If the name "Memphix" is more familiar to the worldwide denizens of the crate-digger/beat-miner subculture than to even the average music fan in the record label/DJ collective's hometown, it's nothing all that unusual. Subcultures are like that. So, historically, is Memphis.
But after a few years of quietly plying their trade --putting out a few 7-inches, hosting shows, making connections locally, nationally, and even globally -- Memphix (which consists primarily of local DJs Chad "Chase" Weekley and Luke "Red Eye Jedi" Sexton, with Chicago-based producer and record collector Dante Carfagna; local DJ Erymias "Armis" Shiberou seems to have emerged as an auxiliary member of the crew) appears to be in the midst of a quiet coming-out party set to get a lot noisier in the coming year.
Central to this emergence is the success of Chains + Black Exhaust, a legally sketchy CD collection of obscure black rock and funk 45s -- "tough black men playing tough black music" is how one fan described it in an Internet discussion --compiled by Weekley and Carfagna and slipped into the musical ether sometime last fall. The compilation is the result of years of vigorous crate-digging on the part of Weekley and Carfagna (the latter is currently collaborating on a book-length history of rare funk singles with like-minded DJ savior and subculture superstar DJ Shadow) and an attempt to shed some light on a relatively underappreciated subgenre -- black bands playing hard funk and acid rock in the late '60s and early '70s, proof that artists such as Band of Gypsys-era Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and Parliament-Funkadelic weren't anomalies.
Memphix pressed 1,000 copies, selling over 300 on the site TurntableLab.com and over 100 locally at Shangri-La Records, which, at last check, still had some in stock. The comp has since become something of a cult item, getting considerable play on New York's renowned free-form station WFMU and becoming the subject of considerable acclaim and conjecture in Internet forums such as those on the rock-critic/music-fanatic site I Love Music (ilXor.com) and the crate-digger-oriented Soulstrut.com.
Listening to Chains + Black Exhaust makes it easy to understand the ardor: This collection of obscure singles, largely from the South and Midwest, has the character of an exotic, alluring alternate universe, where scuzzy guitars get busy over hard funk beats and most of the singers have chitlin'-circuit credentials -- and occasionally the inexplicable occurs. You can hear this right at the top, on the record's first proper cut (after a truly hilarious intro skit), one of two Memphis singles, "Yeah Yeah" by the appropriately named Black Rock. The track opens with an arty, nearly ambient guitar intro that sounds like something from a DJ Shadow record (and may be, though Weekley says the track hasn't been sampled) before giving way to a pure funk breakdown that later erupts into something that can only be described as a proto-post-punk sheet of guitar noise, leaving the listener to ponder that this was recorded by an African-American band in Memphis during the Stax/Hi era.
The comp's other Memphis cut, "Get High" by Gran Am, is no less unexpected, with a rumbling beginning that could be Steppenwolf which then cuts into James Brown call-and-response which then finally brings the funk.
A few tracks fit into well-known subgenres: "Cynthy-Ruth" by Black Merda (a Detroit band with Mississippi roots recording in Chicago, according to Weekley) is late-Hendrix minus guitar flash, right down to the soundalike vocals. "Life is a Gamble" by the Ohio band Preacher has the intergender, multiple-vocal interplay of Sly and the Family Stone. But most of the rest is the sound of Southern soul evolving into acid rock and vice versa --grimy, vibrant music made more so by the fact that the comp was recorded straight from the 45s, with skips, crackles, and all.
But the music itself isn't the sole reason that Chains + Black Exhaust has become something of a phenomenon. A lot of the interest seems to stem from the mysterious nature of the project. The disc's original jacket design had the title and record label (the fictitious "Jones Records," an invention to prevent "any heat from coming down on Memphix," Weekley confesses) on the spine, but a foul-up by the printer kept that information off the finished product. Weekley instead made homemade, hand-written stickers with the information and applied them to some copies; other copies shipped out sans info. Whether you got a copy with this barest of information was totally a matter of chance, but Chains + Black Exhaust otherwise contains no information: no track listing, no liner notes, no contact details.
