The Lo-Fi Lens: Interpretations of Memphis Rap Tape Rips in the Online Mediascape (2024)


This article interrogates the association between 1990s Memphis rap and the concept of lo-fi in journalistic discourse between 2012 and 2022. It employs Appadurai’s concept of mediascape in demonstrating how digitized Memphis rap tape recordings, or “tape rips,” have been portrayed through a lo-fi lens in electronic media. It discusses how using lo-fi tropes as a reference point to interpret the audio quality of these recordings curates imagined worlds that ultimately result in the judgment of people and places.


  • Digitization
  • lo-fi
  • mediascape
  • Memphis rap
  • recorded music
  • tape hiss

Introduction—Excavating the Image of Memphis

The 2006 movie Hustle & Flow features a monologue in which protagonist DJay envisions archeologists of a future civilization excavating famous landmarks: the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and Egypt’s pyramids. Alongside these monuments, he references an underground rap tape that “flew through Memphis like a motherf*cking typhoon.” DJay explains that if this new society ever wanted to know about him, or his city of Memphis, then this tape is all they would need to find. Here, as Pope states, the music is a “time capsule that carries the image of Memphis, Tennessee forward” (273).

In a way, the archeology DJay describes in Hustle & Flow is already underway. Unearthed from private collections and uploaded to Internet platforms, digitized Memphis rap cassette recordings or tape rips are now publicly available for a global audience to experience and interpret. Initially confined to specialist message boards, many unofficial rips have found their way onto major streaming platforms, such as YouTube and SoundCloud, with some gaining millions of streams. Reactions to this resurgence can be found in countless articles, blogs, blurbs, and comment sections across the web. As Pope describes above, much of this discourse treats the tape rips as time capsules carrying an image of Memphis. Often referenced is the concept of lo-fi, implying the aestheticization and semanticization of imperfection. When considered through a lo-fi lens, it is not just the music of these tape rips that is heard to carry an image of Memphis, but also their audio quality. What follows will question this listening practice, examining the portrayal of these recordings in contemporary journalistic articles. I will first contextualize the lo-fi concept by reviewing prior academic literature, before giving a brief description of 1990s Memphis rap. I will then consider how tape rips of Memphis rap have been interpreted in contemporary discourse. Lastly, I will examine how the perception of the 2010s rap group Raider Klan has been affected by the image of Memphis rap upheld by this discourse.

The discussion will be supported by Appadurai’s concept of mediascape, which refers “both to the distribution of the electronic capabilities to produce and disseminate information … and to the images created of the world created by these media.” Appadurai describes how audiences construct “imagined worlds” from the flow of images presented to them by mediascapes:

The lines between the “realistic” and the fictional landscape they see are blurred, so that the further away these audiences are from the direct experiences of metropolitan life, the more likely they are to construct “imagined worlds” which are chimerical, aesthetic, even fantastic objects, particularly if assessed by the criteria of some other perspective, some other “imagined world.” (299)

Mediascapes can affect understandings of musical scenes as well as associated people and places. Bennett has demonstrated how fans of the Canterbury Sound (a term coined in the 1960s to describe a trend of jazz-rock linked to the English town) have used fanzines, Internet newsletters, and websites as “a means of building a retrospective and ‘virtual’ scene.” In these ways, fans exchange “musical knowledges and aesthetic judgements,” which “result in particular ways of picturing the city of Canterbury and its role in the birth of the Canterbury Sound.” As a result, “… Canterbury becomes an urban mythscape, that is, a space which is mythologized as in some way informing the essential spirit of a body of live and recorded music” (98). Like Memphis rap tape rips, rare recordings of mid-1960s Canterbury bands were belatedly entered into the public sphere in the form of the Canterburied Sounds record series (94). Bennett observes that this series became the center of online discussion for contemporary fans, which may have contributed to the construction of the “musicalized mythscape of Canterbury” (95). A similar fate can be said to have befallen Memphis, as individuals with indirect experience of its early rap scene contribute to the construction of an imagined Memphis through online discourse centered on tape rips.

Like many of the commentators I quote, though, I have only ever experienced 1990s Memphis and its music culture indirectly through online media. This article may, therefore, be considered a case of self-regulation: an outsider questioning a largely outsider perspective. I will query what Memphis rap tape rips have been said to signify in media articles, highlighting disparities and contradictions between sources, and offering alternative interpretations. The aim is to demonstrate and question how areas of online discourse in the Memphis rap mediscape might curate the construction of an imagined Memphis. First, though, it is necessary to discuss the concept of lo-fi, which is so often a formative part of the constructed Memphis propagated in contemporary discourse.

Lo-Fi and 1990s Memphis Rap Tapes: The Concept and Aesthetic of Lo-Fi

The term lo-fi began life as an “ironic inversion” of high fidelity or hi-fi (Strachan 307). Whilst hi-fi recordings supposedly represent recorded sound realistically, lo-fi recordings instead offer an uncanny, distorted, and noisy version of events. Grajeda notes that lo-fi gained popularity as a buzzword in the music press during the 1990s, where it was used to label a range of alternative music. This played a key role in the emergence of lo-fi music as a “discursive formation”, with newspapers and music magazines functioning as an “organizing principle for fans, writers, and industry insiders” (358). Thus, the concept of lo-fi was re-shaped in the public consciousness, and the word became more than a label for inaccurate or noisy audio. Strachan explains that the word has developed a dual usage:

It is at the same time used as a generic term (referring to a particular group of acts and type of music with similar formal and sonic characteristics) and in a wider sense to refer to a set of production techniques, production values or to describe the overall sound of an individual recording. (307)

