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in the beginning, there was New York. MCs came from all the different boroughs (and any listener could distinguish individual voices and neighborhood styles), but it was all grouped under the grand banner: NEW YORK CITY. LL Cool J, KRS-One, Grandmaster Flash, and Kool Mo Dee are all described as seminal—and stylistically distinct—and each created their lasting pieces of art within the same fifty mile radius.

But then came Public Enemy and Chuck D, the voice from Long Island, the heart of American suburbia, college weathered and righteously livid. Stuck at the primarily white Adelphi University, a student of the history and legacy of black power movements and seething at a complacent middle class American bourgeoisie, Chuck created his own community that didn’t turn on locality: a musical nation of soldiers, a former classmate turned hype-man, and DJ’s loyal to his cause.

And then there was N.W.A., a new strain of American cultural insurgence, a group of young men starved for community in the maze of prison-like blocks in the collapsing Compton post-industrial landscape. The geography of rap burst into a new network of space. New York no longer hogged the critical eye and the microcosmic myth of rap. Rap, like any other host-driven organism, went airborne.

The nineties evolved and the economic markets (expanded mix-tape reach, the internet) blossomed in scope. And something began to happen in that cluster of states at the famously expansive and southern end of the Appalachian Mountains: rap migrated back toward the accepted roots of the black American experience. Rap arrived in the south and geography readjusted itself yet again.

Yet even amongst the now lacquered and appropriately canonical groups of the south, Tennessee’s 8Ball & MJG are often the last to be mentioned. In them, the common fan sees no instant aesthetic hook, no easily summarized quality that buzzes above the art. They’re not slick, macabre, outlandish, or even wild. When 8Ball, on Top of the World says “cloud nine is beneath me,” he can still only see the streets of his small town—Orange Mound. He’s held down in the song, the fittingly titled: “Pimp in My Own Rhyme.” The mental reality can change, but the physical locale of their hometown is inescapable.

Observe the other Southern canon card-holders. UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty, their most potent and caustically resonant album, has Bun-B and Pimp C giving their Chevy’s the museum descriptive treatment and endlessly reminding the listen just how different Port Arthur (ironically a small Texas seaside town as minor as Orange Mound) and Houston (the duo’s eventual home and their biggest city of association) are from the precious East Coast: small-scale human crime, a casual attachment to all things—even their cars and women—and a lack of the apocalyptic, savior-oriented world-view that pervades New York rap. UGK pimps with effortless style (as apposed to 8Ball & MJG’s methodical, empirical work), dispatch haters in a couplet, garnish their verses with expensive-sounding vocal blues licks, and get gnarled torch singers to croon their hooks.

OutKast, whose 1994 debut in many places covers similar blue-collar themes as 8Ball & MJG’s Comin Out Hard, make painstakingly clear that their South and their Atlanta are specific and intrinsically different—so much so that the White ear and the Northern ear can never capture their “funky,” spiritual, and formless vibe. The “Call of Da Wild” showed us they were different; “ATLiens” told us that they might not even be from this world (a fabulous trick 8Ball& MJG clearly borrowed on 2000’s Space Age 4 Eva). OutKast isn’t just content to be Southern, they’re not even content to be celestial, they want to present Atlanta as a giddy slurry of The Warriors, George Clinton, Sly & Family Stone, Voodoo dolls, and swamp monsters.

The Geto Boys, on 1991’s We Can’t Be Stopped, famously said “Who said you had to be from Cali or New York? / Anyone can make it if you got heart,” but they had a lot else going for them. Namely the most notoriously confessional and haunting MC of the ��80s and early ��90s, Scarface. That and the iconic visual image of the era, the famed album cover of Stopped, where Scarface and Willie D wheel Bushwick Bill out of the hospital, Bill having just plucked his own eye out in a drug-induced psychosis. Look no further for the beginning of the association between Southern rap and grotesque yet romanticized violence. The Boys’ entire career creates a violent world that’s socially real and surreal in the same breath.

