Tommy Wright III may not be a household name, but to those in the know, he is a true pioneer of the Memphis rap scene. Despite being largely overlooked by the mainstream music industry, Wright’s impact on the genre is undeniable, and his influence can still be heard in the music of countless rappers today.
Born and raised in Memphis, Wright began his music career in the late 1980s, when he started rapping under the names MC Robot, MC Electronic and the Independent Rapper, producing and recording his own tracks in his bedroom on a 4-track tape recorder. His first mixtape “Still Not Quite Human” was released on cassette in 1991 when Wright was only 15, although this hasn’t surfaced online and Wright himself has stated he doesn’t even have a copy himself anymore – but he remembered the cover art was a black and white picture of him being arrested which was a common occurrence for him.
When he recorded his proper album in 1992 under the name Tommy Wright III, he went to local producers Lyrical Dope and Herbert Young with a literal piggy bank full of coins to pay for his studio time and recorded all 8 tracks on the tape in one day over his own productions. Wright then sold these cassettes by taking a backpack full to school and selling them to anyone who would listen.
It was just after this album that Wright moved from where he was living in Riverside – a public-housing estate in Memphis – to the Whitehaven neighbourhood, which had been given the nickname “Blackhaven” due to the predominantly African-American population. Even though both areas are in Memphis (and are actually only 7 miles away from each other) this was a big move for Wright as he was separated from his family and had to make new friends in the area – whom he met at the local skating rink or in the projects.
T.W.M & N.O.D
The group of friends that Wright made in ‘Blackhaven’ became the rap group Ten Wanted Men, with Wright as their leader. This was common at this time when the internet couldn’t be used to promote or find new connections, in Memphis just having one group member that had a home studio would be enough to get the group noticed and start producing music together, the word studio is used very liberally here as the Ten Wanted Men studio was a bedroom in a housing estate project house commonly packed with aspiring rappers from around Memphis.
The Ten Wanted Men lineup wasn’t actually made up of all men, and even though the exact number is debated there were more than 10 artists in the group throughout its span. The commonly agreed lineup consisted of C-9, Chastity Daniels, Killa-C, Lil Ramsey, Marrio Marshall, Princess Loko, Project Pimp, T-Dog, Womack Da Omen and of course Tommy Wright III. The group went on to release the mixtape ‘Wanted: Dead Or Alive‘ in 1995 and the follow-up mixtape ’10 Toes Down’ in 1997.
Ten Wanted Men wasn’t the only group Wright found himself involved with however in 1996 Wright was involved in the group Niggaz of Destruction (shortened to N.O.D) which released a six-track self-titled casette. The group consisted of Memphis rap artists Big Boy, Frezno, Lil Dex, Mac Kyle, Project Pimp, Tom Sleep, and Tommy Wright III. Due to the darker lyrical content of this release – even compared to the other Memphis rap at the time – it became the subject of many urban legends, the most amusing of which being that someone was murdered during the creation of the tape and their death is sampled throughout (which is really just horror movie samples) or that the tape is haunted as everyone involved in the creation was either killed or went to jail, neither of which are true. The group split up following this release as they went on to work on separate projects.
Whilst Wright was still involved with Ten Wanted Men, he continued to record and release his own solo music, with the albums Ashes 2 Ashes, Dust 2 Dust and Runnin-N-Gunnin both released in 1994. The cover art of ‘Runnin-N-Gunnin’ notably consisted of a mugshot of Wright after he was arrested for possession of a firearm. Now 18 years old Wright was living a very eventful life, despite still being in high school he was on the local police radar, had a child on the way and was gaining recognition within the rap scene. The following years in Memphis from 95′ – 96′ are generally considered a golden age for music growth, other artists were starting to gain traction – notably Three 6 Mafia who released their debut album ‘Mystic Stylez‘ in 1995, Kingpin Skinny Pimp who released ‘Skinny But Dangerous‘ in 1996 and of course, Wright, who had just released the first Ten Wanted Men album in 1995.
In 1996 Wright released the legendary album ‘On The Run‘ – which was one of the first Memphis rap albums to be released officially on CD as everything beforehand was pressed straight to cassette. This album was originally set to be a collaboration with Playa Fly – who had recently had a very public departure from Three 6 Mafia – and have the title ‘The Tommy Wright Show’. This plan was short-lived however after disagreements between Wright and Fly on which record label should be behind the album they parted ways – remnants of this partnership can still be found on the album however as Fly has two guest verses on the tracks ‘Royalty‘ and ‘Angry Souls‘. Maybe this was for the best, however, as 3 years later Fly was arrested on drug possession charges and jailed for 7 years.
To this day ‘On The Run’ remains Wright’s most critically acclaimed work and is one of the most influential creations to come out of the Memphis rap genre, although the quality of the recordings is obviously dated the influence of the sample-heavy beats and triplet-heavy flows can still be heard in the rap being released today. Despite the success of this album, this began the decline of Wright’s career and his feelings towards his own music began to deteriorate.
Following on from the release of the second Ten Wanted Men album ‘Ten Toes Down‘ in 1997, Wright released the album ‘Feel Me Before They Kill Me‘, in 1998 – this was a direct continuation of the styles explored on Wright’s last album with almost every track on the album featuring an appearance from a member of the Ten Wanted Men lineup. Wright himself had the following to say about this album in 2018 when speaking at the Red Bull Music Academy:
I hate to say that’s the last real Tommy Wright project, but it is – everything after that was remixing, recycling and remastering … I really hate to acknowledge that when I gave the fans the last real studio album from me. It almost doesn’t even feel like it because I kept staying active, and I guess I shouldn’t be that hard on myself … One thing about it, I always kinda looked at myself as a producer and looked at myself as a CEO, but just hearing that, it’s kinda bittersweet.Red Bull Music Academy, 2018
On being a CEO, Wright was actually the owner of his own record label which he had founded back in 1994 ‘Street Smart Records‘. Although none of his solo albums were actually released on this label as he had signed a deal with Memphis-based studio ‘Select-O-Hits‘ – whom Wright did not have a good relationship with.
