Review Summary: An apex and apogee of not just a genre but a movement, Niggaz of Destruction is beyond essential / Satisfy yo' ass completely.
I have never been to Memphis. If I close my eyes, though, I can see it in my mind’s eye with scintillant vividity, the streets that pour into others, the intersection where Magnolia meets 4 corners, a crossroads where Robert Johnson, had he been around in the 1990’s, could well have sold his soul for the “devil shyt”. Streets, hydrants, run-down schools appear and recede as I ride shotgun, a menacing figure to my left, on the prowl. I know Frazer bay, the “bad” suburb, and I know it's etches and curves and wends. There’s the school that Lil Yo got kicked out of for selling dope, amidst rumours of his involvement in an armed robbery. There’s where Tommy Wright III copped one of his twenty felony charges. The city is echolocated before my eyes before being subsumed by fog and smoke, street lamps barely visible from a bird’s eye view. This is not the Memphis of Elvis, or Paul Simon. This is a Memphis where violence is inevitable, poverty rife, blood s**t and come on the streets, ruled by the “psychopathic”, the “schizophrenic”, the devil Himself (probably).
Which is to say that few things evoke as much as Memphis Rap. An unusual genre which emerged concurrently, though not interdependently, with hip-hop’s usual subjects. It is not East Coast, West Coast, or Dirrrty South, and reappraisals of hip-hop rarely mention it unless as a footnote in the shape of 666 Mafia, the only outfit that really enjoyed success.
I often wonder why Memphis Rap never enjoys the renown it deserves. The lo-fi production, scratchy tape transcriptions, the odd and alien vocal inflections? Perhaps. But I think the reason it’s stature has been in a state of constant languish is the same reason that it is so vital as a genre: it eschews notions of palatability, and universalised hip-hop narratives, in favour of something gritty, truthful and frequently savage. Yes, 666 Mafia and some of Tom Skeemask’s output was a bit camp, but cut to the heart -- and if it has one, Niggaz of Destruction is a candidate for its palpitating, murmuring one -- and you get crystalline, impenetrable darkness. Violence is exalted in such a way that conscious interpretations are left grasping at straws. Qualities that would feature in other rappers diss tracks -- the aforementioned psychopathy, schizophrenia, tunnel-vision -- are here lauded and praised as high accomplishments. Money, subverting the timeless hiphop narrative, isn’t something to be accrued but spend. “Got enough cheese in my bank to have yo ass killed no matter the amount”, gloats Tommy Wright III on “Fugitive”. Memphis Rap, at its best, is a rejection of bourgeois palatability and an entirely new lens through which to view not just the genre, but the world.
Which makes it pretty special to listen to. I think, more and more, that “conscious” is the worst thing that ever happened to hip-hop, a kind of appeasement of white mores, “hip-hop isn’t all about money and hip-hop!” Even Notorious B.I.G.’s stellar Ready to Die has been ruined; the fun and savagery of “Gimme the Loot” has been tempered by its trite antithesis, “Warning”; one can’t listen to him exclaim “I remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner… considered a fool cos I dropped outta high school” and ponder those who are still eating sardines for dinner (admittedly I love sardines and frequently eat them for dinner but my taste buds are another article), those who were talented high-school drop-outs who are presumably decaying in a basement in a basement somewhere, surrounded by used needles. None of that in Memphis, nosirree. The beats, off-putting, off-kilter and menacing, match the lyrical content and staccato bursts of intonation. There is no redemption here, but nor is there self-recrimination. There are either junts, or there are failures.
Put this on at a party and watch how quickly it is replaced by Drake, or Future, while the party-goers’s rap along but consciously censor the n-word and talk about how refreshing Drake and Future’s feelings are and how brave the territory they’re parsing is and smile at how intelligent and progressive they are, for listening to such a naughty genre! and smile tolerantly.
So even my attempts at, I guess, politicising Memphis Rap for my own ends, tailoring it to my own ideological beliefs, is gauche and errant but this is emphatically non-political, non-sociological music. It just is. Let us give praise.
[A quick note on the n-word, the odious elephant in the room: i, like you, am aware of its history and how frankly horrible the word is in a unique, devastating way. I am aware too that it is not my domain and not mine to employ, whether in hard-r or “soft” a format -- the idea that one is more sanctionable that the other is, in my opinion, ludicrous. Yet I use it here because as a critic, but more importantly as a listener, it is not my job to censor the art or conversations I hear. I see my function, basically, as someone who communicates the Wittgensteinian principle of “what is the case” without editorial judgement. This is especially salient because no doubt N.O.D. would shudder at anything approaching liberal self-aggrandizing and virtue signalling -- or, more likely, not care -- and they called themselves Niggaz of Destruction for a reason: a challenge, a mission statement, and because it rolls of the tongue with the harmonious grit of a bowl of Lucky Charms.]