Still-shocking violence is indeed a huge aspect of southern American rap. 8Ball & MJG are violent and irresponsible to be sure—8Ball gives a step-by-step plan on how to mentally destroy a club trick and morph her into a serviceable prostitute on “Break-A-Bitch College” from Outside—but their violence gets subsumed under their overriding notions of versatility and practicality. It’s the more amorphous and tantalizing qualities of fetishized “Southerness” that often leave 8Ball & MJG in a lurch. Like how GB’s politics got lost amid their morbidity and UGK’s emotions don’t matter to listeners who simply want their Codeine and Caddy shout-outs, everything 8Ball & MJG do, to the impatient listener, is just an offshoot of their fascination with their own down-home work-ethic and their own unassuming origins.

The Northern eye sees that precious South as dandied up with slippery, oh-so-different accents, unsustainable sense of style, a tribal Voodoo spirituality mashed up with a salivating brand of Christianity, and a colonially uncultured “noble savage” complex that new money Southerners like Young Jeezy, Lil’Wayne and T.I. have made careers out of playing with.

8Ball & MJG’s Southern elements—the love/hate relationship with hard work and grinding, interests beyond the provincial and yet a loyalty to the native—are less romantic and less detectable than black guys in wacky P-Funk suits or literal dwarfs with one eye plucked out flanked by massive, emotionally unstable warriors.

As a duo, though, 8Ball & MJG may be the best in terms of purpose and form. OutKast, as we’ve seen, isn’t really a duo at all, their aesthetic interests, while wildly fun in combination, pull them in fiercely different directions; they have to work to stick together. And while it might be unfair to say that UGK repeat themselves, aside from Bun-B’s greater proficiency for quick internal rhymes and Pimp C’s wet-tongued braggadocio, their verses often don’t merely echo each other, they cover almost identical ground.

In the most basic sense, where a group differs from a solo artist is in the notion of repetition: each voice sounds different—different vocabularies, tones, cadences—but each voice is essentially telling you the same thing. Systems, images, morals and expectations are slowly engrained into the listener’s brain with a level of ease impossible for the solo artist. If you hear the same thing from one person three different times, you’re bored; hear from a few different voices and it may just sound like the truth.

Suave House, the record company responsible for their entire 1990’s output, was founded by 8Ball and MJG and their financial partner, then 20-year old rap business savant Tony Draper. Suave gave the pair enough financial freedom to create a squall of provincial buzz, but it was the pair’s constant trekking along the proverbial Silk Road of Southern Rap (South Texas to Memphis to New Orleans to Atlanta) that turned minor buzz into a storm.

The pair reaped sonic benefits from their travels as well. While their melodic plate first had only the Memphis 4/4 steady guitar strums and mournful, graying drum patterns, the duo’s travels pilfered Atlanta’s see-saw synths, Houston’s indolent basslines, and even North Memphis (home of Three 6 Mafia, whose horrorcore spade-heavy romp makes its way into 8ball & MJG’s two underground grab bag collections, Lyrics Of A Pimp and Memphis Underworld). 8Ball & MJG trail-blazed this constant, Chimera-like synthesis—never tangential, always organic—of sound in Southern rap. No one traveled as much for their craft, no one initiated the melting together of regional production tricks and slang in the early ��90s South before Ball and ��G.

Still, stealing that ever famous and vital phrase, 8Ball proclaims the pair is, “straight outta Orange Mound.” They may have foggy hearts and heads for their native town, but it’s their point of origin. It’s slightly ironic, considering how much of their early career was famously spent as journeymen across the major southern metropoles—creating Suave House, in Houston, spending substantial portions of their careers in Atlanta and other cities to expand their fanbase—but “straight outta” is perhaps the best description of the internal space of 8Ball & MJG: world weary travelers of the south, but eternally bearing the torch of their small Tennessee town. Wounded by Orange Mound, but undiluted in the lineage and heritage.

Built on a massive plot of land—formerly a plantation—the neighborhood of Orange Mound, Tennessee began around a developer’s elegant idea in 1890: provide an overflowing newly-free class of black former slaves a neighborhood of their own in the south east corner of Memphis. Simple, shotgun style houses (one blast from back door to front) were built for about a hundred dollars in each vacant lot.

The nation lurched through the First World War and Orange Mound received more and more black settlers. It’s not a common theme (just watch what’s happening today in the push from rural to urban in China and India), but for generations of rural black families, Orange Mound was the well-spring for upward mobility and a community of peers. Orange Mound was also a response to the knots of implicitly white-only suburbs pushing up around the metropoles of the U.S.—the inclusive black Levittown sixty years prior.

