6 sound, which was dark, raw, lo-fi beats and dirty, disgusting horror-core rhymes. After a slow initial reception this album became genre defining, laying down a platform for the spike in horror-core hip hop during the mid-90s and is now regarded as a cult classic by pretty much all of the in-the-know horror-core and Memphis hip hop fans.
You’ll find a lot of stripped-back beats on this album accompanied by a hell of a lot of lyrics about violence, sex, street life, drugs, and Satanism. What else can you really expect from a group called “Three-6 Mafia”? Stand out tracks include “Da Summa” which is probably the calmest cut on the tape, “Live By Yo Rep,” a killer and sadistic Bone Thugs-N-Harmony diss track and “Back Against The Wall” which showcases the late, great Lord Infamous’ rapping skills to the fullest.
The influence of this album can still be heard in the music of artists such as Lil Ugly Mane and the Raider Klan. This is a must listen for any horror-core gangsta hip hop fan.
RIP Lord Infamous.
Three-6 Mafia – Chapter 2 World Domination
This was Three-6 Mafia’s first widely distributed album and hailed in a new style for the Three-6 – a style that they have now come to be associated with: super hard hitting, club banging hip hop. You may notice that Gangsta Blac, Kingpin Skinny Pimp and Playa Fly are not present on this album, having all left the group for various reasons. While there are a lot of songs on this album that are throwbacks to the Three-6 Mafia of old (with a few remixes to some of their own older material) predominately the album consists of their new style of music which some would say epitomized Southern hip hop as a whole for the years to come.
A long album (at 22 tracks) what you’ll find on here is a lot of rich, heavy synths, killer bass lines and the typical in-your-face rapid-fire rapping Three-6 are known for. This is perfect music to bump at loud volumes in your car; if this album doesn’t get you pumped I’m not too sure what will. Some of my favorite cuts on this album are “Neighborhood Hoe”, “Watcha Do”, “I Ain’t Cha Friend” and “Hit a Muthafucka”. If you’re after some hard-hitting, pump up music then definitely cop this album.
Tommy Wight III – On The Run
The King of Memphis. Tommy Wright III, aka the 1 Man Gang, is a majorly respected rapper and producer within the borders of Memphis and is also the CEO of Street Smart Records. He is, yet, criminally slept on outside of ‘funkytown’ (even his Wikipedia page was deleted for failing to meet “notability guidelines”). His tapes are highly sought after on the streets of Memphis and now also on the internet as a brand new copy of this particular CD on Amazon will set you back a crazy $200.00!
Tommy Wright III introduced more people to the game and influenced more styles than anybody in Memphis history (his influence can still be heard today in artists even outside of Memphis such as Main Attrakionz, Spaceghostpurrp and many others); however, and it goes without saying, the man is often imitated, but never duplicated.
To the horror-core gangsta rap scene most of Tommy’s albums are considered pioneering classics, predominantly because of the beats and due to the realism depicted within Tommy’s lyrics. Considering the fact that he has been incarcerated numerous times for some seriously violent crimes over the course of his life, there is no way in hell Tommy has to front on a mic. Consequently every bar he spits and every story he generates is entirely genuine (which is probably not the best thing in Tommy’s case, ha!). That being said, on all of Tommy’s albums you’ll only find him rapping on about half the songs; opting to rather handle the production himself and have various artists from his numerous groups do the rapping.
Now, onto this album specifically…simply put, this is album is great. The beats on this album are typical Tommy Wright III beats; dense and dark with lots heavy snares and piano samples. At times they do fall slightly flat, which is a bit of a downfall for the album, but the flows and lyricism more than make up for that. The album starts off a little slow with probably the first three cuts being just OK songs; however track number four, the title track, takes this album up multiple levels. An incredible cypher featuring multiple members of Tommy’s group “Ten Wanted Men,” each artist tells their part of a story of the group committing crimes and evading police. The flows on this song are insane with Tommy Wright III, Mad T-Dog and K-Roc producing the best verses. The album then takes a very dark turn with track six, Thuggish Ruggish Bustaz, being a scathing diss track towards Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Tommy Wright goes absolutely in on Bone Thugs hitting on some seriously sensitive issues coupled with violent murderous fantasies; “Tommy be stealin’ and dealin’ a villian thats willin’ to crucifix Bone in the killin’/Tommy gonna wait till the first of the month get Bone for they food stamps when we shoot em up”.
