As hip-hop turns 50, where does Memphis fit into its future?

At this year’s Grammy Awards, a Memphis rapper was presented as one of the new torchbearers of hip-hop.

That rapper, Gloria “GloRilla” Woods, is not only from Memphis but so is Anthony “Hitkidd” Holmes, the producer of her biggest hit. Woods is also signed to a record label created by another Memphis rapper.

If GloRilla, her producer and her record label represent the next generation of hip-hop nationally, what might the future look like for a city that already brought the world Three 6 Mafia, 8Ball and MJG and Young Dolph?


If history is any indication, especially within the now 50-year-old genre of hip-hop, Woods and Holmes could make it big with Memphis music. But doing so will probably also see them leaving Memphis and relocating to an industry city, like so many musicians before them.

There’s a push afoot to try and make Memphis the working capital of Southern hip-hop. There’s talk of building a hip-hop museum here, and the Greater Memphis Chamber has recognized the genre’s business potential.

“We see music and entertainment as a major industry sector, the same as advanced manufacturing, the same as supply chain and logistics,” chamber president and CEO Ted Townsend said during a December edition of WKNO’s “Behind The Headlines.”

Townsend said the chamber is ready to focus, in a detailed way, on creating local infrastructure for the music industry because it wants to keep talented artists here even after they become successful.

“So that they don’t go to Atlanta, because Memphis is Big Memphis, right?” he said. “And they know that they can have a thriving career here and continue to reinvest all of that talent and all of those resources back into this community.”

But there are others in the local entertainment industry, like Orange Mound native and Unapologetic label founder James Dukes, who think there’s another way for Memphis musicians to succeed without selling out.

“I did learn a lot in New York, but maybe not what people would think,” Dukes said. “I learned a lot about capitalism and how f—– this industry is.”

Memphis stakes its claim — from other cities

Memphis has long had a major influence on hip-hop music and culture. But it’s never been at the epicenter.

Tony Draper’s Suave House Records label, founded in 1990 in Texas, played a pivotal role in letting the hip-hop industry know that “the South had something to say.”

The Houston label’s roster included Memphis’ own 8Ball and MJG, as well as performers from the Lone Star State. But Draper himself was also a Memphis native.

Together, Draper and 8Ball and MGJ found success with 1993’s “Coming Out Hard,” selling more than 700,000 records.

In 1995, Draper would move Suave House to Relativity Records, based in New York.

Two years later, in 1997, Three 6 Mafia’s DJ Paul and Juicy J would start their Hypnotize Minds record label in Memphis. The label’s crew included the late Gangsta Boo, Koopsta Knicca and Lord Infamous.

The platinum-selling group would later sign deals with Columbia, Loud and Relativity records and its core members, DJ Paul and Juicy J, would move to Los Angeles following Three 6’s 2005 Oscar win for “Its Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”

Although Suave House and Hypnotize Minds were instrumental in cementing Memphis into rap history, some wonder what Memphis music would look like if their leaders never moved away.

The digital opportunity

Could Memphis ever become the working capitol of Southern hip-hop music, culture and the industry? If so, how?

A successful entertainment industry city is able to serve as a base of operations for artists even as they travel around the nation and the world to perform for various audiences.

Greater Memphis Chamber president Townsend has been talking about hip-hop’s potential financial impact on the city since he was chief economic development officer of the chamber.

The chamber’s Music Advisory Council is one of several groups working across different sectors of the Memphis economy on a common set of priorities.

“The music and the entertainment input provides a great opportunity to understand what’s missing now,” Townsend said. “Let’s fill those gaps. Let’s talk about the production management that these artists need on a daily basis.”

Townsend said the chamber is exploring the use of incentives to ensure that music industry infrastructure is built here.

“We absolutely would get involved in recruiting recording studios here, much like Nashville did with publishing houses. And they still do,” Townsend said recently. “But we would love to see more of an independent flavor because I think that speaks to what our culture is here.”

A local bright spot is George Monger’s Connect Music. Monger founded the firm in 2020 to bring together independent Black artists and get them copyrighted, registered and promoted. Since then, he’s raised $600,000 from local investors, bought a Downtown headquarters, amassed several million in sales, established a $10 million credit line to help independent musicians and acquired another company, MTX Music, based in London.

We absolutely would get involved in recruiting recording studios here, much like Nashville did with publishing houses. And they still do. But we would love to see more of an independent flavor because I think that speaks to what our culture is here.

Ted Townsend,
Greater Memphis Chamber president and CEO

Monger spoke during the Greater Memphis Chamber’s annual luncheon in December, talking about the opportunities that have come along with the “paradigm shift to streaming.”

