Ashes 2 Ashes, Dust 2 Dust: 25 Years of Tommy Wright III

Henry Owens revisits one of the eeriest excerpts in Memphis' rich, influential rap history.
By    September 13, 2019

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Catch Henry Owens ordering a snack plate from Gus’ Fried Chicken.

Tommy Wright III leans on a shovel, wearing a flannel bomber jacket, a black beanie and white shoes, pausing to take a break from digging a hole in a graveyard. The green of the grass in the background fades like the bodies decomposing beneath the soil. The grainy film ads to the eeriness of the shot, but can’t diminish Tommy’s mean mug staring right through you. It’s like Twin Peaks, Blair Witch and Boyz In Da Hood combined. 

This photo is the cover for Tommy’s Ashes 2 Ashes Dust 2 Dust. There’s an overarching sense of death shrouding a project that ironically helped bring so much modern hip-hop to life.  

Tommy Wright III initially found regional fame in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as a DJ, popularizing his own Memphis proto-variant of chopped and screwed sound. Regularly performing with legendary DJ Spanish Fly, he released his debut mixtape, Memphis Massacre, in 1992 at just 15. The tape was followed by ‘94’s Ashes 2 Ashes Dust 2 Dust, which solidified Wright in the Memphis underground as a rapper-producer double threat.

Ashes 2 Ashes sounded unlike anything else in Memphis at the time. Rappers at the time like Gangsta Blac and Gangsta Pat had contributed to the trunk-knocking, strip-club ready southern hip-hop with their respective albums Breakin Da Law and Sex, Money and Murder. The sounds were reminiscent of riding down a sun-soaked esplanade with the windows down. It was designed to blow the sub-woofers out. But Tommy’s aesthetic was a little more peculiar, like a stalking vehicle with a faint engine rumble, starting with the tape opener “Drive By”. 

“Drive By” truly sets the scene for the tape. Warped, melancholic piano loops and the low-toned menace of a sub-bass serve as the soundtrack to Tommy’s raspy triplet flows, spitting a violent soliloquy about drive-by shootings and the journey of dark thoughts it takes him on. Assisting him on the track is Mac-T-Dog, a friend of Tommy and fellow Memphis rapper, emphasizing the bleakness with the bellows of his menacing cadence. 

The rest of the tape continues down this rabbit hole of gloom, with cuts like “Murda In Da First Degree” and “Don’t Start Shit” transforming strings and soul samples in lo-fi, sounds of suffering that are down-tuned and compressed into obscurity. It’s the sonic-equivalent of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with Tommy’s grainy odes to the street life serving as the main voice in the desolate atmosphere. 

The project was recorded in Tommy’s childhood bedroom in Whitehaven with local Memphis artists like Project Pimp and Killa C recording on a four-track, somewhat like how new age aspiring rappers record on their laptops. The overly distorted bass of “Meet Your Maker” and the lo-fi vocals of “Hog Killin” are similar to the Soundcloud rap artists like Robb Bank$, Bones and Spaceghostpurrp this decade. It extends beyond music as well. The same way artists flock to small showcases in local bars, coffeeshops, and warehouses, Wright performed in roller rinks. Instead uploading music online, Wright sold tapes to local CD stores and out of his trunk. Same independent grind, different devices.

The eerie sounds and DIY recording of Ashes 2 Ashes was starkly different from the sounds of mainstream hip-hop in 1994, symbolising the new sound that was brewing in the south. Nas had released his now classic debut album Illmatic, furthering New York’s title as the home of boom bap alongside Biggie’s Ready To Die. The south had started to make a name for itself as well, with Atlanta legends Outkast dropping Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and UGK repping for Houston on Super Tight. Elsewhere in Memphis, the Suave House rappers 8Ball and MJG continued to come out hard with their album On The Outside Looking In — a fitting title for the rest of Memphis Scene at the time of this battle. 

The lack of shine on other Memphis artists at the time can be explained by the fact that these rappers were making music specifically for their block. The song “Roll Call” on Ashes 2 Ashes features Tommy shouting out a plethora of his Memphis contemporaries including Project Pat, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, and Lord Infamous. While the major hip-hop territories seemed to be a war, the local Memphis scene was thriving as a community, spreading art through the neighbourhood. This mindset is reflected in an interview for Red Bull Academy, with Tommy stating “We were making tapes just to bump in the hood, just to impress our friends.” The hood was Whitehaven in South Memphis, a place he deemed “Blackhaven,” and was home to the likes of Juicy J, DJ Paul and Gangsta Boo. 

The history of Whitehaven and how it became the hub for the eerie Memphis sound is alluded to in the district’s history. It was settled by Colonel Francis White, who had designed it to be an area for upper class families. In 1860, there were 653 white residents with 1671 slaves and one free man of colour. The then rural area lived off slave labour and the plantations that made up most of the town. When slavery was abolished, Whitehaven became a sub-divided district in 1908, and David Carnes became the first person of color to buy land in 1918. Black ownership continued to blossom during the Civil Rights Movement, which resulted in segregation ending, and white population choosing to move rather than integrate. 

