Just a few weeks ago in this column, Hot 107 deejay Lil Larry picked Da Block Burnaz as one of the next local rap acts to click. And, last week, Cash Money Millionaires honcho Baby called Hot 107.1 himself with the news: The New Orleans-based label just signed the North Memphis group to a multiple album deal. But Da Block Burnaz isn't the only local act poised for the big time. Criminal Manne, who's recently taken the streets and Memphis radio by storm with his single "Tryna Bust Sumthing," has also inked a deal with Universal Records.
The man responsible for landing both contracts? Meet Peppa Williams, the self-proclaimed "Mouth of tha South." The 27-year old manager/promoter, a former vice president at Def Jam South, has helped Memphis rappers (including Yo Gotti, who announced a deal with TVT Records last spring) make a big splash on the national scene since returning to his native Memphis after a stint in Atlanta.
"Every city has blown up except Memphis," Williams proclaims, when asked about the popularity of Dirty South and crunk music, both indigenous to the region below the Mason-Dixon line. "[National attention] hit Atlanta, jumped over Memphis, and went to St. Louis," he says. "That's the reason I'm here. You've got a lot of talented artists but no avenues to get their music heard in New York or L.A.
"It didn't take long to close the Da Block Burnaz deal," Williams says. "[Cash Money co-founders] Slim and Baby were in Memphis for a party at the Premier, and after they heard "Shawty" [a single by Yo Gotti and Da Block Burnaz], they wanted the group," he says. "It took about six weeks to finalize things, and now they're down in New Orleans getting ready to record some tracks with Carlos Broady and Mannie Fresh.
"Criminal Manne was already hot in the streets when I started consulting him," Williams continues. "We got a buzz going on the radio, and now he's getting spins every day." He mentions that Sony has expressed interest, but I remind him of the Universal contract. Williams laughs. "Anything's negotiable until you get a check," he says.
Williams currently operates out of an office at Midtown's Young Avenue Sound recording studio, where he has also worked as a consultant. "I applaud Young Avenue, because they were the first studio with an open-door policy," he says, noting that, a few years ago, most Memphis studios were unreceptive toward rap music. "They created a room from the ground up that's strictly for hip-hop and rap, and now more local studios are copying them."
He's also been appointed to the board of the Memphis & Shelby County Music Commission, and he was behind last weekend's Crunkfest, held at the Mid-South Coliseum. In his vision, Memphis rappers will become a legitimate part of the greater community. "The local rap scene has a huge economic impact on the city, from artists spending money and promoters bringing shows here to studio work and more," he says.
Westwood rapper Kavious is another local talent who might be looking to Williams for help. "Someone like Peppa can make a big difference," says Kavious, who is currently working on his sophomore album at Ardent Studios. Since releasing his debut, Empty Shelves, in mid-2003, he's learned plenty about the business.
"Last year, I didn't know a whole lot about the industry, and I wasn't going into the clubs or working the streets," Kavious admits. "This time, I was at all the underground joints Club Motion, The Boss, Rockafella's, and The Crystal Palace even before we finished the songs. I learned that if I feed the streets good enough, clubs like The Premier and The Martini Room are gonna have to ask for it. It took a few months, but it's worked even better than I thought."
Kavious' brand-new single, a duet with Yo Gotti called "Kodak Moment," has already gotten airplay on Hot 107.1. "We were trying to come up with a hot single, and we thought about Yo Gotti," explains Kavious' producer Barry "Plutonium" Walker, a co-owner of Nuclear Records, the label behind Empty Shelves. "I wanted to produce a real strong collaboration outta Memphis. Gotti came up with the hook, and I got the track from the Drum Squad Insane Wayne, Drumma Boy, and Swizzo."
The song is now getting local spins, and Walker says the plan is to promote the record in regional markets such as Nashville, Little Rock, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Atlanta. "As far as deals go, you have to have radio play," Walker says, "which is something local rappers are starting to realize. But everyone in Memphis has to step their game up on every level.
"We had a good run with [Empty Shelves] last year and talked to some majors, but we decided to keep building our portfolio," Walker says. "Right now we're looking for whoever can help us the most. Peppa is one of those guys who can help."