8Ball & MJG Helped Lay Down the Blueprint for Southern Rap: Show Some Respect
Remember the 1995 Source Awards, when OutKast got booed, prompting Andre 3000 to grab the mic and declare that— "The south got something to say"? Yes, he was likely referencing his Dungeon Family cohorts, but he was probably also talking about 8ball & MJG.
Hailing from the Orange Mound area of Memphis, Tennessee, a city rich in musical history born from the strife of racist oppression and the resistant energy of the Civil Rights Movement, Eightball & MJG are arguably the cornerstone of southern rap as we currently know it.
The southern rappers who've been crowned as hip-hop's best, regardless of region, all owe a debt to the Tennessee duo—from Big K.R.I.T. to Killer Mike and T.I., and even newer artists like Future, Isaiah Rashad and 21 Savage. Ball & G didn't just influence Memphis and its surrounding area; they helped lay a blueprint for southern rap as we currently know it with their syrupy beats, perceptive rhymes about life and signature flow.
Earlier this month, Killer Mike, who was once sorta-labelmates with the duo back in 2008 when they briefly signed a distribution deal with T.I.'s Grand Hustle, called the pair "cultural heroes," pointing to their 25-year rap run. The Run The Jewels rapper paid homage to the group, featuring them as the first artists in his Rebels Outlaws and Legends series, benefitting entrepreneurs. A fitting tribute to one of the groups who directly inspired him and so many others in his rap lane.
Comin' Out Hard
The talent that comes from Memphis reads like a Who's Who List for black music. Al Green, Isaac Hayes, the Bar-Kays as well as Sam and Dave all called the city home. The legendary Stax Records whose roster was only rivaled by Motown in the late '60s and early '70s, also calls Memphis home. The blues-drenched rap style of Ball & G isn't surprising given the city's rich musical history. Add that to the poverty that veiled the city, which mostly consists of warehouse jobs, and you have a perfect environment to create soulful, raw music, which Ball & G did via their mainstream introduction to the rap world, 1993's classic, Coming Out Hard.
The album was a long time coming. MJG remembered the first time he met Ball, back in the junior high.
"It was seventh grade at Ridgeway High [School]," he told HipHopDX in 2010. "We took classes together, and we were two of the same. Every high school has cliques, and we ran with the weed-smoking, class cutting… damn near misfits. We weren’t the D-boys or the football players."
And that "misfit" mentality has come to define their sound. Sure, there were traces of the streets in their records, but mostly, Ball & G had lessons about life and living on your own terms. They talked of breaking out beyond your circumstances, and the importance of being aware of what's going on around you. Their scope and perspective can be heard in current artists like Big K.R.I.T., when he's analyzing himself and the world, or in T.I., when he's admitting he's vulnerable to temptations and "still ain't forgave" himself for it.
"If we're talking about the style of trap music that T.I. is laying claim to then you can go back to the early 90s with artists like UGK, The Geto Boys and 8Ball & MJG laying the foundation on which T.I.'s early career stands," DJ Wally Sparks, who's served as a tour DJ for Big KRIT, told The Boombox last year.
While 1993's Coming Out Hard was the duo's mainstream introduction, Ball & G weren't newbies to the rap scene. In the early '90s, the duo was featured on Memphis rap vet, DJ Squeeky's mixtapes, establishing Ball & G as popular local acts in the city's busy rap scene, which has always been an enormous influence on Atlanta hip-hop, with its quick, snappy high-hats and booming 808s.
"It's frustrating that Memphis hasn't gotten its credit, but at the same time it's understandable," Memphis music veteran DJ Howard Q explained in a 2006 interview with now-defunct Ozone Magazine. "You have artists like Play Fly that without radio could put out an album and sell 110,000 or 115,000 copies, Skinny [Pimp] sells 150,000 regionally, without radio. So, these guys were satisfied with the money they were making without being above ground Other artists could come to the city and hear the music, but because it wasn't on radio, they could take it back to larger markets."