Jones boils down this definition, describing lo-fi as “a recording that sounds as if it were produced in a non-professional setting.” To him, the signification of amateurism “stems from perceived sonic imperfection.” Here, “sonic imperfection” is defined as the transgression of “broadly accepted modes of professional music production” (34). For Jones, then, lo-fi not only refers to audio quality, as in the original sense of the term, but also extends to aspects of performance, such as imperfect intonation or technique (42). To Grajeda, what constitutes lo-fi has been set by a “dual aspect of amateurism (in terms of performance) and primitivism or minimalism (in terms of equipment and recording processes).” This, he observes, raises a debate as to whether lo-fi music is “a question of aesthetics or economics” (357). However, writing in 2012, Kromhout states that the issue has been resolved: “Whereas with earlier examples of lo-fi, such as the cassette-culture of the early eighties, the primary reason for lo-fi recording was a lack of money, it now has become a deliberate artistic choice” (1). Harper, on the other hand, claims that phonographic imperfections signify amateurism regardless of whether a given record was made vocationally or avocationally. He explains that “amateurism can be a performance just as much as—if not more than—a natural state” (“Lo-Fi” 13). Jones adds that this “performed amateurism” is sometimes accepted in lo-fi discourse, since “for some, part of the honesty of lo-fi was an open acknowledgment of artistic intentionality and posturing” (54).

Central to the concept of lo-fi, though, is the assignment of aesthetic value to recordings themselves, as Jones explains:

In the face of the newly commonplace paradigm of crystal clear digital audio, lo-fi argued that musical meaning wasn’t found necessarily in the content of musical expression, but in the means through which it was expressed—namely, through its production values. (57)

Newton notes that the mere presence of sonic imperfection is not enough to make a recording lo-fi. It depends, she states, on active participation by both performers and listeners (54). Supper highlights that some lo-fi artists curate a specific lo-fi listening mode, using album liner notes and promotional blurbs to draw attention to sonic imperfections of their records (253). This curation invites listeners to hear them as meaningful and appreciate them aesthetically. Supper calls this mode “listening for the hiss,” with “hiss” serving as a stand-in for the range of sonic imperfections associated with lo-fi music (257).Footnote1 The use of the word “hiss” as shorthand here reflects its metonymic use in lo-fi discourse, where it may refer to sonic imperfection in general. To narrow down the frame of reference, I will use Harper’s term “phonographic imperfection” when specifically referring to the audio quality of music recordings (17).

Although some artists curate “listening for the hiss,” this is not to say that listeners cannot use the mode of their own accord. Lo-fi listening is not dependent on liner notes. However, it can be tricky to determine what aspects of a lo-fi recording should be “listened for” without artist curation. For instance, when a recording is transferred from one audio format to another (as when an analog recording is digitized), it isn’t always clear which imperfections were part of the original and which have been introduced by the transfer process:

Digital copies of cassette albums … that are available online vary considerably in their degree of analogue lo-fi effects, effects which may have been caused by non-optimal use or maintenance of either the cassettes themselves (over many years) or of the equipment used to reproduce them for digital transfer. This often makes isolating specific recording imperfections that would have been heard upon release by those participating in popular music discourse somewhat difficult. (Harper, “Lo-Fi” 16)

Without curation from artists, listeners must infer which phonographic imperfections they should attend to, and what they should ignore. Yet, when phonographic imperfections are “listened for,” they have the potential to signify numerous meanings.

Grajeda links phonographic imperfection to inexpensive, low-grade equipment, explaining that this technology “produces an altogether rough and ragged sound quality, often failing to mask hum, static, tape hiss, and other noises endemic to the very process of recording” (356). Emily Dolan notes how phonographic imperfections “break the illusion of an unmediated experience with the music” and indexically “draw attention to the technologies behind the production.” This, she posits, conveys a sense of honesty, which “does not arise from the illusion of unmediated communication … but rather from openly emphasizing the process of mediation” (464). According to Jones, many lo-fi artists of the 1990s exploited this notion, and actively encouraged their recording equipment to hiss and distort as a “badge of honesty” (77). Hibbett agrees that “when one hears the crude ‘makings’ of the song … one comes to trust it as both honest and real.” An underlying reason for this is the belief that more conventional, “polished” studio recordings are dishonest: “… from the indie perspective, mainstream production is understood as one that masks ….” He suggests that listeners may, therefore, hear “a kind of blue collar integrity” in sonic imperfection, describing this “aesthetics of working class deprivation” as forwarding a distinction from the mainstream (62).

Aragão expands on this distinction, positing that such imperfections give listeners a sense of immersion in the domestic spaces where amateur musicians often create their music. This, he explains, is because such imperfections are not typically present in professional recordings (57). Similarly, Jones states that “auxiliary noise” produced by music technology signifies the “fortuitous, amateurish effects of an ad-hoc recording situation” (77).

The phonographic imperfections of analog recording equipment are also commonly associated with the past. Stan Link argues that “transduction noise” compels us to experience “the reproduction, rather than the original—the document rather than the event.” This is linked, he states, to noise’s effect on the signal it accompanies: “noise ages a signal, actively ripens it.” Thus, through noise, “the signal becomes ‘authenticated’ through its embodiment of time’s passage” (39). Elsewhere, Harper explains that associations between phonographic imperfection and the past were exploited in an iteration of lo-fi emergent in the 2000s. This was “less concerned with the anti-commercial resonance of lo-fi,” and more with “archaism in media and musical idiom” (“Lo-Fi” 378). Here, “phonographic imperfections framed and problematized the music, suggesting metaphors of historicizing obfuscation—ghostliness, memory and decay” (“Lo-Fi” 378–79). These associations don’t only affect the interpretation of recordings and their music. Phonographic imperfections can also signify archaic behaviors and practices on the part of musicians and producers. Harper observes that a noisy recording therefore “suggests distance from the influence of modernity, taste and civilization, perhaps a kind of naive distance from norms,” adding that “one of the terms of praise regularly applied to lo-fi and similar musics was that it was ‘primitive’” (“‘Backwoods’” 3). Combined, Link and Harper’s statements paint phonographic imperfections as having the capacity to turn recordings into mysterious documents, perhaps created by enigmatic characters.