“Manslaughter”, another great braggadocios and violent track, features Project Pimp, T-Dawg and Mr. Tinimaine who spits one of the best verses on the entire album: “Creepin’ to the scene in a glimpse, never seen/Disappear, like a ghost in the wind it’s me/T to the I to the N to the I to the M-A-I-N-E, Tini/Pockets feelin’ broke so I gotta make a stang/On a lemon man that’s got me fucked up the game/Comin’ from the dark so I bust your heart/Wit the seven Jason masks gimme all the cash hit the gas…”. The breath control and flow are both simply effortless and outstanding.
If you’re familiar with Tommy Wright III you’ll know that the sound quality of his albums is generally quite poor, however, thankfully, this album is an exception. It’s mastered very well and sounds really great. Definitely check it out as soon as you can!
Tommy Wright III – Feel Me Before They Kill Me
Another great album by Tommy Wright III. Personally, I feel like this is Tommy Wright’s best project. The production is fantastic with a diverse batch of soulful beats mixed with a lot of hard, head-banging beats. All of the features are on point and the tracks are utterly incredible. The album opens up with a super fast-paced banging track that is perfect for bumping at high volumes in your car. If you ever want to hear a rapper on top of his game rapping as fast as he can, peep out the opening track on this album. I’m going to skip the next six songs (which all are spitter-ific, banging tracks) and talk about track number eight, “Street Shit.” This song features my favorite, and in my opinion, the rawest female emcee of all time: Princess Loko. P. Loko goes off on this track with her smooth, yet furious, flow running laps around most rappers. Loko establishes herself as a female rapper not one to be messed with.
One last track I’d like to mention is track number 10, “Dividends”, featuring Project Pimp. This song right here is not only easily my most favorite song to come out of Memphis, but one of my most favorite songs, period! Project Pimp goes insane on this track, bar after bar, verse after verse….just insanity. I’ve not heard many rappers produce a quicker or more seemingly effortless flow than what Project Pimp produces on this song.
If there’s only one album you check out today from this list, make it this one.
Koopsta Knicca – Da Devils Playground: Underground Solo
This album is probably the darkest and most demonic on the list, and that’s seriously saying something. Koopsta Knicca, at the time of this albums release, was a member of Triple-6 Mafia, and arguably one of the best rappers within the group. Koopsta possessed a smooth flow, a polished, soulful voice and frequently opted to half rap/half sing many of his verses which worked extremely well. He could also turn it on whenever he wanted and spit his bars at some seriously fast speeds.
This album settles into a hypnotic and menacing mood with its use of eerie, at times quite expressionistic, and ghastly beats which are fashioned up by DJ Paul. The progression of the album’s production dextrously alternates between car trunk bangers to leisurely yet dark and heavy instrumentals in order to match Koopsta’s mood, feel and tempo. This is the sort of album that just sucks you in from beginning to end and finishes up being an extremely entertaining and devilish project.
The content of the album is delivered quite bluntly, with the predominant themes being smoking, sex, worshipping Satan and committing brutal crimes (torture and murder, mainly) with absolutely no remorse. Just check out this hook from the track “Torture Chamber.” “Mystic stylez of the ancient mutilations/Torture chambers filled with corpses in my basement.” This dude didn’t mess about. Koopsta’s imagery and storytelling ability is incredibly on point and detailed if you can stomach the topics he raps about. If you’re a fan of rappers such as Brother Lynch Hung or Necro, then definitely check this album out.
Kingpin Skinny Pimp – King of Da Playaz Ball
The word “classic” gets thrown around quite prematurely and is abused a lot in hip hop, but when it comes to Kingpin Skinny Pimp’s debut album King of Da Playaz Ball there really isn’t a better word to describe it. It is a bona fide Memphis classic and, honestly, as far as Memphis hip hop goes, it doesn’t get much more authentic or better than this. Kingpin Skinny Pimp was an affiliate of the Triple-6 Mafia eventually leaving due to monetary disputes, however, this was one of two albums released under Triple-6’s record label and featured both Juicy J and DJ Paul on production.
