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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Two decades ago, rap music was leaving its adolescence. Some West Coast rappers found wild success. Snoop Dogg had his first album to go platinum, "Doggystyle"; and Dr. Dre had his debut solo album, "The Chronic," which also went platinum. They showed corporate America just how large an appetite there was for rap.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We've been spending time on this program looking at the early '90s, a breakout period for rap music. And it wasn't just happening on the West Coast. We're going to take a look at musicians from a different part of the country, with something more serious in mind.

MONTAGNE: They came from Memphis, a city deeply rooted in music - from blues to soul, and R&B to hip-hop. NPR's Frannie Kelley went to the home of Stax and Sun Records, to hear the story of 8Ball and MJG.

FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: When I got into my rental car at the Memphis Airport, the bass on the stereo was at plus-9.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLEY: I left it there because I was in the city to talk to the men who put a drop-top Lexus coupe on the front and back of their first CD, and to the people who kept it in their CD players for years.

DRUMMA BOY: I remember popping it into my Oldsmobile - I had a '83 Cutlass Oldsmobile - and we just hit the block, hit the mall; and we just went everywhere. Just woo! You didn't want to get out the car.

KELLEY: That's Drumma Boy, a producer born and raised in Memphis, who was 11 when the album "Comin Out Hard" dropped. Even after he got his driver's license, Mr. Big was still that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. BIG")

8BALL AND MJG: (Rapping) I said that I was with it dreaming one day I would be Mr. Big. Mr. Big. Mr. Big, they call him Mr. Big. Mr. Big. Mr. Big, because of my size. Mr. Big, Mr. Big, they call him Mr. Big. Mr. Big, Mr. Big, but not because of my size. Mr. Big...

DRUMMA BOY: I had a lot of big, fat-ass homies, you know what I'm saying? And I remember, like, how comfortable big dudes started feeling, wanting to go out and hit the club more and - you know what I'm saying? Like, Mr. Big, he was just like, a fly fat dude.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMIN' OUT HARD")

8BALL AND MJG: (Rapping) Mr. Big. Mr. Big, they call him Mr. Big. Mr. Big. Mr. Big, Mr. Big, but not because of my size.

KELLEY: "Comin' Out Hard" mattered to Memphis rapper Don Trip is for a different reason

DON TRIP: The whole time, coming up as a rapper, they told me: You will never make it from Memphis. And growing up, that was one of the - you know, the milestones. Like, you know, "Comin' Out Hard" came from here. If they can make it from here, anybody can make it from here.

KELLEY: But that's now. In the '90s, 8Ball and MJG did have to move to make it. I met MJG in the parking lot of a sports bar in East Memphis, and I handed him my copy of his CD, which he hadn't seen in a while.

MJG: Oh, what? Oh, where you find this?

(LAUGHTER)

KELLEY: And I asked him which city skyline graces the cover.

MJG: It's the Houston skyline. You know, we from Memphis. But we was just representing the big move and showing that we was coming nationwide by way of Houston.

KELLEY: Because that's where the fledging label that signed them was based.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMIN' OUT HARD")

8BALL AND MJG: (Rapping) 8Ball will come out hard with the gangsta lean. Gold smile for the women that be jocking the green. I'm a pimpster, not a trick on a stroll. You got to pimp that thing and keep a trick on hold...

MJG: We left Memphis with a suitcase of records - 45s and 33s. We had a lot of Stax Records, Marvin Gaye records, Simply Red, Rufus - a bunch of stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMIN' OUT HARD")

8BALL AND MJG: (Rapping) I'm coming out hard, oh-ah. Coming out, oh-oh-oh-oh-ah...

8BALL: All those samples on "Comin' Out Hard" came from records that we brought to Houston that our parents gave us.

KELLEY: Records that 8Ball says his mom would play when she was cleaning up the house, or they'd hear on the radio driving around town; a town where MJG says every tenth house has a studio in it.

MJG: Memphis artists - Memphis people - have a certain soul because we have such a deep and rich music history here. You know, like, it's a lot of children of old band members, and my daddy used to play the guitar for such-and-such. And my uncle was a background singer for Elvis.

And this is one of them towns where every other two or three people can probably sing or play a instrument just as good as anybody you'll see on TV, but they work a regular job.

KELLEY: You can see the history in Memphis on plaques and honorary street names, and restaurants like the Four-Way, which promotes itself as Martin Luther King Jr.'s favorite place to eat when he was in town. There's BB King's on Beale Street. And there are ghosts, too: an empty pyramid by the river, a crime scene at the Lorraine Hotel that's now a museum.

To Yo Gotti, a Memphis rapper who recalls the sanitation workers' strike of 1968 on the cover of his last album, the connection between the city's iconic soul music and Memphis rap is obvious.

YO GOTTI: Soul is like - kind of like pain when you've heard it, even in the voice tone or the selection of music. And it feels dark and painful, like the struggle might come out of it.

KELLEY: Signs of a struggle beyond the civil rights movement are apparent in Memphis. Drugs and the war against them have taken a toll on some neighborhoods in the city, and it shows up in the music that 8Ball and MJG were working on as 1993 turned into 1994.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER DAY IN THA HOOD")

8BALL AND MJG: (Rapping) Another day in the hood. Just another day in the hood...

8BALL: '93 was a changing time. Like, if you look at the music one year before '93 and one year after '93, it's kind of totally different. It was really taking a turn.

KELLEY: Money and mainstream popularity were disrupting hip-hop, and musicians who were trying to leave behind gangster theatrics and adolescent glee were frustrated.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER DAY IN THA HOOD")

8BALL AND MJG: (Rapping) I said many times, Mama, I'm going to make you proud. But I could never leave the thug life of Orange Mound. I'm on the corner drinking Thunderbird, swinging rocks. They in my hands 'cause the cops know about the matchbox. But I can't sell dope, rapping is the way, G. And this is just another day around the homies.

(Rapping) Mid-day, I was deep into a sleep, unconscious from that hay that they distribute on them streets. My world was constantly spinning from the Remy that was in me. And we half-stepped on them blunts - we cheeked 'em plenty. A penny to be earned in thea day is what I'm looking for...

KELLEY: 8Ball and MJG care about their community, especially their old neighborhood, Orange Mound; and MJG remains in the city where he was born. 8Ball is mostly in Atlanta, a hub for the music business. But he says he doesn't consider himself any less of a Memphian for having left to make a living.

8BALL: It stay with a Memphis person. Just like when a person leave New York or somewhere like that, and talk with that accent for the next 30 years. And still telling people - (Laughter) - I just moved here 30 years ago from Brooklyn or something, but you still talk like you just left yesterday. You know, it stays with you.

KELLEY: That's what 8Ball says from Atlanta. In Memphis, MJG wouldn't let me leave town without making me some real barbecue

(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING)

MJG: Yeah, we got the man show around here.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLEY: Fran Kelley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SELLOUT")

8BALL AND MJG: (Rapping) I'm telling you how it is and what I has to live, and what I got to give...

GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SELLOUT")

8BALL AND MJG: (Rapping) Hard times make hard heads in the South. You get respect being real, no sellouts...

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