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H.O.H., Living In A Casket casette artwork; N.O.D., Fiendin' Pt. 3 casette (Screenshot: YouTube)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: The Bass Pro Shop in downtown Memphis is actually an occult monument to Freemasonry, or the Egyptian sun god Ra, or—listen, nobody seems to know what it’s a monument to, exactly, but whatever it is, it’s evil. We know this because its developer, John Tigrett, secretly placed a crystal skull inside of a velvet box inside of a wooden box inside of a metal box, and then welded the box into the apex of the pyramid-shaped building late at night accompanied by black-cloaked figures charting the path of the North Star across the Tennessee night sky. Workers found the box and opened it in 1992, which is when the building’s problems really began. The tourism boom promised by building manager Sidney Shlenker never materialized, and on February 3, 2007, the Memphis Pyramid closed following a concert by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. Eight long, expensive years later, Bass Pro Shops moved in.

That story—which, up to the whole “monument to evil” bit, is entirely true—is typical of the conspiracy theories that swirl around Memphis, tales that take a grain of creepy truth and spin it into outsize legend. For a city of its size, a seemingly disproportionate number of strange, terrifying things have happened in or near Memphis, from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968 to the still-unsolved murder of three 8-year-old boys whose bodies were found mutilated in a creek bed in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. “Memphis is a dark city,” Memphis rap icon Playa Fly told The Fader in 2011. “There’s always been a dark cloud over the city. They killed the symbol for peace here.” Memphis still struggles with violent crime, but life in the city was arguably at its darkest in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the crack cocaine epidemic was at its height.

That same period also saw the birth of Memphis rap, a phenomenon that remains underground despite its profound influence on the then-nascent Atlanta scene—and, therefore, crunk and trap—and on SoundCloud rap in general. Nineties Memphis hip-hop is hypnotic, atmospheric, and bleak, with a musical sensibility influenced by the dark sound of Delta blues and dominated by the haunting tones of the TR-808. Samples from horror movies are common, as are a disorienting combination of discordant harmonies, distorted vocal loops, and double-time flows. Paired with disturbing lyrical content and extreme lo-fi production, it sounds like—well, like something you’re not supposed to be listening to. Its most relevant parallel is with Norwegian black metal, another movement that took a musical genre and pushed its sound to its darkest extremes, all the while rejecting mainstream acceptance by embracing a raw DIY recording style.

Although they weren’t the inventors of the sound—credit for that is usually split between DJ Spanish Fly and DJ Squeeky—Three 6 Mafia continues to be Memphis rap’s most popular export. Outsiders know them best for their Oscar-winning theme song for Hustle & Flow, but Three 6 Mafia began its life as a horrorcore group under its original, more infernal name of Triple 6 Mafia. The group’s 1995 debut album, Mystic Stylez, took the Memphis scene’s flirtations with horror imagery and brought them to an explicitly occult place, kicking off a trend that would persist in the city through the rest of the decade. On the title track, the late Lord Infamous sings, “Mystic styles of the ancient mutilations / Torture chambers filled with corpses in my basement / Feel the wrath of the fucking devil nation / Three 6 Mafia creation of Satan.” That leads into a verse where Gangsta Boo calls herself “the devil’s daughter,” and describes stalking the streets of Memphis in a Jason mask.

It’s difficult to pinpoint which member of the group was the ringleader on this “devil shit,” as it’s sometimes called. But Lord Infamous, who was obsessed with serial killers and the occult long before he joined Juicy J and DJ Paul for the first incarnation of Triple 6 Mafia, is a likely candidate. Take The Serial Killers: Portrait Of A Serial Killa, the underground tape released by Infamous and DJ Paul in 1992, whose title song is about Infamous’ homicidal alter ego The Scarecrow: “Little kids go in and play and get lost / Six days rotten with their heads popped off,” he raps in his signature triplet flow. (Although he didn’t invent it, Lord Infamous extensively used the triplet flow, a style that’s since become massively popular thanks to Migos.) Then again, DJ Paul was perfectly capable of writing violent lyrics on his own, as he did on the 1994 track “Sweet Robbery.”

Regardless of who started it, horrorcore became a huge trend in Memphis before drying up in the early ’00s as “Dirty South” rap began to dominate the charts. During the peak of Memphis horrorcore—roughly between 1994 and 1996—a number of artists emerged from the scene: Tommy Wright III, DJ Zirk, Al Kapone, and Children Of The Corn are just a few of the local acts who embraced horror aesthetics, freely exchanging—or stealing, depending on who you ask—beats, hooks, and lyrical themes among themselves in relative isolation.

Many of these projects were connected to Three 6 Mafia in one way or another, and all of them used Satan and the devil as metaphors for depression, anxiety, and the stress of life in the city. As Memphis producer and rapper Lil Grimm said in 2017, “We were just talking about the inside struggle. We were trying to figure out what life was about. We didn’t even know what we were doing. We were making music for the ’hood and trying to heal ourselves.” In the song “Devil Shit,” Grimm’s internal struggle is conveyed through a slowed-down Isley Brothers sample overlaid with haunted-house sound effects, along with lyrics like, “Brought up in a church but full of hell is where my mind is at.”

