Memphis' emerging hip-hop scene gets a big boost Friday night when the two-MCs/one-DJ trio Tunnel Clones celebrate the release of their debut album, Concrete Swamp.
A collaboration between largely unknown MCs Deverick "Rachi" Sheftall and Jimmy "Bosco" Catchings and a familiar face on the local music scene, Memphix-connected DJ Luke "Redeye Jedi" Sexton, Concrete Swamp might be (demos and obscure, homemade collections aside) the first significant record of its kind --vocal hip-hop independent of Southern gangsta rap -- to come out of the city. With debut records from Kontrast, the Iron Mic Coalition, and Tunnel Clones-connected MC D-Macc on tap, it won't be the last. But Concrete Swamp does mark a significant moment in the development of this long-bubbling local scene.
Tunnel Clones' otherness in relation to Memphis' dominant rap style is partly informed by the diverse background of the group's members. Rachi is a Miami native who landed in Memphis on order of the United States Navy, spending his three-year enlistment at the base in Millington performing in a militaryband. Bosco grew up in Naples, Italy, but relocated to Millington at age 15 when his dad retired. The pair met at a pickup basketball game in the area and, as transplants, became fast friends, with Bosco's already significant interest in hip-hop spurring Rachi's transition from mere fan to participant.
"We would ride around, just hanging out," Rachi remembers. "[Bosco and other friends] would freestyle to the music in the car, and I would just listen. They kept trying to get me to join in, but I'd never done that before. I'd always been into hip-hop, but I was already doing my own thing musically."
After leaving the military, Rachi was looking for another outlet for his musical interests and started making hip-hop beats at home. With Bosco's help, he fell into Memphis' subterranean hip-hop and rock scenes, sitting in with jam band Yamagata and dipping into the hip-hop scene at downtown coffee shop Precious Cargo.
Bosco had gotten into hip-hop as a kid in Italy because of an attraction to the music's ear-catching beats, but also because it helped him with his English. When he relocated to Memphis, Bosco wasn't really into his new hometown's distinct style.
"I respect it because they're working hard, but I don't really listen to it," he says. "I know a lot of people who do Memphis rap, and we always joke around with them. I got into the music through the Frayser scene, so you can only imagine me trying to do hip-hop in that place. You've gotta pretty much accept that style, because it's everywhere. But being around the military base helped in terms of meeting different kinds of people, like Dev. There were people from all over on the base."
After a few stalled attempts at putting a group together, including one stab at making Tunnel Clones a full-on live hip-hop band, the duo made the connection that set them on their current path, meeting Redeye Jedi at Inner Sounds, a weekly DJ and open-mic night that Jedi was hosting at the Hi-Tone Café with fellow Memphix-connected DJ Erymias Shiberou.
"They showed up, and I didn't even know they rapped," Jedi remembers. "But they performed, and I was just excited to hear a group that actually sounded good. We were all impressed. They'd wanted Erymias to work with them, but he was busy, so I did a song with them, and we clicked."
After working briefly with another local MC duo, Dysfunktional Homestead, and having sent beats out of town to other rappers, Jedi had finally found what he was looking for: a group of his own to translate his already accomplished instrumental hip-hop into a new setting. With Memphix already well-known as an instrumental label (with Jedi's seven-inch singles for the label hotly sought-out commodities on the underground hip-hop circuit), Jedi created a sister label, Hemphix, for the Tunnel Clones and, he hopes, other projects.
Recorded mostly at Jedi's home studio and mixed by Bo-Keys bandleader Scott Bomar, Hemphix's debut release is a record you appreciate as something almost entirely new for the local music scene. But as its subtle musical pleasures sink in, you begin to appreciate it on its own terms.
The record's soulful, varied production, including the expansive use of gospel-schooled background vocals from singer Big Zeke, is not so much a hip-hop/soul hybrid as a hip-hop record informed by soul. It evokes the durable musicality of De La Soul's recent stretch of underrated records or, to choose a more obscure but perhaps more apt comparison, the music of celebrated Pacific Northwest indie hip-hop group Lifesavas.
All three members of Tunnel Clones put their stamp on the record. Bosco is the most prominent vocalist with two solo showcases. Jedi and Rachi split production duties, with Rachi also rapping on most songs, and Jedi adding turntable scratches to most tracks. Bosco and Rachi are distinct voices that work well together. Rachi is both more staccato and more laid-back, while Bosco is simultaneously more confrontational and conversational. This tag-teaming echoes the equally contrasting production styles of Rachi and Jedi.
"Dev's classically trained, so he's much more musically refined," Jedi says. "I'm more old-school hip-hop, with more sampling, more the school of [classic hip-hop DJs] Pete Rock and DJ Premier."
A hip-hop lifer, Jedi flexes his turntable skills on the album's instrumental intro "Enter the Swamp," where the mix of deft scratches, layered samples, and fluid bass lines evokes his Memphix mixes. But you can also hear Jedi's pure hip-hop and funk style on his other productions: "Word of My Breath" is built around a sample from rapper Nas' hip-hop classic Illmatic. "Concrete Images" boasts the album's hottest straight hip-hop beat. And "Bad Mouth," with Bomar adding a liquid bass line and guest rapper D-Macc (whose solo album might be the next Hemphix project) dropping an ice-cold verse, sounds like vintage early-'70s Stax. Rachi's productions, by contrast, are more varied, using jazzlike piano ("Heads in Our Pocket," "Southside"), rock guitar ("Nothing"), and Latin elements ("What You Want?").
Put it all together, and you have a record unique in the annals of Memphis music, something apparent in such details as the way Big Zeke's gospel humming spars with Jedi's whiplash scratches on "Heads in Our Pocket" or the way Bosco tweaks the endlessly hood-repping local competition on "Southside." ("I'm from the south side of Italy/Are y'all really feeling me?")
Whether Concrete Swamp will end up as an anomaly or the beginning of a new chapter in Memphis music remains to be seen, but after 10 years of trying to build a scene, Jedi thinks Memphis is primed to embrace an alternative to the city's primary rap style.
"Everywhere else, this scene was building early on, so it's about time for it to happen here," he says.