All these associations are etched on the lo-fi lens. But, before demonstrating how they apply to Memphis rap tape rips, I will first contextualize the sub-genre of Memphis rap as it existed in the 1990s. As Robinson notes, “Memphis’ contributions to contemporary hip-hop is myriad and complex, and in many ways, subtle and obscure” (550). The following summary will give focus to aspects of Memphis rap relevant to the articles discussed in the analysis section, which primarily concern music recordings from the 1990s.

Lo-Fi and 1990s Memphis Rap Tapes: ’90s Memphis Rap, Recording Practices, and Tape Rips

According to Robinson, the most distinctive characteristics of the Memphis rap sound are its “continuous” sixteenth-note high-hat cymbals and “sharp snare drum” (551). In the 1990s, these rhythmic elements were typically provided by digital rhythm composers such as the BOSS DR660, and the BOSS DR-5. Often supporting these rhythms were samples from Stax soul, funk, and horror film soundtracks, as well as looping lyrical hooks sampled from other Memphis rap tapes. As an alternative to sampling, looping melodic lines from synthesizers or pitched drum machine hits (such as synthesized cowbells) were also common. Productions were mostly slower than those of other styles of hip hop (Robinson 551). As producer DJ Spanish Fly describes, “It was a wicked, 808, slow, dope groove” (Kimbrough, “Interview”). Raps often flowed in eighth or sixteenth note rhythms on the beat, or in triplets against it.

Robinson notes that Memphis rap is “marked by a Southern articulation of gangsta,” which incorporates “the pimping and violence reflective of the city’s persistent and often widespread poverty” (550). Bloomquist and Hanco*ck explain that many Memphis artists “did not simply celebrate the gang banging lifestyle” but rather “personalized gangstaism” by “conveying the real world necessity for pimping and hustling in the all-too-common abandoned Black, urban setting” (6). Some groups ventured from this “Southern-gangsta-pimp sound” into “Southern horror rap,” influenced by heavy-metal and goth culture, and promoted suitably dark personas alongside satanic imagery (563–65). Miller gives all this a historical context:

The lyrical and philosophical perspective of Memphis-based rappers is often described as “dark and menacing,” qualities that could just as easily be linked to the haunting Delta Blues that once flourished in the area, as to the bleak economic circ*mstances faced by many Memphians in this majority African American city.

Another integral part of Memphis rap was the cassette tape, which was the primary medium for recording and disseminating the music throughout the city and surrounding areas. As cassettes were “the principal way in which early hip hop music was circulated” (Harrison 290), it is not surprising that they were used to distribute early Memphis rap. In and around the city, cassettes were distributed both in an official capacity (by small labels or independent artists) and unofficially (by bootleggers or on unauthorized mixtape compilations). According to Robinson, “The mixtape market was everywhere:” Cassettes could be bought from stereo shops, clubs, music events, and skating rinks (563). However, it is the Internet that has allowed the early Memphis rap sound to spread worldwide, with online communities forming around an enthusiasm for vintage recordings.

Today, anyone with an interest in 1990s Memphis rap can readily access digitized cassettes for download or streaming. As music journalist Gino Sorcinelli reports, thousands of tapes have been transferred to digital audio formats and uploaded to the web. Some uploads are official, whilst others are provided by “YouTube preservationists,” who have taken to uploading digitized tapes unofficially to streaming platforms (“Rise”). The digitization process typically involves playing a cassette into a digital recording device. Any imperfections embedded in the tape from previous recording and copying processes are also digitized, alongside any imperfections resulting from playback issues during the digitization process. Many digitized Memphis rap tapes available online exhibit phonographic imperfections to varying degrees.

As summarized earlier in this article, there are various ways that phonographic imperfections might be interpreted when considered through a lo-fi lens, including those featured in ’90s Memphis rap tape rips. Indeed, there are similarities between how underground hip hop and lo‑fi indie rock or pop were produced in this decade. Robinson recounts:

Not unlike the beginnings of hip hop in most regions, Memphis hip hop began in basem*nts, attics, and closets of shotgun houses, the practice rooms of university music buildings, and anywhere else artists could set up a drum machine, microphone, and recording devices. (550)

Some Memphis rap producers have provided accounts of their early production practices in interviews, which tend to describe a domestic setting. Influential producer DJ Squeeky recalls starting music production in 1992 at 16 or 17 years of age, using a modest bedroom studio. This consisted of a 4‑track cassette recorder, mixer, and sampler (Ivy, “DJ Squeeky”). He acknowledges a general lack of technical knowledge at that time: “We didn’t know nothing about mic booths and all that stuff. We had the mic booth, all the equipment, and everything all in one room.” This arrangement, he remembers, afforded spontaneity: “We had the microphone standing in the middle of the room. You just come in and you drop” (Ivy “Q & A With DJ Squeeky”). Another producer, Grimm from the Memphis rap group Children of the Corn, recalls his mother buying his first drum machine: “We manipulated my mom into getting me a DR‑5.” He explains the entirety of his setup: “I had one of those little DR‑5 Dr. Rhythm joints and I had a Gemini sampler. Back in those days you had the little 4‑tracks, so we had four tracks to do what we do.”Footnote2 Memphis rapper and producer, Shawty Pimp, describes his home setup as consisting of a Boss DR660 drum machine, a sampler, his father’s records, a $10 microphone (with a t‑shirt as a pop shield), and a dual cassette deck (10:40). He remembers having to trigger his sampler manually whilst rapping, and having to start again if he made a mistake: “I had to record my mixtapes live and sh*t. I ain’t got no 4‑track” (10:36). He recounts lacking “know how” about recording, stating, “I ain’t understand none of that sh*t” (12:20).

