East Coast? West Coast? No, Try the Mississippi

For years, rap record buyers have seemed as concerned with an artist's hometown as with the quality of the music. If rappers didn't claim a New York or L.A. ZIP Code in their rhymes, odds were that most listeners would simply dismiss them.

But that's changing rapidly. Jermaine Dupri in Atlanta, Master P in New Orleans and Suave House Records in Houston have shown that you can establish power bases in rap outside the traditional boundaries.

Memphis has already been moving toward this elite group of rap centers, and a series of new releases should cement its place on the short list.

The momentum was started by Eightball & MJG, a Memphis duo that records for Suave House. The pair's 1995 album, "On Top of the World," built credibility for Memphis rap by selling more than 550,000 copies.

"At one time, you would have to go to the Midwest or to the South just to hear something from the Midwest or the South," says Eightball, whose real name is Premrose Smith and whose solo album, "Lost," entered the pop music charts at No. 5 last May. "Now, it's a little better. Now it seems as if the West Coast and the East Coast have got into a little thing where they listen to a little South music."

Indeed, regional lines are becoming so blurred that a number of rappers from New York and California incorporate "Bout it, bout it," one of Master P's catch phrases, into their lyrics.

Another Memphis group making major inroads is Three 6 Mafia. The sextet's latest album, 1997's "Chpt. 2: World Domination," has sold more than 350,000 units, largely because of the aggressive, up-tempo, dance-inducing instrumentation in their work. Easily chanted choruses add to their highly addictive sound, a combination that often leads fans to participate in rock 'n' roll-like mosh pits when the group's songs come on in clubs or at concerts.

"When people hear our music, they want to do crazy stuff instead of lay back and chill," says Mafia member Gangsta Boo, whose real name is Lola Mitchell. "They want to get out and get rowdy."

Mafia members Juicy J and DJ Paul also run their own imprint, Hypnotize Minds, which is distributed by Relativity Records. Now that the rappers have tasted mainstream success with "World Domination," Hypnotize Minds is trying to capitalize on their popularity.

The label will release Three 6 Mafia associate Indo G's album "Angel Dust" on Tuesday, Boo's "Enquiring Minds" on Sept. 29 and an album from the Tear the Club Up Thugs on Nov. 3.

Though Indo G's album is much more laid-back than the other forthcoming Hypnotize Minds albums will be, each project will feature guest performances from other artists on the label, a sure way to heighten awareness for the label's upcoming releases.

Tela, another prominent Memphis rapper, will release his album "Now or Never" on Oct. 6. He believes Memphis rappers are starting to succeed because they're producing their own brand of music.

"A lot of folks in [Memphis], they're doing their own thing," says Tela, whose real name is Winston Rogers. "They're not concerned with what the next person is doing. They want to bring something different to the table.

"They say music is like a circle," Tela continues. "We had our era with Stax and our blues era. Now it's time to have our hip-hop era."

MARKETING STAR: Unlike the Memphis artists, who had to build their musical empires virtually from scratch, New York's Lance "Un" Rivera had a major assist in making a name for himself and his Untertainment Records. One of the 32-year-old's business partners was the late Notorious B.I.G.

With B.I.G., Rivera formed Undeas Recordings, which released Lil' Kim's "Hard Core" and Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s "Conspiracy" albums in conjunction with Big Beat / Atlantic Records. Both albums, which featured B.I.G., sold more than 500,000 copies.

Rivera then used this success to parlay a record deal with Epic for his Untertainment enterprise. With Untertainment's initial releases, he's displaying the kind of marketing savvy that took rap entrepreneurs such as Sean "Puffy" Combs and Master P to the top of the charts. But unlike those two label executives-performers, Rivera is not a rapper himself, but someone who succeeds simply on his keen business sense.

"We always start out from a marketing perspective first, because without marketing, you don't have a hit record," Rivera says. "We try to make everybody know the artists first, before they even get the music."

Cam'ron, who had planned to sign with Undeas before B.I.G. was fatally shot last year, became Untertainment's first artist. "Confessions of Fire," the rapper's debut album, entered the pop music chart at No. 6 in July, selling more than 106,000 copies its first week.

A large portion of Cam'ron's early success can be traced to Untertainment's unique marketing campaign for its first releases. The label initiated a "Who Is?" poster advertising campaign that stretched from Manhattan to Marina del Rey. The posters, which began popping up as early as March, hyped the "Woo" soundtrack album and the artists Cam'ron and Charli Baltimore.

Cam'ron also benefited by having his song "357" included on the "Woo" soundtrack. The song was popular in hip-hop clubs and on urban radio stations. It incorporated the theme music from "Magnum, P.I.," making it highly recognizable with the television-friendly hip-hop audience. His second single, "Horse & Carriage," featured guest vocals from rapper Mase, whose "Harlem World" album has sold more than 2 million copies.

Rivera has also made sure that rap fans are very familiar with Baltimore, the label's next artist, before she releases her debut album, "Ice," on Sept. 22. Her song "Money" was included on the "Woo" soundtrack and she appears on Cam'ron's album. In return, Cam'ron appears on three songs on "Ice."

Although this type of piggy-backing on one another's projects will undoubtedly help sell records, it also typifies the relationship Rivera is attempting to build with his artists.

"We're a family-oriented label," says Cam'ron, whose real name is Cameron Giles. "Un's like my brother and Charli's like my sister. It isn't like a normal CEO-artist relationship."

Soren Baker writes about hip-hop for Calendar.

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