Three million songs are uploaded to digital streaming platforms every month in the U.S., many from the phone of an artist, according to Monger.

It’s a habit that is the heart and soul of how hip-hop early years, with mixtapes recorded first on cassettes and then on CDs and sold at nightclubs and on the street. The new-music-straight-from-the-artist legacy establishes credibility with fans.

It’s also a distribution model that allows songs to spread virally without having to rely on radio plays.

Connect Music performs two roles: It distributes music from several hundred hand-selected clients, about 60% of which are based in Memphis. It also works in publishing, ensuring that clients get access to their royalties after their music is played.

“We hand-select those we are proud to represent to our streaming partners. We have a direct line to the playlist editors, which helps our clients stand out in the crowd,” Monger said. “We help them cut through the noise of all those other releases. We do that through a set of tools: ‘How do we roll you out on marketing on your social media? How do we do certain ad buys to target your target demographic?’ We provide services, much like a label.”

Apple and YouTube pay writers and producers, but if they can’t identify who created the music, the money goes into a pool of uncollected royalties that Monger estimates comes to $1 billion a year.

“I believe as you democratize the consumption of music — as it becomes more digital — we want to make sure that we’re harnessing that, and working with folks like George Monger, who is focused on capturing the revenue for these artists, and making sure that the support system and the wraparound service are here in Memphis,” Townsend said.

What should Memphis’ music industry infrastructure look like?

Memphis’ current hip-hop scene includes Nless Entertainment — a partnership between former Memphis Grizzlies star Zach Randolph and Marcus Howell — Yo Gotti’s Collective Music Group (CMG), which represents GloRilla, the late Young Dolph’s PRE and James Dukes’ Unapologetic.

After growing up in Orange Mound, Dukes left Memphis at the age of 18, eventually working in New York’s Quad Studios and as a producer for artists such as Busta Rhymes and Ludacris.

After seven years there, Dukes came back to his hometown in 2013 and founded Unapologetic in 2015.

Now, with the 230-foot-tall former United Equipment Tower in Orange Mound as its symbol and calling card, Dukes’ Unapologetic roster includes 16 acts and artists as well as photographers, producers, designers and filmmakers.

The idea that only a major record label can help an upcoming artist thrive or make money, according to Dukes, is a myth. Yet, it continues to be the path taken by young artists eager for a chance at surviving neighborhoods heavily affected by poverty.

“One of the things that I learned in New York is that there are many ways to make money in this game,” Dukes said. “My true accelerant was that early on I got into sync and licensing before it was popular.”

Sync or synchronization is the use of music in TV shows, movies, advertisements, trailers or video games.

“I don’t have any hit records or songs that are played on the radio. But I do have songs that were played on TV and in film a million times,” he said.

Dukes’ music has used in productions from ESPN, Oxygen, NBC and Sony. In 2021, personal care company Gillette used Unapologetic artist Cameron Bethany’s song “Brand New” for a commercial.

Like Monger, Dukes said it’s important for Memphis artists to own their music.

The ideal music industry infrastructure, he said, would include marketing and booking agencies, locally based labels and artist development programs, run solely by locals.

“Imagine me saying, ‘We should go get developers from California or Atlanta, bring them here so they can buy up all this blighted property and then they can rent it out to the people here and then we’ll be set to build this community,” Dukes said. “That don’t even sound right. … What does sound right to me is the same thing we say in the development space, which is ‘create pathways to ownership.’”

Creating a collaborative community

“We need a full diagnosis of what has to be right: What must be true for Memphis to be that destination — recognized nationally, globally for music and entertainment,” Townsend said. “I believe hip hop provides us a great opportunity for that.”

Most cities that lead in hip-hop have and continue to have a spectrum of artists. Atlanta’s music scene, for example, includes Grammy Award-winning group OutKast. But the city is also home to platinum-selling rappers Young Thug and Future. And collaborations between the city’s rappers such as Gunna, Lil Baby and 21 Savage are common.

Dukes said forming more local collectives could also lead to the industry’s growth.

Recently in Memphis, producer HitKidd popularized a group of Memphis female rappers by simply having them collaborate with each other.

HitKidd’s “Set The Tone” EP included GloRilla, Aleza, Slimeroni, KCarbon and Gloss up and was released in 2021. The video that accompanied “Set the Tone” has more than 4.2 million views on YouTube and served as the precursor to HitKidd and GloRilla’s hit song, “F.N.F.”

But growing an infrastructure also means being more inclusive than just a select group of Memphis artists, Dukes said.

“When you own it, communities change. To me, that is the beginning,” Dukes said. “That allows us to own us. Use this as a means to create profit.”

Jane Roberts contributed to this story. 

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