The look of Whitehaven in the 1990s resembled that of a place that had been abandoned. It was a grim place, with wide streets and a neighbourhood drained of colour like jeans in the washing machine. Nearby was Mckellar Lake, a gloomy body of water that obtained its eeriness from the surrounding industrial complexes. The same narrative was prominent in other localities like Germantown, and thus South Memphis became a playground for creativity. The music was an escape from a place they couldn’t escape, similar to the blues and early rock’ n roll’ that were created by Memphis natives B.B King and Furry Lewis. Tommy Wright, the son of deaf parents, channeled the adversity and darkness of his ancestry and own personal struggles through his music. And even with a lack of resources at his disposal, the emotion was strong in the sounds of cheap drum machines and fuzzy recordings. 

It’s only fitting that “horrorcore” became the term to define the music coming out of these areas. It became a sub-genre of its own. Music from Memphis rappers often used samples from horror movies to further the lugubriousness of the sound. The Ashes 2 Ashes cut “Don’t Start Shit” samples the theme song from the 1971 cult horror “Phantasm”, a movie about an Undertaker who turns dead people into dwarf zombies, for them to act as his disciples. Tommy on the cover’s tape resembles that of an undertaker, and the sounds he created on the project helped spawn many of horrorcore’s devotees like Necro, Insane Clown Posse and other early pioneers such as Three 6 Mafia. While the umbrella term horrorcore has since been referred to as a gimmick by many publications, the early Memphis music was derived from true grief. With the history of slavery in the area, and the fact that up until December 2017, the city had a park and statue commemorating Nathan Bedford Forest, a former grand wizard of the KKK,  It’s clear that horrorcore was a device to express the cultural turmoil that trickled down into the street life artists like Tommy were experiencing. 

Many of elements in early Horrorcore can be found in the rise of trap music. The themes in Ashes 2 Ashes serve as one of the genre’s early precursors. The music of the trap’s early pioneers like Jeezy, T.I and Gucci Mane tell grim tales of their strife in the streets of Atlanta the same way Tommy’s did in Whitehaven. It contained the same 808s and drum patterns of early Memphis sounds, with producers like Zaytoven and Metro Boomin tackling the similar, soul-inspired darkness that Ashes 2 Ashes and Three 6’s Mystic Stylez consist of. The emphasis on local camaraderie also exists in trap music, with albums like Mr. Zone 6 by Gucci Mane and songs like “Dunn Dunn” by Shawty Lo. Gucci even explicitly said that he was influenced by Tommy and other Memphis rappers in an interview with The Fader, stating that “They had the most underground scene, and that was what I gravitated to, the most gutter music”. 

With trap becoming the global cultural force it is today, it’s no surprise that Tommy’s career has seen somewhat of a revival. But not in a way that has set him back on top of the Billboard charts. Instead, it has showcased a wider spread of influence that Ashes 2 Ashes and the sounds of Memphis horrorcore has had.

In 2011, skateboarding company Skate Junt released a video called “Chicken Bone Nowison” in reference to Tommy’s refrain on the Runnin’ N Gunnin cut “Killa By Nature”, re-spawning an interest for his music in a whole other subculture. Fan uploaded rips off of Tommy’s music also began appearing on Youtube in 2014 during the peak of the phonk, trillwave and cloud rap that stormed the internet thanks to acts like Spaceghostpurrp, Xavier Wulf, Yung Lean and Suicideyear, all of which used sounds that derive from the Memphis era. Ashes 2 Ashes has also become a popular source for samples, with the song “Screet Type N****” being sampled on ASAP Rocky’s Testing stand out “OG Beeper,” and “Murda In Da 1st Degree” was sampled on “Hard 2 Kill” by Big Baby Tape.  Denzel Curry also states in his 2018 interview with Nardwuar that he’s “been coming up on Tommy Wright for years.”

This cult-like fandom has resulted in Tommy Wright cassettes selling for over $100 on sites like Discogs, with his catalogue becoming a rare collectors items for online music heads. 

Tommy’s career today mainly consists of a life on the road, touring everywhere from Washington to Russia with acts like Lil Ugly Mane and Amber London. He’s even toured with hardcore bands like Show Me The Body, showcasing the crossover effect that the Memphis sound posssess. It paints the movement to be more than the prototype for the trap era, but an outlier of hip-hop’s norm with legs of its own. The fan-made documentary ‘’Welcome to Hell: The Influence and History of Memphis Rap’’ by Turismo likens memphis rap to hip-hop’s own black metal, a seemingly relevant comparison when looking at its existence today. 

When thinking of Ashes 2 Ashes Dust 2 Dust, I always come back to the correlation between life and death that the cover symbolises. He’s burying the normality of rap music, to create a new life in the form of Horrorcore. He’s burying his old ways to escape adversity with music, creating the opportunity for a new life and laying the blueprint for trap music’s fundamentals. He’s burying the concept of needing a record label to succeed, and creating a blueprint for hip-hop’s independence. And while this project was buried beneath the mainstream rise of Three 6 Mafia and other classic albums coming out the south, Tommy’s career has sustained its life throughout themes and a mindset that still resonates. His signature phrase has always been “Tommy Wright I creep at night”, and after 25 years, the influence of Ashes 2 Ashes is still seeing the light of day. 

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