These 5 pioneers of Memphis rap helped pave the way for city’s current hip-hop renaissance

Memphis rappers: Yo Gotti, NLE Choppa, Moneybagg Yo, Three 6 Mafia

While Memphis rap continues to enjoy a renaissance thanks to a generation of new young lions — from NLE Choppa to Duke Deuce — the history of the city’s scene continues to be defined by the music of golden era artists who got their start in the ’90s.

Here is a look at five iconic Memphis rap acts who have cast a long shadow over Bluff City hip-hop.   

Three 6 Mafia 

Three 6 Mafia accepting their Oscar in 2006.

Three 6 Mafia accepting their Oscar in 2006.

Given its many members over the years, and its numerous affiliates, the Three 6 Mafia collective remains a historic force in Memphis hip-hop. 

Formed in 1991 — by DJ Paul, Lord Infamous and Juicy J — Three 6 Mafia put out nine full-length LPs (as well as myriad mixtapes, collaborations and side projects) during their initial 21-year run, during which they helped define the sound of the Dirty South.  

The group — which has sold more than 5 million albums — hit the charts in the mid-2000s, with singles “Stay Fly” and “Poppin’ My Collar,” off their “Most Known Unknown” LP. Released in 2005, the disc would become the band’s biggest seller, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard pop charts, a portent of even bigger things to come.

In 2006 — 34 years after Stax legend Isaac Hayes earned an Oscar in the same category for “Theme from Shaft” — Three 6 Mafia won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. The group nabbed the trophy for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” — co-written by Hypnotize Minds artist Frayser Boy — their contribution to writer-director Craig Brewer’s made-in-Memphis “Hustle & Flow.” The group’s performance on the Oscar telecast and their unexpected win suddenly made them household names. 

The Memphis rap group Three 6 Mafia arrives for the 78th Academy Awards in 2006.

The Memphis rap group Three 6 Mafia arrives for the 78th Academy Awards in 2006.CHRIS PIZZELO

MEMPHIS AND THE OSCARS: Here are 20 Academy Award moments with a Bluff City connection

The band would eventually follow with the 2008 album “Last 2 Walk” (another top five-charting LP), their own MTV reality show “Adventures in Hollyhood,” and plans for a series of Three 6-branded films and other multimedia content.

After a period of slowing activity, in 2012 it was formally announced Three 6 Mafia was going on an indefinite hiatus. This was largely owing to co-founder Juicy J’s decision to focus on his solo career. Juicy J would enjoy a second career success thanks to a platinum-selling single (“Bandz A Make Her Dance”), some high-profile pop collaborations (with Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake), and a pair of albums in “Stay Trippy” and “Rubba Band Business.

Meanwhile, DJ Paul engaged in a variety of solo and remix projects, before convening several original Three 6 members, including Crunchy Black, for a new group under the Da Mafia 6ix moniker, which produced 2015’s “Watch What U Wish” album.

DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia performs Saturday at the 2019 Mempho Music Festival, at Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, TN Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.

DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia performs Saturday at the 2019 Mempho Music Festival, at Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, TN Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.ARIEL COBBERT, THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL

The group’s legacy was confirmed when it was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, as part of its inaugural class in 2012. In the years since, however, two of the group’s original members have died. The loss of Lord Infamous — the younger half-brother of DJ Paul — came in 2013. Fellow Three 6 foundational member Koopsta Knicca died in 2015. Both had been part of the Da Mafia 6ix project.

In 2019 Three 6 — led by DJ Paul and Juicy J — reunited for a series of concerts, including a homecoming show at the Landers Center. Plans for a wider tour were announced for 2020, and a handful of dates were completed before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

8Ball & MJG 

8Ball (right) and MJG are an influential rap duo.MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

Along with Three 6 Mafia, the dominating duo of 8Ball & MJG certainly have had the deepest and most profound impact on Bluff City hip-hop. 

Marlon Jermaine Goodwin and Premro “8Ball” Smith were raised in Orange Mound and met while being bused to Ridgeway Middle School in the mid-‘80s. Forming an instant bond over their shared loved of the then still-fledgling art of hip-hop, the two developed their signature style, which debuted to the world — or at least the underground — with 1991’s “Listen to the Lyrics.” 

Their proper run of studio LPs in the ‘90s began with the 1993 classic “Comin Out Hard” and continued with the following year’s “On the Outside Looking In,” before the group went gold and hit the Billboard charts with 1995’s “On Top of the World.” In between separate solo projects, the pair ended the ‘90s with another gold seller in 1999’s hip-hop album chart topper “In Our Lifetime.” 

Having helped make Southern rap a viable — both creatively and commercially — alternative to the West and East Coast scenes, 8Ball & MJG entered the 2000s by signing a deal with P. Diddy’s Bad Boy record label. Their 2004 Bad Boy debut “Living Legends” took the group to new heights, landing the pair at the top of the rap chart and at No. 3 on the album chart. 

