My favorite writer is probably Mark Fisher, a British cultural theorist who was perhaps the most prescient analyst of the woes plaguing us since the neoliberal heel turn of the ‘80s. As the prominent Youtube theory channel, Epoch Philosophy, said in a video essay he produced about Fisher’s incisive book, Capitalist Realism, he “fundamentally lived what he wrote.” Fisher didn’t just diagnose the diseased psychosocial conditions under which we labour in postmodern capitalism, he suffered from their effects. In 2017, after a long-fought battle with depression and a litany of other mental health ailments—a battle he alludes to quite regularly throughout his body of work—Fisher took his own life. The ideas he held about what he calls “lost futures” and the blood-curdling realism of our dominant neoliberal order make Fisher’s perspectives the ideal framework to analyze, yes, the subject of the ‘90s Memphis hip-hop scene.
The underground Memphis scene of the 1990’s is a textbook sociological case study on the harrowing effects of post-Fordist capitalism. The later half of the 20th-century witnessed the advent of a new order of economic reforms, rendering large swaths of what was once a thriving industrial landscape useless. The push towards offshoring, the leveling of a progressive income tax, the reduction of trade barriers, and the overall deregulation of capital markets fundamentally altered our entire social system. This imposed a new kind of economic and political reality that would influence the cultural climate of low-income neighborhoods such as Memphis’ Orange Mound, Ridgecrest, and Binghampton. In these areas, homicides were rampant, drug addiction ubiquitous, and dealing was one of the few ways to escape poverty. Understandably, mental health outlooks were often bleak. But out of the shadows of those Memphis streets rose some of the most influential hip-hop artists in recorded history. And analyzing the birth of this movement can be better understood and appreciated by looking at it through the frameworks from Fisher’s oeuvre.
Let’s start with the music itself. Far from attempting to profess some etiology of the underground Memphis scene, or otherwise paint its history with a purple brush, I’ve tried as best I can to scavenge the internet to find the best information possible for a sound historicity. What’s at once a rich, colorful story of a niche American musical style, also happens to be one of the most shrouded in lore and false information—or a lack thereof.
Starting from its inception, it is generally taken as law that the Memphis sound originated in the late ‘80s with a local Memphis club DJ known as DJ Spanish Fly. At the time, Spanish Fly would spin vinyl in clubs throughout the city. However, as time wore on, the owners and operators of the clubs would prohibit him from playing some of his more explicit and suggestive joints, wherein he would not just play beats, but rap about the reality of the South Memphis streets of Clemintine from where he came: robbery, pimping, drugs, and murder. This eventually led him to release tapes on his own accord; and the Memphis underground was born. It was only after Spanish Fly started practicing his independent tape-deck ethic that the infamous slate of Memphis artists began to surface. In the trunk of whips and local clubs, MCs and producers such as DJ Squeeky, DJ Zirk, Tommy Wright III, Project Pat, DJ Paul, Koopsta Knicca, Shawty Pimp, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, and an influx of others started producing and distributing the quintessential genre that would become the Memphis scene. By ‘92, the style calcified and the city came alive with (largely) unrecognized, raw hip-hop. And since Memphis had no large-scale industry or distribution methods, the music lived in its own popular bubble in these neighborhoods.
The sound these Memphis producers tapped into reflected their material conditions, perhaps more so than any other burgeoning hip-hop scene in the country at the time—this is one detail about the Memphis underground that is crucial to its understanding. It’s a sound defined by 808 beats, energetic hi-hats and snare, deeply haunting bass and organ melodies, repetitive, quick hooks, and a double time triplet (“Migos”) flow. The machines used to make the beats, the MCs’ flow, and the harrowing, oneiric sound was all a direct result of the beleaguered Southern sociology these individuals faced. And from this, a grimy, dark style was created. That darkness, both in aesthetic and lyrically can be heard on DJ Paul and Juicy J’s “Psychopathic Lunatic,” off their tape Da Exorcist: Volume 2, when the refrain “time for me to act like a psychopathic lunatic; some people don’t believe that I can get ignorant,” runs on repeat like some dismal pulpit hymn.
