In 1951, somewhere in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Ike Turner walked into
a juke joint to hear his friend, B.B. King, play a set. Both of them
had been known in local music circles, but they had not yet reached
the fame they would soon come to experience. They were musical hustlers,
playing different gigs, making money by picking strings and pounding
on ivory keys.
“There’s a white man recording black folks up in Memphis,”
B.B. told Ike. “Best get on up there.”
So Ike Turner, at the age of 20, packed his entire band into his car,
strapping all their instruments on top. The journey to Memphis had been
made before by Ike. Beale Street had called many a bluesman to the Gateway
of the Delta, with its nightly shows at the Palace Theatre, hosted by
the legendary Rufus Thomas.
But on this trip, heading North on Highway 61, Ike Turner had vinyl
on his mind. He even had a song written and ready to record called ”Rocket
Ike was talented, driven and focused. So focused that the flashing
red and blue lights in his rearview mirror must have startled him. A
patrol car was on his ass like a pesky sweat bee. Ike pulled over to
the side of the road and hit the brakes, sending all his equipment crashing
to the pavement.
With a ticket in his pocket and a busted amplifier, Ike Turner walked
through the door at 706 Union Avenue. Here, in this limited space, Sam
Phillips had set up shop recording “race records” for his
new label, The Memphis Recording Service. Everyone thought Sam was crazy
to do this, and they might have been right. So committed to recording
the best of his region, Phillips arranged for the State of Tennessee
to escort five convicts, the Prisonaires, into the studio to record
under armed guard.
Ike thought his recording career was as dead as
his amplifier. He plugged in the busted amp and strummed a few chords
on his guitar. The sound was no longer clean and crisp. It was distorted,
fuzzy and raw. To the mortal ear the sound could be called disturbing.
But to Sam Phillips, it sounded like gold. He shoved newspaper inside
the amp to deaden the distortion and quickly got to work setting up
The rest is history. Many historians consider “Rocket 88”
to be the first Rock & Roll song because of that busted amp. Recording
music, by any means necessary, is a Memphis tradition. Whether it is
Sam Phillips recording in a small room, or Isaac Hayes cutting tracks
in an abandoned movie theater, these musical hustlers laid down their
groove and got it heard.
Being a big fan of Dirty South rap, I started meeting with local rappers
to place music in my little movies I was shooting on DV around Memphis.
When I saw how these young producers were making their music, I couldn’t
help but recognize their connection to the city’s musical heritage.
Beats were created on pawn shop-bought Dr. Grooves. Casio keyboards
channeled through Radio Shack mixers. Rappers would swap hooks (the
chorus of a rap track) in exchange for appearing on each other’s
albums. And were these raw tracks put to tape in a 24-track recording
studio, rented at $100 an hour? No. They were recorded at home, in their
bedrooms, in their closets, or their grandmom’s kitchens.
Just like Ike, limitation led to innovation.
I have been asked many times why a white guy from the South would want
to make a movie about a black pimp trying to reinvent himself through
recording rap music in his shotgun house.
The truth is, I just wanted to make a Memphis movie.