Their 2005 collaboration with Three 6 Mafia on the double platinum “Stay Fly” would mark a kind of zenith for these progenitors of the Memphis rap. The pair has continued to flourish, leading their own record labels, reuniting to sign to T.I.’s Grand Hustle label and releasing “Ten Toes Down” in 2010. https://e8f80cd16968a5094a128341e27ae2c3.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0

8Ball & MJG would follow Three 6 Mafia into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2018, making them the second hip-hop inductees. 

Yo Gotti 

An artist who has bridged several eras in Memphis rap, Yo Gotti has parlayed his street hustling tenacity into a long and increasingly prosperous career. 

Born Mario Mims, Gotti represents the proverbial 20-year overnight sensation. His first releases came as a teen in the mid-’90s (under the name Lil Yo), his first regional hits followed at the start of the 2000s.

For Gotti, the last decade has seen him transform into mainstream star. That unlikely chrysalis came about with partnership between his label CMG and Epic Records and the release of “I Am” in 2013. But it was “The Art of Hustle,” released in 2016, that finally gave Gotti wings. The album debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard album charts, hit No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts and quickly proved a breakthrough for the veteran MC.

The album would go on to spawn a top-five rap and top-20 pop single in “Down in the DM” (a remix collaboration with Nicki Minaj), which went platinum. The record also earned the support of his peers, from Lil Wayne to Pusha T, who guested on the project, to Kanye West, who performed with Gotti during a release party in Los Angeles.

The album’s success threw doors open for Gotti. He would sign with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation management, duet with country-pop star Meghan Trainor on the song “Better” and perform with DJ Khaled to open stadium shows on Beyoncé’s Formation tour. 

In the years since, Gotti has continued his remarkable roll, becoming a brand ambassador for sportwear and shoe company Puma, and worked closely with streaming service Tidal, while releasing more albums — including 2017’s gold-certified “I Still Am” and 2020’s top 10 Billboard hit “Untapped.” His CMG label also has grown in stature, as it has developed a stable of fellow rap stars including Moneybagg Yo and Blac Youngsta.View | 22 PhotosYo Gotti Birthday Bash through the years

FROM 2019: Yo Gotti brings old heroes, young stars to his seventh Birthday Bash concert

Gotti has also grown his annual summer birthday concert into a key cultural event in Memphis. Since the first one in 2012, the shows have grown exponentially moving from Minglewood Hall to the Orpheum to the Cannon Center to Mud Island and ultimately to FedExForum. Each year has seen big name guests (Jeezy, Meek Mill, Nelly, Monica, Rich Homie Quan, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj), wildly elaborate stage shows and sellouts.

Project Pat 

Project Pat, Memphis rapper.

The older brother of Three 6 Mafia’s Juicy J, Project Pat (aka Patrick Earl Houston), is one of the great and influential, if somewhat underrated, figures in the city’s hip-hop history. 

Though he made his first appearances on early projects by Juicy J and DJ Paul, Pat’s career in earnest was delayed until his release from prison in the late-’90s, where he was serving time for robbery charges. 

MUSIC NEWS: Memphis rap legend Project Pat on coronavirus: Stay at home, mane

His 1999 debut “Ghetty Green” would be the first of 10 proper albums over the next two decades, a body of work that would include gritty collections like “Mista Don’t Play: Everythangs Workin” and “Layin Da Smack Down.” Along with some 20 mixtapes and a deep catalog of hits and classics — from “Ballers” to “Chickenhead” to “If You Ain’t From My Hood” — Project Pat would help define the Memphis sound into the 2000s.  

As part of the extended Three 6 family, he also added memorable hooks to the group’s classics like “Sippin on Syrup,” and guested on dozens of other era-defining tracks. In more recent years, Project Pat has been featured on hits by Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa, A$AP Rocky and Kool Keith. He’s also continued to have a major impact on a new generation of Memphis rappers, like up-and-comer Duke Deuce, who sampled and collaborated with Pat on his 2019 single “Crunk Ain’t Dead.”  

Playa Fly 

Memphis rapper Playa Fly.BRAD JOHNSON

One of Memphis’ most skilled lyricists and storytellers, Playa Fly is another key figure in the development of the city’s rap culture. Born Ibn Young, the son of noted R&B musician Mr. Bill Chill, Playa Fly was a hip-hop prodigy of sorts, starting his career as a teenager (initially billed as Lil’ Fly), with the early standout “Don’t Never Test His Pimpin” and first album “From Da Darkness of Da Kut” in 1993. 

Fly would join and then subsequently leave Three 6 Mafia following financial disputes and recriminations against the group, which would be played out on the infamous diss track “Triple B**** Mafia.” 

He continued his solo career on his own with “Just Getting It On,” before signing with the Super Sig label. Playa Fly would then find success with albums like 1996’s “Fly S***” and break through with 1998’s “Movin On.” He continued to develop his sound on a series of charting LPs into the 2000s including “Fly2K.”

Although his career was somewhat derailed by a prison stint in the mid-2000s, Fly’s catalog of standout songs — including the classic “Nobody” — are still being discovered by the Spotify and Soundcloud generation, while he’s continued to record under the banner of his own Minnie Mae Muzik label, turning out surprisingly compelling albums including 2015’s “Rooted in Memphis.” 

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