In his continuing journey through regional rap scenes, hip hop scholar Noz heads to Memphis to meet the slow-and-low, 808-bass wizard, DJ Spanish Fly.
It’s difficult to imagine what Memphis rap music would sound like without the influence of DJ Spanish Fly. Serving as a house DJ at M-Town Clubs No Name and Expo in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Fly spearheaded a generational transition from the disco era towards a slower, more aggressive sound driven by 808 thuds and gangsta themes. His taste – and his own warped bedroomish raps, tacked onto the beginning of his deep catalogue of mixtapes – helped to outline a loose mould of bass heavy menace that later day Memphis acts like Triple 6 Mafia, Playa Fly, DJ Zirk and Tommy Wright III would turn into a city-defining underground hustle. The sound spread quickly from there, to trunks around the country by way of hand-to-hand dubs and embedded itself deeply into the DNA of contemporary Southern rap.
Last autumn, I met up with Fly in a North Memphis park, where he pulled up in a big black SUV from which he proceeded to unleash one of his vintage mixes, featuring classics from Too $hort, New Orleanian’ legend DJ Jimi and even “Drop The Bass”, from neighbouring Nashville clique The Blow Pop Crew (who you might remember from a previous instalment of this column). The rattle of Fly’s subs, by tones beamed in from two decades prior, went mostly unnoticed to the kids on the flooded basketball court. But Fly’s presence, perhaps more notably, did catch the attention of one of the park’s elder patrons: a wandering old head brown-bagging a tall can staggered up when heard the DJ make mention of his moniker. “I remember you from Club No Name.”
RBMA: How’d you get started DJing?
SPANISH FLY: I was raised in the church. Both of my fathers was pastors, my step-father and biological father too. My step-father, the one who really raised me, he was blind, he was a preacher. So, by him being blind he had to have somebody to guide him around to different revivals here in Memphis, in Ohio, and every Sunday morning he used to go to the radio station and do a little 30 minute set on air. When I got him in there, he’d go into Studio A, and while he’s in Studio A, I’m in Studio B with the big DJ sitting back with all these buttons and knobs on the board. I’m like “Man look at all them knobs! One day I want to be able to do this!” So, that inspired me to be a DJ. Then my mom bought me a little record player for Christmas, and I used to be the DJ of the house. We moved back to Memphis [from Illinois], we moved over into the Clementine Apartments. Hip hop came out and I started doing all the hip hop things – breakdancing, beatboxing, shit like that. I was one of the very few in Memphis doing the hip hop thing. It all started off with “Planet Rock”.
The True Blue Crew was my first little rapping group. It consisted of me, Ty The Fly, the other DJ. Mighty Rappin Fishbone was an MC out of Chicago and Chili Sauce and probably a couple MCs. It was just a little crew out of Clementine when b-boys came along, and we was graffiti writing on the wall, we was just doing all this shit. It started that I was the DJ and Mighty Rappin Fishbone was the emcee. We just didn’t have nothing to do, and that was fun to do. We weren’t recording then, recording wasn’t big back then, not at all. It was right there at the party. That was the thing – fuck an album, fuck a mixtape, fuck all that shit. We needed to rock in front of some motherfuckers. Whether on the corner or at a party. We used to set up and just do the shit. For example one time we was throwing a party at a little house and went out, and we sold some blood [to pay] for the little refreshments and stuff like that. We just wanted to make a party. Fuck the money, it wasn’t about no motherfucking money then.
RBMA: You probably had no idea that there was even money to be made.
SPANISH FLY: Hell naw! We knew if you DJ’d a party for 40 or 50 dollars, man, you did good as fuck! Shit, making 40 bucks at 16 or 17 years old for doing some shit you like. But anyway… I went on to win a contest through the True Blue Crew which got me on as DJ Spanish Fly at the Club No Name and Club Expo.
RBMA: When did that start for you?
SPANISH FLY: I want to say roughly about ’87 or ’88. I had dropped out of school once I started. I was making a little money so I dropped out in the end of the 11th Grade. I went back and got my GED a little while after that but I can’t even remember what goddamn year I would’ve graduated. I’d have to go look that shit up. Which ever year I was supposed to graduate in, it was like a year before that. I was 17 and you were supposed to be 18 to get in and 21 to drink back then. They was sneaking me in, man! [Laughs]
RBMA: What was the Memphis club scene was like back then?