Released at the height of Memphis hip hop’s dark movement (1993-1999) the production on this album is quite subdued and dense sounding for the most part. The beats are pretty consistent on this album with no real crazy change ups, experimentation or variations but rather simple sampled beats with heavy snares and kick drums. Juicy J and DJ Paul were masters at keeping it simple yet dark and haunting. The purposes of these beats was not to boaster complexity or dominate the album, but to simply set a mood (a gloomy mood at that) for Kingpin Skinny Pimp to come and spit his stories over. And oh how well Pimp spat his stories, too. Pimp’s willingness and ability to construct verses that didn’t follow the same old ‘verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse’ structure help solidify that Pimp didn’t just drop your average gangsta rap album in the fall of ’96. Check out the three-minute long, single verse track “Long Story” to hear Pimp’s story-telling ability and smooth flow for yourself: “A legal pimp is a lawyer in the court making paper/I was sporting snakes while this fool was buying gators/The judge mad as hell, and the judge was a ho/Finna slap me with assault cause I threw my ex-wife to the floor”.
With its murky beats, bleak and confronting nature accompanied by its vivid imagery, this is definitely one of the most absorbing and austere gangsta rap albums you’ll hear from this list!
Gangsta Pat – Deadly Verses
Gangsta Pat is an underground Memphis legend. It’s as plain and as simple as that. He is a legend. Pat was one of the only Memphis artists to be signed to a major record label during the 90s, however he never enjoyed the continued success into mainstream level as the other few acts that were also signed to majors (Three-6 Mafia and 8Ball & MJG). Why? He never sold out. He consistently stayed true to his roots and continued to put out non-accessible, hard-core gangsta rap which could never be played on radio and, consequently, this gained him a very sizeable and loyal fan base.
At only 10 songs the album is nice and short, and by no means is it innovative or ambitious, it is simply raw and hard-core gangsta rap. All production on this album is handled by Pat himself and features a good mix of West coast gangster influences and also Memphis gangsta influences. There’s a few cuts which feature some interesting beats, but, on the whole, there’s not much to talk about production wise. It’s quite meek, bass heavy, laced with sampled synths and funky. On the lyric front…not a whole lot here to brag about either. There’s no real intricate lyricism and, on paper, the verses don’t read off as anything special. So….why is it on this list? Due to Pat’s delivery, of course. It’s obviously the sort of thing that has to be heard to be understood, but, to put it in a nutshell, Pat’s flow, his breath control and his energy on this album are world class. It is absolutely world class. Songs such as “Deadly Verses”, “I Wanna Smoke” and “Smoke Wit Tha Devil” all showcase Pat’s insane ability to ride a beat, utilizing a variation of flows, and transforming the combination of average lyrics and stripped back beats into seriously impressive tracks. His speed at times is simply unbelievable (especially on the track “Deadly Verses”).
There are definitely a few cuts on this album that are not good, however it contains enough enjoyable tracks to just sneak into this list. If you’re looking for some raw gangsta rap where the emcee is simply spitting rhymes as fast as they can and you’re not really in the mood to care too much for any intricate and complex production, then this is an album for you.
Taylor Boyz – 28 Gramz: Pure Dope
Taylor Boyz are a duo comprised of K.O. Cane Wayne and Taylor Boy. They are a subgroup of the Alkatraz Syndicate and this is their first album. And man, oh man, what a great album it is. When it comes to riding a beat these two guys can mix it with the best. Pretty much every song on this album slams hard. The flows are tight, the lyrics (whilst derivative) are on point, and, as an album, the songs progress from one to the next very well. This is crunk music at its finest. Typical topics you’ll hear on this album are smoking, slanging, hustling and various other experiences these guys encountered growing up in Memphis.
The production on this album is the embodiment of Southern beats: soulful, club-banging, bass heavy slamming beats! The production is handled by DJ Squeeky (or Money Butt Naked), J-Dogge and DJ Diz. The beats are only as good as the rappers spitting over them and neither these two, nor the fantastic mix of features, disappoint. Their flows are great and they utilize a great variation of them which leads to an overall very enjoyable experience listening to this album. Some of my favorite cuts of this album include “Get Cha Some”, “Big Bag of Blunts” and “Catraggly”.
You may notice that, compared to other Memphis music, this album has a more of a grimier feel. The noticeable influences on this album are definitely from the South as a whole and not just Memphis (which can’t be said to be the case for many other albums on this list) but it also possesses a nice dose of West Coast influences too (think the likes of Compton’s Most Wanted). It is simply a very refreshing album from Memphis and definitely needs to be in your collection if you’re a fan of Memphis, Southern or gangsta hip hop in general! Don’t miss out on this fantastic album.
A few other Memphis artists to look up: Al Kapone, Playa Fly, Lil Gin, Prophet Posse, La Chat, Mr. Q, Indo G, South Click and Project Pat.
What are some of your favorite Memphis Hip Hop albums?