Estelle Axton was undoubtedly the queen of the Memphis music scene. The co-founder of Stax Records (along with her brother, Jim Stewart), Axton never played an instrument, yet she was revered by bluesmen, soul divas, funky chickens, and R&B balladeers alike. She mortgaged her first home in 1959 to start Satellite Records, Stax's predecessor, and presided over Soulsville U.S.A. for nearly two decades. Two years after Stax closed, Axton produced Rick Dees' "Disco Duck" on her Fretone label; the novelty song became one of the biggest hits in history, selling more than four million copies.
In years since, Axton played an active part in rallying support for the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. By the time the museum opened, however, Axton was in ill health. She died in the hospice at St. Francis Hospital on February 24th, with her brother by her side. Axton was 85 years old.
Many young women have taken their cue from the lady the artists at Stax called "Mom," including rappers Chopper Girl and Denea. Like Axton, both artists are white. And like their mentor, they've managed to infiltrate a scene that's largely African-American and male.
On February 20th, Chopper Girl (aka 30-year-old Holland Taylor) previewed Dirty Dolla$, her brand-new album, for an enthusiastic crowd downtown. Local producers, DJs, and other scenesters were invited to a loft space above the Madison Avenue Walgreens to comment on the album. Responses across the board were "all good."
"I'm gonna say I like this," said Too Black, who runs his own label. "Is that a white girl?" he joked, as Chopper Girl's heavy, Three-6-Mafia-influenced beats rolled out of the speakers. "I'd ride with this girl 100 percent."
Delano Corleone States, a self-professed mix-tape wizard, agreed. "Chopper Girl is really diverse," he marveled, pointing to the mixture of hardcore rap elements, rock-influenced snare-drum beats, and Detroit-inspired bass lines. "I would bump this," he said, "especially cuts like 'Where We From' and 'Still Buck.'"
At the end of the night, Chopper Girl and O.Z., a Humboldt, Tennessee-based rapper who produced a few tracks on Dirty Dolla$, grabbed a pair of microphones and rapped for the audience. Watching them, Keno "Da Don," a rapper on Too Black's eponymous label, was all smiles. "Chopper [is] my girl," Keno said. "She's compatible with La Chat and Gangsta Boo. She can definitely make Memphis bad."
If Friday's response is any indication, Dirty Dolla$ will be a smash when it hits the street later this month. Listen for it on K97 and Hot 107.1, or pick it up at area stores. For more info, go to HoodooLabs.com.
While Chopper Girl was planning her preview party, Denea was packing her bags for New York City for an appearance on Harlem's legendary "make you or break you" televised talent competition, Showtime at the Apollo.
"I took 15 people with me," Denea explained. "I had my producers, designer, manager -- the whole crew with me. We did our thing with the dancers and everything."
"But the audience was tough," the 26-year-old noted. "They booed everyone, even Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz. Mo'Nique [Imes-Jackson, the show's host] told them that we were all the way from Memphis, and then they really booed us. Apparently, they didn't want to hear anything from the South.
"It was rigged. At one point, these two girls were singing gospel, and when they got booed, Mo'Nique said, 'I don't want to hear that. These are my girls.' They stopped the show and made them take it from the top, with the crowd cheering."
While Denea's appearance on Showtime at the Apollo won't air until April, she was featured on the Today show while in New York. Memphis barbecue fan Al Roker conducted the interview.
"People ask me why I choose to do rap instead of other music," Denea said. "But it's always come naturally to me; I've been doing this since I was 11. I listen to everything from Kylie Minogue to OutKast. I've got some soul in me somewhere," she added with a laugh. "The only thing I really don't care for is country."
Denea is currently label shopping. Look for her album Shinin' -- which features Chopper Girl alongside Gangsta Blac, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, King JC, Al Kapone, and DJ Trick -- later this year. You can also hear her on former 2 Live Crew rapper Brother Marquis' newest release, which was recorded at Playalistic Studio in North Memphis. "I'm the only female on it," she said.
Estelle Axton would be proud.