SPANISH FLY: The club scene was like… shit… crazy! Because we was all young, really, sneaking in the clubs along with the elderlies. It was a change, it was a transition because they were disco-ing. They wasn’t hip hopping, they wasn’t – what we called it – gettin’ buck. “They ain’t gettin’ buck in there. They dancing to Dominatrix, they dancing to “Set It Off”, “Jam On It”.” They ain’t dancing to [Scarface]. They didn’t want to hear that shit, because you gonna get cut off the radio talking about “pushing rocks on the block.” Or “suck a motherfucker’s dick” and all that shit. So, it was like a secret, your momma and them didn’t want us playing that shit.
"I’ll be sitting back laughing every time I hear Drumma Boy do something with Drake or DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia do something or Yo Gotti do something, because it’s just an accomplishment, man."
RBMA: Who were some of the other DJs back then?
SPANISH FLY: Let me see… Sonny D was the DJ [at Club No Name] before I came. I replaced him in some kind of way. He was DJing there, a mixologist straight from Chicago. Then you had Ray The Jay, he was more of a MC, your Dolemite type of DJ. He was playing the disco songs and R&B songs. No hard shit, no “suck my dick” shit, no 2 Live Crew shit, none of that shit. Anything that was a hit on the radio, that was his thing. But he’d have you laughing like a motherfucker. You’d hear a motherfucker say “I’m looking for the type of woman that can suck the bumper off of a 1954 Cadillac.” Little jokes and shit while the music was going. And they was partying! He kept a packed floor. That was a different level of the game.
RBMA: When did the more vulgar, 808 driven bass stuff become the norm?
SPANISH FLY: Really back in the day when I [started] doing it. I just sit back now and be like damn, it really is true – what goes around comes around. Southern music is just doing exactly what it did when I did it but with more motherfuckers. [Motions to his car, from where NWA’s “Just Don’t Bite” is blasting] That’s probably what they grew up off for real. They probably was in they momma’s stomach! I swear they remember all that shit.
RBMA: That’s a long wave too, when you compare it to something like, say, disco. It’s been 25 years of that sound. What do you think accounts for such longevity?
SPANISH FLY: That’s the sound, that’s it. Forever and ever amen.
RBMA: Do you have any specific memories of those club nights?
SPANISH FLY: I remember one time when LL Cool J was here doing the gangsta walk. He was doing a show at the Mid-South Coliseum and some of them came along, and they was around doing the gangsta walk in the middle of the floor. LL, The DOC, I think they was on the same ticket and they all ended up doing it.
RBMA: How did the gangsta walkin’ start?
SPANISH FLY: Like I was saying about Ray The Jay, he was playing the disco songs and he’d have a dance floor where they’d dance. [Imitates more traditional, disco style dancing] That’s what they was doing before us. But, when I’d come up and DJ they’d get buck. They’d start getting around doing the buck dance. Once people found out what I was and I was about – that shit, the dope shit, the hard music, the 808s and shit – it was like how is how is these two [groups] of motherfuckers gonna be able to dance at the same time? Ray The Jay is up there with the daance time, they in a line dancing and these fools want to come through the line like a snake. The people was alright with it but Ray didn’t want it. He was the type of DJ who’d run shit in his house. That motherfucker would cuss your ass out. So, these niggas coming up and asking me, “Fly what time you goin’ on? We gonna start buckin’ again. We gonna buck this thing off.” And then when it was known that it was time to do the buck jump when I come on, that’s when it was on because everybody was organised. I came up and you’d just see ’em. A good 300 people could fit on the dance floor, no problem. And they’d go in a big circle, a big wide circle. You could feel the air hit you and shit when they was goin’ around buckin’. And if you didn’t know about buckin’ you’d just go around with ’em! You gonna learn it, trust me, you’ll learn.
RBMA: Where’d the name come from?
SPANISH FLY: Just getting buck, like you on a horse.
RBMA: How did the mixtape hustle start?