These stories seem to tick all the lo-fi boxes: consumer-grade equipment (Grajeda 356), domestic spaces (Aragão 57), ad-hoc recording situations (Jones 77), economic limitations (Hibbett 356), and “naïve distance” from music production norms (Harper, “‘Backwoods’” 3). Through a lo-fi lens, the hissy phonographic imperfections of Memphis rap tape rips can be heard to signify all these things. However, Sorcinelli warns listeners not to take their audio quality at face value:

Interestingly, the lack of audiophile‑approved quality on these tape rips—frequently identified as part of the definitive Memphis “sound”—may be more of a by-product of bootlegging and several generations of dubbing than a reflection of the original recording. (“Rise”)

According to one of the pioneers of Memphis rap, DJ Spanish Fly, unofficial copies of tapes were common in 1990s Memphis. Speaking of his mixtapes, he recalls: “I probably sold a good hundred. Me, myself. But you had bootleggers.” He remembers finding bootlegs of his tapes in a variety of places: “You had corner stores, stereo shops that had DJ Spanish Fly cassettes just there. They’d run them off themselves, I guess” (Kimbrough, “Hip Hop”). Hip‑hop producer BINSU provides more detail on the effects of this bootlegging: “The reason Memphis rap tracks on YouTube sound so lo‑fi is because the majority of the tape rips online were recorded from bootleg tapes.” According to him, to come across a digitization that is not from “a copy of a copy” is rare: “You are usually hearing the 3rd or 4th generation of a tape recording when you listen to rips online.” He explains that this “contributes to the loud tape hiss build‑up on some of these online rips, as well as unintentional stereo phasing.” BINSU concludes, “All of these factors contribute to the lo‑fi sound that Memphis rap is known for today.” This echoes Harper’s claim that “post‑production reproduction imperfections,” introduced by copying and digitizing tapes, are difficult to separate from the phonographic imperfections (if any) that featured on the original recording (“Lo-Fi” 16).Footnote3

This is not to say that phonographic imperfections were absent in the early Memphis rap scene. If bootlegging was indeed rampant, copied tapes circulating the city likely suffered from those related to generation loss. Significantly, though, there is no evidence that “listening for the hiss” was curated or practiced back then. In fact, some important figures in Memphis rap have commented that audio quality is altogether unimportant. On an episode of the Icon Academy podcast, presented by Memphis rap producer DJ Zirk and rapper Z‑DOGG (both notable figures in 1990s Memphis rap), the hosts discuss the topic with guest Shawty Pimp (another notable figure). Although their discussion does not directly touch upon bootlegging, and instead focuses on mixing and mastering, it is nonetheless revealing. Shawty Pimp describes his early production approach as going “against every standard,” claiming not to have mixed or mastered his earlier recordings (8:37). To this, DJ Zirk proclaims, “It don’t matter if it’s mixed down or not. If it’s a hit, it’s gonna travel” (9:07). Shawty Pimp responds that it is mainly other artists that listen for audio quality: “That be your peers that look at it like that. The fans don’t give a damn, really” (9:12).Footnote4 Regardless of whether phonographic imperfections of Memphis rap tape rips derive from the recording process or bootlegging, this handful of comments characterize them as a neutral element. These figures describe their audience as listening past the hiss rather than for it. Evidently, though, some contemporary audiences do care about the audio quality of the Memphis rap recordings they consume. Using a lo-fi lens, they actively “listen for the hiss.” In doing so, Memphis rap tape rips are “assessed by the criteria of some other perspective” (Appadurai, 299), and their phonographic imperfections are semanticized, aestheticized, and mythologized in various ways.

The Memphis Rap Mediascape: “The Music Acts as an Echo Chamber”—’90s Memphis as Phonographic Imperfection

As noted earlier, Robinson states that the “pimping and violence” incorporated by Memphis rap’s “Southern articulation of gangsta” is “reflective of the city’s persistent and often widespread poverty” (550). To some contemporary commentators, the phonographic imperfections present in Memphis rap tape rips are also reflective of this. Writing for Passion of the Weiss, Walker Armstrong explains, “More often than not, the music acts as an echo chamber; Memphis MCs and producers channeled their harsh realities via the sonic coordinates of their music.” Although it isn’t only audio quality that he labels a reflection of ’90s Memphis, phonographic imperfections are given center stage as defining features:

Tape hiss, microphone feedback, lofi vinyl samples, blown out percussive bass and 808 hits, and a first‑person account of the Black identity in the South all add up to more than just that reductive, normalized take on this reverential style as “the origin of trap music” or “the origin of the Migos’ flow.”Footnote5

In arguing that these features “add up to more,” Armstrong draws similarities between Memphis rap recordings and Mark Fisher’s interpretation of the Fall’s 1980 album Grotesque. Fisher states, “The process of recording is not airbrushed out but foregrounded, surface hiss and illegible cassette noise brandished like impoverished stitching on some Hammer Frankenstein monster” (34).Footnote6 Armstrong considers how these words might also apply to the phonographic imperfections of Memphis rap recordings:

Such a description is characteristic of the sonic spaces Memphis DJs created as well—with a key difference. There is a clear distinction between the recording techniques of artists who brandish their process—like so many revivalist and phonk producers—and the original Memphis DJs, who did not intentionally brandish, but rather, succumbed to (and ameliorated) the decrepit structure they found themselves in.