Niggaz of Destruction is a collection of six junts spread over thirty or so dazzling, lyrically inventive minutes. N.O.D, a Memphis Rap supergroup if such a thing can be said to exist, combined Tommy Wright III, the bastion of the genre, with other luminaries -- Project Pimp, Tom Skeemask, Mac Kyle -- and a handful of lesser known artists, is perhaps comparable to a Memphis Wu-Tang (the Wu even get an affectionate shout-out on ‘Fugitive’), but comparisons end there (for one thing: there’s no U-God or Papa Wu equivalent). The beats sound unpolished but, in spite of because of this, incredibly present. Even sh**ty youtube rips of this album, of which there are plenty, seem to dominate the room. Each rapper is given a chance to shine, to counterpose or compliment other rapper’s styles and flows, and the energy each emcee brings is nothing short of miraculous.
The album begins (or, if you own the tape, “First Blunt” begins -- it’s that kind of album) with No Fear, a carousing journey through not bravado, nor braggadocio, but nihilism. This is what sets Memphis apart. The refrain “i ain’t scared to die motherf**ker motherf**cker” is bleached of bombast into something cold, hard and apathetic. The following track, Tini Lame, is an archetypical diss track targeted at some rapper history promptly forgot about (tinimaine, for those keeping track at home) -- various slanderous imputations, threats and aspersions are made in a simultaneously hilarious and terrifying way. If you, like me, rather wish the puissance and tenacity was expended on a nobler enterprise than an internecine feud, be cheered that it operates on multiple levels, a kind of vicious mission statement emerging from a dimly lit, blunt-smoke choked basement. The title, which is let’s face it a pretty lame pun, is probably the worst thing about the tape.
As for Fugitive, the crowning jewel of the album and possibly the genre, words fail. The blogspot juntsrus describes it as a “mega-junt which will satisfy yo’ ass completely”, which I love: a succinct way of saying it is the high watermark of a genre, movement, music itself. “I’m taking my time to do this s**t right” Psycho D claims (which is more than can be said, in fairness, of this review) but I suspect a lie: how can it sound so spontaneous, so exhilarating, so pure, if had been rehearsed beforehand? It feels like a once in a lifetime recording session where every emcee is on form, every lyric hits, the interplay between harsh rappers and more languorous ones is perfectly paced, “as a child -- as a juvenile” corrects one rapper, explaining it all, “this is life not an intro, comin’ up from the ghetto” offers another Shakespearean lyric perfect in its size. Put it this way: according to (possibly apocryphal) rumours, the guitarist on Funkadelic's “Maggot Brain” was instructed to play like his mother had just died. Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tommy Wright II had dangled the other members of the group over a vat of acid and told them to rap for their lives, such is the ferocity and passion involved in each player. Even the concluding minute, the shout-outs and self-promotion requisite to any good memphis tape, is exhilarating, and one hangs to every word.
So good is it that, at first, it obfuscates the quality of the rest of the tracks; further listens reveal each track to be almost as good (or, in the case of Tini Lame in which Frezno proves his chops, almost surpasses it) as the megajunt. Bud Keep Me Fiending (“like a goddamn junkie!”) does for marijuana what Screw did for slizzurp, the woozy beat -- atypical of memphis rap -- perfectly conjuring both the languid feeling of being high and the tension of running around town looking for another twenty-bag. F**k Da World is a classic slice of misanthropic alienation, destined to be replayed to the nth degree.
This tape is one of the more canonized ones in Memphis rap circles, fetching triple figure sums on ebay and raves on weird hip-hop boards. But for some reason its mystique remains forever intact. I asked Tommy Wright on Twitter whether he had plans to re-issue: “yeah, re-issue everything, that’s my plan!” he replied at the time. Later, in a private message, he confessed to second doubts. “I dunno about that one mayn. That one is special.”
This is their first and only tape: a "reunion", of sorts, for a co-credit in a Skeemask was set up for failure. Lightening, after all, doesn't strike twice.
“Let me tell you how Tommy Wright became a nigga of destruction” raps Tommy in Fugitive, before setting the scene: “1991…” and by the time his verse ends you may well be inclined to become a nigga of destruction yourself. Powerful, rewarding and thoroughly unpalatable, this is destined to enthrall, confuse and scintillate audiences, in its low-key basement-quality way, in spite of its relative obscurity. Satisfy yo’ ass completely.