Rapping It Up
Meet four up-and-comers in the Memphis rap-music scene.
After a YouTube video for his autobiographical song “Letter to My Son” went viral, this previously unknown Memphis rapper was signed to Interscope Records, which released the song as an official single last year. Since then, he has stayed at the forefront of the rap scene with a series of well-received “mixtape” releases (most prominently last year’s Step Brothers 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.
With a nimble vocal style, a soulful mid-tempo sound, and a worldview not rooted in the street culture that’s birthed most Memphis rap music, young rapper Skewby represents something different on the Memphis scene. He 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. Skewby has showcased his against-the-grain style at Austin’s venerable South by Southwest Music Festival for the past two years.
Where current Memphis rap kingpin Yo Gotti followed Three 6 Mafia to national exposure, and Don Trip has come up behind Gotti, Young Dolph is in line behind Trip in the succession of harder-edged Memphis rappers. This process was made literal on a recent remix of Trip’s single “The Life,” where Dolph appears last — following Trip, Gotti, and Three 6’s Juicy J — to announce “Word on the street: Young Dolph up next.” Dolph’s rep — buoyed by his recent mixtape A Time 2 Kill — is now starting to build beyond the Memphis borders, which could turn his prediction from “The Life” into prophecy.
If Skewby represents a change in the idea of what a Memphis rapper is, Gavin “Cities Aviv” Mays is taking the genre in an even more unlikely direction. With a punk and metal background, Cities Aviv’s has shaped an iconoclastic sound that’s artier and, in some ways, more personal than his peers, best heard on his debut single “Coastin’” and album Digital Lows, which drew rave notices from such alternative/indie-oriented outlets as Spin and Pitchfork.com and landed Cities Aviv on some high-profile shows at this spring’s South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas.