“Memphis Music Always Travels Around”: An Interview with DJ Squeeky

Lucas Foster speaks with Memphis legend DJ Squeeky to discuss Tommy Wright III, Three Six Mafia, and his imprint on modern rap music.
By    September 19, 2017

squeeky

DJ Squeeky’s obscurity in Southern hip-hop history is criminal. To most trap-a-holics, the name DJ Squeeky barely registers in the ever-expanding landscape of producers. Maybe you know him for his countless Young Dolph collaborations, or you somehow recall his production credit on Jeezy’s “Welcome Back“, (and subsequent theft of said beat by Rick Ross), or maybe you were lucky enough to stumble upon his endless 90s underground tapes with the magic of youtube algorithms and this decade’s resurgence of interest in 90s Memphis rap.

His contribution to the genre of trap, however, was its literal creation. Working in his bedroom in the Orange Mound neighborhood of Memphis with neighborhood friends like 8ball & MJG, DJ Zirk, and Tom Skeemask, Squeeky was the first to combine machine-gun-quick hi-hats, trunk-rattling 808 kicks, and rangey sub-bass with lyrics about hittin’ licks, slangin’ rocks, and ridin’ dirty.

The first time I heard a DJ Squeeky song I was sitting in my friend Davis’ weed and tobacco clouded bedroom in 10th grade. The second I heard the rattling hi-hats and 808 kicks introduce Tom Skeemask and friends using double time and triplet flows about plottin’ murders and dragging bodies to ditches, I had to completely reassess my understanding of what trap is, where it came from, and learn who the fuck was producing this shit in 94. In 11th grade we spent many school days exploring the 90s Memphis underground on obscure youtube channels, German blogspots, and whatever else our school’s library computers gave us access to. Eventually, it became clear that DJ Squeeky and DJ Spanish Fly were the true originators of the 90s Memphis sound and that Squeeky was, in our eyes, the original “trap” producer.

Needless to say, I have been itching to talk to the man for years, and over the course of a 26-minute phone call we discussed the history of hip-hop in Memphis, his contributions to Southern hip-hop’s sound, Three Six Mafia, Tommy Wright III, and his place in musical history. —Lucas Foster


What got you interested in making music?


DJ Squeeky: I guess guys who grew up around me, singing and whatever. I got family members that go to church, that sing a lot in church. That’s best to describe on how I started with the music because I was already hearin’ it when my momma done took me to church or whatever.


When did you start DJ’ing or producing hip hop?


DJ Squeeky: Uhh probably about ’92. I was like 17, 18 years old back then.


What was the hip hop scene in Memphis like at that time? I know DJ Spanish Fly was really starting to set the tone, but I haven’t heard much else about it.


DJ Squeeky: I ain’t even gonna lie, back then it was like a really small community, it wasn’t that big, was just only a few. It was only a few doing it ’cause you know a lot of people just didn’t believe in rap music back then. At that time, no one was making that real cash.


You grew up in Orange Mound, right?


DJ Squeeky: Right.


It seems like a lot of legendary musicians came up with you. So what was the neighborhood like when you were growing up there?


DJ Squeeky: Shit, like any other neighborhood, rough and tough! A neighborhood that you really had to be tough to survive in. You had to do what you had to do.


Do you think you can hear the influence of that environment on your music, Zirk’s music, and 8ball & MJG’s music?


DJ Squeeky: Oh yeah, you know, our whole music was based on, well, based on where we come from and how we live. So It’s really mostly a product of the neighborhood we came from anyway. ‘Cause you gotta rap about—people back then—we rapped about where we was at; what was going on, you know? You can’t rap about stuff you didn’t have, or about stuff that wasn’t true. You gotta rap about what’s around the corner from you.


Back in those early days, what type of equipment were you working with?


DJ Squeeky: Back then I had an SD-12, a 4-track, a mixer, something like that. I think the earliest days when I started I had a 4 track, mixer, and ac1200.


Back then you and a lot of Memphis producers used a lot of Isley Brothers samples. So how did they influence your music?


DJ Squeeky: Well, the Isley Brothers, they had, you know, it was like regular music that you would hear anyway. At that time in Memphis, even if you had never even known the Isley Brothers, you’re gonna come outside and hear it anyway, you feel what I’m sayin’, because somebody is always gonna be playin’ it! So basically, you heard it so many times, it starts sounding kinda groovy. Let me make a beat on it! That’s how it go.


I loved those Isley Brothers samples. So why do you think that Memphis rap at that time, the early ’90s, sounded so much different from the rest of the country?


DJ Squeeky: It was a phenomenal sound. That’s all it was. It wasn’t like the regular. But back then most of the pop music that was going on was like booty shakin’ or there was like, early ’90s everything’s booty shaking or they had a black power thing going. It was either one of the two. You feel what I’m sayin’? So that’s like the early ’90s, where as time went along that format was still going on. It went from black power music to sounding like it’s all New York. Now we gonna put some soul and funk on the black power music, talkin’ about the same thing.

And the booty shakin’ didn’t really go anywhere, it was just still there. Memphis music was different because we wasn’t none of those. See what I’m saying, we had our own thing goin’ on over here, our own style. You know, back in those days in Memphis, you didn’t play no outta town rappers, you were playing Memphis rappers and Memphis things that started and stayed in Memphis. Memphis people didn’t even know about out of town rappers, period. They didn’t even know about outta town rappers that rapped. Only hip hop that we was influenced by was from there. It was our own thing, our own Memphis music.


