Have you ever wondered how 90s Memphis Rap producers got their sound?
After extensive research, speaking to producers, and watching rare interviews, I have chronicled the history and evolution of 90s Memphis Rap production. This article covers the gear, techniques, and innovative production styles of Memphis Rap.
Let's dive in...
Much of Memphis Rap's sound is a result of its production approach. Memphis Rap during the 90s was often created in DIY home studios with cheap drum machines, limited samplers, and 4-track cassette recorders. This was the perfect storm for the sound of eerie lo-fi Memphis Rap which has been steadily gaining notoriety online as new generations discover this underground subgenre of hip-hop.
The reason new listeners are becoming drawn to these underground tapes is due to their undeniable influence on modern music genres - Trap, Phonk, Drill, etc. Its familiar production sound and rap flow patterns have led people to realize that Memphis Rap was extremely ahead of its time. The techniques of 90s Memphis production are being used daily by modern producers, many of them without even knowing it.
Drum Machines, Samplers, & Keyboards
Memphis Rap beats in the early to mid 90s had a very different sound compared to East Coast Boom Bap or West Coast G-Funk. In my opinion, one of the biggest reasons Memphis Rap sounded so unique was due to the equipment they used. While mainstream East Coast/West Coast producers had access to top-of-the-line samplers and drum machines, the majority of Memphis Producers did not have access to this type of gear due to its high price tag. DJs soon began experimenting with affordable drum machines and tape recorders to create their own music.
There were many important hip-hop DJs in Memphis during the late 80s and early 90s, but one of the most influential people who helped craft the Memphis Sound is DJ Spanish Fly. All of the Memphis DJs were releasing mixtapes made up of popular club songs, but soon they wanted to create their own tracks to compliment these songs. This led to DJs such as Spanish Fly experimenting with slow, bass-heavy drum beats combined with freestyle raps. DJ Spanish Fly had been producing his own tracks since the 80s, but by 1992 he began using the Boss DR-660 drum machine which was a major turning point for the Memphis Rap Genre.
DJ Spanish Fly
Up and coming hip-hop artists soon caught on to Spanish Fly's technique of production with this machine. Early adopters of this gear began producing entire albums with the DR-660, mainly utilizing its 808-style drum sounds. Some examples of this are DJ Zirk's "2 Thick" tape (1993), Mac DLE's "Level 6" tape (1993), and Tommy Wright's "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust" tape (1994). There were many albums exploding onto the Memphis scene during 1993-1995 heavily featuring the sounds of the 660. My personal favorite tape which highlights this machine's capabilities is Shawty Pimp & MC Spade's "Solo Tape", which was released in 1993.
This album blew my mind when I first heard it a few years ago. I never even realized it was possible for someone to produce an entire album with only drum and percussion sounds. Imagine an album of 2 lyrical MC's rapping over lo-fi 808 drum beats. Pitched 808 kicks and cowbells with no piano melodies or sample loops whatsoever - pure, raw DIY hip hop. This shows how limited equipment can lead to unique sounding production and even pave the way for future genres.
The DR-660 lead to very unique sounding hip-hop beats because it wasn't really designed primarily for hip-hop. It was designed for guitar players and musicians that wanted a drum rhythm track to play along with, or to use when recording rough demo tracks.
Boss DR-660 Magazine Ad (1992)
The DR-660 had no sampler or obvious melodic capabilities aside from a "Synth Bass" and a "Slap Bass" sound. One important feature though, is that all of the sounds including drums and percussion could be mapped to various pitches. Memphis producers realized they could create their own melodies by pitching multiple 808 kicks with long decay times to create "basslines". Instead of using something like a piano or synth they could map 808 cowbells at various pitches to create melodies. This formula is the foundation of Tommy Wright III's infamous song "Meet Yo Maker".
Another technique which was heavily used by Mac DLE and Shawty Pimp was to use an 808 Clave sound and max-out the decay time to create a long bell sound. A good example of this is Mac DLE's track "Laid Back" which was released in 1993. The 'SynthBass" patch was often used for basslines as well. My favorite example of this is on Tommy Wright III's title track from his 1995 tape "Runnin-N-Gunnin".