"It was me and my n-gga from Suave House Records, Tony Draper/E-40 and the Click, Eightball & MJG, getting that independent paper..." —E-40, "Record Haters"
Memphis' visibility would change with Ball & G's seminal 1993 debut album, Coming Out Hard, on Tony Draper's Houston-based Suave House Records. The album not only helped put Memphis on the rap map but ultimately influenced Houston's rap scene as well. Ball & MJG were the indie label's flagship group, and thus, became one of the early artists to help pioneer the independent rap game.
The album, mostly produced by Ball & G, established them as innovative players on the rap scene, with a fresh, distinctive sound bred from their Memphis upbringing. While there were obvious similarities to the soulful, blues-laced productions coming from Rap-A-Lot's legendary, talented roster, which housed Scarface and The Geto Boys, as well as Houston's, UGK, who would go on to collaborate with the Memphis duo, 8ball & MJG's Memphis twang and signature Memphis-inspired quick hi-hats and drum snaps, helped separate their sound from the others.
"We’re all around the Blues, Country, Rock & Roll, Soul… all the stuff from Stax [Records], Al Green and the Gospel from the church. It’s a very musical city, so we’ve always been around that growing up. It has influenced our sound a lot," MJG explained to DX in 2010.
Songs like the title track, "Pimps," and "Armed Robbery" defined the album, which set up their follow-up album, 1994's On The Outside Looking In. That album peaked at No. 11 on the U.S. R&B and Hip-Hop Chart, and produced one of their signature songs, "Lay It Down" featuring Suave House labelmates, Thorough and Crime Boss. That track, produced by 8Ball & MJG— whose talents behind the boards often are overlooked— remains one of the most influential songs in southern rap music.
"We pioneered a lot of shit but we just don't get the credit," MJG said in a 2006 interview with Ozone Magazine. 'We're kinda underrated. What's the full answer and reason? I don't know myself."
Space Age Pimpin'
In 1995, they'd further established their lasting legacy with their third release, On Top of the World. The album, arguably their most complete record, saw both rappers come into their own lyrically and conceptually, perfecting the style they first exhibited on Coming Out Hard and On The Outside Looking In. This is the album that helped fully create the blueprint for a lot of southern rap as we know it— raw, honest, soulful, extremely lyrical.
Tracks like "Friend Or Foe" featuring E-40, Mac Mall and Big Mike, laid the first "no new friend" philosophy, a full year before JAY-Z did it on his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt. MJG lyrically trumped virtually everyone who was rapping at the time with his quick-fire verse. Both Ball and G were at their height, showcasing that the south didn't only "have something to say"— they were saying something you needed to hear.
"Southern funkadelic preacher, I'm here to reach ya/Don't be so prejudiced, and let my holy words teach ya," Ball raps on one of the album's standouts "For Real."
Ask your favorite southern rapper who's at the top of their lyrical list, and Ball or MJG will probably be high up there. While the Dungeon Family was bringing Afro-futurism to the forefront with their other-worldly, spiritual offerings via Goodie Mob's classic Soul Food and OutKast's career-shaping, ATliens, Ball & G were Space-Age pimpin', exploring their own philosophies via the lazy guitar liks, wallowing bass lines and stark drums that laced fellow Memphis native, T-Mix's, production on On Top of The World.
By 1995, word of Ball and G's range had gotten around, spawning future collaborations with everyone from E-40 to MC Ren and Redman.
Their subsequent solo releases, 8Ball's 1998 album, Lost—which peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 (and made him the first solo southern rap artist ever to platinum)— and MJG's grossly under-appreciated, No More Glory released in 1997, showed that unlike a lot of groups, where the talent is a bit uneven, that wasn't the case with the Orange Mound duo.
