Making it in Memphis

Aerial View of Downtown MemphisMemphis Rap is a unique subgenre of hip hop music that originated in the early 90’s in something of the same way as New York Rap, or general Southern Rap did. The different forms of rap operate almost like linguistic dialects, it all depends on region and what is popular there. New York rappers almost always feature trumpets or the like, slow beats, and lulling flows. It is more lyrical and structured but pays less attention to beat. Memphis Rap, on the other hand, is characterized as being known for its darkness, heavy bass, and fast flows. Less attention is paid to lyrical ingenuity, and more focus is placed on the beat and the sound.

36-mafiaIt is a hard thing to do, making it in this genre of music, and in this culture. Memphis is a completely unique environment. Memphians are a unique group of people, and Memphis Rap, by default, is completely unique, and it is a huge part of the Memphis culture and lifestyle. I recently became very acquainted with the Memphis rap culture. Being from a super small town in Arkansas right across the bridge and an hour south. I grew up hearing about Memphis Rap and knew it was a thing (36 Mafia was popular). When I moved to Memphis and lived for a few years, though, Memphis Rap became a BFD.

digital music.jpegAll music in the past two decades has gone through a type of evolution, the same way pretty much all other types of communication have. Instead of buying CD’s nowadays, people pick and choose their music on iTunes and download it all. A lot of times they look for free stuff which has implications for the success of new artists just trying to break out into the music industry. The digital environment becomes an isolation and stratification tool for music. More artists have a voice and a place to present their work, but not all of them have the opportunity to make it big.

I recently got a chance to sit down and talk with someone who has been a firm part of the Memphis rap scene for close to 20 years. frayser.jpegEric “E-SANE” Grant was born and raised in the Frayser area of Memphis, also known as the Bay Area, which is the home of artists like Lil Wyte and Frayser Boy, as well. Eric has been writing music, predominantly Memphis rap, since he was 12 years old, recording since he was 17, and creating beats and rhythms for himself and other Memphis rappers since he was 19. When I talked to him, I wanted some insight on what Memphis rap was to him, why he wanted to get into music, and his ideas on where music is heading in our ever growing and changing digital environment. Here was our conversation:

Mary Clark (blogger): So what is Memphis rap to you?

Eric Grant: To me, Memphis rap is just something I grew up on. It’s a feeling, and an energy. It’s like a description of the party lifestyle that a lot of rappers, especially Memphis rappers, live in every day.

MC: Can you tell me a little more about it? Memphis rap is known for its “darkness.” How does that fit in to your experience with it, and what sets Memphis rap apart?

EG: Well, Memphis rap evolved out of that hardcore, street sound and that’s pretty much what Memphis is known for. It can be a dark place with a bad reputation for violence. Where Atlanta rap talks a lot about drugs and that kind of lifestyle, Memphis rap is more about violence, but mainly it’s about how rappers want to come across because they are from Memphis, not necessarily how they really are. You won’t find anyone saying they are a Memphis rapper making music like Wyclef Jean.

MC: Okay, so what drew you to make music, and specifically Memphis rap?

bone-thugsEG: Music has always been a big part of my life, I was always into rock music when I was younger. Then I started listening to rap and loved it too. When I heard “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, I knew I wanted to try to make music. It was the energy that really stood out to me, they aren’t Memphis rappers but that’s what hooked me.

MC: What did you want to get out of it? What was your goal? I know in a lot of your songs, you talk about making it big, making money, and getting out of that paycheck to paycheck lifestyle.

EG: I didn’t really get into it to try to become rich or famous, mostly it was about making myself known, and proving myself as someone who could make that kind of music, I felt like I could do it too, and probably better than som.

MC: What is your experience trying to make it and be that person, then?

EG: I just started writing, and I thought I was good at it. I finally started recording some of my songs about five years later and knew I was good. I had a lot of friends get into it too, and we started a group called 1 Way Muzik. 1 way muzik.jpgWe all started writing and recording together, we had seen Lil Wyte become successful, and Shelby Forest Click so we knew it was possible. We had our own little recording studio across the street from my Grandma’s house, and I probably have about 200 songs recorded, and quite a few CD’s. I’ve spent hours writing and recording and I’ve done shows. The key is to just keep pushing it. I was way into it, and when MySpace was a thing, I had started building up something of a global following. People from New York and other states, and even in England were hitting me up for CD’s. I was going around handing them out for free just trying to get my name out there.

MC: So, why did you slow down on your music?

soulja-boyEG: About three years ago it just quit being as fun. I was pretty much producing all of my and my friends stuff and nothing much was really coming of it. You have people like Soulja Boy making it huge off one little dance song but having no real talent, and that was just kinda messed up to me. I guess I lost faith in people’s appreciation for music that really said something instead of just stuff to party to. Plus, the rappers I grew up with that gave me that idea of what I wanted to do started to fade out.

MC: Alright, and to switch gears just a little, what has changed in music since technology, social media, and the digital environment have gotten so big?

EG: First off, I think it’s all really bad for music. It’s lost a lot of its push and oomph. Like MTV used to be all music all the time, and now it’s all 16 and Pregnant and reality TV. With all the free downloads and mixtapes, people can take advantage of the industry and it makes big name artists even more popular, and the underground scene a lot harder to advance out of. On the other hand, it makes it possible for tons of people to get into “music” despite whether they are good or not. It makes it hard to get your name out and stand apart, harder to make it, and there’s a ton more competition. Artists don’t make money off of albums, they make it off shows, and you have to have a name to do shows.

MC: What do you hope for in the future of music?

EG: A lot less of the popular hip hop and rap that really isn’t talent like Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi, and a lot more artists like Big K.R.I.T., UGK, Skinny Pimp, and Playa Fly. If you put anybody in that list it’s got to be Playa Fly.

MC: Okay, and last one, where do you see Memphis rap going in the future?

EG: Yo Gotti (chuckling).  I don’t think there will be as many Memphis rappers, we’re just not put on that digital pedestal. It will always be a huge thing FOR Memphis itself, though. It’s part of that Memphis culture and lifestyle of partying, making money, and hustling.

MC: Grit and Grind, huh?

EG: Yeah, exactly, Memphis is all about partying, money, and sports.

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