SPANISH FLY: The tapes started back at Club No Name and Club Expo. We used to sell those at the front window or give them away. All the songs that would never have a chance on the radio. That was the number one rule. Which was all the cussing songs. So, it started like that at first. Then ended up with me going to the house, making up my own song and just sneaking it at the beginning like, “They ain’t gonna like my shit, I’m just gonna sneak my little shit at the beginning.” So I’d go and make a little “Smokin’ Onion” song and kick it off with my shit DJ Spanish Fly… Oh Word Productions. Then after that song would be your Geto Boys, your Run DMC, your Mantronix and all them. Little did I know was that they liked my song the most! All the other songs was bumping too, don’t get me wrong. We had stuff that couldn’t nobody get. And that’s what everybody wants is the hard to get shit. That’s why I advise anybody to stay underground if you can. Just for the hell of it, just stay underground. Because everybody wants the underground shit.
“Man somebody is making tapes with all this dope shit on there, this shit make you get buck.” Then I’d come out with a Volume. I was coming out with Volumes all the time but I wouldn’t number them so motherfuckers wouldn’t know which is which. [Laughs] They were like, “Man did you make one last week?” “Yeah I got it, here, here, here.” He’d come back, “Man I already got that one, Fly!” So, I had to go and start putting the numbers on ’em.
RBMA: Now when you made these tapes how many would you have sold of each?
SPANISH FLY: I probably sold a good hundred. Me, myself. But you had bootleggers. You had corner stores, stereo shops that had DJ Spanish Fly cassettes just there. They’d run them off themselves, I guess. And this was everywhere, man. People used to [take them] to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the Freaknik in Atlanta, wherever they’d go, those would be the times that the people would come to the club and get a lot of tapes. Little did we know they was taking them off and people would be like, “Damn that’s that Memphis music!”
RBMA: Yeah it seems like that kind of Memphis energy has spread a lot over the past two decades.
SPANISH FLY: Yeah, all over the world, and that’s what I be proud about. I’ll be sitting back laughing every time I hear Drumma [Boy] do something with Drake or [DJ] Paul [of Three 6 Mafia] do something or [Yo] Gotti do something, because it’s just an accomplishment, man.
RBMA: What’s the relationship with Memphis music and New Orleans music?
SPANISH FLY: Well, the only thing I can say as far as that is that there’s a song I used to play called “Triggerman” [“Drag Rap” by The Showboys], and I used to put it on the little mix. New Orleans did a song called “Where They At” by DJ Jimi and they sampled the “Triggerman” beat behind it. I had been playing it prior to that. I busted the song, it wasn’t even hitting. Something had happened with the album, or whatever. Nobody knew what it was. [New York] didn’t like it. But I started putting it [on the tapes] and that’s the only thing I gotta say New Orleans music got to do with Memphis music. After that DJ Jimi song they came out with numerous songs of that nature.
RBMA: But I hear a lot of New Orleans stuff on your old tapes. [New Orleans rapper MC Thick’s “Marrero” plays in the background]
SPANISH FLY: I made all those guys hot in Memphis!
RBMA: How were you finding this stuff?
SPANISH FLY: Just going up in the record store and buying the records. Back then they didn’t let you listen to it. Sound Warehouse on Poplar, they had a few shops around in Memphis that carried albums. I guess you heard about Johnny Phillips, who owns Select-O-Hits, they owned a record shop. He had stores – Poplar Tunes – and I would go into each one of them. I was doing the Budweiser No Name Hot Mix on the radio every saturday night and I had to be straight, shit. So, I’m going up in there, buying the records and throwing half of them away. Like I bought the “Triggerman” record, I would’ve thrown it away too, but when I heard that 808 come in at the middle part I was like, “Oh shit, where the fuck that come from?” So, I pretty much made guys hot in this region. It was hard to get them. It wasn’t no internet, it was the tape.
RBMA: Could you have ever imagined your tapes would travel so far?
SPANISH FLY: Not really. But right now at this point in time, don’t nothing really surprise me. Like I told you, I was just having fun. I didn’t know what was going on. But I’m proud of it man.
RBMA: Yeah, it’s wild that you’ve got guys halfway around the world posting your old tapes on YouTube.
SPANISH FLY: Yeah, because they looking at me like I’m the creator. I’m not saying this, I just read the internet like you do, but they looking at me like I started this shit. [Laughs]. You hear the people talking about it even here in Memphis. “Man don’t you remember… don’t you remember?” I’m like, “Yeah? For Real? I just was having fun.”