The importance of the DR-660 in Memphis Rap cannot be understated. Without this machine there would be no "Phonk" genre. The style of using pitched 808 cowbells was a direct result of unique design limitations on this budget rhythm machine. Original TR-808 machines did not enable you sequence 808 cowbells or kicks at various pitches in a drum pattern, this functionality was exclusive to the DR series drum machines. It's hard to imagine that Memphis Rap would sound the way it did without the use of the DR-660.
The DR-660 was used by: Tommy Wright III, Shawty Pimp, Mac DLE, Blackout, Kingpin Skinny Pimp/Gimisum Family, DJ Zirk, DJ Sound, DJ Livewire, MDB, DJ Fela, MC Mack, DJ Pinky, Mr. Sche and many more
We created a sample pack called "Lo-Fi Memphis" which contains all of the DR-660 808-style drum sounds which were commonly used in 90s Memphis Rap. We also processed the drum sounds through cassette for an authentic lo-fi sound. Feel free to check it out below:
Roland released many different models in their Boss "DR" line of drum machines but in 1993 they debuted a new machine which was highly innovative: The DR-5. This drum machine had a similar interface to the DR-660, but this time with many more melodic capabilities. Many producers were already familiar with the 660 and now that the DR-5 was available, they began utilizing it in their productions. This machine became popular in Memphis during 1994-1997. The DR-5 includes some of the same exact drum sounds as the DR-660 (808s, Cowbells etc), but also some new drum sounds as well. The biggest change was the addition of the instrument section which included 82 different instrument sounds. These instruments could be programmed just like the drum sounds to create complete arrangements. The sounds of this machine can be heard on many highly influential Memphis underground tapes.
One of the producers who used the DR-5 extensively was producer Lil Grimm. Lil Grimm utilized the DR-5 drums and instruments to capture the sound of something you would hear in a horror soundtrack. His production often featured chilling melodies laced with slow, heavy 808 drum patterns. An example of this is the use of a DR-5 "Choir" instrument on the song "Nothing Can Save You" by Graveyard Productions.
The DR-5 was used by: Tommy Wright III, Lil Grimm, Maceo, Mista Playa Dre, and many more
In 2020 we released our very first sample pack - Memphis Underground Vol. 1, which features all of the sounds from the DR-5, including cassette processed sounds. To learn more, check out the link below:
Samplers (SP-1200 and Others)
While the vast majority of Memphis Producers were using Boss Drum Machines, there were some Memphis artists who utilized top-of-the-line Sampler/Drum Machines for their productions, such as the E-mu SP-1200. Due to the high cost of the SP-1200, only a small amount of producers had access to them (DJ Paul, Dj Squeeky, SMK, etc.).
The SP-1200 design and filters gave a unique characteristic to anything that was sampled into it - usually loops and drums from vinyl records. The filters in the SP-1200 cause the sounds to be sampled in 12-bit resolution - which means the quality of the sample is naturally degraded. Many Boom Bap producers love this drum machine for it's ability to make drums and loops sound extremely dirty and lo-fi, especially when you change the pitch of samples on the machine. This 12-bit lo-fi sound is nearly impossible to replicate with digital software - hence why SP-1200 machines regularly sell for $8,000 or more on eBay today.
E-mu SP-1200 Magazine Ad
The vast majority of DJ Paul and DJ Squeeky Productions during the 90s featured the SP-1200. A great example of the iconic SP-1200 12-Bit sound is on the track "Mask And Da Glock" by Lil Glock & SOG (produced by DJ Paul). Notice the main loop sample has an obvious bit-crushed, lo-fi sound. This natural effect of the SP-1200 very much compliments the sinister tone of the beat.
For the producers who could not get their hands on an SP-1200, there were other sampling options that were much more accessible. For example, Shawty Pimp used a sampler called the Gemini DS-1224 which had up to 24 seconds of lo-fi sampling functionality.
In contrast to the SP-1200, this sampler was not able to be sequenced and combined with drums. There was no easy way to trigger a loop sample automatically at the beginning of each drum pattern. Also, you could only play one sample at a time. Shawty Pimp stated recently in an interview that he had to press the "START/STOP" button on the DS-1224 to trigger the sample manually throughout the song as he recorded the beat onto the master cassette. Click this link to see a video example of this.
