We Takin' Over
There’s no denying Memphis has the lead when it comes to artists flourishing in recent years. From established rappers signing new acts to rising newcomers climbing the charts, the city has all eyes on its homegrown talent.
Words: Grant Rindner
Editor’s Note: This story appears in the Spring 2023 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

“A diamond in the rough” is how Juicy J and music video director Yoo Ali, who first got his start as a rapper, describe their hometown of Memphis. Rising Memphis rapper Jucee Froot even has an album with that very title from 2015. The adage is used to describe something or someone with tremendous raw potential who lacks polish, and it was true up until a few years ago, when the city’s most ambitious artists, producers and music executives took a chisel to it, turning their hometown into perhaps the most defining hip-hop city of the 2020s thus far.

Over the last five years, no local rap scene has experienced the kind of staggering highs and crushing lows that Memphis has. The city has lost foundational talents to senseless violence (Young Dolph) and incarceration (Pooh Shiesty), but it’s also birthed artists who have proven they can get cozy on the Billboard charts (Moneybagg Yo, GloRilla) without sacrificing their appeal to hardened hip-hop heads.

“Memphis is a city that breeds originality, and today’s music listeners are looking for originality,” says Zach Randolph, an NBA All-Star-turned-record label owner whose jersey was retired by the Memphis Grizzlies in 2021. He cofounded N Less Entertainment with Marcus “Head” Howell in 2016. “The swagger of the city, the bravado of our artists can’t be duplicated anywhere else, and that is why I believe we’ve had this successful run and will continue deep into the future.”

Nowadays, pretty much every city in the U.S. has a plethora of talented vocalists, but the rest of the infrastructure for a successful music scene can still be lacking. Memphis, dating back to the mid-1990s, has a rich history of independent labels and musicians building the kind of creative support a city needs to flourish and endure a changing of the guard. Though now defunct, Three 6 Mafia members Juicy J and DJ Paul’s labels, Prophet Entertainment, later named Hypnotize Minds, were instrumental in building Memphis rap, signing artists including Project Pat, Gangsta Boo and La Chat, while mentoring Nashville talents like Young Buck. Juicy shares that they were inspired by the success of Stax Records, their hometown’s legendary soul label that developed both local acts like Booker T. & the M.G.’s and out-of-towners like Otis Redding. Juicy remembers being a teenager watching on TV as Stax’s iconic studio was demolished, and vowing to build something in the city that would never be demolished. “We said, ‘We want our shit to be big like Stax, but nobody’s gonna knock our shit down,’” Juicy recalls with a laugh.

That commitment has trickled down to Memphis’ latest music moguls, which include Randolph and his business partner, Howell, whose N Less Entertainment boasts local talent headlined by Moneybagg Yo but also featuring upstarts Big30, Dee Mula and Lonely Girl. Moneybagg Yo even has his own subsidiary label, Bread Gang Entertainment, with a roster led by thunderous rhymer Finesse2tymes. Howell credits other Memphis power players with helping his entry into the industry. He had known Yo Gotti for two decades before cofounding N Less Entertainment, and says local DJ Larry Live was the one who first turned him onto Moneybagg.

For Big30, who began rapping with childhood friend Pooh Shiesty in 2017, signing with a local label was a sticking point. “It was important for me to sign to someone from my city, that someone from my city was giving me a chance and, if I blow up, I can help them out like they helped me,” Big30 asserts.

In an era where prolific artists are rewarded and consistency is paramount, the lunch pail ethos of Memphis has helped its MCs build devoted audiences. It’s fitting that Randolph has played a part in the city’s recent success, since his beloved Grizzlies teams were known for their “grit and grind” approach to basketball, which felt synonymous with Memphis itself. Howell insists that N Less’ roster represents that spirit. “The way our artists work could only be described as blue collar,” Howell shares. “You take artists like Bagg and Big30, these guys want studio every city they’re in. [N Less artist] Big Homiie G [has] a mobile studio he takes everywhere he moved. He’ll set up shop in the hotel lobby.”