In Armstrong’s interpretation, phonographic imperfections are not simply associated with impoverishment, as they are in Fisher’s description, but characterized as the genuine and inevitable effects of Memphis as a system. He states that the “grimiest and darkest lofi aesthetics” of 1990s Memphis rap are a “testament to the economic devastation and social anomie of its own time.” This is in line with Armstrong’s understanding that musicians “have to create with what they possess—that being, their psychological, social, and material conditions.” A similar kind of interpretation can be found in an article by Torii MacAdams for Red Bull Music Academy:

These crackling, sibilant tapes were often unmixed, unmastered and free of art or tracklists though they contained plenty of too-wild-to-be-true confessions. … It was lo-fi music from an embattled city made for – and by – people on the margins.

The above passages echo Bennett’s description of the virtual Canterbury scene, in that Memphis becomes “a space which is mythologized as in some way informing the essential spirit of a body of … recorded music” (98). For Memphis, though, it isn’t just music recordings that are regarded in this way, but also their alleged audio quality. These excerpts also recall Hibbett in that phonographic imperfections are heard to contribute to an “aesthetics of working class deprivation,” which emphasize a distinction from the mainstream (62). Another such interpretation emerges in this passage by Sam Goldner, writing for The Dowsers, albeit less explicitly:

Straight from the decrepit basem*nts of Memphis comes one of the most distinctive, experimental, and otherworldly communities in all of hip-hop, where hissy cassettes, mutilated R&B samples, punishing 808s, and MCs firing off at breakneck speeds are only the beginning.

Like the excerpts above, this passage characterizes the Memphis rap sound, with “hissy cassettes” as a key feature, as emerging “straight from” a “decrepit” environment. It links the sound quality to a domestic space, a common lo-fi association that Aragão was shown to highlight earlier (57). Goldner, though, does not consider phonographic imperfections as aesthetically meaningful in any significant way. Instead, (not unlike Shawty Pimp and DJ Zirk) he suggests that the real value of Memphis rap recordings can be found by ignoring audio quality altogether:

These beats may be dusty, but beyond their low fidelity lies a surprisingly prophetic vision of rap music to come: stuttering hi-hats, pounding bass, and rhythms that are so aggressive and upbeat that one can’t help but hear the delirious sounds of modern trap laced within the sludge. (Goldner)

Armstrong, MacAdams, and Goldner semanticize phonographic imperfections in Memphis rap tape rips as evidence of impoverishment. These accounts ignore the city’s mixtaping and bootlegging practices mentioned in the previous section. This would have involved cassette recordings being copied and re-copied, each time resulting in a reduction in audio quality. With these practices in mind, the reduced audio quality of a Memphis rap cassette or tape rip could instead be heard to signify the propagation of a successful track, the kind described in the previous section by DJ Zirk (“If it’s a hit, it’s gonna travel”). This would, however, go against the established norms of lo-fi discourse, as summarized earlier in this article.

Despite his semanticization of imperfect audio quality as evidence of dilapidation, Armstrong stops short of deeming ’90s Memphis rap lo-fi music. To support this stance, he cites a passage from a Passion of the Weiss feature, composed from a Reddit post authored by fellow critic Lucas Foster: “Though it is now largely associated with it’s [sic] darkest and grimiest lo-fi sound fetishized by internet kids from 4chan to Soundcloud, it also had some more conventional gangsta rappers and producers that fell within the Memphis sound” (Foster). Yet, the belief that phonographic imperfections are a definitive aesthetic feature of ’90s Memphis rap is commonly propagated across online media.

The Memphis Rap Mediascape: “sh*tty Audio”—Memphis Rap’s “Spiritually Purest Form”?

In the Passion of the Weiss feature, Lucas Foster tells readers that “producers in Memphis were mostly working with a very lo-fi sound.” Yet, Foster also warns readers that some “surviving recordings of tapes” exhibit audio quality “so poor that it ventures beyond lo-fi into unlistenable territory.” These two statements describe two different scenarios. In the first, phonographic imperfection is a matter of course in ’90s Memphis rap production, and poor audio quality would thus have been experienced by listeners of the 1990s. In the second, poor audio quality is the result of a recording’s failure to fully endure the period after its production and initial distribution. It is the product of degradation, perhaps from generation loss through excessive reproduction, as the reference to “surviving recordings of tapes” suggests copies, bootlegs, and tape rips. The issue that confronts modern listeners, as Harper notes, is that different kinds of phonographic imperfections are not easily differentiated. Imperfections introduced during tape recording sound very much like those that may be introduced during post-production reproduction and digitization (Harper, “Lo-Fi” 16). Oddly, though, phonographic imperfections can be considered a definitive part of ’90s Memphis rap regardless of which of these stages they are thought to have been introduced.

In 2018, Shawty Pimp’s 1995 album … Still Comin’ Real, was reissued by Gyptology on cassette, digital download, and vinyl. A review of the vinyl release by Music Is My Sanctuary frames its “tape fuzz” and “lo-fi qualities” as markers of unspoiled authenticity:

Southern Rap is a style that’s been replicated, changed, edited, and added for effect throughout the years of rap music’s popularity, but this album comes straight from the source of the most genuine and OG Memphis rap Golden Era. And although it’s been pressed to vinyl, Gyptology kept all the original tape fuzz and lo‑fi qualities in tact [sic] to really capture the album’s rawest essence. (MIMS Team)

Because phonographic imperfections are understood to be a definitive feature of ’90s Memphis rap here, the “tape fuzz” the reviewer hears on the vinyl reissue is taken to signify a successful translation from the original cassette medium. The implication is that had the “lo-fi qualities” not survived the conversion, the album would instead have been regarded as another example of Southern rap being “changed” or “edited.” This idea is brought to the extreme in a Complex review of a Memphis-rap-themed DJ mix by electronic music producer Inkke. In it, tape hiss is identified as an even more powerful symbol of 1990s Memphis than the music it accompanies:

