Why you should care
Because he’s the music man behind the curtain.
Thanks to countless ordinance violations and small-time (depending on whom you ask) criminal busts, most of the hip-hop hot spots around Memphis have seen their doors boarded shut. These days, true diehards looking to vibe to the sounds of Memphis trap head to V Live Memphis, a neon-emitting gentlemen’s club 15 miles southeast of downtown and a world away from the city’s famous Beale Street blues clubs.
Opposite the main stage, past the twerking dancers and clouds of customers raining dollar bills in what’s called “money wars,” is where you’ll find one of the hottest young producers in hip-hop. When the college senior isn’t in the studio or in school, of course. “All the popping clubs got shut down for small stuff,” says Tay Keith. “V Live is the spot, for now.”
The first instrumental he ever made, in 2009, it hit so hard. I knew he was a monster.
Tay Gwalla, Tay Keith’s cousin and collaborator
Despite having almost no venues to regularly draw an underground crowd, Keith, 21, is hoping to build on recent success and elevate himself, and his city, into the broader public consciousness. The born-and-raised Memphian — given name: BryTavious Keith Chambers — is currently finishing up his college credits at Middle Tennessee State, in Murfreesboro, but has already made a name for himself as one of the few Memphis producers willing to collaborate with rappers from anywhere in the city.
To keep a finger on the pulse at home, Keith does the three-plus-hour drive back to Memphis weekly, juggling classes as a media management major, work and a surging music career. With the February release of “Look Alive,” which he produced for his friend and frequent collaborator, rapper BlocBoy JB, and global superstar Drake, Keith already has one top-10 Billboard hit on his résumé. Next up? Graduation and an onslaught of projects with an array of talent from Memphis and beyond. “I’ve got so many ties in Memphis, I wouldn’t be true to myself if I only worked with certain people,” says Keith. “Those organic partnerships will continue to expand.”
Of course, another mainstream hit helps the cause. Friday’s release of Drake’s highly anticipated fifth album, Scorpion, shot another Tay Keith heater into the ethos. The second track on a 25-song effort, Keith’s wavy, antagonistic “Nonstop” is a clear standout — a tone-setting advisory of the vigilant, hardened Drake that emerges across the album. Statistically, “Nonstop” is also the albums biggest hit. With 5.75 million U.S. streams on opening day, the single overtook J. Cole’s “KOD” as Spotify’s biggest single day release.
Keith was born and raised in South Memphis. He lived with his mother but would often spend weekends with his father in Raleigh, on the North Side, where he met BlocBoy JB in high school. “That’s family,” says Keith. “We were running together before the music.” As high school progressed, Keith, BlocBoy, Keith’s brother (rapper JC Gwalla) and his cousin (rapper Tay Gwalla) grew more serious about music. Keith’s early beats were raw, but his confidants sensed greatness in the making. “The first instrumental he ever made, in 2009, it hit so hard,” says Tay Gwalla. “I knew he was a monster.”
Thanks to YouTube’s partner earnings system, what was initially a hobby became a way to pay the bills, and a possible ticket out of Raleigh. “We’d get $100 checks for hitting certain thresholds,” says Keith. “After that, people were watching my channel, and I started linking with more local artists.” Memphis rapper Blac Youngsta, who is six years Keith’s senior and has nearly 2.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify, gave Keith his first big break, bringing him on as a producer and introducing him to the Memphis club scene. From there, Keith was off and running.
Before Drake came calling, Keith had served up beats for big names like Juicy J, Yo Gotti and Moneybagg Yo, building cross-town relationships and developing his hauntingly playful, bass-heavy distorted sound along the way. According to Keith, there was no reason for territorial hostility and gang violence to affect his music career. Whereas Blac Youngsta has famously feuded with fellow Memphis rapper Young Dolph — who was shot and wounded last year –- Keith wants only to connect and uplift his city, nourishing his career while exposing the mainstream hip-hop scene to Memphis trap. “Depending what side of the city you’re from, a lot of producers will charge you or not fuck with you at all,” says Tay Gwalla about what separates Keith from other producers in Memphis. “He just wants to work. Even if we weren’t blood, we’d go to work.”
Still, Keith didn’t quite know what to think when Drake called him in the summer of 2017. He quickly scrambled to make a pack of beats for the hit-maker to test out and, within days, Drake returned the verdict with a verse attached. “Look Alive” was the choice. The beat took Keith less than half an hour to produce.
With the 6-god’s verse in tow, Keith quickly looped in BlocBoy JB for the hook and a second verse. And then they waited. On February 8, the drop date, Keith soon realized that there was no going back. On Day One, the music video — in which Keith can be spotted dancing alongside his collaborators — drew 2 million views. Now it’s over 100 million. “That shocked me,” he says. “It was more eyeballs than I could have dreamed up.”
Keith’s tracks are intensely Memphis. As seen on BlocBoy JB’s “Rover” — a prequel to “Look Alive” — and now Drake’s “Nonstop,” Keith’s minimalist production allows his rappers to draw the attention while his smacking bass and eerie keyboard-built melody toy with your senses. Keith’s influences — from the bass-happy trap of Yo Gotti and Future to the nuance of Dr. Dre — are evident. While Memphis has boasted occasional hits from artists like Three 6 Mafia and 8Ball & MJG, the city’s influence remains most apparent on the underground. The continued exposure of Keith and BlocBoy JB will direct more earbuds to the banks of the Mississippi, but a national explosion — like early 2000s Atlanta — is no guarantee. But Drake’s blessing will help, and those on the ground believe that Memphis’ moment is fast approaching — with Keith bridging his city’s rival factions.
At least, once he gets through his exams.