“Memphis Underworld” is the title of a compilation of early Eightball & MJG material. It’s a lead that would fit perfectly here, as much time as may have passed since the legendary duo recorded its first songs. The Iron Mic Coalition is a gathering of individuals who currently populate the Memphis underground. Judging from the veteran flair that several of them exhibit, one wouldn’t be surprised if some members of IMC went just as far back as Ball & G. Still, they feel “destined to be this millennium’s new griots,” as member Empee puts it. For now, their approach is strictly underground. Empee again: “To hell with a chorus or hook or refrain / Look, my shit won’t get played on the damn radio anyway / (…) / but I don’t give a good goddamn / cause I know where I stand / and radio ain’t even part of my plan.”

It would be easy to deduct that IMC’s pro-underground posture is complemented by the usual anti-mainstream attitude. Not necessarily. Because the era they pay tribute to with the nostalgic “B-boy Stance” is the same era that hometown heroes such as Three 6 Mafia and Kingpin Skinny Pimp grew up in. Nevertheless, The Iron Mic Coalition does reveal a side of Memphis rap that until now was drowned by piercing snares, eerie synth stabs and loud shouts. Best described as an unpolished Goodie Mob minus Cee-Lo but with an East Coast touch, this collective can get down and dirty as much as the next Dirty Southerner, but they’re also well versed in the universal ways of the type of underground hip-hop that’s fond of scratched hooks and melodic samples. Where it works, “The 1st Edition” manages to offer the best of both worlds, where it fails, it comes across like some obscure Wu-related project from Down South.

Either way, if you like your hip-hop shiny and streamlined, IMC will disappoint. Its ruggedest members (Duke, Jason Harris, General Macarthur) are on par with the roughest flows below the Mason-Dixon. The tracks ain’t nothing pretty either. “IMC Anthem” has the sound quality of a live show, “Crown” nearly suffocates, with the sampled Billie Holiday gasping for air in the sticky atmosphere, “Keepin’ It” would die from boredom if it wasn’t for the Guru and Extra P quotes thrown in. Muddy and muffled to the extreme, “Warm it Up” and “Staff Investments” are tracks fit for rappers who simply can’t contain themselves and will rap over any beat. However, if you’re able to filter the static and debris, you’ll realize that producers DJ Capital A, Fathom 9 and Empee often construct very subtle soundscapes. “Crown” is a prime example of underground hip-hop, the hard-edged “My Philosophy” sample and the thumping drums sparring with the soft jazz textures. And it wouldn’t be complete without a rapper like Jason Harris gracing it with his rhymes:

“Give these wack MC’s a rough time
make ’em step aside and separate like the Love Slide
Microphone and a pad and pen the weapons of choice that I use
the stage be the Neverland where boys get abused
I spit fire and my voice is the fuse
See, I’m to microphones like Jordan’s to shoes, I’m top-brand
Some MC’s is like Laker power forwards, you heard me?
They might be good, but they just ain’t Worthy
Dirty mouth battlers threaten to murk and hurt me
but get slapped like Charlie Murphy
It’s cold-blooded, my flows flooded the ground under
even drownin’ the number one stunnas”

It should also be noted that the sound quality issue pertains mostly to the beats, not the vocals. But even then – “our rhyme style be funkier than peelin’ off an onion.” Don’t expect to understand everything upon first listen. But if you can get over its deficencies or are even able to embrace them as part of an underground aesthetic, “The 1st Edition” can be quite intriguing. In various combinations, this ninesome manages to focus on the greater purpose of their existence. As Mighty Quinn puts it in “Keepin’ It”: “The gods have left Olympus just to come to Earth to spit at you / You should take this literal / we performin’ miracles / watch us bring the dead back to life / when they’d rather choose trues, vogues, fo’ by fo’s, ‘urp and blow / The war is the for spirit, we live in the physical.”

Offensive only to sucker MC’s and #1 stunnas, IMC meet the listener at eye level. Check “901 Area Code,” where Daralic illustrates just what Ball meant when he said “Memphis Tenn., that’s my motherfucking stomping ground” (as cut up by DJ Capital A):

“I’m from the city of blues and booze and bad news
gangland feuds and throwaway .22’s
Three o’clock roadblock, time for curfew
The children that’s growin’ up gone bezerk, too
But that’s one aspect, here’s another:
These fly girls raised off cornbread and butter
with thighs so thick, big hips and calf muscles
her skin so soft it melts when you touch her”

Similar to groups like Goodie Mob and Nappy Roots, IMC’s righteous leanings are balanced with humor, as they can be caught pondering “Problems” one minute and inform us about the digestive benefits of fibers and vegetables the next (“Doo Doo”). While the number of rappers guarantees a wide range of styles and topics, The Iron Mic Coalition easily finds common ground, distinctly southern hip-hop “minus the pimpin’ and drugs and fine clothes.” It’s hip-hop that is rough and rugged but at the same time so fresh and so clean: “I speak clear and got all whites when I smile / make sense, I’m tatoo-free and won’t splurge,” says Jason Harris on the closing “Who Dat?” adding, “I could be what they consider as more hood / but hood right now ain’t doin’ us no good.” That’s what I call forward thinking.

The Iron Mic Coalition :: The 1st Edition
6.5Overall Score