What's hot in Memphis music in 2012.
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Once dominated by Oscar winners Three 6 Mafia, the Memphis rap scene is growing deeper and more diverse. Three 6 is still around, with mastermind Juicy J recently hooking up with star Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa’s label. And a couple of other veterans have remained forces: Yo Gotti has been collaborating with some of the genre’s biggest stars — Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross — and earlier this year released his major-label debut, Live From the Kitchen. And Memphis rap pioneer 8Ball — a key influence for an entire generation of Southern rap artists — returned this summer with a new solo album, Life’s Quest.
But a lot of the most interesting action has come from younger and newer artists.
After a stark YouTube video for his autobiographical song “Letter To My Son” went viral, previously unknown Memphis rapper Don Trip was signed to Interscope Records, which re-released the song as an official single last year after adding a vocal chorus from superstar Cee-Lo. Since then, Trip’s been suffering the album delays common to almost every rapper on a major label these days, but has stayed at the forefront of the rap scene with a series of well-received “mixtape” releases (most prominently last year’s Step Brothers, a collaboration with Nashville rapper Starlito that was named one of the year’s 40 best rap albums by Spin, and the recent solo effort Guerrilla) and by becoming the first Memphis rapper to make national rap magazine XXL’s “Freshman Class” cover, an annual feature on 10 rap artists poised for a breakout.
Rivaling Trip as a recent breakout is Cities Aviv, a punk- and metal-schooled young rapper who garnered national recognition amid an increasingly crowded field of Internet/indie rap upstarts off the idiosyncratic strength of his 2011 debut album Digital Lows separately released single “Coastin’.” Cities Aviv plans to release his second album, Black Pleasure, sometime later this year.
Bubbling under Trip and Aviv are some other young rappers of note: With a nimble vocal style and thoughtful worldview, Skewby became the first Memphis rapper tapped in national hip-hop oracle The Source’s prestigious “Unsigned Hype” column and has since polished his resume with last year’s More or Less album and the recent Humble Pie EP, both simultaneously laid-back and forward-looking. Young Dolph and Zed Zilla are coming up behind Yo Gotti and Don Trip on the Memphis street-rap scene.
Memphis has been a garage-rock hub for decades, and is perhaps more than ever identified with those kind of sounds as the home of the subcultural Goner Records empire.
Plenty of current artists are making sharp, unpretentious, guitar-based rock. Leading the way might be John Paul Keith, whose backing band the One Four Fives typically features the veteran rhythm section of drummer John Argroves and bassist Mark Stuart, making Keith & Co. arguably the city’s tightest and most enjoyable current live band. Last year, Keith released his second album, The Man That Time Forgot. Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly-style rock-and-roll? Tex-Mex and honky-tonk country? Garage rock and early-’60s soul? Folk rock, smoky jazz-blues, and Marshall Crenshaw-style power pop? The unusually adept Keith can do it all — with a lighter touch than most, flawless taste, and sure songwriting chops.
Keith often moonlights as a sideman for Jack Oblivian, the onetime member of seminal Memphis garage-punk bands as the Compulsive Gamblers and, of course, the Oblivians. Yarber adds an increasingly assured old-school R&B edge to the garage-punk template, most recently on his fine 2011 album Rat City. Alicja Trout (Clears, Lost Sounds) is another rock-scene vet who continues to be a leading player. Trout gets poppy with her band Mouserocket, but lets her inner guitar hero out in the River City Tanlines, with ample help from arguably the city’s best rock rhythm section, Terrence Bishop and John Bonds. The Tanlines returned this summer with a new album, Coast to Coast.
A newer band in this vein that’s making waves is Tiger High, the latest project from the brothers Vest (Jake and Toby), who previously partnered in notable local bands such as the Bulletproof Vests and Third Man. Here they’re joined by longtime collaborator Greg Faison and former Reigning Sound drummer Greg Roberson to forge a sound that drifts from their earlier art- and classic-rock styles into something at once poppier, fuzzier, and more psychedelic.
National music magazine Paste recently tabbed Memphis folk-rockers Star & Micey as the most promising young band in Tennessee. The band sometimes performs its spirited, harmony-laden songs as a trio, with three string-playing core members accompanying themselves with stomping foot percussion, and sometimes the band expands to a six-piece with accordion, violin, and drums. But either way they’re one of the city’s most enjoyable live bands, and they’ve been prepping an EP for national indie Fat Possum for later this year.
Joining Star & Micey on that Paste list of young Tennessee bands to watch — along with previously mentioned rapper Cities Aviv — was the Memphis Dawls, a rootsy trio that is the latest enterprise of sharp singer-songwriter Holly Cole, here joined by Jana Misener (of the band Giant Bear) and violinist Krista Wroten (who plays in Amy LaVere’s band). Adding to the trio’s current upswing are a few recent handpicked dates opening up for alt-rock superstar Jack White and a national digital re-release of the band’s eponymous debut EP, which was released locally last year.
One of the city’s best new bands might be Hi Electric, a heavy but melodic guitar-rock band led by Neil Bartlett, who spent a lot of time in the studio crafting an eponymous debut album that’s now one of 2012’s best local releases. The band’s guitar-drenched take on Big Star-style pop-rock melodicism lies somewhere on the continuum between Teenage Fanclub and My Bloody Valentine.
Another heavy trio, the Dirty Streets, who have toured as a Lucero opener, specialize in a classic-rock facsimile that draws on such ’60s and ’70s blues-rock stars as Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Humble Pie. The band lives up to its name with its grimy, swaggering attack, and recently returned to its roots with a strong second album, Movements.