Respect. You can want it, you can demand it, but ultimately, it must be earned.
With a career that spans nearly two decades, Memphis, Tennessee rap duo 8Ball and MJG have done nothing short of that. And in an era where hyperbole is in no short order when it comes to the latest flavor of the month MC, these two veterans aptly wear their titles of living legends, because that’s what they are and that’s what they’ll continue to be.
Premro “8Ball” Smith and Marlon Jermaine Goodwin (dubbed MJG for obvious reasons) were both reared in households that championed the classic soul sounds of Al Green, Marvin Gaye and the like. They met at Ridgeway Junior High School, where they shared an affinity for hip-hop, but also played in the school band together. It was the early ‘80s, and the hip-hop scene in Memphis at the time was bubbling, infused with music and imagery that people were hearing on the radio, seeing on TV and in movies. “We were in the age of breakdancing; freestyling; Adidas jogging suits; Cazal glasses; donkey ropes and dollar sign finger rings,” says 8Ball, reminiscing. “It was a real hip-hop scene in Memphis for sure. Memphis was like ‘Beat Street’ or ‘Breakin’.”
Their union as a rap group was solidified during their senior year at Middle College High School, an alternative school for students seeking advanced education and college credit. It was around this time they started recording their own songs and becoming more ambitious about having careers as rappers. “We started throwing parties, doing shows,” says MJG. “We had a DJ partner, he used to build his own turntables out of the entertainment system you would have in your living room. DJ Squeeky from Memphis, Tennessee. We would record on whatever was available, instrumentals on wax, or if we had access to drum machines, we’d use that.”
8Ball and MJG initially met success locally, quickly attaining a reputation as a rising rap group. Concurrently, Tony Draper, an aspiring record business entrepreneur, had an upstart indie label based out of Houston, Texas called Suave House. A mutual friend of the group connected them with Draper, and within months they found themselves in Houston, living out of a hotel and recording their debut LP, Comin Out Hard, in the spare bedroom of Tony Draper’s baby mother’s apartment. “We produced the whole album, with records, actual wax that we brought from home,” 8Ball says. “We brought a suitcase full of records and created Comin’ Out Hard from that bedroom.” The project was released in 1993 and was successful in the growing Southern rap market.
Subsequent albums from 8Ball and MJG- On The Outside Looking In (1994) and On Top Of The World (1995)- sold well, and were met with critical praise, thus further solidifying the group as an emerging act in the Southwestern hip-hop scene. They rose along with UGK, The Geto Boys and from their own hometown, Three 6 Mafia. These projects also raised the profile of Suave House Records, a family-like label with a growing roster of artists, that was quickly becoming an independent powerhouse.
The group’s run with Suave House continued through their gold-selling 1997 LP, In Our Lifetime Vol. 1., and eventually a set of solo records for each member- MJG’s No More Glory (1997) and 8Ball’s double album Lost (1998). In 2000, they left Suave House and released Space Age 4 Eva independently through JCOR Records. “Through JCOR, ‘Pimp Hard’ and ‘Stop Playing Games’ were big songs for us,” 8Ball says. “The project we released was successful but the label made a lot of bad records that caused them to go out of business.”
By 2003, 8Ball and MJG were looking for a new recording home. They had multiple deals on the table, but one particular offer, from Diddy’s Bad Boy Records, who they’d had a relationship with dating back to the Mase-era (they appeared on “The Player Way,” from Mase’s Harlem World in ’97), seemed most promising. “We felt it would bring a more organized structure, and maybe better marketing,” explains MJG, of the group’s eventual signing with the Bad Boy South division of Bad Boy Records. “We were trying to take 8Ball and MJG to the next level. Not necessarily saying we’d be there forever, but do something new and keep it moving.”
The signing was met with much hype. It was seen as a strong acquisition for Diddy’s label in what was at the time an exploding Southern rap scene. 8Ball and MJG were considered, as their Bad Boy Records debut title alluded to, Living Legends. The album dropped in 2004, spawned the trunk-rattling hit single “You Don’t Want Drama,” and quickly went Gold. Things were looking up for the group.
It was only a few years later that everything went awry. Their second Bad Boy album, Ridin High, released in March of 2007, wasn’t promoted well by the label, and stalled out at roughly 200k copies sold. The group lashed out at Bad Boy in interviews, blaming them for the project’s failure. A year later they were amicably dropped. “It wasn’t like sh*t was over for us; it was just over for us at Bad Boy,” clarifies 8Ball. “I felt like it was love. Diddy’s reputation, he’s not known for letting a group like us go with no strings attached, which we did. We didn’t owe them anything.”
Dusting themselves off, May 4th, 2010, the Tennessee rap titans finally released their comeback project, Ten Toes Down, through a partnership with TI’s Grand Hustle Records, Push Management and E1 Music. Explaining the album title, MJG says: “Ten Toes Down means staying humble and true to what you do, to who you are. To reach forward, to reach for the sky, but keep your feet on the ground, and keep yourself firmly rooted to where you come from.”
The buzz single from the project is the Lil’ Boosie-assisted “Ten Toes Down,” which features the MCs planting their feet in the ground over Drumma Boy’s brass-infused production; the first official single is the festive Nitti-produced “DJ Bring It Back,” where Grand Hustle/ Push Management affiliate Young Dro rides shotgun. Other collaborators on the LP include Bun B on “I Don’t Give A F*ck,” Snoop Dogg on “Smokin, Chokin, Locin,” David Banner on “Where We From,” and a surprising cameo from one of the youngest in charge, Soulja Boy.
Despite the unequivocal respect they’ve earned, 8Ball and MJG are appreciative of their position within hip-hop- grateful even- but not necessarily coasting on their past achievements.”Living legends was one of them titles that was given to us,” says MJG. “But now we feel like we’re on the enterprise, only going where no man has gone before; into the unknown, going deeper and deeper into a career that we weren’t even sure would make it this far in the beginning.”