“On The Top of the World”, the Funk made in Memphis
Suave House / Relativity, 1995
“The rise to the top of the Memphis underground duo”
If we were to talk about niche rap, Memphis rap from the 90s would probably take the cake. If there is an underground scene among underground scenes, Memphis is probably the one that comes to mind first, at least in the 90s. Even if the Three 6 Mafia gave some visibility to this Tennessee city lost in the middle of the United States, the city is not the most prolific in terms of Hip Hop. Nevertheless, some groups deserve to be mentioned.
8Ball & MJG are part of this category. Under their underground airs, the duo is finally not so much. After a demo tape sold on the local scene, Listen To The lyrics in 1991, the group signed on Tony Draper’s label, Suave House Records. With their first album, Comin Out Hard, the duo managed to reach the top 40 of the Billboard 200, which is not much, but for a small group from Memphis with no distribution company and a low budget, the performance is very commendable. After Tony Draper signed a distribution deal with Relativity Records, the duo finally had a shot at something bigger with their second album, On the Outside Looking In, but unfortunately it wasn’t a success. But it is well with their third album, On Top of the World in 1995, that 8Ball & MJG will know the success. With this opus, while being certified gold, the group manages to reach the top 8 of the Billboard 200 and the top 2 of the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, with the competition that reigns on the year 1995 in Hip Hop, the performance is exceptional.
“Homemade beats for a Memphisian G-Funk style”
Let’s go back to the album in more details and what could have generated such a success. Let’s start with this typical Southern rap cover of which they are almost the pioneers. As for their first two albums, the cover is made by the design company Pen & Pixel Graphics. Pen & Pixel would later become famous with their covers for No Limit and Cash Money, among others. We can think what we want, but we can’t deny that these covers have become iconic and an emblem of the Dirty South thanks to their distinctive style, as ugly as they can be. Is it a success factor? Not really, but it at least has the merit of announcing what we are going to listen to.
Even though they come from Memphis, On The Top Of The World establishes itself in a hybrid style between a G-Funk from Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Nothing particularly original in an era where G-Funk albums are legion, yet T-Mix’s production still sounds fresh with melodies that are both sweet and raw. As is often the case with Memphis’ albums, the production is almost entirely done without the use of samples, probably due to a lack of budget in a period where samples were becoming more and more expensive to finance for production companies. Indeed, apart from the vocal samples, only Top Of The World contains a sample of Isaac Hayes’ The Look of Love. And even if it is one of the best tracks of the album, the compositions of T-Mix have nothing to be ashamed of compared to their competitors from Los Angeles which are usually based on a riff/hook borrowed from the hit tracks of the greatest Funk composers.
Between the more raw productions with whistling noises like the intro track Pimp In My Own Rhyme, the stressful horrocore rhythms of What Can I Do, the catchy Clintonian funk of Funk Mission, the soft and relaxing melodies of Space Age Pimpin, T-Mix’s beats are definitely effective with a homogeneous and consistent guideline. Everything is not perfect and some tracks may seem so similar that they are dispensable, but the album is a pleasure to listen to from beginning to end.
“The hustler pimpology for captivating stories”
The production undeniably contributed to the album’s success with its funk-soaked beats, but the performances of 8Ball and MJG are not to be outdone. In fact, they blend so well with T-Mix’s melodies with an intriguing complementarity. While 8Ball provokes with his deep voice, MJG’s slightly softer style lulls into a calmer melody. The two companions tell their gangster stories with a conscious side while being ostentatious, but the puns are fine and the rhymes are clever. Always in their characters of pimp and hustlers, they can be at the same time very trash while also tackling futile subjects, like smoking. The two rappers manage to craft captivating stories about subjects that may seem limited at first.
On The Top of the World marks the rise of the duo, and Suave House, in the Hip Hop industry with recognition and approval from both diehard fans and newcomers alike. This album is proof that the support of a distribution company is almost indispensable, or at least facilitates, commercial success. Of course, this is not enough, the duo is full of talent and the album is excellent, but would it have reached this level without the distribution company? Probably not at this level. The next album, In Our Life Time, will repeat the feat but this time with Universal, before the duo leaves Suave House for JCOR Entertainment for an album and then for Bad Boy South.