How Memphis rap tapes in the ’90s spawned a chilling legend

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On 1989’s “Mind of a Lunatic,” Geto Boys emcee Scarface depicted a nightmarish scenario in which he was kept awake at night by visions of the bodies he’s dismembered. Six years later on “Shook Ones Pt. II,” Mobb Deep’s Prodigy threatened to stab someone in the brain with their nose bone. That same year, however, on “Mystic Stylez,” Memphis group Three 6 Mafia’s Lord Infamous described “torture chambers filled with corpses in my basement” in what can best be described as an incantation to Satan.

Mystic Stylez, released in 1995, is regarded as a blueprint for horrorcore rap (as later paid tribute by groups like clipping.), its violent and Satanic imagery (see also: the group’s name) as well as DJ Paul’s liberal use of horror-film score samples a reflection of the group’s own love of scary movies as much as the real-life violence happening in their home city. But by the time that album came out, Memphis’ hip-hop scene was already in the midst of a prolific period of activity, with artists such as Tommy Wright III, Blackout, Red Dog, Graveyard Productions, and Maniac recording eerie, lo-fi tapes that put an even more chilling and otherworldly spin on hardcore hip-hop.

To put the menacing, gritty sound of ’90s-era Memphis rap in context, the city was in the midst of one of its worst eras for crime, with 198 homicides occurring in 1993. The harshness and violence of the music—rendered in unmixed, unmastered tape-hiss fidelity—was sometimes exaggerated via use of occult imagery and a penchant for shock value. But the reality outside in Memphis itself, driven by years of segregationist policies and a growing drug epidemic, wasn’t any less dangerous. Still, it’s easy to understand how this music grew to become mythic over time, particularly given these DIY-distributed tapes, often given to people out of the trunks of cars, were rarely heard outside the Memphis city limits at the time.

Early ’90s Memphis rap has been likened to the hip-hop equivalent of the second wave of black metal, both for the crackling, lo-fi sound of the music and the darkness within it. (Though the Norwegian scene seemed to have far more assholes.) There’s just something unnerving about the sound of so many of these releases, which while sometimes as campy or as catchy as they are tense, are given a spectral cloak via the unpolished nature of their sound quality. It also feels appropriate that most of these recordings were released via cassette and not CDs or vinyl. CDs are convenient and records are more classicist, but tapes are more prone to warping, tangling and mechanical mishaps. The more fucked up and damaged the tape is, somehow, it only adds to the overall effect of these artifacts being possessed by sinister spirits.

Which is exactly what a legend sprung from the least credible corners of the Internet seems to claim. The legend of the “Memphis rap sigils” has shown up on the oft-passed-around Rap Conspiracy Iceberg, which ranges from the actually true (Wu-Tang FBI files) to the ridiculous (Aaliyah Amelia Earhart reincarnation) to the huh?! (Picasso Baby spirit cooking). This particular legend seems to have emerged from the 4Chan /x/ archives in a kind of strange version of the telephone game, which eventually resulted in the idea that there are eight tapes from Memphis rappers in the ’90s that have captured the soul energy of murdered people, as some kind of Luciferian ritual, as the X-Files of Rap blog summarizes. The soul energy, per chaos magick practice, is then made into a symbol to bring about the practitioner’s desired outcome. And apparently, this energy is only charged when you listen to it on the original cassettes and not on YouTube or Spotify.

The myth of the Memphis rap sigils involves eight specific tapes: Ten Wanted Men’s Wanted: Dead or Alive, Children of the Corn’s The Single, Maniac’s The World of a Psycho, Lil Ramsey’s Goin Undacova, H.O.H.’s Livin in a Casket, N.O.D.’s N*ggaz of Destruction, Mr. Tinimaine’s Last Man Standing, and Psycho’s The Return of Psycho. And if you were to listen to these tapes after midnight in a cemetery after a few intoxicants, well sure, it might not take much convincing to believe that these are in fact items of dark magick that could bring about some kind of wizardry from the bowels of hell, I guess? But also, this is clearly the work of someone fucking with people on the Internet.

It’s easy to understand how this kind of legend can grow from music with such a menacing energy. These tapes sound haunted, maybe even capturing some kind of evil essence. (The covert art to N*ggaz of Destruction just looks like the hip-hop equivalent to a haunted horror-lore artifact like the Ringu video.) The muffled sound of Children of the Corn’s The Single, for instance, only makes the horror-influenced vibe even more unsettling. Yet so many of these tapes, later rediscovered as lost classics, are all the more notable because they’re actually just really good. Tommy Wright III’s production on Wanted: Dead or Alive and N*ggaz of Destruction are as ahead of their time as they are atmospherically mesmerizing, spinning the Twilight Zone theme into an impossibly hot beat on “4 Corners Pt. 3” and crafting a layered, new age synth out-of-body experience on the nine-minute “Fugitive.” And even after more than 25 years, H.O.H.’s Livin in a Casket slaps with a singular aggression.

So much of the music that came out of the Memphis rap scene in the ’90s is incredible. Blackout’s Dreamworld has never been accused of harboring the wandering spirits of victims of dark magick, but it does have some bona fide ghost bangers in “Smokin Treez” and “Midnight Murda.” And then, of course, there’s Mystic Stylez, which ranges from the chilling (“Fuckin Wit Dis Click”) to the unexpectedly commercial (“Da Summa”). But darkness permeates it, right from the moment you see a masked Koopsta Knicca posing crucifixion-style on its cover.

Funny thing about that: In an hour-long documentary, Koopsta Knicca described some strange goings on across the street while Three 6 Mafia were taking that album-art photo: “There was actually some motherfuckers in there with robes and shit on, and an altar. And we got caught down there, and they made us watch. … We knew right then that there was some shit going on in this world, in this city, by rich folks and politicians … and this shit was really serious.” Which suggests that perhaps there were some unsavory secret-society activities happening in their own backyard, just not by anyone handing out hip-hop tapes.

The tapes connected to the Memphis rap sigils myth have become collectors’ items, yielding hundreds of dollars each on eBay, in a kind of fucked-up capitalistic irony; the artists, of course, don’t actually receive any of that money. But the music itself, free of any actual chaos magick, endures—while you can spot the breadcrumbs they’ve left behind in contemporary trap, there’s nothing else quite like what was happening in Memphis in the ’90s. It’s innovation at its most aesthetically sinister.

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