People say I know a lot about music. And it’s true, I do. But so do you. And there are certain people who know so much more about music than either of us that it’s not even funny. It’s like a long staircase where you think you’re near the top, but there’s still several more steps going up, disappearing behind an ethereal mist… you start to count them, in an attempt to assess the situation… five, ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty… the mist briefly subsides, revealing at least seventy-five more steps, receding upward to a point past visual perception, each step representing just a little bit more musical knowledge beyond the last one, each next step quite accessible… but can you go thirty? Forty? Eighty? And the mist keeps moving and rearranging, now thickening, now hiding all but just the next two or three steps... but wait, it’s not that simple either. Because sometimes you run up the stairs two at a time and miss entire histories. Sometimes you’re on a step for just a minute or two, and think you get it, but you don’t. Not even close.

Somewhere in between all of these rather overwrought metaphors describes my previous understanding of the Memphis rap explosion of the 1990s. I knew a little bit about it, and if you asked me who the biggest rap group ever from Memphis is, I might’ve been able to tell you Three 6 Mafia, but I couldn’t really name a single song of theirs, not even the one they won a Best Original Song Oscar for back in the day. Oh yeah, that’s right, it was that “Hard Out Here For A Pimp” song from the film Hustle & Flow (2005, d. Craig Brewer). I know this, because I saw them win the award on live TV that night in March 2006, and the acceptance speech was amazing. I feel like I remember them performing the song live that night too, but it was almost 15 years ago. Saw the movie that year too (rented the DVD, pretty damn good, but really from a different time already, not sure if it’s aged well or not), and the movie was set in Memphis, so I know a little bit about Memphis hip hop, right?

Wrong, poser. In fact I’m such a poser that I only just now learned about Memphis rap not from digging in the wild, but laying on my couch watching Netflix. Yep, Hip Hop Evolution, a very good show, particularly a segment from Season 4, Episode 2, “The Southern Lab,” which runs down a succinct history of 1990s Memphis hip hop, starting in the late 1980s with the legendary DJ Spanish Fly. His music and career were a revelation to me.

As far as I can tell from this extremely good 2012 interview with Fly by thee Noz (say what you will about the crass idea that is corporate energy drink branding of underground culture, and I can say plenty myself, but on a content-by-content basis Red Bull Music Academy Daily was probably one of the best music mags ever, don’t front, R.I.P. to a G.O.A.T.), the man was born circa 1970, I believe in Memphis, though it seems he did move to Illinois for some portion of his childhood, probably Chicago area (he does mention a few Chicago connections in the interview). He started making his living from music in Memphis around 1987 or 1988, and in fact stopped going to high school (later earning his GED) because he was making a lot of money, not only as a DJ at places like the legendary No Name Club, but also from selling lots and lots of mixtapes of his DJ sets, often at the very high price point of $25 per tape (as Memphis legend DJ Squeeky enthusiastically attests, again in Hip Hop Evolution S4 E2), and that’s 30 years ago, but it makes sense: his fans had tape players in their car, and if you spent $25 for a full hour of the best brand new music in a style you love, you’d have your go-to car music figured out for two to three months at least, basically what a streaming service subscription costs now.

And oh man, the music. $25 worth for sure. Minimalist and sinister and slow-and-low, it was basically the invention of trap music, but in a very naively satisfying and direct old-school way, much like the minimalist trunk music of Too Short that started up a couple years earlier way over on the West Coast in Oakland, California.

Also like Too Short, the cassette medium was extremely important to DJ Spanish Fly’s business model. It was how he mastered the music, how he DJ’d the music, and how he sold and delivered the music. The entire production, performance, and supply chain operation practically reduced to a single step: make a cassette. With rudimentary label stickers on each side, and no J-card, Fly kept the overhead low, and almost single-handedly ran the Memphis rap cassette game, a reign that had a long-lasting ripple effect on music in Memphis and well beyond.

One of Fly’s many followers (“DJ Spanish Fly was my guy” — HHR S4E2) was a youngster named Paul Duane Beauregard (born 1977), who with his older brother Ricky T. Burigan (born 1973, died 2013) created a hip-hop duo called DJ Paul & Lord Infamous, aka the Serial Killaz. They produced instrumentals and rapped over them, heavily influenced by Fly’s lo-fi tranced-out mid-tempo minimalism, as well as a steady diet of horror flicks on VHS. In this interview with Hip Hop DX, DJ Paul says “By the end of the ninth grade came we was bringing out an EP, Serious Killaz, in like 1990 or whatever.” Wait, so maybe their duo was the Serious Killaz, not the Serial Killaz? The provenance of these early tracks is indeed mystifying — some of them, I can’t find on Spotify or even Discogs, and it’s unclear whether this music was released under the duo name DJ Paul & Lord Infamous, or under the name Serial Killaz, or Serious Killaz, or at all. Either way, there are a few tracks on YouTube that stand as some of the most bone-rattling and bone-chilling and grimy lo-fi horrorcore hip-hop this head has ever heard, such as “The Scarecrow,” aka “Serial Killaz” (?), and the particularly hard-knocking “Face to Face With Death”:

In 1991, Paul and Infamous joined forces with Juicy J (aka Jordan Michael Houston, born in 1975, right in between the two brothers), and these three individuals became the Three in Three 6 Mafia, the most successful rap group ever from Memphis. As DJ Paul says on HHE S4 E2, “When I got kicked out of school, my momma had told me, ‘You wanna use your auntie’s address and go to county school, or do you wanna try this rap shit?’ I said, ‘I wanna try this rap shit!’ Me and Juicy put together forty-five-hundred dollars and made Mystic Stylez. That forty-five-hundred dollars turned into forty-five-million dollars! And that was the best decision I ever made in my fuckin’ life!”