Street Smart Records was intended to be Wright’s way behind the scene and he had gone through the process of leasing a warehouse, buying the furniture and hiring an electrician to wire the warehouse up into a proper studio but due to a lack of funds he had to abandon the project – there were rumours that his current label ‘Select-O-Hits’ were withholding his earnings from his last albums which may have caused this but this was never outrightly confirmed.
Now aged 22 Wright found himself in a legal battle to maintain ownership of the warehouse (which he went on to lose) but was also the father of three children at this point along with trying to put the finishing touches on other projects he found himself stretched. These struggles continued into the 2000s when in 2000 Wright produced the album ‘Heltah Skeltah’ by West Memphis group The Manson Family and then in 2001 when Wright released the soundtrack to a work-in-progress documentary on the Memphis rap scene entitled ‘Behind Closed Doors’ – unfortunately the documentary never saw a release past the soundtrack and an 8-minute trailer which Wright uploaded to YouTube himself 9 years later due to Wright’s trouble with the law as in 2001 he went to jail for 4 years.
On his release in 2005 Wright was living very poorly, he resorted to selling drugs and becoming a local pimp (which he had allegedly been doing for some time before his sentence). Wright did not have the rights to his old music due to his contract with former label Select-O-Hits and he was making no money from his music, the financial issues continued to worsen as his apartments utilities got cut off, and living off of candlelight and going to a local bar to use the bathroom. This continued until 2009 when Wright moved to the south of Memphis and tried to reunite with his family – his 3 children of whom his visitation rights were limited and his parents who were now in declining health. Wright had begun to build up a cult following in Memphis during his prison stint and subsequent release and following his move he began to make acquaintances in the area.
In 2011 a Memphis skate shop released a skate video titled ‘Chicken Bone Nowison‘ – which was named after a lyric sampled in the 1994 Wright track ‘Killa By Nature‘. The reception of this video is ultimately what led to Wright’s modern-day cult following – despite Wright being unaware of the video being released the EDM DJ Diplo had seen this and found a way to get in touch with Wright through his former record label, asking him to headline his upcoming Mad Decent show in Philadelphia – which is almost 1000 miles away from Memphis and music reviewers from The Fader at the time could not understand the connection, joking that perhaps there was a ‘little-Memphis’ in Philadelphia full of hipster rap revivalists that gangster walk unironically.
It was this show that exposed Wright to his popularity in the internet age as he discovered he had a fanbase eager for new music, merch or any updates from the artist. Wright began to capitalise on this by selling bootlegs of his own music on eBay, creating a Facebook account and uploading videos recorded of his daily life from his mobile phone to his YouTube channel, including documenting Hospital visits, funerals and his thoughts on current events.
Throughout the 2010s Wright was still in and out of jail and sporadically recording new music and doing shows around Memphis. Most recently Wright has released the track ‘The 901‘, with a short music video on his channel and surprisingly appears to have been touring Russia at the height of the Ukraine-Russia tensions in early 2023 as evidenced by his YouTube uploads.
Following on from Wright’s rise in popularity throughout the 2010s as his music spread around the internet, many modern artists have cited his music as an influence, such as Denzel Curry but some artists have gone even further and sampled Wright’s tracks. Notable examples include $uicideboy$ 2015 track ‘My Flaws Burn Through My Skin Like Demonic Flames From Hell‘ interpolating ‘Die Nigga Die‘ from Wright in 1996 as the instrumental throughout and Beyonce’s 2022 track “I’M THAT GIRL” sampling the Princess Loko vocals from the 1995 Wright track ‘Still Pimpin‘ throughout.
Modern exposure to Wright and Memphis rap in general is through the form of Phonk music, popularised through web-based record labels such as Doomshop Records, Trill Hill Tapes and Raider Klan Records – although its origins go back further than this. Despite still being disputed, it is mostly agreed that Phonk was pioneered by Memphis and Houston DJs trying to create a darker sound by chopping and screwing rap vocals and combining this with slowed down Funk and Jazz samples, sometimes incorporating cowbells and overwhelming snares to create the unique sound. This can be seen in the early catalogue of artists such as DJ Screw, DJ Squeeky, X-Raided and even Tommy Wright III. Despite Wright’s 1994 track ‘Meet Yo Maker‘ conforming to what is now expected of the Phonk genre, and being considered by fans of the genre as one of the first examples of a Phonk track, Wright had the following to say when asked what he thinks of the word phonk:
UNDERGROUD MEMPHIS RAP IS NOT CALLED PHONK !!!AND THE FACT THAT GROUPS ARE SAYIN THAT IS PROOF OF BITING …WHAT THE FUCK IS PHONK. SOME MADE UP SHIT BY COPY CATS. STOP ITWright’s comments in 2020 on Phonk
Perhaps it is for the best that Wright doesn’t care for the phonk tag, as it would be soul-crushing for him to get into the scene and find out a majority of the modern artists in the scene he is arguably the godfather of don’t even know he exists. Particularly with the new wave of TikTok popularised ‘drift phonk‘ the only connection these artists have to Wright is through internet sample packs.
Tommy Wright III is an artist with a career of extreme ups and downs, and hopefully through the resurgence of the internet phonk genres he will get the recognition he deserves, along with his contemporaries such as Graveyard Productions, DJ Zirk, Orange Juice Click and anyone else mentioned throughout the above.