A litany of subgenres have since followed from the initial Memphis underground: horrorcore, phonk, cloud rap, vaportrap, and even trap itself all sprouted from its sound. The grim DIY aesthetic has become somewhat of an item of worship in today’s circles of vaportrap, phonk, and revivalist artists. Lucas Foster, the self-professed—and consensus approved—evangelist of Memphis music and history, pointed out in his forensically researched article, Essential Introduction to the Memphis Hip-Hop Underground, that while the lofi aesthetic is more or less ubiquitous to the Memphis sound, it is not an accurately holistic take on its style.
“Though [Memphis hip-hop] is now largely associated with its darkest and grimest lofi sound, fetishized by internet kids from 4chan to Soundcloud, it also had more conventional gangsta rappers and producers that fell within the Memphis sound like 8Ball & MJG, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, Shawty Pimp, Indo G & Lil Blunt, and Tela,” Foster wrote. The reason a lot of artists initially cultivated that lofi sound and style was due to the fact that Memphis hip-hop was “a very DJ-driven scene.” As Foster wrote, this was “because a lot of DJs had home studios where many of the tapes were recorded, and also in part because the scene was mostly interested in atmosphere, mood, and aesthetic,” more than it was with witty, creative narrative structure or cleanliness.
Music presents a unique opportunity to people. One, they find they can create. Two, they realize they have to create with what they possess—that being, their psychological, social, and material conditions. Like Foster said in his article: Memphis DJs and producers “had the unique problem of making music that’s arguably 20 years ahead of its time on equipment probably 10 years behind.”
In his book, The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher made mention of something similar when he wrote about the British post-punk group, The Fall. “The process of recording is not airbrushed out but foregrounded, surface hiss and illegible cassette noise brandished like impoverished stitching on some Hammer Frankenstein monster,” Fisher wrote. Such a description is characteristic of the sonic spaces Memphis DJs created as well—with a key difference. There is a clear distinction between the recording techniques of artists who brandish their process—like so many revivalist and phonk producers—and the original Memphis DJs, who did not intentionally brandish, but rather, succumbed to (and ameliorated) the decrepit structure they found themselves in. The sound offers a window of clarity into the haunted spaces at the edge of our cultural imaginary.
More often than not, the music acts as an echo chamber; Memphis MCs and producers channeled their harsh realities via the sonic coordinates of their music. Tape hiss, microphone feedback, lofi vinyl samples, blown out percussive bass and 808 hits, and a first-person account of the Black identity in the South all add up to more than just that reductive, normalized take on this reverential style as “the origin of trap music” or “the origin of the Migos’ flow.” Rather, when analyzed critically, Memphis is a cross section of our contemporary social illnesses—mental health, economic disparity, drug addiction, homicide—under the repressive heel of what Fisher calls capitalist realism.
In a reductive sense, capitalist realism can be summed up by the phrase, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” This acute slogan, widely attributed to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek, is the crux of Fisher’s analysis. That is, a realism that resides in the collective unconscious, which opposes any other worldview outside of the scope of the forces of Capital. “A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism,” Fisher explains. “Poverty, famine, and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality.”
We see this “inevitable part of reality” in every utterance, every blown out 808 slap, in the Memphis underground. As the infamous MC Tommy Wright III said in an interview, he never thought of his music as anything other than “reality rap”—hip-hop that showcases, with incisive clarity, the perils and trauma of his post-industrial hellscape. On The Holocaust Click’s dreary and hollow “Track 6,” off their Solo Tape, one member’s morbid chorus resounds, “One n**** found dead in the bayou, last night I was dumpin’ that bitch in the ditch.” The ubiquity of this Real element across the Memphis sound is no accident.
This city drenched in American folklore, musical iconography, and cultural importance, is an uninviting example of the type of phantasmic simulacra that has come to define the places of late-capitalism; some neglected, forgotten symbol of what America once was, left to fend for itself against the rising tide of post-Fordist, neoliberal reformation. And the city’s ‘90s underground hip-hop scene is a cultural declaration of such—a portrait in sound of neglect.
