Tennessee Rap is Finally Outgrowing its Underdog Status

In the first of a series of articles brought to you by Jack Daniels, we investigate the vibrant hip-hop communities of Tennessee.
November 16, 2016, 4:22pm

​The first grime record I bought was from a market stall on the side of a race track. Some of the best reggae I've heard was at 7am in a warehouse in North London. My mum bought me my first Metallica CD. Music is the lifeblood of serendipity. We're just the bags of meat blindsided by it.

There's something of the underdog in Tennessee when you talk about hip-hop. The sun shines on the birthplace of rock 'n' roll, but it's in the shadow of the King where one of its most creative communities is starting to make noise.


Not that Tennessee hasn't been bringing the ruckus for years. The volunteer state has produced some of today's most successful hip-hop artists, from Young Buck to Juicy J, but to get a truer sense of the heart of Tennessee rap you need dig a little deeper. Past the iPod and the mixtapes, blow the dust off the cassette tapes and brush down the acetates to discover a sound so ahead of its time it sounds a lot like what you're listening to right now.

Mike Floss is a Nashville rapper on the rise, his last few singles Dopeboy Dreaming and Kerosene have seen him premiered on Complex and featured on Tidal Discovery. The young rapper has a mixed style – equal parts honey warble hooks and machine gun verses – that's heavily influenced by those that came before him. When I asked him to describe what made Tennessee rap so unique, he didn't hesitate: "In Nashville particularly it's all about heavy lyricism and heavy beats. Like a ton of bars on top of 808s. We live for the energy and the bass."

In the late eighties, much the same as in Tennessee now, if you wanted to make rap music you were doing it on Roland drum machines and ancient synthesisers that more akin to John Carpenter film soundtracks than boom bap. The result was a tenebrous dreamlike sound, bled with an 808 and punctuated by hard lyrics and sub bass. In analogue terms, Tennessee rap was shooting on film whilst the rest of the scene was busy messing about with fancy DSLRs.

"Man, Memphis was so far ahead of its time with that whole wave it's kinda scary. I don't even think they realised how ahead they were," Mike tells me. His latest track "Kerosene" trades off some of these early imprints of style. His producer Shmuck The Loyal introduced him to the pioneers of the Tennessee sound, chiefly, its oft-cited architect, DJ Spanish Fly.


Fly grew up the son of two pastors, father and step-father – the latter was blind and needed help getting to and from places. One of those places happened to be a radio station where his stepfather would provide a sermon. Whilst his stepfather preached in Studio A, the young Fly sat in Studio B watching the DJ making magic with the soundboard.

When hip hop reached Tennessee in the late eighties, the clubs were too preoccupied with disco to care much about it. Fly, however, was hooked. He started putting out beats and tapes in his own warped style. Similar to the way rave music was growing in the UK around the same time, Tennessee's hip-hop scene expanded outward from parties and permeated throughout the state's inner city neighbourhoods in the form of tapes and dubs. Fly's smooth style was the perfect tonic for the party scene, tunes like Slangin' Caine and Cement Shoes, especially, had that dual appeal of bringing girls to the dancefloor and making the screwfaces bob their heads.

When it finally broke into the club scene, the resulting culture clash between Tennessee rap's bass laden, thugged out sound and the constraints of the era's then satin and silk dancefloor fillers was best captured in the "Gangsta Walk"; where dancers would wile out to rap whilst the disco crowd waited for "Dominatrix" to come back on. It was a moshpit of catharsis, they called it the buck dance.

Spitters like Tommy Wright III and Princess Loko brought a floaty cantillation to a sound that would go pound for pound with the likes of hard vapour and cloud rap today. On Tommy Wright III's Four Corners, in particular, you can hear similarities in vocals, distortion and pitching down, to artists like A$AP Rocky and SpaceGhostPurrp. To get a sense of how current these records actually were you could do no better than checking out any number of the mixes Dutch based electronic producer, Legowelt, a big fan of the rap coming out of Memphis in the 90s, has put out in recent years.

On this bed of Badalementi-esque synth Tennessee rap grew parallel to the growth of hip-hop across the country. The raffish production fueled more intense and imaginative lyrics until Tennessee rap became notoriously hardcore.


If Spanish Fly was the architect of the sound then Three Six Mafia represented the lean-sipping, gatekeepers of the energy that kept it banging through the 90s and beyond. Three Six Mafia took street level storytelling from the gangsta rappers around them and turned them into hyper violent horror films. If Nas was hip-hop's John Dillinger, Three Six Mafia were the genre's Charles Bronson grinning maniacally from behind the easel.

Three Six Mafia were an ever-revolving group of MC's with the two constants being Juicy J and DJ Paul. They were your rapper's favourite rap group and probably the first to bring the drugs they were on, mostly lean and weed, into their lyrics.

Their albums Most Known Unknown and When the Smoke Clears: Sixty 6, Sixty 1, released at the tail end of the 90s, showed off a style of hooks that used repetition to create a purped out delirium. It was this style, on tracks like "Sippin On Some Syrup", that directly influenced Dizzee Rascal's debut album Boy In Da Corner, most notably "I Luv You" which uses that same repetitive style for the hook.

In 2006, Three Six Mafia were awarded an Oscar for their song "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp" from the film Hustle and Flow, the first and only rap group to win the award. 10 years on, DJ Paul recollected his memory of their performance at the award ceremony for the Hollywood Reporter: "This was the most different concert I'd ever done. I'm used to looking in the crowd and seeing drug dealers and gangbangers. But this crowd was out there in gowns and tuxes and all kind of shit."


These days Tennessee has an abundance of creative talents to call upon. Artists like Yo Gotti and Young Dolph have done much to put Tennessee firmly back in the mainstream. At street level the energy is indefatigable, even if there's still limitations to the scene's infrastructure – I spoke to Terry Rickards who manages the bookings at The Basement East in Nashville and to date he's only ever booked two rappers.

"I know very little about it other than what's on the radio. And to book something you should be very knowledgeable of the genre." Terry told me, which actually sounds fair enough, but Nashville and Tennessee's other cities need more venues and booking agents that are knowledgeable of the genre and can provide its young talents some much needed support.

I spoke to Ducko McFli, a Nashville producer behind Drake's Draft Day record and Migos' Fuckemx3 beat, to understand how artists like himself and others are finding a place for their music against the tide of country music. "Nashville doesn't want to see rap win," Ducko tells me. "They do, but you got to remember Nashville's like the country music hall of fame. We're battling one of the biggest music industry's in the world. That, alone, has what's really lead the unity in Nashville, you know, just people really coming together to go 'We all can't change Nashville by ourselves, but if we coming together…' you know."

That unity is something that's come to define Tennessee music in 2016. Young artists and producers are coming together to put their sounds out. In Memphis, artists like Cities Aviv are pushing the boundaries of the electronic imprint in the Tennessee sound, and winning new fans over for it. For all the hurdles the scene faces there seems to be an inexhaustible number of young talents ready to rise above, after all that's exactly how the sound started.

"Love is the revolution bro," Mike Floss tells me. "We not here to hate, all we wanna do is make our music, get paid for it, and live our dreams. If you on the same thing and your music is dope, we gon rock with you. So we support each other, go to the shows, and spread the word when we can. It only makes sense." In Elvis' backyard it seems, then, hip hop has a good foundation and a heavy future.

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