The selections themselves are fantastic snapshots into the scene’s heyday, but it’s the hiss and degradation of the tapes that jet you right back to the days of thumbing through cracked plastic casings to hear the codeine‑warped fog that Memphis rap was so heavily drenched in. (Keith)

Here, the “hiss and degradation” heard in the mix evokes the past because it is understood to be the same kind of “codeine‑warped fog” that Memphis rap was “drenched in” during the 1990s. Both of the above excerpts imply that the recordings in question would be less authentic if phonographic imperfections were absent. They are, according to these accounts, an essential part of real Memphis rap. This is based on the underlying belief that they would have been experienced by listeners in the 1990s. However, this is not the only route that exists between phonographic imperfection and interpretations of authenticity.

Torii MacAdams of Red Bull Music Academy takes a different path when discussing the digitized recordings of Memphis rapper Tommy Wright III. MacAdams does not consider their phonographic imperfections something producers or listeners of the 1990s would have encountered. Instead, he labels them a product of unsuccessful conservation: “Thanks to nameless internet denizens … [Wright’s] music has been preserved, albeit in fairly lo-fi form.” Even so, phonographic imperfections are deemed a definitive aesthetic feature of Wright’s music: “There’s charm in the distortion and the sometimes distant vocals: sh*tty audio is the closest most will come to owning a dubbed Wright III tape, which is, ironically, the spiritually purest form.” This statement implies that the audio quality of a well-preserved original cassette would convey less authenticity than the “sh*tty audio” of an Internet tape rip. Although the latter deviates from what listeners of the 1990s would have experienced, it is considered definitive. This exposes an odd implication of lo-fi discourse: The association between noise and authenticity (Link 39) allows a warped bootleg copy of a recording to be considered more genuine than a comparatively noiseless official release. Jeff Terich in Treblezine echoes this sentiment, stating that the cassette medium’s tendency to degrade compliments Memphis horrorcore: “It also feels appropriate that most of these recordings were released via cassette and not CDs or vinyl. CDs are convenient and records are more classicist, but tapes are more prone to warping, tangling and mechanical mishaps.”

This passage suggests that if cassette tapes did not audibly degrade, then they would be a less appropriate medium for Memphis horrorcore. In this way, it is not simply poor audio quality that is being aestheticized, but also the deterioration of audio quality. This interpretational habit forms the basis for further interpretations, which we will now move to examine.

The Memphis Rap Mediascape: “Something You’re Not Supposed to Be Listening To”—Audio Quality in Horrorcore

When combined with Memphis horrorcore, low audio quality often contributes to interpretations of uncanniness, as journalist Katie Rife describes in her summary of this musical offshoot:

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.

Phonographic imperfections may be heard to accentuate the “darkness” of a recording’s music and lyrics to the point that it surmounts other competing moods. Jeff Terich explains, “There’s just something unnerving about the sound of so many of these releases, which while sometimes as campy or as catchy as they are tense, are given a spectral cloak via the unpolished nature of their sound quality.” He elaborates, “[T]he muffled sound of Children of the Corn’s The Single, for instance, only makes the horror-influenced vibe even more unsettling.” Thus, what he might otherwise have deemed “schlocky” turns into something more disturbing: “These tapes sound haunted, maybe even capturing some kind of evil essence.” Phonographic imperfections don’t only have this effect on the meaning of music recordings. They may also contribute to how artists are perceived, as described in this article on the rap group Three 6 Mafia:

DJ Paul and Juicy J’s production—which often had a distorted and crackly sound due to lack of access to studio grade equipment and the technological limits of recording to tape—became a Three 6 trademark and enhanced the mystique of the group as dangerous and dark. (Whitt)

Interpretations like the above have had an impact across the Memphis rap mediascape in that they have allegedly contributed to the emergence of online conspiracy theories. Some Memphis rap tapes have been marked as cursed, created as part of murderous, Satanic or magickal rituals. As Rife explains in an article for AVClub,

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.

Articles debunking these theories acknowledge that such interpretations seem to make sense: “The more f*cked up and damaged the tape is, somehow, it only adds to the overall effect of these artifacts being possessed by sinister spirits” (Terich). Rife blames their emergence on the following factors:

… the combination of the growing fame of Memphis rap, the scarcity of the original physical media, and those spooky-ooky sound effects producers … worked into their songs created an urban legend originating in the internet’s home for unprovable bullsh*t: the/x/paranormal board on 4chan.

Earlier, commentators were shown to characterize phonographic imperfections in Memphis rap tape rips as reflective of harsh social realities. Within a horrorcore context, though, they are used to support the construction of a supernatural Memphis. Such interpretations can be explained via established lo-fi themes. Phonographic imperfections have the potential to signify historical distance, implying a recording that has “deteriorated over time” (Harper, ‘“Backwoods”’ 3). This may lead to “metaphors of historicizing obfuscation—ghostliness, memory and decay” (“Lo-Fi Aesthetics” 378). The phonographic imperfections may also have a distancing effect on the figures behind the recordings, in that they suggest a “distance from the influence of modernity, taste and civilization” (Harper, ‘“Backwoods”’ 3). This is not the only way that phonographic imperfections can be used in interpretations of the unreal, however. They have also been cited as the basis to accuse artists of inauthenticity.

