Duke Deuce Is Memphis Rap’s Truest Apostle — But He’s Not Stopping There

·6 min read
Duke-Deuce-2022-cr-Zeke-D-Opper-1800 - Credit: Motown Records/Zeke D. Opper
Duke-Deuce-2022-cr-Zeke-D-Opper-1800 - Credit: Motown Records/Zeke D. Opper

Over the last decade, the ghostly influence of Memphis rap has been inescapable, from hit remakes of Three 6 Mafia classics like Rae Sremmurd’s “Powerglide” or A$AP Ferg’s “Plain Jane,” to underground artists like $uicideboy$ and Raider Klan who have reinterpreted the city’s dark, distinctive style. As an artist born and bred in Memphis, whose own work is greatly indebted to the city’s rap pioneers, Duke Deuce doesn’t necessarily see it as a bad thing that Memphis music has shaped the sound of so many artists who aren’t from the city. “I think it’s a compliment that so many people are using that Memphis taste,” says Duke, 30. “That Memphis sound is really everywhere, and some people don’t even know they’re using it.” 

Duke broke through the walls and banged down the doors in early 2020 with “Crunk Ain’t Dead,” an effortless and amped-up slice of Southern rap revivalism, and he’s become known for explosive, almost martial bangers suited for club sound systems and trunk speakers. But just like the culturally rich city he hails from, Duke refuses to let himself be defined by one sound or style. “I know I always talk about crunk music, which originated in Memphis and was originally called buck,” he says. “But we’ve also got that phonk sound that a lot of people are starting to use, and that smooth pimping sound, so there’s a lot of places you can go with the Memphis style.” 

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Duke’s latest album, CRUNKSTAR, builds off his full-bodied Southern sound but embraces new wavelengths. Along with plenty of the heavy crunk bass you expect, Duke pushes his music from the club to the mosh pit: CRUNKSTAR is one part Memphis car show, one part Heavy Metal Parking Lot.  “Growing up, me and my pops listened to all kinds of different music, classical music and rock music too,” he says. “So rock was already something I loved and felt like I could do.”

While hardly the only rapper out there dabbling in rock, Duke Deuce’s incorporation of guitar is fundamentally different from most emo rap or nu-metal revival music. Instead of looping a guitar riff, Duke uses the instrument more as accompaniment, with guitarists jamming alongside tracks like “Running Out of Love” and “I’m Alive Again,” creating a rap-rock sound that’s more like a full-band improvisation or Tiny Desk Concert than a mere sample. “[Producer] Hitkidd sent me the ‘Running Out Of Love’ beat, and I recorded on it first and then went back to find the guitarist to add to it,” Duke says. “I don’t know what it was, but something about that beat made me get in my rock bag off top, before there were even guitars.”

Duke cites bands like Linkin Park, System of a Down, and Korn as influences on his music, and there’s a hardcore edge to his flow on tracks like “Living Life.” But the rock melodies on CRUNKSTAR just as often channel Miami Vice and hair-metal power ballads. It never feels like pastiche or novelty on the level of, say, Lil Wayne’s Rebirth, and just as frequently Duke eschews rock entirely for the classic rap sound he does so effortlessly — there’s even a crunk flip of LL Cool J’s vintage crooner “I Need Love.” 

Duke captures those old-school sounds so well because he grew up not just around the Memphis music scene, but in it, thanks to his father and now close collaborator, producer Duke Nitty. When Deuce was growing up, Duke Nitty was crafting beats in the city’s underground rap scene, and he’s now produced multiple tracks for his own son, including “Open Up” and “I’m Alive Again” on CRUNKSTAR.  “I was a music baby, and it just became a part of me, because it was such a part of my father and his family,” Duke Deuce says. “It’s deeply rooted. My grandmama and granddaddy were doing gospel music and used to travel and have a whole band.” Growing up in a musical family has given him a confidence and sense of security that other artists coming up might not have, he adds. “Working with my pops feels so natural. He’s my father, but we bond like brothers, because we’re into the same exact things. But he’s still always careful, and acts like a father. He’s protective for real.”

What Duke draws from rock is clearest in the live energy of his music, which aims to recreate a raucous concert in recorded form, weaving in samples from shows and call-and-responses from DJ Tootz. For an artist whose work demands a crowd, it’s a sad irony that “Crunk Ain’t Dead” blew up in early 2020, right before Covid devastated the United States, and never got to be heard in the club like it should have been. Like so many artists, Duke struggled to create in a time when it was impossible to physically connect with your audience and channel their energy. “That was maybe the worst part of my career right there when Covid hit,” he says. “Everything just went dark and got drowned out, you know what I’m saying? I even got sick and was in the hospital, and I got so discouraged and was just ready for it to be over with. But I’ve got that dog in me, so I keep going and fighting and don’t really back down for nothing.” 

Now that live performance is more possible, Duke is devoting that single-minded mentality to his upcoming CRUNKSTAR tour and performance at Rolling Loud Miami. He’s got a proclivity for slick dance moves and footwork, and while it’s a gift he’s always had, Duke prepares for concerts like a pro wrestler staying in peak condition before a main event match. “Bro, I’m heavy,” he says, laughing. “I gotta get ready like I’m Michael Jackson and get in shape.” 

Duke is a showman through and through, and it’s his energy as a performer that defines him more than a single style or sound. “I wanted to start taking a shot at rock because I want people to know I’m an artist, not just a rapper, but a star that can’t be boxed in,” he says. “People have tried to say, ‘Oh, he just makes crunk music,’ but I do everything, honestly.” 

For Duke, CRUNKSTAR is all about embracing the many layers of his creativity, and striking back at anyone who wants to define him. “I like showing people who I am and that I’m not afraid to do anything. That’s what a crunk star is to me. A crunk star is a person who is unafraid to be themselves, so I’m not afraid to hit y’all in the head with some rock songs and switch it up.”

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