"If you listen to a lot of rappers and their actual sound, their rap cadence, you can hear the influence they had as far as the sound," says Maurice "Moetown" Lee, the duo's former manager, who helped them ink their deal with Bad Boy South in the mid-2000s. "People think they weren't really hip-hop, but if you listen to 'Pimp' and 'Comin Out Hard,' they had the hip-hop scratches in their records. Their cadence was a New York cadence mixed with a southern drawl, especially Ball, so people started emulating that style. If you listen to 'Lyrics of a Pimp,' you can hear the KRS-One and Big Daddy Kane influences. Their rhyme-style influenced a whole different movement down south."
Ball & G's final album on Suave House, the quietly soulful In Our Lifetime Vol. 1, came in 1999—which featured a memorable collaboration with OutKast, "Throw Your Hands Up" and was produced entirely by T-Mix and Dungeon Family's Mr. DJ. By that time, it was clear that their laid-back, sometimes gritty sound strayed left at the height of the bling era, which dominated southern rap in the early 2000s.
Even still, their influence was felt via the slew of hits that emerged from Houston rappers at the time–from Chamillionaire to Mike Jones and Slim Thug. And in 2000, they released Space Age 4Eva on JCOR, which debuted at No. 39 on Billboard and featured another signature track, "Pimp Hard."
Ball & G would reach another career height, however, in 2004, when they signed with Diddy, who at the time was trying to capitalize on the south's newfound popularity via his Bad Boy South imprint. While there, they released Living Legends, which is their highest charting album to date as a duo, debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 off of the strength of club hits, "You Don't Want Drama" and "Don't Make." Lyrically, the album was vintage Ball & G, although this was the first time in years they didn't work extensively with Memphis producer T-Mix, marking a distinct sonic change in the album.
"Every experience that we’ve had, from Suave [House] to JCor to Bad Boy, and even now, is still a learning experience," Ball admitted to DX back in 2010. "As far as our labels, or whatever we do in the future, all of that was learning for us."
While their impact is undeniable, 8Ball & MJG have mostly stayed low-key since releasing their last album in 2010, Ten Toes Down on Grand Hustle/E-1, separating them from their contemporaries.
Take UGK for instance. Although they were already stars in the south and on the west coast, Bun B and Pimp C's 1999 link up with JAY-Z for "Big Pimpin" gave them mainstream recognition. And even after Pimp C's untimely death in 2007, Bun B has remained a present, influential force on the hip-hop scene.
But Ball and G's status as legends, while acknowledged in southern rap circles, hasn't entirely permeated across hip-hop's landscape as it should.
There are probably a lot of reasons for this, as MJG pointed out way back in '06. They're not in the limelight as much as say, Bun B, who maintains a steady presence via teaching gigs at Rice University and his entertaining cooking show on Instagram, or even Scarface, who has enjoyed mainstream recognition as a GOAT ever since his 2000 album, The Fix. Ball and G have also had several shady deals over the course of their 25-year career. And then there's the reality that Memphis still hasn't gotten it's just due when it comes to analyzing the city's impact on southern rap.
"I don't think they got the notoriety because of their personalities," Lee reasons. "They're 'I'd rather do than talk about it' type of people. They also went through a long period where they were anti-mainstream as far as the media outlets. If you listen to a lot of their records, they talk about being slighted by the media and disrespected— I've witnessed it a few times. But if you look at accomplishments and things they've done, Ball was the first southern solo artist to go platinum, period. And he was the first independent artist period— not just southern— to go multiplatinum with the Lost album. Even small things, if you think about the first time you saw Tyson Bedford was in their video, "My Homeboy's Girlfriend" before he was a known model. They were the first dudes doing the ads in The Source, on the independent grind."
Although overwhelming mainstream acknowledgment of their contributions has mostly alluded them, 8Ball & MJG have established themselves as living legends, creating a musical legacy that should be upheld and respected. As MJG says, they're space age pimpin' forever.
"That term should always be fresh and should represent what’s next and what’s new," MJG said in his 2010 interview with DX. "As long as you use the phrase “Space Age,” it lets folks know that you’re trying to be ahead with what’s next. It’s a whole format. Just put that in the dictionary, “Space Age Pimpin.' Then a picture of us next to it with the name 8Ball & MJG."
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