The backbone of Memphis rap in the mid-’90s was tape trading, and many artists would sell their albums directly to their fans at shows or out of the trunk of a car. Now, these cassette tapes have become impossibly rare as collectors, mostly in Europe, buy them up online for prices that would have been unheard of 20 years ago. And the combination of the growing fame of Memphis rap, the scarcity of the original physical media, and those spooky-ooky sound effects producers like Lil Grimm and Tommy Wright III worked into their songs created an urban legend originating in the internet’s home for unprovable bullshit: the /x/ paranormal board on 4chan. Specifically, the legend of the “Memphis rap sigils” was born in July 2017, when an anonymous user posted there:

Memphis Rap sigils refers to the worship of 8 Tracks that had mysterious properties imbued into them via horrorcore Memphis hip hop. Such as my copy of N****z Of Destruction.

The details of these “mysterious properties” are vague, which only helped the theory grow in several different bizarre directions on threads in tape collecting forums and on Reddit, as well as on 4chan itself. The wildest theory postulates that these sigils are coded messages signaling the location of the Nephilim, gigantic demigods from the ancient pre-Christian past that the U.S. military is hiding in underground bases deep in the Appalachian Mountains. This all ties in to flat-earthism, somehow—everything ties in to flat-earthism somehow, if you ask flat-earthers—as well as the popular “ancient aliens” theory, which speculates that the Nephilim aren’t fallen angels, but aliens who bred with Neanderthals to create modern humans. What this has to do with a bunch of guys making music inspired by gangster rap and horror movies clear across the state (Memphis is in west Tennessee, and the Appalachians east Tennessee) is unclear.

The remaining conspiracy theories tied to Memphis rap are all garden-variety occult stuff, revolving around the cassette tapes themselves as “sigils,” magical symbols used in ceremonial magic to call upon a particular supernatural entity. Traditionally, sigils take the form of seals, but all kinds of creative projects can be viewed as sigils: writings, films, paintings—even recordings. The idea is that songs like Maniac’s “Hellraiser” or H.O.H.’s “Livin’ In A Casket” were written with occult intention, and the tapes contain the energetic life force of people who were sacrificed by the artists as part of said rituals and embedded into the magnetic tape itself. A user on 4chan summed the general idea up thusly in October 2017:

Basically if you believe the Luciferian idea that it’s possible to take a life and manifest that energy into something that becomes real in a sort of ritual, there would be some kind of medium between the spirit world and the world we know to be true, the life energy/the death energy/the demon?/the magnetic taping in a cassette.

Of course, no one involved with the Memphis rap scene in the mid-’90s corroborates any of this. (It’s also predicated on the belief that everything rappers talk about in their lyrics is true, which is naïve in the extreme.) Not a single associated person has characterized the occult lyrics in Memphis horrorcore as anything but youthful rebellion, an edgy response to the violence they saw all around them. And occasionally artists (or their spouses) will pop up in comment sections to debunk rumors about themselves—like Maniac, who went on YouTube to clarify that he hadn’t been murdered by Satanists or whatever, he’s just producing instead of rapping now. A follow-up question asking if he or his friends worshipped the devil went unanswered, as it probably should have. Besides, one of the former members of H.O.H., Kevin Whitaker, eventually became a pastor.

The most likely explanation is that Memphis rap sigils are the online manifestation of the base human tendency to take something unfamiliar—something “other”—and reframe it in supernatural terms. Compare it to another Memphis phenomenon, the so-called “Voodoo Village” in the southwest part of town: Visiting this old homestead late at night and running away giggling was once a rite of passage for Memphis teenagers, but in reality it was nothing more than the home of a soft-spoken, reclusive Black artist named Washington James Harris. Harris expresses the unique personal beliefs his father taught him, a combination of Christianity and Masonic lore, through folk art, which is why his yard is covered in wooden crosses and stars. But none of the teenagers ever stop to ask him that, which is why, as of this writing, he’s put up a fence.

Even on 4chan, most know that Memphis horrorcore is just scary fun, like the poster who wrote in May 2018, “none of them were actually into it, they just liked the aesthetic. I’m exactly the same way myself, not saying it’s a bad thing. But none of these dudes were out there actually worshipping Satan. It’s just a look.” But it’s not hard to imagine that some of the key figures in the development of the scene might have gotten a kick out of the idea that their music could literally conjure up demons.

If there is anything to the idea of Memphis rap cassettes being cursed, it would be in the bloody history of the Bluff City itself, a site that has seen untold suffering of indigenous and Black people over the centuries. Maybe the echoes of all that pain reverberate through the air in that music-filled city along the Mississippi River, and maybe a cheap eight-track recorder picked up some of those echoes on a magical night in the mid-’90s when the stars were aligned and the energy was flowing just right. There is something about Memphis rap that will make your hair stand on end, as a user posted on the /memphisrap subreddit just two weeks ago:

I love Memphis rap and I listen to 3 6 and others everyday. I like dark beats and artists’ flows. Murder rap is not unique, everybody does that, but in Memphis that was darker and creepier. Thing is, why everybody rapped like they worshipped the devil? Were they really about that shit or just for rap?

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