News Column

Two Albums That Turned the Tide

November 27, 2013


Nov. 27--The 1980s were a relatively fallow period for Memphis music. While Texas blues-rock band ZZ Top was recording megahit albums locally at Ardent Studios, little actual Memphis music penetrated the national consciousness in a way that was either significant or lasting.

The peak era of Memphis music had passed, but the recognition hadn't set in, so the local scene was still chasing ghosts. The urge to reclaim the past was understandable, but rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of why the golden age slipped away in the first place.

There had been a tectonic shift in the mid-to-late '70s, when a wave of new genres relocated the cultural energy in pop music to sounds that were more urban, more global, and indirectly rather than directly blues-based.

For more than a decade, Memphis music struggled to keep up with this shift, to find a foothold in new styles emerging elsewhere. But that finally changed in 1993 with two independent releases from two very different local groups.

The Orange Mound-bred duo of Premro "Eightball" Smith and Marlon Jermaine "MJG" Goodwin met as Ridgeway Junior High students in the mid-'80s and released their first singles in the early '90s before hooking up with Houston producer Tony Draper for a 1993 debut album -- Comin' Out Hard -- that made Eightball & MJG oft-acknowledged godfathers of a "Dirty South" rap scene that would blow up in the following decade.

Eightball & MJG weren't the first Memphis rappers, but with Comin' Out Hard they were the first to launch an album into the wider rap conversation. Presenting rough-edged, generally amoral street stories over thick soul-funk bass lines and declarative beats, Comin' Out Hard presented a more distinctly Southern companion to the work of Houston's own Geto Boys, who first broke the genre's coastal stranglehold a few years earlier.

The album lived up -- or down -- to its title with tales of gunplay ("9 Little Millimeta Boys"), degrading women ("Pimps") and other illicit activities ("Armed Robbery"), and the band's worldview would mature a little as they got older. But it also introduced a duo whose individual talents and collective chemistry would prove durable. And it gave Memphis a claim to a genre then expanding into the culture's dominant pop form.

While hip-hop was expanding in 1993, alternative rock was booming on the heels of Nirvana, whose ascent shone a light on a national network of indie-rock scenes and bands that had been building for more than a decade.

These days, indie/alternative bands seem to coalesce in a few hot markets, but really reside on the Internet. In 1993, these bands still mostly represented and evoked real places. Superchunk were Chapel Hill. Yo La Tengo were Hoboken. Built to Spill were the Pacific Northwest. Guided By Voices were Ohio. And the Grifters -- along with their parent label, Midtown record store Shangri-La -- were Memphis. (See Bob Mehr's profile.)

The band had released an unformed and little-noticed album (So Happy Together) a year earlier on an out-of-town indie. But 1993's One Sock Missing, their de facto debut, recorded at an East Memphis flower shop and put out by Shangri-La, was the album that let Memphis plant its flag within the greater indie scene.

If you're conditioned to hear a post-punk guitar style that critic Robert Christgau once likened to "white bebop," the album retains all of its original charms. From the static-laced riff that launches the opening "Bummer" to the bleary, end-of-a-party collapse of the closing "I Arise," One Sock Missing is worthy of the band's more celebrated genre cohorts. The alchemy is near ineffable, with the guitars and voices of Dave Shouse, Scott Taylor and Tripp Lamkins coalescing around Stan Gallimore's drums to meld elements of punk, blues, glam-rock and other sources into something distinctive, while the lyrics that play Marco Polo with the music are provocative but cryptic. If you want to stretch, you can connect the Grifters to such Memphis punk precursors as Alex Chilton and Tav Falco, but in the realm of local music they really only sounded like themselves.

These albums didn't dismiss the city's heritage. The Grifters take a deep dive into blues-rock with "Tupelo Moan," which hints at the hill-country blues drone that would become a popular export soon after. Eightball & MJG luxuriate in the fat funk of kids raised in the shadow of Hi and Stax, a connection the duo would make even more explicit later. (Eightball would go on to riff on perhaps the greatest of Al Green album cuts with his own "Have U Been O.K.")

But these records aren't weighed down by or beholden to history either. They weren't trying to live up to anything, but were instead just following their own muses, which happened to align with two national waves of music that didn't start in Memphis and took too long to land here.

If you wanted to cite these records, negatively, as emblematic of a diminished civic reach, you wouldn't be wrong. They were connected into wider trends instead of launching them. They were inherently subcultural rather than mainstream. And each is forbidding, either in sound (Grifters) or content (Eightball & MJG), to large swaths of potential listeners.

But those limitations fit an era when pluralism overtook consensus as pop music's democratic mode. These albums pulled Memphis music into the present and pointed it toward the future. Twenty years later, the city's sounds are the better for it.


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