This idea of capitalist realism is not discernible to Fisher alone though—who is anything but a recognized figure outside of academia and niche circles of internet theory kids. In an article for The New Yorker, Andrew Marantz wrote about this very phenomenon of realism that Fisher identifies. Marantz notes that the dawn of neoliberalism truly took hold in the ‘40s and ‘50s with the work of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. The “neoliberal order” became responsible for unraveling “large parts of that safety net” set up by FDR’s order of New Deal ideologouges; and by the ‘60s and ‘70s, the ideas proposed by the “neoliberal order” were all but biblically sanctioned by the American political right. “By the late eighties, the ideas that had been thought of as Reaganism were starting to be understood as realism,” Marantz writes. “A new order had taken hold.”
Now, capitalism is no longer just an economic system—it has become an “imposed psychological reality.” The socioeconomic impacts of this have become abundantly clear as we putter along into our canceled future. It shows itself in the ineffable crop of flavorless shopping complexes, like multiplicitous, cybernetic Trajan’s Markets, taking the place of mom-n-pop businesses. It’s YIMBY neo-liberals, youthful and fearless in their optimism, hijacking living arrangements and creating their own manicured sociology. It’s in our social media, the supposed ecology of self-expression, “individuality,” and entertainment, but in reality an ecosystem that marketers, data harvesters, and political ideologues can readily poach like the marrow of some great, indivisible being. And we question none of it—it’s just the way it is.
But it’s also more than simply psychology at stake; this psychological reconfiguring we’ve all been subjected to is really just the slim veneer of a desolate and omnipresent statement about the actual nature of our being. “Over the past thirty years,” Fisher writes, “capitalist realism has successfully installed a “business ontology” in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business.” Fisher maintains that the coordinates of the possible are being systematically reframed to fit this model. The “slew of privatizations that took place since the 1980s would have been unthinkable” in the time leading up to Reaganism; and our political landscape—one that has castrated union organization, mandated a stranglehold on privatized healthcare, and issued an injunction against bipartisan political discourse—could not have been imagined thirty years ago before neoliberalism bought a stake in the political real estate of the ‘80s-onwards.
This “business ontology” can easily be viewed through some of the largest issues facing society today—climate change, economic depression, war, famine, etc., which now all require a brainstorm within the context of Capital. In an article titled, Does Tech Need a New Narrative?, Anna Weiner exposes the reigning thought process of the monarchical techies of Silicon Valley—the proverbial philosopher kings of our postmodern economic landscape—primarily through the lens of an essay written by Marc Andreessen, “a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and angel investor best known for cofounding Netscape in 1994.” She writes:
Among Andreessen’s own suggestions for what to build were scalable universities, digital tutoring platforms, and automated domestic factories. “Why aren’t we building Elon Musk’s ‘alien dreadnoughts’—giant, gleaming, state of the art factories producing every conceivable kind of product, at the highest possible quality and lowest possible cost—all throughout our country?” he asked. … “Where are the supersonic aircraft? Where are the millions of delivery drones? Where are the high speed trains, the soaring monorails, the hyperloops, and yes, the flying cars?”
A strain of wishful, ahistorical thinking pervaded the essay, which ran beneath a stock image of a futuristic, fictional city with gleaming skyscrapers, a blue, unpolluted sky, and no people. Andreessen ignored the role the tech industry had played in accelerating the erosion of some American institutions; his insistence that building should be separated from politics was strange, given that America’s failures in the face of the coronavirus did not occur in the absence of political will.
If the latter example is not definitive evidence of how our thought necessitates a business-oriented praxis, I’m not sure what is. This all raises the valid question: what are we to make of Andreessen’s vision that never transpired? Where are “the high speed trains, the soaring monorails, the hyperloops, and yes, the flying cars?” In short, this idealized version of the proverbial (Western) technotopia Andreessen envisioned for our present is being hogtied, muzzled, and ransacked by a canceled future.
This idea—derived from the phrase, “the slow cancellation of the future”—brings to light the real problems associated with our economic order. Fisher describes this idea of a canceled (or lost) future as a “feeling of belatedness, of living after the gold rush.” This comes across vividly, and quite sadly, in phonk and Memphis revivalist artists today—Lil Ugly Mane, Kryptonyte, SOUDIERE, ad infinitum.
Why do we recycle such music so profusely, if not for the same reason Andreessen questions the nature of our future? In a sense, we are culturally expended—our future is canceled. We are living after the time of creative cultural expression, forced to rummage through the remains of these grounds “after the gold rush.”
