Changing the Game 

On the Memphis rap scene, Yo Gotti is the new king. Skewby wants next.

Yo Gotti

Justin Fox Burks

Yo Gotti

It is, by most appearances, a typical weekday afternoon at a high-end Memphis country club. A cluster of middle-aged suit-and-tie types is leaving from a late business lunch. In a room off the main lobby, a group of retirees is playing bridge. Outside, a Memphis Grizzlies player is getting ready for a day on the links. And on a balcony overlooking the course, rapper Yo Gotti and his manager, Peppa Williams, are huddling with a club official, looking over a contract.

Gotti is thinking about joining up today. Later in the afternoon, he'll hop in his gleaming white Porsche and head out, his next destination apparently a Mercedes-Benz dealer. It's been a long, unlikely journey for Gotti — born Mario Mims and raised in the rough Ridge Crest apartments in North Memphis. Since debuting in 2000 with the self-descriptive local release From Da Dope Game 2 Da Rap Game, Gotti has followed a steady progression from local to regional to national appeal. And right now is a good time to be Gotti, whose past two singles — the smooth "5 Star" and "Women Lie, Men Lie," a duet with New Orleans superstar Lil Wayne — have both been major chart hits and whose J Records debut album, Live From the Kitchen, is due to drop soon. (Gotti will also be playing the Beale Street Music Festival on Saturday.)

"I come here to have meetings and get something to eat," Gotti says, looking over the club grounds. "I'm a hustler/businessman. We come out here to do business with the corporate people, and then we go back to our hood. I'm in a different [physical] space, but I'm still in the same mental space."

Just a few days earlier, Gotti headlined an all-day rap concert that was part of the Dub Car Show at the Cook Convention Center, drawing the most fans of any act on a lineup that included longtime local kingpins Three 6 Mafia. The concert represented a change in the Memphis rap hierarchy, with the past (Three 6), present (Gotti), and, potentially, future (more on this in a bit) of the local scene on display.

"Five or six years ago, maybe I would have been opening for some of them same artists," Gotti says. "Two days ago, they opened for me. So that just shows you what hard work and dedication can do and how it can change things. I think any Memphis artist should look at it the same way — that I could be opening for you some day."

To label Three 6 Mafia the "past" of Memphis rap is not to say that the group — crossover celebrities since their Hustle & Flow Oscar win — won't continue to make significant music. But they are certainly less likely to dominate the next decade of Memphis rap and hip-hop the way they dominated the past decade. And, right now, Gotti is ascendant — garnering the biggest hits, inspiring the most buzz, and generating the most affection and respect from the city's core base of rap fans.

But if Gotti has "now," the Memphis artist with the best shot at "next" may have also been on the Dub Show lineup: Skewby.

Unsigned Hype

The Dub Show isn't the only place recently where Skewby — 21-year-old Cordova High grad Cameron Drake Smith — has been keeping company with Gotti.

In the April/May issue of The Source — the Rolling Stone of the hip-hop world — there's a full-page feature on Gotti. Just a few pages over, Skewby is introduced in the magazine's influential and long-running "Unsigned Hype" column, becoming the first Memphis rapper to be so honored.

"Biggie, Eminem, Mos Def, Common, David Banner," Skewby says, rattling off names of some previous artists who got their first exposure as an Unsigned Hype. "So many important people have come through that column — and non-important," he says with a subtle grin. "But I just have a feeling I'll be one of the important ones."

This sly boast aside, Skewby comes across as an easygoing and modest guy, at least until he picks up a microphone. When that happens, Skewby becomes something entirely unprecedented on the Memphis music scene: a potent, commercially viable rapper who doesn't fit the scene's dominant gangsta/crunk modes. As such, there is perhaps more at stake in his potential rise out of Memphis than merely maximizing one young artist's considerable talents.