All of Shawty Pimp's productions were essentially performed "live" back then, which is a stark contrast to how easy it is to make beats today on a laptop with FL Studio.
Some honorable mentions include the Roland W-30 and the Akai MPC 60, which were used extensively by Three 6 Mafia producers DJ Paul and Juicy J. These samplers were known for their gritty lo-fi texture they added to samples, especially drum sounds. It has also been noted that DJ Paul used the pitch bend wheel on the W-30 to manipulate samples in a way that mimicked DJ turntable scratching.
Akai MPC 60
The SP-1200 was used by: DJ Paul / Three 6 Mafia, DJ Squeeky, DJ Zirk, Lil Pat, SMK and many more
The Gemini DS Series Samplers were used by: Shawty Pimp, Lil Grimm and more
One of the lesser-known yet influential keyboards in the realm of 90s Memphis Rap was the Korg X3. Launched in 1993 as an update to the renowned Korg M1, this workstation keyboard featured many presets which embody the sound of 90s horror soundtracks. Legendary Memphis producer Blackout utilized many of these preset sounds in his production work throughout the decade. Tracks such as "Playa Posse" and Lil Noid's "Load My Clip" showcase the eerie bell sounds featured on the X3. In addition to these darker beats, Blackout also used the X3 to capture a more traditional G-Funk type sound on the song "Raised in the Hood" by Guice.
Another notable user of this keyboard was Memphis artist Tommy Wright III. For example, a preset called "Time Tunnel" can be heard on Tommy's song "10 Wanted Men". This preset provides a uniquely ominous sound by triggering random sets of dissonant tones. Combined with a bell preset and DR-660 drums, this makes for an extremely menacing sound which Memphis Rap is often known for.
The Korg X3 was used by: Blackout, Tommy Wright III, and more
Our most recent sample pack "Lo-Fi Memphis 2" contains over 200 original melodies and also some one-shots sourced from the X3:
The Recording Process
The majority of Memphis producers took a very DIY approach when recording their songs. Cheap RadioShack microphones plugged into 4-track cassette recorders (such as the Tascam PortaStudio) were common during this time. Some producers added reverb to the rapper's vocals during the recording process, as well other studio effects. Usually these were basic effects from audio mixers that had a built-in "FX" section. Some 90s rackmount effects units were also used on rare occasions.
Tascam PortaStudio (4-Track Cassette Recorder)
One unique technique that was used by DJ Paul was his use of a flanger effect on vocal samples. A great example of this is the vocal sample on the intro of "Anna Got Me Clickin" by Playa Fly. Another example is the vocal intro of DJ Paul's "Kickin' in da Door". Overall, most underground Memphis tapes did not use many effects on the beats or vocals, just a simple combination of vocal tracks and instrumental tracks recorded on a 4-Track Cassette Recorder.
The way that cassettes were pressed also had an effect on the lo-fi sound of Memphis Rap. The vast majority of Memphis underground tapes were recorded and created at home by artists themselves. Rarely was there professional cassette pressing done by a company.
Recording multiple songs onto an album from 4-Track Master Cassettes was a somewhat complicated task. Below I will provide a general example of how most Memphis Rap tapes were created:
Once the songs for an album had been recorded on 4-Track Master Cassettes, each song was compiled in order by recording them onto a single 2-Track Master Cassette. This cassette was usually a High Bias Type II blank cassette which was recorded on by using a cassette deck with recording capabilities. This 2-Track Master was then duplicated onto normal blank cassettes using a Dual Cassette Deck. All of these blank cassettes were recorded onto in real time, so it took awhile to produce a decent-sized batch of tapes. These freshly recorded cassettes would then be sold locally around Memphis - these are known as "OG Tapes". Many tapes had a printed sticker on them stating the artist name, album name, record label, and booking phone number.
The primary motivation behind writing this article was to preserve the history and techniques of Memphis Rap production. The info in this article led me to develop the Memphis Underground Drum Kit series, designed to help producers achieve a more authentic Memphis sound. I created these drum kits using many of the techniques and original equipment mentioned in this article.
Would you like to see more in-depth articles like this in the future?
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