The Memphis Rap Revival: “Buried Under Concocted Tape Hiss”

The influence of 1990s Memphis rap tape rips can be detected in countless modern music productions. Walker Armstrong explains that “[t]he grim DIY aesthetic has become somewhat of an item of worship in today’s circles of vaportrap, phonk, and revivalist artists.” As he notes, within the genre known as phonk, numerous producers emulate aspects of poor-quality tape rips, such as hiss and distortion.Footnote7 Some phonk artwork also contributes to this aesthetic, depicting worn cassette covers. Although cassette emulation is largely accepted in phonk, Georgia rapper and producer Da Menace questions the motivations and competence of some producers who add hiss to their tracks:

A lot of these new producers put themselves in a box by labeling their music only “phonk” or “devil sh*t.” Learn how to mix ya beats. There’s mfrs out here calling their beats “lofi” because they cant [sic] mix properly so they add tape noise in the background to try to cover it up.

Nevertheless, Da Menace defends the addition of tape hiss in his own productions: “When I do it, I do it for the nostalgic feeling.”Footnote8 These statements highlight how the apparent motivation behind a production approach is sometimes incorporated into the interpretation and judgment of artists and their recordings. It is not clear how Da Menace discerns between those that use the sound authentically and those that do not. His references to “new producers” and “nostalgia” though, suggest it may have something to do with age.

Similar concerns can be observed in discourse surrounding Raider Klan, a US hip-hop collective active in the early 2010s led by producer and rapper Spaceghostpurrp. Although they gained a cult following online, the group were accused by some journalists of appropriating and repackaging the sound and culture of the past for a younger audience. An article for Pitchfork tells readers that 1990s Memphis is “undeniably” the group’s “anchor,” and that they “absorb the fashion, the politics, and the language of the scene.” It lists tape hiss alongside musical elements to support this claim: “[T]he Raiders echo the kids of Memphis … through double‑time flows, horror‑score samples, 808 thumps, and found‑sound cacophony stacked into aggressively psychedelic pile‑ons, buried in faux‑four track hiss” (Nosnitsky). It is significant that the hiss is branded artificial in this description, and not interpreted as indexically linked to the process of recording. Analog artificiality is one of the reasons music critic Paul Thompson dismisses the group as inauthentic and manufactured:

Raider Klan’s music was conspicuously underground: it was buried under concocted tape hiss, mixed so that you could hear all the seams, and given cover art and album titles so gaudy and Gothic as to make mall attire seem genuinely sinister.

As mentioned earlier “performed amateurism” is sometimes accepted in lo-fi discourse (Jones 54). Yet, when members of Raider Klan are suspected of this, they are not afforded such privilege. The alleged artificiality of Raider Klan’s sound is linked to accusations that their music is derivative. The association between lo-fi and the past has been used to support this stance, as with the description of Spaceghostpurrp’s music as “built from old Southern rap cult hits and tape hiss” (Breihan). Reviewing Spaceghostpurrp’s first official album, Mysterious Phonk: The Chronicles of Spaceghostpurrp, Brandon Soderburg claims that Spaceghostpurrp’s “only adjustment” to his “core influences” was “the decision to eschew mixing entirely, drenching the beats in digital hiss and random audio clips.” He notes the album’s “spruced‑up” audio quality compared to earlier mixtapes. (It was Spaceghostpurrp’s first to be recorded in a professional setting [Burrell]). This change, Soderburg states, exposes the “true” character of the producer’s music: “Stripped of those cheap but effective lo‑fi tricks, Mysterious Phonk is meandering and moronic.”

There is reason to question the accusations leveled at Raider Klan (apart from the fact that very few of their recordings actually feature sounds that could be described as hiss). In interviews with some members of the group, they attribute issues of audio quality to a limited access to recording technology. Take, for instance, former Raider Klan member Key Nyata. A 2012 article in The Stranger describes his beats as “echoing elements of N.W.A’s West Coast gangsta and DJ Zirk’s dirty South tape hiss” (Ramos, “Pitch Blvck”). Yet, in an interview with the same publication a year later, Key Nyata makes it clear that any phonographic imperfections were unintentional:

I didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t like, “I’m gonna make lo‑fi music ‘cause it sounds good”—f*ck that sh*t, that sh*t’s corny. Like, you can go to a f*cking studio but you choose to be in your room? I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have connections.

Despite quoting these protestations, the 2013 article maintains that prior phonographic imperfections in his music were intended to reflect the past: “Much of his and the Raider Klan’s lofi sound and aesthetic was built on echoing a low-quality ’90s tape hiss through laptop production software and built-in computer microphones” (Ramos, “Shadowed”). This feature was in promotion of Key Nyata’s fourth album, The Shadowed Diamond, which was his first to be recorded in a professional studio. The vocals and overall mix are much fuller than previous efforts, and he has evidently maintained this production approach since, something that supports his statements in the interview.Footnote9 Elsewhere, in an interview with Passion of the Weiss, Spaceghostpurrp makes similar claims. But, unlike Key Nyata, he explains that he grew to appreciate the phonographic imperfections of his bedroom studio, attributing his “lo-fi sound” to the basic software he used: “[W]hen Garageband came out, that’s how I recorded.” Whilst other producers utilized the more advanced version of this program, Logic Pro, Spaceghostpurrp found he preferred what he was already using. He recalls his attitude toward the former: “I was like, ‘Yeah I like it but it’s not distorted.’” The precedent set by previous “underground” recordings supported this sonic preference: “The underground inspired me and their sh*t wasn’t mixed but sounded better.” Ultimately, though, he links audio quality back to financial issues: “The lo‑fi concept was for people that couldn’t afford studio time” (Rolle). This statement is supported by the fact that Spaceghostpurrp re‑recorded many of his old tracks in professional recording studios for Mysterious Phonk: The Chronicles of Spaceghostpurrp (Burrell). Unlike Key Nyata, though, Spaceghostpurrp returned to his more familiar lo-fi sound soon after with his B.M.W. mixtape.