After graduating — barely, he says — from Cordova in 2006, Skewby skipped to Atlanta, where he hustled his way into studios as a fledgling producer, selling beats to other artists. He spent a year there, mostly crashing in the Morehouse College dorm room of a high school friend. He only returned to Memphis at his mom's request — after she demanded he come home and get a real job. Not exactly gangsta.

Back home, Skewby set about assembling his current team: producer/DJs Crumbz and Charlie White (the latter also works with local acts Al Kapone and Free Sol), manager Antonio Tubbs, and onstage sidekick/"hype man" Reggie P.

After a few stand-alone Internet singles, Skewby, Crumbz, and White finished Proving You Wrong Since 1988, a wildly impressive free mixtape album that was made available online last fall and has so far garnered widespread notice on hip-hop blogs, gotten the attention of The Source, and generated more than 50,000 downloads, according to Tubbs. (You can get it at skewbymusic.com.)

Though there's plenty of Memphis in Skewby's voice — and in his lyrics — Proving You Wrong Since 1988 (the year a reference to both Skewby's birth and hip-hop's flowering) introduces a nimble-voiced rapper and witty, intricate lyricist — a pure hip-hop artist who has more in common with the likes of Kanye West and his young Chicago cohort Lupe Fiasco than with any preceding Memphis rapper. The Source cites the same references: "Mixing Lupe's truthfulness and Kanye's confidence seems to be aligning this MC with the stars," the magazine says. "If his work continues to be as solid as this effort, then he may just be a force to be reckoned with."

The King of Memphis

Fifty thousand downloads is significant for an unsigned artist making his mixtape debut, but Yo Gotti left those kinds of numbers behind long ago. If there were any question about Gotti's growing status, the success of "Five Star" and "Women Lie, Men Lie" (both Top 15 rap singles) have removed doubts. And if there were any question about his place in the Memphis rap pecking order, Gotti's Dub Show appearance answered them.

Earlier in the day, Three 6 Mafia had played a chaotic medley of past hits to a growing crowd. But in the moments before Gotti took the stage, the audience swelled considerably, and there was a palpable sense of anticipation in the air. When Gotti finally took the stage, his chaos — for a while, at least — was more purposeful and more orchestrated, with a call-and-response rhythm building between Gotti and his three hype men. Out in the audience, cell-phone cameras were raised, and teenagers were rapping along to every word. In this context, the constant refrain "It's ya boy Yo Gotti!" booming from the speakers served to underscore the sense of fan ownership he imparted.

Two nights earlier at the Hi-Tone Café, after his artist had finished a performance at a Grammy-sponsored showcase, Skewby manager Tubbs likened the impending Dub Show to a Memphis-rap-centric prize fight. In that context, Skewby delivered a strong undercard performance. Gotti won a unanimous main-event decision from the judges in the crowd.

"I am the king of Memphis," Gotti says a couple of days later. "I try to explain to people that I'm the peoples' [artist]. Me saying I'm the king of Memphis wasn't personal or trying to self-claim something. If you were at that show, you seen it. People in Memphis want me to be the king, so that's what I am."

Rap shows have a reputation for volatility, and this was no exception, with the concert coming to a brief halt after someone in the crowd heaved a half-full plastic water bottle at Gotti, prompting a worried response from the onstage security and a bemused, defiant smile from Gotti.

"I'm from the hood, man," Gotti says. "What's a plastic water bottle going to do? I'm from where life's real, from where people lose their life and go to jail forever, so that ain't even a misdemeanor to me. That was funny. It didn't mess up the show. It just gave the show more energy."

Though Gotti's street credentials remain beyond reproach — for better or worse, just check YouTube for the video to Gotti's song "Shoot Off" — his music has taken on a somewhat tonier, more crossover-friendly feel in the past few years, with standout tracks hitting familiar marks as if Gotti were checking off everything he needed to be a well-rounded rap artist. In addition to the gangsta-rap bona fides, he's got a smooth posse cut ("Gangsta Party," with Houston's Bun B and Memphis legend 8Ball), an after-the-gold-rush meditation ("Touchdown"), a high-profile collaboration ("Women Lie, Men Lie"), and a female-friendly anthem ("Five Star," something like Gotti's answer to the classic LL Cool J single "Around the Way Girl").