In his book After the Future, Italian philosopher Franco Beradi understands this lost future as the collective expectation of a future that was shaped by various ideological mythologies of the past—i.e., Hegelian-Marxist mythologies of Communism, the liberal mythology of world democracy and welfare, and of course, the technocratic mythology of new tech. In other words, Andreessen is far from naive in being perplexed by the canceled arrival of this technotopic future. I think, to some degree, we all reserved this expectation and are left wondering, like Adnreessen, what actually happened.
But this idea of a canceled future is not entirely what it might sound like—it’s not simply a materialist statement. In Fisher’s reading, it is a concept concerning the cultural impacts of capitalist realism. As Epoch Philosophy noted, alongside the dawn of neo-liberal market fundamentalism came a dramatic decrease in art, music, and culture due primarily to cultural objects becoming highly valued commodities. In this sense, the “world where there was a sublime value to art” ceased to exist. Art “was in fact sacrificed to market functions … as nearly all public funding for art was ransacked,” resulting in “a hyper-commodified sphere of art where the primary goal is now making a profit, not necessarily out of pure love of profit, but out of the realization that your ability to be an artist will die without tangible sales.” So nothing novel or unique can be created out of this repressive atmosphere. As Fisher notes, “perhaps because of all this, there’s an increasing sense that culture has lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present. Or it could be that, in one very important sense, there is no present to grasp and articulate anymore.”
Beradi and Fisher’s ideas of a “slow cancelation of the future” remains an uncanny representation of what the Memphis underground concerns itself with. Due to the resurfacing of its grimiest and darkest lofi aesthetics in the music cultural setting, Memphis hip-hop is not just a testament to the economic devastation and social anomie of its own time, but rather, also serves as mirror to the present cultural desert we find ourselves in—the desert of a non-future. While individuals like DJ Armok and PLVNKTXN187 show an element of sample-based homage to the initial Memphis underground, they are also evidence of the cultural ghosts that run rampant in the 21st-century. Ghosts that continue to haunt our time and remind us that the only cultural novelty afforded to us are the “sheer persistence of recognizable forms.” Memphis has proven to have been a prophet of this canceled future. A legion of lofi Danaoi from the stained Memphis streets of the ‘90s, at once gifting us with ill music and warning us of a future we won’t see.
“When I was recording, I was just talking about stuff that was actually going on,” Tommy Wright explained in an interview. “I was right down the street when [my friend] was shot himself; I ran to the store when Robert Earle got killed, just to see if it was for real and the yellow tape was right there and the police wouldn’t let us across; I remember when Greg’s little brother got kidnapped because the other dudes wanted to make him pay a ransom just to get his brother back—I was right there. Some of the stuff that might sound ill to a lot of other people, it was just what was really going on—you listening to a real life.”
Granted, hip-hop, to some degree, has always been a genre that concerns itself with this type of subject matter. However, Memphis never quite made it, in the sense that West Coast gangsta rap and NYC boom bap made it financially and culturally during its time. The artists the Memphis scene produced—all but a small handful—were forced to toil in relative obscurity and economic hardship until this sound was resurrected by the unfathomable phenomenon of cultural hauntology; and even then, very few have been able to capitalize on this recent homage.
In this sense, Memphis has evaded the endemic commodification that has come to define our postmodern economic landscape. But what remains even more incredible about the Memphis underground is its role as a portrait of the forsaken. Although it avoided the perilous neutering of market functions, it remains a scene as abandoned as the many proximate factories lost to offshoring; as the yards of machinery left to rust beneath the shadow of the technology made to replace it; as the several thousands of workers, now no longer workers but employees; as the once prominent neighborhoods these artists came up in, derogatorily viewed as beyond repair by their very presence. It’s style and presence functions in the cultural arena not unlike the framed artwork of some forgotten Romantic landscape painter—a snapshot of some time and place, all but forgotten, yet displayed as to commemorate and provide some sort of aesthetic sensibility to the present. Moreover, this trauma, this raw account of life within the context of a neglected corner of our socioeconomic map, discloses itself throughout our entire social system as mass anomie.