In a 2012 interview with Hardwood Blacktop, various other members of Raider Klan further complicate the issue of their lo-fi labeling. One after another, they are quoted attributing the audio quality of their recordings to a combination of financial constraint, aesthetic preference, and respect and nostalgia for 1990s hip hop. Their accounts cannot all be displayed here, but this statement by Eddy Baker is a representative example:

I mean, me being from Cali and sh*t, I grew up from lo-fi music as far as like Ice Cube and sh*t. … But now, like I said, we’re all about keeping the past alive and lo-fi kind of captures that grittiness. We ain’t rich, you feel me? Like most of us don’t record in no thousand dollar studios or some sh*t, most of us are at home doing this sh*t. … You don’t have all the fancy engineering and all the fancy extra sh*t you just hear some kids spitting what they know. It’s that grittiness, it’s that realness and I think that’s why people f*ck with us. We make the most out of nothing, you feel me? (Ashby)

This excerpt presents the audio quality of Raider Klan recordings as having multiple simultaneous meanings. Although the association with lo-fi and the past is acknowledged here, there is more to the audio quality of Raider Klan’s recordings than retro mimesis. Like Eddy Baker’s above, the other Hardwood Blacktop interviews show Raider Klan members interpreting the audio quality of their own recordings. Although many of them attribute their lo-fi sound to DIY production practices demanded by financial limitations, they also justify it by assigning it meaning (semanticization) and considering how it might be appreciated (aestheticization). This suggests that Raider Klan’s sound is more a case of economics preceding aesthetics than a question of economics or aesthetics. As should be expected from any group, though, accounts vary somewhat between members. Big Zeem, for instance, describes purposefully matching audio quality to certain musical material: “… lo-fi just sounds hella good, though. Certain albums should just be lo-fi. … We don’t want everything to be lo-fi, it’s just that certain things got a certain feel.”

Regardless of the reasons and intentions behind Raider Klan’s lo-fi label, the link between lo-fi and the past has been used to support the idea that their music is inauthentic and derivative, constructing a reductive image of the group. This is perhaps because their recordings were released at a time in which lo-fi was primarily understood as an artistic choice (Kromhout 3). This would answer why the audio quality of their recordings is viewed as wholly intentional, and therefore artificial, despite their accounts recalling an earlier version of lo-fi where economics precedes aesthetics. The common metonymic use of the term “hiss” as shorthand for sonic or phonographic imperfections in general (as with “listening for the hiss”) may have complicated judgments of the group. Indeed, it is plausible that the indexicality associated with tape hiss led to accusations of artificiality, rather than the typical interpretations of honesty that occur within lo-fi discourse: Tape hiss originates naturally in the analog realm, but Raider Klan productions are digital and produced with software (never mind that hiss occurs in digital recordings, too). Whatever the reasons behind these claims, they expose an intriguing aspect of phonographic interpretation. Raider Klan recordings are partly being judged based on the misconception that tape hiss has been added to them—a sound that they do not typically contain. At the least, this suggests misperception or misremembrance. At the most, it suggests that their music recordings have been interpreted and judged through channels other than auditory perception. If so, then Raider Klan recordings have been filtered through a complex network of symbols that is rooted both in the imagined version of Memphis rap curated across online media—where phonographic imperfections are a definitive feature—and a misapplication of a lo-fi lens.


This article has shown how “listening for the hiss” is curated across areas of the contemporary Memphis rap mediascape. Through a lo-fi lens, phonographic imperfections are aestheticized, semanticized, and mythologized in interpretations of digitized Memphis rap tape rips. This curates the construction of an imagined world in which Memphis rap is canonized as a lo-fi music and interpreted via lo-fi tropes. Phonographic imperfections are thus cemented alongside elements of musical style and lyrical themes as a definitive characteristic of this music. Their meanings have been fixed in a few key ways: They are presented as evidence of impoverishment, rather than a booming cassette culture; they are held up as signs of authenticity; or, they are characterized as signs of historicity and uncanniness, making recordings seem like mysterious relics. These lo-fi tropes are drawn on contextually, and not all survive the reorientation of the lo-fi lens. Acts like Raider Klan are labeled lo-fi but at the same time condemned for supposed performed amateurism, though the practice is largely accepted in the lo-fi indie rock/pop sphere.

All this is puzzling, as there is little to suggest that phonographic imperfections were anything but a neutral element of recordings in the 1990s Memphis rap scene. One possible explanation for contemporary Memphis rap fans “listening for the hiss” is that it is a product of the online discussion that has centered on tape rips. Additionally, it is plausible that the lo-fi lens has become a listenerly device, and its use no longer relies as much on artist curation in the way Supper describes (253). One problem with the lo-fi lens becoming freed in this way is that it comes with a baggage of connected values and meanings, and these may not always neatly overlay the music to which it is applied. This becomes particularly problematic when it is used to interpret digitized historical recordings and make inferences about actual people and places. I have endeavored to demonstrate how areas of online discourse encourage audiences to assess Memphis rap “by the criteria of some other perspective, some other ‘imagined world,’” to borrow Appadurai’s words. I have therefore queried the use of “listening for the hiss” in this context, questioning the use of lo-fi tropes as a means to interpret phonographic imperfections, and offering alternate perspectives.


The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their time and effort in reviewing this article. Special thanks to Michael Spitzer for his comments on an earlier version of this article. A paper based on this work was previously presented at the International Association for the Study of Popular Music UK/Ireland Branch Conference 2022.

Disclosure Statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

The Lo-Fi Lens: Interpretations of Memphis Rap Tape Rips in the Online Mediascape (2024)


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