So from what I understand, on your early tapes, DJ Squeeky Volume 1-8 and the Summa Tapes, you were the first producer to use those rolling hi-hats that hit on 32s or 16s, now people call them trap snares. What other production techniques and beat patterns that you innovated can be heard in modern hip hop?


DJ Squeeky: You talkin’ about the 16 hi-hat?


Yeah.


DJ Squeeky: That was me. That was one thing that got the music game fucked up. I was trying to be different. All it was, was I was trying to be different.


Do you feel that you deserve more recognition for that innovation—making the Memphis sound and the trap sound?


DJ Squeeky: Yeah I kinda do, but, you know, I kinda look at it like, to me, recognition, it’s cool but it ain’t all that, you know? I appreciate people listening to my music, anyone out there who evolved from my sound into they sound that let’s me know that all those many days I was working on Saratoga people were actually listening. It just lets me know that I was a real big part of the rap game for real. Real big part of it. I ain’t tryin’ to get no fame or recognition off of it, I just look at it like I’m a real big part of it; no matter how they sugar coat it.


Yeah, it’s the historical record. You can hear it first on DJ Squeeky tapes.


DJ Squeeky: Yeah, you definitely heard it there first. The thing about it is, if I wanted to brag like that I got proof and evidence for that. So I don’t wanna go all that deep with someone when I know I got proof and evidence.

 


If you really study the roots of Southern rap, you know where those snares and that bass came from. And there are a lot more kids, kids younger than me, who have been listening to your older tapes over the past five years, finding your tapes and other artists working in Memphis in the ’90s. How do you feel about that?


DJ Squeeky: I just look at it like when they get into my music they can see where this music and this sound originated from so they don’t have to guess or second guess on who did this or who did that. It’s right there for you to see and you ain’t got to think about it. It’s right there for you to see. I think most producers, you ask me and they probably listen to some of my rolls, snares and stuff I had back then ’cause I look on Youtube and it ain’t like I got 200 views on there. I got thousands of views. And it let me know they listening ’cause ain’t nobody but producers listen to that ’cause that’s who’s checking it out. Maybe people who are old DJ Squeeky fans.


What do you think about new artists like SUICIDEBOYS or POUYA or some members of Raider Klan, those who are recreating that sound from the ’90s in Memphis?


DJ Squeeky: Honestly, I haven’t heard them, my partner was just trying to get me listen to ‘em the other day, or whatever. I try to keep up with the music of a lot of random artists but you gotta be one of them artists who, besides the beat, you gotta at least be talkin’ about something. You can’t be mumblin’. I can’t really understand what you sayin’ if you mumblin’, I’m gonna get mad. I’m gonna be like, ‘That’s what you’re using?’ But if it gets you money I can’t hate on it, if it makes you money, what can I do for you? But you gotta be an artist that’s gotta be bumping. There ain’t that many artists that I heard. There are only a handful that’s really saying something on their CD.


On the topic of people copying your style, from what I’ve heard Triple Six Mafia copied (some say stole) a lot of music from you and some other artists in Orange Mound.


DJ Squeeky: Three Six Mafia’s whole career, I ain’t gonna say what they did but, like, musically, the beats, samples, all their stuff was based on stuff that I was doin’ in the early ’90s. They based their whole life on me, their whole rhythm type, their whole drum kicks, bass patterns, their snares, their everything all based on me.

In the beginning, like when I first met Paul, Paul was more like a fan of the music. But to me, it wasn’t like he was a fan of mine though, ’cause I feel like this is my music and we over here grindin’ on it, so, you can’t be over here trying to sell our music and get you a few dollars. Go make your own music. Make your own music, come up with your own ideas, but don’t include Squeeky in your rhythm at all. Don’t put Squeeky in it. You gotta think about it, if Squeeky wasn’t in Paul’s life he wouldn’t have five dollars.


So why do you think Three Six went on to have multiplatinum albums?


DJ Squeeky: Well, you know, they were dropping good hits back then. I ain’t gonna lie. But the thing about it was, if you just look at their career and what was going on, you know, I just looked at it myself as a producer like, you can’t keep using the same Squeeky rhythm forever; it’s not gonna work, it’s gonna play out. Which it did, it played on out. I knew it would, ’cause the fans are gonna get tired of hearin’ the same rhythm over and over again, if you can’t come up with new and fresh ideas you get stuck, and that’s where they were stuck so long.


Have you been in touch with Tommy Wright at all?


DJ Squeeky: I saw Tommy Wright last year.


It seems like you and Tommy Wright didn’t really collaborate that much. Were you running in different circles, from different neighborhoods or something?


DJ Squeeky: I just was trying to make my music and make a lil’ money and he was tryna do the same, just happened that we didn’t make a lot of music together. Music is a business for me. No beef with him or nothin’ like that.


would you say that the sound you helped create in the ’90s in Memphis was the origin of modern Southern hip-hop or trap percussion?


DJ Squeeky: Oh yeah for sure it is. Memphis IS the brain. Memphis music always travels around. My music used to get sold in Atlanta, I was sellin’ mixtapes in Atlanta back then.

 


Back in the ’90s you were working withTom Skeemask, Yo Lynch, Criminal Mane, Lord Infamous, and Gangsta Black, all of whom were using the double time flows and those triplets, the exact same flows that we hear in trap nowadays. Do you think Memphis deserves more recognition for changing the way people rap as well?


DJ Squeeky: Ah yeah, well, we have a lot of things going on out here. It’s a whole Memphis thing. We flow different, we got that ride—the beat flow. Everyone else rapped around the beat and we would ride the beat. We got the ride the beat beats and the ride the beat flows.