This cryptic quality derived from a variety of factors: partly legal necessity, partly a strategy to cultivate interest, and partly pure accident. But the result has been that the comp has grown into some sort of subcultural archaeology project, with beat miners, rock critics, and other hardcore music fans scrambling to determine the origins of the disc and figure out exactly what its contents are. Attempts to piece together the track listing are floating all around the Internet, as fans from every corner of the wired world share bits of information to unravel the mystery. "It's exciting to us to see people out there trying to figure it all out," Weekley admits, and Carfagna has even prodded the game along on at least one site.
But the comp's lack of information has also engendered a bit of controversy. "It's the Secret Crate-Digger's Code," one I Love Music poster sniffed in a discussion of Chains' lack of a track listing. Others have taken issue with the original artists not receiving proper credit.
Weekley is sensitive to this criticism but maintains that it was never Memphix's intent to keep the contents of the disc a permanent secret. "It's basically a bootleg, yes, but we've always considered it a demo," Weekley says. "[And] the reason it came out so ghetto was that it was a demo. We had to put it out that way to build up the hype."
Mission accomplished, Memphix is currently working with Now Again Records, a subsidiary of respected Los Angeles-based hip-hop indie Stones Throw, to license the music and give the much-sought-after disc a proper re-release, with track listings, liner notes, and the works. Memphix is even trying to track down the masters of the cuts to get better sound quality. The final product is liable to be a little different from the version currently circulating, depending on how licensing negotiations go. (One track Weekley mentions adding to the comp is "Drugs Ain't Cool" by Ebony Rhythm Method.) The current plan is for the legit version of Chains + Black Exhaust to hit the racks in January 2004. Weekley surmises that it might sell as many as 25,000 copies, and, if it does, the Memphix brand will become a major force in their little corner of the music world. "There are a million people trying to do what we're doing," Weekley says, "but most of them don't come correct."
In the interim, Memphix has plenty of other projects on tap to keep them busy. The label's debut full-length, Jeux de Ficelle, a 13-track mix in the vein of DJ Shadow, produced by Carfagna under the moniker Express Rising (under which he's released Memphix singles), is due out this summer. Weekley says the plans are for an initial pressing of 1,000 LPs and 1,000 CDs and says he's already got 500 pre-orders.
For their 7-inch releases, Memphix has followed a low-supply, high-demand theory, turning their releases into collector's items and sought-after objects. But that philosophy will change for the full-length. "For something like this, we'll definitely press more copies if the demand's there," Weekley says, "and we're hoping to get it picked up by a [bigger] label."
Chase, Red Eye Jedi, and Armis also work the wheels of steel for Inner Sounds, an ongoing weekly set Thursday nights at the Hi-Tone Café (unless the club has a band booked, as it does April 24th), where they spin hip-hop, soul, and funk. The collective's presence continues to be felt in American and British hip-hop and DJ magazines, most recently in an article by Chase in the New York-based Elemental on "10 Memphis Funk & Soul 7-inches." (Weekley hints that a Memphis-only equivalent to Chains + Black Exhaust is on the Memphix wish list.)
And on Monday, May 5th, Memphix will host a special show, again at the Hi-Tone Café, with acclaimed New York soul and funk band Lee Fields and Sugarman 3, a group Memphix hooked up with in part through their colleagues at Stones Throw. Red Eye Jedi and Bo-Keys bassist Scott Bomar will collaborate on an opening set, Jedi spinning and Bomar playing bass and guitar.
It's hard to believe two guys from such unlikely DJ enclaves as Munford, Tennessee (Weekley), and Kennett, Missouri (Sexton), are making such a splash on what is traditionally an urban and cosmopolitan scene, but it's happening, and Memphis may not be able to sleep on Memphix any longer.