Graveyard Production’s “Devil Shit” articulates this traumatic social alienation like a schizophrenic Homer with a DR-5 and a ski mask in lieu of papyrus and reed: “I always feel like someone’s watching over me, performing the autopsy from a killer’s view who worships the…Brought up in the church, but full of hell is where my mind is at…” If you can manage to strip the theological symbology from the song, what remains is a psychoanalytic exposition. Similar to that gruesome aesthetic today’s artists such as Ghost Mane and $UICIDEBOY$ evince, what can be heard here is an unconscious cry of pain. A stain on the marred psychology of individuals at the feet of their unnerving social situation. Today, the root cause of this cry revolves around very Gen-Z anxieties such as mental health and the insurmountable task of growing up in this future—albeit not a sonically dark testament such as most Memphis joints, take Polo G’s chart-topping “RAPSTAR”: “…anxiety killin’ me I just wanna leave Earth, when they ask if I’m okay it just make everything seem worse.” The crux of the Memphis pain, however, is crippling social trauma, where artists turn to the darkest aspects of humanity’s history in order to drive this point home. This is not ritualization for melodramatic appeal, this is “reality rap.”
The best kept (public) secret of our time is that mental health is a social phenomenon. Classifying mental illness as an individualized, chemo-biological issue has been an imperative for capitalism, as we have seen throughout the last few decades: insurance companies make billions off the individualization of mental health, just as pharmaceuticals have proven to be a lucrative commodity in the marketplace. It’s obvious that what triggers the effects of depression, anxiety, and bipolarity (among other illnesses) are “neurologically instantiated,” as Fisher notes; but this does not explain what is causing the trigger to be pulled. So in order to fight against the debilitating reality of our outlooks under capitalism, we have to work to “repoliticize mental illness,” Fisher says, and explain why we’ve seen a sudden, dramatic spike in mental illnesses over the last 30 years. It requires a social and political analysis of the context these illnesses were borne of.
This goes beyond mere causation though. If you’re an individual suffering from the effects of this economic order, what are you to make of your condition? Can you even call it your individual condition? If “economic power” controls the parameters by which mental illness can be articulated, then who are we to say it is even within the individual’s power to do much about? These musings ultimately prompt the individual to ask themselves a question posed by one of the nameless MCs—lost to time and neglect—of possibly the Memphis underground’s most uncut gem: the sublime, wholly enigmatic, soulful, Royal Famlee:
Is it me or society? I can’t tell ‘cuz I’m stuck here…
“I evangelize this tape like a Mormon Missionary,” Foster wrote about the group’s only known release, Ghetto Life. “This project is a seamless blend of Gospel choir, Memphis bump, and Houston funk.” While this tape is without a doubt one of my favorites from this scene of countless unsung standouts, it also auditions a message that is more or less lost in some of its other contemporaries’ darker, heavier joints. While Kingpin Skinny Pimp, Indo G & Lil Blunt, The Orange Juice Clique, and the other Memphis heavy hitters certainly expose the trials of hood life, they don’t quite do it in the glimmering, orchestral fashion that Royal Famlee does on Ghetto Life. In fact, the other Memphis standouts that resemble Ghetto Life, such as Shawty Pimp’s Still Comin’ Real and DJ Zirk’s “Supa Straight”—a joint that had an undeniable influence on the entirety of Ghetto Life—are still more Memphis in scope than Royal Famlee’s unsung masterpiece. In terms of its sonic aesthetics, this tape seems to have more in common with the melodious Bay Area scene and LA G-funk than with the more proto-trap-oriented underground bumps Memphis is most known for. Perhaps this is a contributing factor to its obscurity, not to mention its rare, powerful appeal. With its deep, sorrowful elements of oldies-style soul, this Royal Famlee joint epitomizes the Memphis struggle… and our current social desolation.
One of the tape’s most fearless and real tracks, “Ghetto Child,” which Foster simply described as “beautiful and powerful,” sounds out that question that not only defines hip hop as a whole, but our entire contemporary social reality. Once again for the real:
Is it me or society? I can’t tell ‘cuz I’m stuck here…
This album is “real emotion,” Foster insists, “it’s pain but it’s also a daring hope.” If this hope that Foster attributes to Royal Famlee’s Ghetto Life can be understood in terms of this song’s undeniable beauty and despair, then the pain can be succinctly reiterated by a quote from Fisher. “The pandemic of mental anguish that affects our time cannot be properly understood, or healed,” he begins, “if viewed as a private problem suffered by damaged individuals.”