Two years ago, Knoxville's hip-hop scene was totally underground. Few people who weren't actively involved even knew it existed. It did exist, centered around a handful of performers in the east part of the city and south, in Alcoa, and old-school, progressive acts like fluid engineerz. But mainstream hip-hop had almost no profile outside a few city neighborhoods, a handful of clubs, and the University of Tennessee campus.
Something happened in the summer of 2006, though—Alcoa rapper Mr. Mack's single, "Where You From (Da 865)," a fully formed Southern crunk banger, was one of the top summer hits on WKHT 104.5 FM, and the remix follow-up, featuring Memphis star Yo Gotti, stayed on the air for months. (Knoxville didn't even have a hip-hop radio station on the FM dial until the 21st century.) It seemed, for a little while, like East Tennessee's hip-hop community had come of age.
The Knoxville area hasn't quite turned into a premier outpost of Southern rap in the meantime. But it's a different environment. Consider the Alcoa trio Bloody Knuckle, which is releasing its debut album, We All We Got, this weekend. The members of the group—Lil G, Lil Dee, and Magic—were all casually involved in production and MC-ing when "Where You From" became a local hit.
"It all started because I knew how to work programs from watching DJ Doink," says Lil G. "We were just doing some stuff on our own, and then Magic started rapping with us. It started at my house, because I had a little experience and knew what I was doing."
For the last 10 months, they've been working at Mack's South Knoxville studio with DJ Doink. (Mack appears on the song "R.I.P.," and Nashville rapper Allstar also has a guest spot.)
"Right now, the whole purpose is to get the album out to the public," Magic says. "We want to get a fan base here as we work on the next album. We hope to go further, but right now we feel like we just need to get Knoxville... It just needs somebody to break it on through and bring Knoxville out."
The song projected as the lead single, "Hustle Hard," is a grinding, minor-key Southern street anthem in the Atlanta tradition of T.I. and Young Jeezy. Doink's production is sharp, made up of dark stabs of synthesizer and horns and stomping beats punctuated by quick blasts of snare drum, and the group demonstrates well-choreographed vocal interplay. Even if the lyrics rarely rise above standard street boasts ("Married to the money, Ben Franklin was my best man"), the chorus is a rollicking, rolling gang chant: "Hustle hard, n----, hustle harder than that/Hustle smart, n----, hustle smarter than that/Live large, n----, live larger than that." (In order to get radio airplay, most of the songs on the disc will require editing.)
The most imaginative songs are "Get the Hate Out Ya Blood," with overtones of Houston's syrup-thick, slowed-down style, and the sly, alcohol-fueled tall tale "I Been Smoking," which name-checks half-a-dozen brands of high-end booze and twice as many euphemisms for "drunk." The woozy, '80s-influenced beat mimics the song's buzzed-up path through, of all places, Gatlinburg.
"It's Southern crunk," Magic says. "It has that Southern swing to it, it's got that crunk feel to it. But it's lyrical, too. For a long time, the North wasn't giving Southern rappers any credit. They were good, but they weren't lyrical. That wasn't our focus. Now it's lyrical but still Southern. Now Lil Wayne and Jeezy and T.I. have sort of sealed the deal about Southern rappers being lyrical. Lil Jon used to sum it up, and that's not the way it is anymore."