"Five Star" charms with a grounded, detailed description of what a perfect woman might be for Gotti — sexually voracious, yes, but also independent and accomplished. Gotti's "five-star chick" might be a nurse or a teacher. She's "fresh up out the hood but went to Tennessee State." And Gotti makes her an offer: "If you never left the city/Never been up outta Memphis/I can be your thug genie/Give you three little wishes."

"That was the whole strategy of the song," Gotti says. "To reach out to women but to show you all different kinds. A five star to me might not be a five star to you, and vice versa. That's why I tried to touch on so many different types of girls, from college girls to working girls. No matter what you are, you can be a five star in your own sense."

The Benz and the Backpack

On his 2004 debut album, The College Dropout, Kanye West famously proclaimed himself to be the first rapper "with a Benz and a backpack."

For those who don't speak fluent hip-hop, the phrase requires a bit of explanation: Starting in the late '80s, mainstream hip-hop became increasingly hard and/or glitzy. As a rule, mainstream rappers made music suffused with some combination of violence, criminality, or high-end, name-brand consumption. In reaction to this, a more high-minded alternative scene developed, with participants often labeled "backpackers" in reference to a sartorial choice that suggested bookishness and asceticism. West, in claiming both the Benz and the backpack, sought to break down the barrier between mainstream and alternative. He wanted the fun, commercial ambition, and increasingly audacious musicality of the mainstream but without its casual brutality or lack of introspection.

Cameron Drake Smith was 15 years old when The College Dropout was released, and, by his own admission, it changed his life.

As a Memphis kid, Skewby listened to Three 6 and Project Pat and the like-minded gangsta rap then emanating from New Orleans label No Limit, just like his classmates. His tastes began to change, he says, when his older brother brought a copy of Jay-Z's 2001 album The Blueprint home from a basketball tournament in New York. The Blueprint, according to Skewby, was a turning point where he began to appreciate "good lyrics and song structures." Jay-Z led him to Chicago rapper Common, whose old-school references put the 21st-century kid on a classic hip-hop excursion that went deep.

"I went so hip-hop at a point I didn't even like [Southern rap] anymore," Skewby says. "But I couldn't lie to myself, and that's when the balance came in."

That balance got a boost from The College Dropout, whose conflicted songs about religion, consumerism, and other unlikely topics expanded a teen Skewby's vision of what a rapper could do.

"I like Kanye because he pushes the limit all the time, and that's what I want to do when I get in," Skewby says. "People think it's for shock value, when really it's just honesty. You hear Kanye and you say, 'We talked about that at lunch. We talked about that in the living room. Why has nobody ever did that on a record?'"

And now Skewby finds himself representing something similar in a Memphis rap scene long divided between the gangsta-centric mainstream and the small, struggling underground that's reacted against it. Skewby, who is comfortable enough with the former and seemingly unaware of the latter, refuses to make that choice. He shrugs it off. The first significant Memphis rapper with a Benz and a backpack.

A Man Has to Have a Code

During the heyday of crunk earlier in the decade, Memphis rap got a reputation for being perhaps the genre's most violent and most exaggerated scene. But in their own very different ways, both Yo Gotti and Skewby are giving the local scene a more grounded perspective.

Gotti, as his moniker suggests, is a gangsta rapper for sure. And there are plenty of references to guns, wild club scenes, and the drug trade in his music. But Gotti's songs rarely feel overly embellished. And, musically, there's often a soulful undercurrent that connects back to local-scene pioneers 8Ball & MJG.

