Kingpin Skinny Pimp Is a Memphis Rap Pioneer. TikTok Is Helping Him Go Global

·5 min read
SP - Credit: courtesy of the artist.
SP - Credit: courtesy of the artist.

It’s been a good few months for Kingpin Skinny Pimp, a Memphis rap pioneer who has never earned the same widespread recognition of other hometown heroes like Three 6 Mafia and 8ball & MJG.

Last fall, a snippet of his voice from the classic Nineties track “Lookin’ for da Chewin'” — the exclamation, “aw, not the thermometer!” — enjoyed a viral moment on TikTok, soundtracking more than a million fleet-footed dance videos.

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Not long after the rise of the #NotTheThermometer challenge, Kingpin Skinny Pimp also learned that his music was a key component in hits originating many thousands of miles from Memphis. Russian producers were going viral with a gnashing, low-to-the-ground sound called phonk which relied heavily on samples of vintage Memphis rap tapes, and Kingpin Skinny Pimp heard his work repurposed in Lxst Century’s gleaming “Odium” — which has walloped its way to more than 22 million streams on Spotify alone — and Kaito Shoma’s “Scary Garry,” a spooky cut with nearly 24 million Spotify streams.

The enduring appeal of Memphis hip-hop and the vagaries of internet algorithms have combined to bring Kingpin Skinny Pimp to a fresh young digital audience at age 45. “I was trippin,'” the rapper says. “I have a recording studio, and when young people come through, they don’t know who I am. I’m like, ‘let me rap on one of your songs.’ They’re like, ‘man, I’m good.’ Then I show ’em all these young folks their age, every race you can name, dancing off my shit. I feel like I’m the dopest MC that’s unknown.”

Kingpin Skinny Pimp began rapping back in the mid-1980s, listening to groups like the Fat Boys as well as local underground hip-hop from 8ball & MJG and Pretty Tony. “We used to walk home from school every day beat-boxing and stuff,” Kingpin Skinny Pimp recalls. “Anybody who could sound close to the Fat Boys, they were the dopest.”

To form his own style, the aspiring MC drew from everything he liked, from MC Ren — “He had a little tongue twist; I took the tongue twist longer” — to a local rapper named Psycho. He “had this unique-ass voice,” Kingpin Skinny Pimp explains. “I had some of everybody’s type of flow.” He also nods to other local stars: Pretty Tony, Gangsta Pat, Al Kapone, Homicide, and Lil Ced.

In 1993, Kingpin Skinny Pimp was in a room with a slew of rappers and DJ Squeeky, an innovative producer and the first person he “heard make those hard beats” with the rapid hi-hats that would come to define southern hip-hop and eventually much of the rest of pop as well. DJ Squeeky cued up the “Lookin’ for da Chewin'” instrumental, and Kingpin Skinny Pimp says he was the first to finish his verse to the track, a lusty ode to oral sex.

The single was initially released with verses from Kingpin Skinny Pimp and 8Ball & MJG, among others; the same year, “Lookin for da Chewin'” also inspired Juicy J’s similarly themed, oft-sampled “Slob on My Knob.” That “is a mimic of ‘Lookin’ for da Chewin’; it’s just sped up,” Kingpin Skinny Pimp says. “The beat all comes from that one that Squeeky produced.”

Kingpin Skinny Pimp and DJ Squeeky subsequently had a falling out, and the rapper started working with Juicy J and DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia. “I watched Juicy and Paul produce and learned from just being around them,” Kingpin Skinny Pimp says. He also passed knowledge to DJ Paul: “I kind of knew music because I used to play the clarinet,” the rapper explains. “He’d always hit the hi-hats a certain way. I taught him what the 32nd-note means, how to make the hi-hat twist a little bit.”

Kingpin Skinny Pimp contributed to Three 6 Mafia’s landmark debut album, Mystic Stylez; DJ Paul and Juicy J helped produce King of da Playaz Ball, Kingpin Skinny Pimp’s solo debut the following year. (This featured another version of “Lookin for da Chewin.'”) But while Three 6 Mafia eventually earned national recognition, Kingpin Skinny Pimp remained a regional star, churning out albums and producing a young Yo Gotti back when he went by Lil Yo. “All the Memphis people used to buy my stuff because they knew I was one of the hardest artists,” Kingpin Skinny Pimp boasts. But he acknowledges that “others had more connections than me to major distribution.”

In the era of TikTok, of course, forging a connection to a national distribution network is about as easy as uploading a song to the internet, so maybe it’s no surprise that Kingpin Skinny Pimp interjections are now soundtracking dance challenges and adding a jolt of energy to Russian streaming hits. “I hit these people up on Whatsapp, it’s like, ‘damn — you ain’t nothing but 20 years old,'” the rapper says cheerfully.

In recent months, he has worked with the label Black 17 Media to officially sanction his contributions to phonk hits, clearing the way for a new wave of streaming income; he earned his first advance in July. He’s also trying to get in touch with the rapper Freddie Dredd, who appears to sample or interpolate Kingpin Skinny Pimp’s old work — Big Hill featuring Gimisum Family’s “No Hesitation” and Gimisum Family’s “Gimisum Redrum” — on “Oh Darling,” which has amassed nearly 30 million streams on Spotify. “We just want to get our credit where it’s due,” the rapper says, “and maybe do some more work with him.” (Dredd’s manager did not respond to a request for comment.)

Kingpin Skinny Pimp is brimming with plans: He’s at work on a movie and providing advice on the music industry to his son and daughter, who record as ATM RichBaby and Gimisum Dee respectively. But most of all, he’s also eager to continue fanning the phonk flames — a collaboration with the artist Phonk Walker, “Old Genesis,” came out in May, and he promises to “do a lot of music with the Russian kids.”

“One day I saw Lxst Century go live on Instagram, and they had like 3,000 people in the crowd going crazy off my music,” Kingpin Skinny Pimp says. “I swear I had a tear roll down my eye.”

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