bluff city memphis moves
written by Torry Threadcraft
To the world, Memphis’ claim to fame is at best, Elvis, and at worst, the “the city where the Dream died.” Though the performers who have made their name in and around the Mississippi Delta, legends like W.C. Handy, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Isaac Hayes, had mastered the art of putting on a show in the face of the trauma around them with a peculiar sense of nonchalance, they aren’t the only influential ones. In fact, there is an argument to be made that in both sound and motion, Memphis has continued to produce the most influential, yet sometimes unsung, artists since the King himself.
What we can say for certain is that these monsters of the mainstream continually took notice, as they still do today. Memphis hip-hop artists like Three 6 Mafia have had an often mocked yet outsized influence on today’s superstars while big business has incorporated Memphis Jookin, a once obscure local interpretive dance, into everything from Apple ads to Super Bowl performances and car commercials.
Just take a look at G-Eazy’s No Limit and A$AP Ferg’s Plain Jane, both of which have spent 26 weeks on the Billboard Top 100 as they interpolate Three 6 Mafia’s ‘99 cult classic Slob on my Knob. Drake, the son of a Memphis musician, doubled back to pay homage to Project Pat’s Out There, along with rising star, and dance sensation in his own right, Blocboy JB. Clearly, Rae Sremmurd’s Powerglide samples and features Memphis’ own Juicy J. South Florida rapper Plies’ Rock, which peaked at #40 after seven weeks on the charts, samples Three 6’s Late Night Tip.
Even Cardi B, featured on the aforementioned No Limit, went back to the well, remixing Project Pat and La Chat’s Chickenhead. Rising femcees Asian Doll and Cuban Doll joined Three 6 affiliate Gangsta Boo for an updated version of Boo’s ‘98 track Where Dem Dollas At? That’s at least a staggering six Billboard charting singles in one calendar year. And though the influence of Memphis production has been critically cited in the DNA of the early aughts’ crunk music and Chicago drill music, these recent samplings prove the sound has spread beyond niche sub-genres and permeated the mainstream.
The essence of Memphis jookin culture; extravagance, humor, and nonchalance in response to heartbreak and hardship, is still present even in the 21st century Memphis rap scene. The perils of the nightlife still linger, only with more violence lurking around the corner. The now-infamous track that secured Three 6 Mafia’s first record deal, Tear Da Club Up ‘97, was banned at clubs across the South because on a regular basis, partygoers took the song’s chorus, ”tear the club up,” a bit too literally. Today, the city’s biggest rap stars, Yo Gotti (who addressed the antipathy between himself and Three 6 on his own breakout hit) and Young Dolph, are currently embroiled in a war after 100 rounds of bullets were fired into Dolph’s SUV.
Considering this tumultuous climate, the city’s dance and music hallmarks make sense. In their early iterations, Three 6 leaned into satanic aesthetics on top of already violent content. With this as the soundtrack, Memphis’ movements were born, and local skating rinks and nightclubs were the perfect ecosystem for a cultural catharsis that natives called “gettin’ buck.” The namesake can be traced down two paths. In the Reconstruction Era, “Black Buck” was a slur for newly-freed, irredeemably violent and lecherous black men who “bucked the system,” refusing to bend to white authority. Another possible origin is, “the buck jump,” a dance move passed down from second line brass bands. Memphis began to put its spin on buck jumping in year 1 P.M. in the jookin world (with P.M. standing for Post Moonwalk, referring to Michael Jackson’s 1983 world changing performance), or in other words, 1984.
That being said, mainstream rap’s introduction to gangsta walking, bucking, and jookin came by way of Three 6 Mafia member Crunchy Black’s performance in their infamous Ridin Spinners music video in 2003. When adapted to modern drum machines, you’ll notice the feet follow the snares, spastically at times, eerily smooth at others, while the upper body weaves itself around the synths. The dance can be done individually, but was originally part of an interactive group experience. As the form evolved, the dance spawned battles as competitive as the city’s rap scene.
It’s no surprise that the mainstream rappers took to jookin. In the opening seconds of the original Three 6 Mafia track Side 2 Side, member DJ Paul dubs the track a dance song for “the thugs in the club that don’t dance.” In the music video, these words are juxtaposed with clips of the gangsta walk, buckin’ and jookin, all are Memphis originals. These dances gave modern “Black Bucks” the space to move in a way that conveyed artistry as well as aggression. As Jai Armmer, videographer and director of Memphis Jookin Vol. 1, said, “Jookin is a dance a thug ass nigga can do and be cool as hell!”
Daniel “D.P.” Price is known around Memphis as the “King of Jookin” and is the Co-Founder of Digital Dance Culture, a major online hub in the local culture scene. In the first Year of Our Lord, Michael Jackson (aka 1984), Price saw the influence of Jackson’s moonwalking in the movies Breakin’ and Beat Street spread to Memphis’ nightlife and by the mid-eighties a symbiotic ecosystem was blooming on the banks of the Mississippi River. Those skating rinks and dance floors set the stage long before the local rap scene even existed, thanks to DJ Spanish Fly, DJ Squeeky, DJ Zirk, DJ Paul and others. “That’s where the gangsta walk was really born,” said Price. “It was all in the ‘80’s, we were listening to New York rap, and the DJs in Memphis started slowing it down.”
It was more than just a dance style, it was culture itself. A cultural dance. The way these producers made beats in Memphis and this sort of dancing went hand in hand. Obviously, you can jook to any music if you want, but nothing fits quite as well as the Memphis sound. Music Journalist Andrew Nosnitsky identified the Memphis sound as “drum machine skeletons, given flesh by way of slowed menacing vocals and John Carpenter horror movie score samples. These are the hallmarks of Memphis rap production.”
In the hyperlocal discussion of Southern subgenres, the story of gangsta walking is peculiar. Memphis jookin itself was actually named for the newly crowned King of Pop. “Referring to that caliber of performer ... it’s healthy for the community. Because it’s a murderous community and we’re trying to make people feel great,” Price said. The infusion of the upbeat, graceful style of Michael Jackson served to counterbalance some of the darker elements of the music and community.
Memphis seemed to have reached its modern cultural zenith in 2005. After 15 years of work, Three 6 became both the first rap group to win an Oscar for Best Original Song, and the first ever to perform at the Academy Awards thanks to Hustle and Flow, a movie about Memphis rap, no less. But on the charts, the years that followed saw a regression to obscurity for Memphis artists. Three 6 is a legendary group, but a group alone can’t elevate a scene to self-sufficiency.
While Southern rap as a whole reached new heights around this time, other cities made more sense as hubs for the South’s entertainment business. Memphis has neither the built-in incubation system of the Atlanta University Center nor a major airport like Hartsfield-Jackson to shuttle in industry bigwigs. As a result, the sound currently permeating mainstream radio is shortsightedly seen as a flash in the pan. One exceptional group, as opposed to insulated cultural heirlooms.
This top-down approach to cultural coverage, waiting on exceptional names that stand above the rest, is as unsustainable as trickle-down economics. By the time standouts like Three 6 break into national consciousness, they’re old news to those who drive the culture. Perhaps, now that everyone has access to a platform and a means to promote their music regardless of their location, this dynamic has the potential to change.