Atlantic Records Vice President, A&R, Success Davis, who works with Finesse2tymes, confirms that Memphis is among the most discussed cities in the industry, and credits a unified production sensibility, but vastly different vocal approaches, with allowing it to consistently churn out new stars. Part of that can be credited to the city’s signature producers like Tay Keith and Hitkidd, as well as YC, who isn’t from the city but has produced some of its biggest tracks in recent years like Moneybagg’s “Said Sum” and Pooh Shiesty’s “Back in Blood.” These producers have become hot commodities around the industry, bringing the Memphis sound national, and helping steer conversations towards the city. “We talk about Memphis and new Memphis artists every week in our A&R meetings,” Davis reveals. “Literally every year there’s a force coming out of Memphis. It’s exciting.”

Atlanta is invoked several times throughout these conversations about Memphis’ place in hip-hop. Over the last two decades, A-Town has grown from being not simply the hub of Southern rap, but hip-hop as a whole, with artists around the country moving there to build their careers. And while it’s cemented itself as an enduring epicenter, there are serious questions about how the RICO case brought against Young Thug’s ATL-based YSL Records will affect the city’s long-term standing in the music community.

However, Davis believes that Memphis still has a ways to go before it has the industry presence of an Atlanta, noting that many bubbling artists from the Tennessee city will move elsewhere to take advantage of their standing and existing framework in the music and entertainment fields. These artists, including Finesse, who now resides in Houston, still keep a strong foothold in their hometown, but the realities of the music industry make it hard to thrive if a rapper doesn’t have a presence in one of the handful of major markets.

Memphis was never dormant, with Yo Gotti continually charting and artists like Young Dolph and Blac Youngsta building buzz throughout the South, but there was a floodgate-opening between 2017 and 2018. This was perhaps most neatly encapsulated by the success of BlocBoy JB’s “Look Alive.” A feature from Drake—whose father grew up in the city and brought his son there to spend summers—brought a slew of eyes and ears to the song, but it was BlocBoy’s exuberance, pummeling percussion from the then-young producer Tay Keith and a stylish video directed by Yoo Ali that kept them there. That the clip features cameos from Moneybagg Yo and Zach Randolph only further cements its importance and authenticity.

“We had that gap period where the only people we knew in the industry, who really made it overseas and everything, was Three 6 Mafia,” Yoo Ali says. “When they won an Oscar [for Best Original Song], even people in the city, we didn’t fully understand that. So, you listen to some of their music after that and they’ll even [talk] about how the city will be hard on you, turn on you.”

In the mid-2010s, Memphis hip-hop experienced a cultural resurgence as a major influence on the SoundCloud scene. Suddenly, artists from across the country were drawing inspiration from the eerie, occult stylings of Hypnotize Minds, earning huge audiences by putting a lo-fi, distorted spin on the sound most commonly associated with Three 6 Mafia. Not all of these situations worked out amicably—Three 6 sued New Orleans duo $uicideboy$ for more than $6 million in 2020—but Juicy maintains that on a macro level, he was never worried about rappers from outside the city occupying the moment that was meant for Memphis.

“It don’t really bug me, man, it just makes me feel like at the end of the day we’re really doing something,” he expresses. “If they’re using your style, your flow, then somebody’s listening. If you’re somebody, somebody’s taking something from...you gon’ bypass those people who are taking your style, your flow, because you’re the blueprint.”

Ultimately, Juicy’s hypothesis proved correct, particularly thanks to the developmental work done by Yo Gotti and Young Dolph to usher in a new generation of talent. Dolph’s Paper Route Empire continues to thrive even after its founder’s death, with his protégé and cousin Key Glock headlining a talented roster that includes Kenny Muney and Snupe Bandz, among others. Gotti’s CMG has become one of the biggest forces in contemporary rap, developing hometown talent like Moneybagg and Blac Youngsta, while bringing in talented rappers from around the country like 42 Dugg, EST Gee and Mozzy. GloRilla is the label’s newest star straight out of Memphis.