Like other American working-class black enclaves, the neighborhood was borne of a convoluted past: slaves originally from West Africa were brought to the American south and the Caribbean. Those slaves then blended their religions, languages, histories and cultures into something we now consider “southern black culture.” Then that sub-set of humanity, following each major American schism (The Civil War, World Wars I & II), migrated en masse from the rural to the cities of the time, whether the distant north and west (Chicago, Los Angeles, New York) or the comparatively geographically intimate (Memphis, Houston, Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami).

These ideas of physical space—what one is born into, where one seeks to go, why neighborhoods were created and for whom—define Orange Mound, Tennessee as a unique case: a neighborhood that confines while it comforts. A neighborhood that seemed perpetually stuck in supporting its residents in a world that will do nothing but restrain them.

8Ball & MJG’s repulsion from and attraction to their hometown has been the undercurrent of their career. They made Orange Mound into a lawless, overlooked berg of grimy justice and loose morals, yet a place still undercut by a code of ethics. They felt comfortable slapping women, shooting cops, and offing snitches, but simple things like leaving supposed good friends out of a weed circle could be punished by a pistol whipping, or worse, a hailstorm of slugs. Big city expectations of cultured lawlessness were placed on the shoulders of tiny little Orange Mound. On their debut, 1993’s Comin’ Out Hard, a nine-song head-rush of urban transgressions, MJG, makes “The First Episode” a descriptive catalogue of the pair’s role in their town:
My hoes sell pussy at the party for the mayor
Four hundred for the chewin’, a hundred for the mackin’
A thousand for the fuckin’, two hundred for the jackin’
Soon as the day is over, my bitch is checkin’ in
It’s just like deja vu, again and then again bitch
And a verse later:
I'm makin’ easy money from the judge and the preacher
The mayor likes the bitches cause they beat him with a chain
The judge and the preacher love to hear dirty thangs
The governor was first on the bitch’s payin’ list
He busted a nut soon as the bitches touched his dick
The verses’ pimp motive, while arguably repulsive on a moral level, offer points for discussion. One, MJG makes clear that it is the very pillars of his community—preacher, mayor, governor—that demand the pimp’s services, subtly taking down any moral or social hierarchy within his own community, and two, he never explicitly names the town as Orange Mound. Over the track’s coasting, almost nostalgic, lo-fi sequence of soft, sizzling break-beats and almost inaudible steel-guitar strums, MJG’s town (Orange Mound) becomes our town. Politicians getting wasted and going after trim. Clergymen soiling their cloth. Yeah, what 8Ball & MJG do is objectionable, but like the greatest libertine of all, Milton’s vision of Satan, they’re only showing us the dark side before trying to slip us a hit. And, because their Orange Mound is bereft of any broadcasting cultural symbols (it’s neither Compton nor South Bronx), it’s any small town in America: human and undiluted. They shout out Orange Mound and it’s suddenly a shout out to Hattiesburg, Akron, Tacoma, Macon and every run-down, rusted out suburban appendix and flown-over neighborhood.

Yet as much as their home is explicitly named and claimed as native—a technique that’s a hall-mark of post-colonial art (and what’s more post-colonial in America than black Southern music?)—8Ball & MJG have always been conflicted about their relationship with Orange Mound. Unease tempers their pride. Album to album both men have boasted about the comforting, well-worn streets of the Mound before calling themselves “stuck,” “trapped,” or “lost” on the neighborhood’s streets. Their album titles often reference positions and/or directions: they began by Comin’ Out Hard, hovered around the spotlight with 1994’s On the Outside Lookin’ In, proclaimed some provincial greatness with 1995’sOn Top of the World, and set themselves on a millennial collision course with the stars: 2000’s Space Age 4 Eva. Any exit strategy was doomed to fail; 8Ball raps on Outside’s “Another Day in the Hood,” “I said many times, ��Mama, Imma make you proud’ / But I could never leave the thug life of Orange Mound.” Through all of the turmoil—love, hate, leave, stay—the town of Orange Mound leaves its mark on 8Ball & MJG. In fact, judging by the most essential word in their debut’s title—the “out”—most of 8Ball & MJG’s catalogue is done in this perpetual yet incomplete exile. The two hover around Orange Mound in the big cities surrounding it, while even in their own minds they still can’t quite embrace home.