"My music, it has energy. But at the same time, it's all real life," Gotti insists. "If I haven't seen it, done it, or been close to it, I don't speak it. And I feel like as long as I keep my music like that — about real people living in the world every day — you have to relate to it. I think a lot of artists are focused on trying to prove a point that they're street or they're from a hood. But I'm from where I'm from for real. I'm always going to be from there, and I'm always going to mess with my people from there and try to bring them with me. But the plan is to get out of the hood."

As for Skewby, he came from a more stable environment and isn't interested in pretending otherwise.

"Being a new rapper, there are certain things you're expected to do and certain ways you're supposed to look," Skewby explains. "And you meet people. They're good people. But when they get their record deal and it's time for them to present themselves to the world, they hide what makes them a good person. They will cover it up. They will lie. I hate that we feel like we have to lie to be accepted. Therefore, I just don't."

Skewby's insistence on honesty, however, doesn't preclude lyrical exaggeration. The difference is that Skewby's boastfulness takes the form of lyrical flights — witty wordplay rooted in hip-hop's playing-the-dozens tradition.

Game Change

Yo Gotti's success represents a clear path for how you build a hip-hop career in Memphis: Conquer your city, expand regionally, and then go national while still keeping a strong hold on your hood. Others will have success with the same template. But Skewby probably won't be one of them.

"Memphis didn't make me who I am to the point where I walk and talk Memphis, because I was a headphone kid," Skewby says. "Instead of being in the streets, I was listening to music, watching MTV. I bought all the magazines. Spin, Rolling Stone, The Source, XXL. I listened to everything, and nobody in Memphis understood that." (Skewby's Grammy showcase at the Hi-Tone featured a Ben Hooks tribute, an Outkast sing-along, and a MGMT loop.)

Appropriately, Skewby has probably gotten more attention from the national hip-hop scene via the Internet and media than he has so far from the Memphis rap scene. (There's a YouTube clip of renowned producer 9th Wonder beaming over Skewby after discovering him on a Memphis visit earlier this year.) And the big question for him may not be whether he can get big in Memphis but whether, in doing the style of hip-hop he does, he can get big from Memphis.

In an attempt to do so, Skewby and Tubbs are taking a different path, focusing on building a fan base online and via live shows, with a particular focus on college students. Despite some interest, they do not appear to be in a hurry to sign with a record label.

"I just feel like as long as we can accomplish this on our own, we'll continue to do that," Skewby says. "That's my mindset."

Gotti knows firsthand about record-label complications. His last official album was released in 2006. At the Dub Show, one kid in the crowd was wearing a T-shirt promoting Gotti's forthcoming Live From the Kitchen album for a September 2009 release while women were handing out promotional posters for the album listing a March 2010 release date. At the time, the official online release date was April 27th. Gotti now says he expects a June release.

But for Gotti, with his strong fan base and the growing mixtape culture in the rap scene, a lack of "official" album product doesn't seem to have slowed his growth.

For Skewby, as a new artist, those delays don't seem worth the trouble. He and Tubbs — who has seen the record business from the other end working for Jay-Z's Roc-a-Fella label — are happy to give away music — for now — and that will include an as-yet-untitled debut album that they expect to release online in June. But with every free download, Tubbs collects an e-mail address, building a network of fans that, down the line, he hopes will give his artist more leverage in negotiating with record labels.

"What I love most about this time in my life is I'm earning fans," Skewby says. "We have to constantly prove ourselves, every time. And that's the fun part to me."

Part of that proving is developing a tighter live show than is the local rap norm. At the Dub Show, performances from Three 6 Mafia and Yo Gotti were almost more happenings than concerts. By contrast, Skewby is honing a live show that features active participation from his DJ (and from both DJs when possible), rehearsed but still loose interaction with Reggie P., and no extraneous hangers-on littering the stage.

Can he do it all his way and carve a new path for Memphis hip-hop? Skewby has been pleased at the acceptance he's gotten from heavyweights such as Gotti and 8Ball. There's even a picture of Gotti showing off Skewby's "Unsigned Hype" feature on Skewby's website.