No Memphis star has had a more meteoric rise recently than Big Glo, who parlayed the viral success of “F.N.F. (Let’s Go)” into a deal with CMG, plus her track “Tomorrow 2” with Cardi B scored a top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hit. Already a Grammy nominee, GloRilla embodies the city’s winning combination of southern charisma and brashness. Moneybagg Yo has also made a home for himself at the top of the charts, releasing three consecutive solo albums that debuted in the top five of the Billboard 200. But beyond this magazine covering stars, there’s a strong working class of artists who haven’t had a national breakthrough hit, but still perform well, like Big Boogie, who is Yo Gotti’s artist, Kevo Muney and Lil Double O, who signed with Future.

Success Davis uses Lil Double O to help illustrate the point that since 2017, every year there’s been at least one or two rappers that have pushed through with either a record or a movement. “They’re guys that are quietly streaming crazy that may not even have that big breakout hit, but again, it’s just something in the water in Memphis where they’re able to connect with a fan base and sustain,” he explains.

Intergenerational squabbles can often derail a regional rap scene, but that problem hasn’t blocked Memphis artists from soaring. Perhaps it’s southern hospitality, but the city’s veterans are enthusiastic about supporting the next generation, whether that’s Juicy posting videos of Sliqmouf Clique, the upstart group featuring his brother Project Pat’s kids, or Gangsta Boo teaming with GloRilla on Latto’s “FTCU,” itself an homage to Three 6’s “Tear da Club Up.”

“I love all the new Memphis artists,” Juicy says. “I love their energy. Everyone I work with, I listen to. I could go home and sit and retire, and sit by the ocean and smoke weed all day, which is a great idea, but I love doing music, especially with people from Memphis.”

Beyond building out the city’s musical infrastructure so that artists don’t feel pressure to relocate, Memphis is grappling with a common problem that threatens to derail its ascent: infighting. Big30 laments the “crabs in a bucket” mentality that permeates much of its culture while Juicy J admits, “because it’s really very violent down there, I said, ‘The only thing that probably could save this city is God and music.’” The November of 2021 murder of Young Dolph, a beloved figure whose independent success as both an artist and executive has been instrumental to the city’s recent renaissance, cast a dark shadow over Memphis. The untimely deaths of promising upstart Big Scarr in December of 2022, and Three 6 Mafia member Gangsta Boo in January of this year still weigh heavily on the collective psyche, but there’s a tone of optimism and determination among the city’s key players.

“We have to invest our time and our funds into the music community as a whole,” Zach Randolph declares. “Our city has to open its doors and welcome this wave with open arms. [The] government has to recognize the industry and create an ecosystem where music can thrive within the city.”

Big30 wants to see the city continue to blossom, and hopes that as more Memphis rappers become bona fide stars, they can use their influence to make positive changes and disrupt the city’s status quo.

“Hopefully, one day, we can put together an event or something that makes sense for everyone and we can come in accord and cancel out some of the violence, open up opportunities for more kids, like me and Shiesty,” he says.

As hip-hop history shows, impactful movements start with the children.

Check out additional interviews in XXL magazine's spring 2023 issue, including the cover story with Lil Durk, conversations with Coi LerayKey Glock, Joyner Lucas, FridayyLuh TylerLola Brooke, Destroy LonelyBlxstCurren$yFinesse2tymesVic MensaToosii, DJ Drama and actor Tyler Lepley, plus a look at how famed hip-hop attorney Bradford Cohen helps clients like Drake and Kodak Black beat their cases, veteran photographer Johnny Nuñez tells the behind-the-scenes stories of 10 of his iconic hip-hop photos and six rappers from six different eras—Melle MelMC ShanRZALupe FiascoB.o.B and Cordae—discuss the change in hip-hop over 50 years. 

See Photos From Lil Durk's XXL Magazine Spring 2023 Cover Story