This cycle of repulsion and attraction lends itself well to the duo set-up. Working as a pair, there’s a definite level of repetition that goes on, but also interplay between the two voices—verses often act akin to dialogue. The interesting thing is, these rules often don’t apply to the pair’s musical response to Orange Mound within any given song. It’s not uncommon, especially on On the Outside Lookin’ In, for one of the two to flag-bare his pride for Orange Mound while the other drops the polemic for a few verses and instead trumps up his gorgeous car and trusted .45. For instance, on Outside’s “No Sell Out,” 8Ball’s introductory verse contains the needling lines: “All I see is New York rappers back and forth on BET / See, I'm the first true southern funkadelic preacher / Drink a 'yac and smoke a blunt and watch it get deeper.”

Then 8Ball & MJG get down to brass tacks for two and a half more verses: how to train tricks, deal with crooked cops, fill a swisher, and keep the corners flowing bricks and johns with a John Henry-like clockwork. The chinzy, soft west-coast jazz percussion and 8-bit horns sound fittingly cheap. The beat isn’t glossy or tooled up because the band has done just what they said: they haven’t sold out. Right when it seem like the craftsmen are back in the shop, welding the product together, about to call it a day, MJG reaches back to 8Ball’s provincial rage and complements it in the closing bars: “I gotta stay down to earth, cause I'm from Orange Mound / See, that's my hood, understood in the M-Town / Memphis-bound players, pimp type, black, strong, young / Level-headed Tennessee.”

Subtly, the pair reveals their deep entanglement with their past. It’s not as if you know when the shout-outs to the Mound are coming, or even if a certain song is going to have any, but you know the strand of pride and point of departure hovers over each track.

8Ball & MJG trade places: from verse to verse, 8Ball’s fittingly sloppy, lisped vocal digestion of lines runs up against MJG’s ceaselessly voice that skips and jumps like an electric-needle. In what amounts to tightrope walking, or a darker version of good cop, bad cop, the pair will often play the position opposite the other: morally, stylistically, even constructing separate narrative lines. In Comin’ Out Hard’s “Armed Robbery” (the melody taken from the famed “interpretation” of the “Mission: Impossible” theme), each man raps about robbing a bank, but their locations are hard to pin down. One is going one way, readying his shotgun, while the other is zooming to meet a contact. Their only link is to say that they’re going to Jamaica. By constantly switching their focus in the narrative, and by breaking it up between two voices, the listener is never given any concrete proof as to where they are (does Orange Mound even have a big enough bank for such an elaborate heist?), or just how they pulled it off. And like any good crime story, what’s left out of the story becomes just as fascinating: What about the robbery won’t they rap about? Did something horrible happen? Is the pair suddenly applying some morality by omission?

It’s the type of craft that reminds us that 8Ball & MJG may be a fantastic story of the end of regionalism in rap, but their art is far more rewarding than any geography or biography.

The sun hasn’t set on the pair yet. Diddy did the once-unthinkable, signing the pair to Bad Boy deal in 2004 and releasing the tragically forgettable Living Legends. But even this Mobb Deep-like moment of empty bloat didn’t send them back to the pits of anonymity.

It’s easy to see why: 8Ball & MJG, along with the whole of primary, first-generation southern hip-hop, is just now receiving the national attention (read: people in New York actually admit seminal contributions to hip-hop from below the Mason-Dixon) long denied. But the characteristics that makes them great—persistent, underappreciated, working-class, proudly overlooked, self-sufficient, workaholic—make them undesirable to those looking for escape. Their music tries to be commonplace and everyday, so people treat it as such.

True to the pair’s history, this potential crippling blow is beginning to shed like rain from a Chevy’s hood. Graced with the spotlight and given the closing verses to Three 6 Mafia’s “Stay Fly,” a relentless, violently gracefully Tennessee Renaissance Fair of a single, the two embraced the ordinary—reefer, haters, success—and stole the song with an easy grace. Orange Mound didn’t get a shout-out, but Tennessee sure as hell did. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting combination of Three 6 Mafia’s beats under 8Ball & MJG’s words, and yet that moment of triumph rings far beyond disregarded Memphis hamlets, it champions any region struggling with its own fate and purpose. That most national of artists, F.Scott Fitzgerald, reminded us “there are no second acts in American lives.” Fair point. But 8Ball & MJG belong to Orange Mound, Tennessee first, America second.

By: Evan McGarvey
Published on: 2006-06-05
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