Two days before Christmas, the Hi-Tone in Midtown Memphis was the scene of an all-star gala rap show with a live band, featuring many of Memphis’ best lyricists, old and new. The DJ and announcer for the occasion was none other than Radio Memphis‘ DJ Bay, and the line-up of performers included such Memphis icons as Tori Whodat, Al Kapone and Frayser Boy, as well as guest appearances from Memphis veterans like DJ Zirk. But there were also some outstanding new artists in the house, including a new Memphis rapper named Wala Wyse who was quite impressive, as well as the solo debut of Tune C, Al Kapone’s long-time hype man and a former member of the 1990’s hip-hop group NationWide. Tune performed his new single “Naturally”, one of five recent songs that have been recorded toward his upcoming album The Great Flood. Also fun was an impromptu collaboration between the band’s drummer and DJ Bay during an extended break between live acts. Such drum/DJ duets have caught on in markets like New York, Vegas and Miami, but have not been seen as often in the Memphis market. Altogether, it was a cheerful holiday tribute to our city’s hip-hop past and future.
The old brick building at 1911 Poplar Avenue plays a large role in Memphis music history. It was the home of Kang Rhee martial arts, where Elvis Presley once took lessons. Then it became the Hi-Tone, one of Memphis’ most beloved music venues in the modern era. Finally, after a few years of vacancy, it has reopened as Sports Junction, ostensibly a sports bar, but with a music stage and hookahs. The live music policy is relatively hip, featuring the latest incarnation of Otis Logan’s 4 Soul Band, as the original line-up had lost members to the cruise ship business. This version featured a saxophone and a trombonist, the latter of which was also one of the evening’s two vocalists. The new 4 Soul line-up sounds as good as the old, and the new venue is pleasant, even if the old, divey feel it had in its days as the Hi-Tone has been replaced by a brighter feel. There is also a food menu, although I didn’t try any of the food options, and at least on this past Saturday, there was no cover charge for the live music. However, the venue is 21 and up only, and I did see two younger women turned away at the door.
1911 Poplar Av
Memphis, TN 38104
Memphis has almsot no Caribbean expatriate community at all, and as a result, little Caribbean music either. What Jamaican music comes through the city is largely due to the efforts of one band, the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, who not only perform and promote their own music around Memphis, but who also arrange for out of town ska and reggae bands to come to the city and perform, such as Nashville’s Roots Of A Rebellion, who opened up for them at the Hi-Tone in Midtown in early June. CCDE has developed something of a cult following in the Memphis area, and their authentic approach to dub and reggae is refreshing in an era where computerized digital styles are all the rage.
My homeboy Otis Logan had told me about an event that Devin Steel of K-97 was sponsoring at the Hi-Tone called the Kickback. The party was to feature several DJ’s, back by Otis on drums, and Otis’ band 4 Soul was supposed to play as well, so I decided to go. The new Hi-Tone on Cleveland seems somewhat smaller than the old Hi-Tone, but it filled up quickly. For most of the evening, Otis was on drums behind several different DJ’s, soloing, adding fills and breakdowns and amplifying the grooves. Briefly, the whole 4 Soul Band played behind the DJ’s as well. The drum and DJ format is new to Memphis, but the crowd seemed to enjoy themselves.
I had seen online that a block party was being held in the Crosstown neighborhood along North Cleveland Street near the old Sears building that they are hoping to turn into artist’s residences and a medical clinic, so I headed down there around 6 PM, and found things well under way, with plenty of art happenings going on, an outdoor stage with a DJ and later musicians from the nearby Community Music School of the Visible Music College, and a food truck from Revival Southern Food. Crosstown Arts, who was sponsoring the block party, also has taken over the Crosstown Flea Market and it was open special later hours. A corner of the flea market is being turned into a headquarters for the Story Booth after-school program, a Crosstown initiative that is centered around creative writing and music and seems somewhat similar to the superb Neighborhood Story Project in New Orleans. Other highlights included spoken word poetry in the gallery next to the Community Music School, and a hot chocolate tent from Tart (“Taste the Art”), a coffee house that will be opening at Cooper and Elzey in the Cooper-Young neighborhood in late November.