"That type of stuff means a lot to me," Skewby says. "The sounds are so different that there are only two ways you can react. You can go, 'That's not real Memphis,' or you can go, 'That's next.'"

As for Gotti, he says, "That's one thing that's different about me than some of the other guys before me. If you're an up-and-coming hot artist, instead of trying to block you, I embrace you. I think it's good for me. I think it's good for you. I think it's good for the city as a whole."

But Skewby's atypical vision of what Memphis hip-hop might be has still met with hurdles. Outside of town, he says, people hear him and assume he's from New York or Los Angeles. ("I tell 'em I'm from Memphis, Tennessee, and they look at me strange/Like I need I.D.," he raps on "Talk 2 'Em.") And at home, not everyone has been convinced it can work.

"When I first started, Memphis legends, people I really looked up to, would sit me down and say, 'Skewby, what you're doing is great. But it just won't work here. You have to leave here in order to make it,'" Skewby says. "And I didn't agree with that, because every time I went somewhere, I would hear people say, 'I need that. I wish Memphis did more of that.' So I knew there was a lane for me. The city's changing."

The Pioneers

8Ball & MJG fathered all this — and are still going strong.

Rap scenes are not often the most harmonious of artistic communities, and Memphis has been no exception. It's not uncommon for resentments to flare up among mainstream/gangsta rappers, and those on the indie scene tend to dismiss the artfulness of their more successful colleagues.

But there is at least one thing that unites the Memphis rap scene: Everyone respects 8Ball & MJG.

"It's the type of vibe we give off," MJG says about the duo's acceptance across the local rap landscape. "I think people just give it back. We're not looking for no beef. We're just trying to keep it neutral. It's just the way we treat people."

But MJG's longtime partner, 8Ball, puts it into historical perspective: "We fathered all of that," he says of the current Memphis rap scene. "It would be like somebody from New York trying to beef with Run-DMC. What kind of sense would that make? What did they do to you except make you love what you do?"

The duo rose out of Orange Mound in the early '90s with a soulful gangsta style that offered a bluesier, less sensationalistic counterpoint to Houston's Geto Boys, then the only Southern hip-hop artists to significantly break through to a national audience.

"We kind of came up in that soulful age, when there were still records around," MJG says. "There was still a lot of R&B music coming out fresh when we were young. Then hip-hop came along, so it was like the best of both worlds really."

"That's the music we grew up on," 8Ball says. "Saturday morning, your mama's cleaning up, that's the music she's playing. Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Gap Band. And we always tried to bring out what we love in our music."

Love of music is something that pops up in conversation with the duo but is also palpable in their music. When they use the term "artist" — as on their classic "The Artist Pays the Price" — they don't just mean someone who's pushing rap music. They mean someone who's creating art.

"We are hip-hop culture," 8Ball says. "We love it for both those reasons. It's just God and Satan, good and bad. It can't be one without the other. We love it for the money, too, definitely. I would be lying if I said I didn't. But both of us love coming to the studio, doing shows, and creating the music."

As the local rap scene the duo helped give birth to evolved into simple, repetitive chanted vocals and menacing production, 8Ball & MJG generally stayed true to their sound — soul- and blues-based with the strong, sure vocal flow of artists weaned on classic hip-hop.

And perhaps that's a key to the duo's longevity and consistency, qualities that — along with their soulfulness — have made them something like a rap equivalent of an earlier generation of soul-blues Southern-circuit stalwarts like Bobby Blue Bland or Bobby Rush.

"8Ball & MJG, those are guys I looked up to and still do," says Yo Gotti. "I believe they are living legends. I believe they made a lot of good music and still make good music. They represent Memphis the right way, so I salute 8Ball & MJG, and I respect what they stand for."

On May 4th, 8Ball & MJG will release Ten Toes Down, their eighth studio album since 1993's debut Comin' Out Hard. It will be their first for Grand Hustle, a label partly run by Atlanta rap star T.I. — CH

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