Duke Deuce came prepared to fight. At least, he dressed as if he was. When I met the Memphis rapper in the lobby of the Royalton Park Avenue Hotel in midtown Manhattan on a brisk evening last week, he was fresh from a nap, draped in a lilac Nike tech suit covering a white T-shirt. His gut protruded, all-black Air Force 1 sneakers kept him upright, an all-black Memphis Grizzlies fitted cap was slightly cocked over his right eye, and a dazzling chain with the initials “QC” (short for his label, Quality Control Music) hung from his neck. This was the uniform of a man ready to rush hip-hop’s open court with an unmatched Southern stamina.
The crew with him was made up of his friends who have appeared in ad-libs on his booming songs and in the viral videos that have garnered him a cult following. His long “What the fuuuuuuuuuck!” ad-lib is a big part of his charm, as are the dance moves that’ve been turned into memes. We headed to the penthouse reserved by Capitol Music Group, which oversees Quality Control, whose lineup includes some of the titans of modern rap: Migos, Cardi B, and Lil Baby. Duke is the 27-year-old rookie on the all-star roster. “We’re real particular in what we sign,” Kevin Lee, who goes by “Coach K” and is the COO of QC, once said. “They have to be authentic.”
Authenticity doesn’t seem to be a problem if you meet Duke, if you hear his cadence, watch his walk and his talk. You sense that he is the same man from his videos: the dancing, the jewelry flexes that match the big personality. Duke was planted on the East Coast for a few days for his New York minute. We were speaking a few hours after his newest project dropped: Memphis Massacre 2, a 12-song collection of his heartfelt, woozy Tennessee sound. The trip was a flash point in his newfound fame as this generation’s crunk revivalist—an heir intent on bringing back a subgenre that had mostly disappeared from mainstream music after the aughts.
“Crunk is gangsta rock ’n’ roll,” Duke said. “It’s heavy metal and rock ’n’ roll without the guitars. It’s mainly because the energy, the rhythm, the tempo. Everybody got they own way of getting crunk. Some people yell a lot more. So, I don’t know. It relates to everybody. Three 6 Mafia wasn’t as loud as Lil Jon. Then he came and put his own twist on the shit. I have songs where I go up a little bit, too.” For Duke, he says he’s “on both sides” of the sound.
Crunk was a time, man. Every beat felt like an earthquake; it was undiluted, meant to knock your head off. The sound was up-tempo, electronic, full of bass and layered synths with drums that clapped like thunder. Crunk felt like something completely different from rap. It was the Memphis underground dropping nuclear bombs on wax. But crunk wouldn’t stay crunk—or in Memphis—for long. Eventually it was just pop. It intertwined with Atlanta’s sound. It hit South Beach in Miami. Crunk didn’t belong to Memphis alone as the years went on.
The subgenre dates back to the mid-’90s, when Three 6 Mafia dropped their second studio album, Chapter 1: The End, with “Gette’m Crunk” as a staple. Around the same time, Tommy Wright III made On the Run, which featured “Getting Crunk.” Other artists outside of Memphis began to adopt the sound. Atlanta’s Ying Yang Twins, Pastor Troy, Bone Crusher, and Mississippi’s David Banner all had their own takes. Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz, crunk’s most famous practitioners, would produce Get Crunk, Who U Wit: Da Album in 1997 and later bring the music into the mainstream. “Get Low,” off the 2002 album Kings of Crunk, stayed on the Billboard charts for 45 weeks. The album eventually went double platinum. Suddenly, crunk was everywhere, and artists like Petey Pablo and Crime Mob were finding success with it. (The latter group is best known for its classic fight-starting anthems “Knuck If You Buck” and “Rock Yo Hips.”) An offshoot dubbed “crunk&B” became the popular sound of the middle of the decade; Usher’s “Yeah,” Ciara’s “Goodies,” and Chris Brown’s “Run It” all became no. 1 hits. It was official: Crunk was inescapable.
By the late aughts, crunk gave way to the regionally successful subgenres Jersey and Baltimore club music, up-tempo styles that originated in the mid-Atlantic and combined breakbeats, chopped samples, call-and-response lyrics, and looped, stripped-down staccato rhythms. They were similar to crunk, just more frenetic. As the decade turned, modern trap—the Southern, drug-inspired wing of rap—began incorporating crunk elements and became the commercially dominant sound of the 2010s. SoundCloud rappers played with all the subgenres and crafted a new sound for a generation of listeners, and drill artists are currently using that influence to curate the type of electronic explosions that ruled last summer. Crunk influenced parts of what would become today’s dominant hip-hop sound, but lost much of its cachet.
This history is what gives Duke’s rise hefty importance. But for Duke, it’s more about his personal history. Memphis was Duke’s home, but also his muse. “It was rough,” he said about growing up in the city. “But in Memphis, we’ve got a lot of culture. We had a lot of shit to do to have fun.” The music Duke’s making is what he grew up with. Crunk was in his blood, with him from the cradle. Born Patavious Isom, Duke shared a room with his father, famed Memphis rapper and producer Duke Nitty, when he was a boy. The room also doubled as a studio. The younger Duke would fall asleep to the gothic clap of crunk and wake up and play with a tiny beat pad, his favorite toy. “My pops was always doing music,” he said. “And, shit, you know, being around it like that, eventually something gon’ click.”
Duke’s crunk revival is a hybrid of different sounds. “Whole Lotta” is a consistent thump. “Yeh,” his 2019 hit, features crass yelling over a dancing keyboard as loud booms cut through the mix like a boxer swiping at a heavy bag. “Crunk Ain’t Dead,” his biggest song and hardest jam, is an orchestra of violence. It’s an arrogant, inviting, recurring slap. Duke shouts, “Crunk ain’t dead, crunk ain’t dead, crunk ain’t dead, bitch!” over strings, piano, and 808s. It is pure octane.
“I took a lot of singles from out of the city, local songs that was hot in my city, and I started running through the beats on the muhfucka,” he said. “That joint just stood out the most to us. When that muhfucka came on, and the way I came in, everybody went crazy every time. So I said, you know what? Fuck this shit! I’ma take this muhfucka and we just gon’ go with this on period. I added the chant chorus onto it, and boom!”
That fury comes through on his new tape, Memphis Massacre 2. The “Crunk Ain’t Dead” remix turns the song into a posse cut of legends with Juicy J from Three 6 Mafia and Project Pat, as Lil Jon’s voice acts like a defibrillator. “BHZ” has a creepy Halloween-esque piano and features rhymes like “Ridin wit the muhfuckin’ P’s in the back / If 12 pull us over then you know we running track.” The syrupy “Fat Mac” is perfect for the strip club, where crunk originally found life. There’s even a Lil Yachty verse on “Crunk Ain’t Dead Mob” where he, actually, you know, raps. Duke Deuce’s new crunk reality can bring out the best in everyone.
Memphis has embraced him, he said. “They pretty much like, ‘It’s about time somebody came with the real Memphis sound.’ They proud, mane. It ain’t too many people pushing that sound. Everybody’s kinda, a little, I don’t wanna say boring,” he said. “Everybody’s just kinda in the same lane to me.”
Duke’s dancing is another thing. Part of his appeal is that his moves, both inspired and audacious, are captivating. He’s nodding to the “gangsta walk” rhythms of Memphis, something—like his sound—that hasn’t hit the mainstream in over a decade. Sometimes, this gets turned into a meme. Don’t worry. He’s quite aware of it. Duke wants his moves to go viral, and he’s conscious of how important that is for a rising rapper in the digital age. He’ll pace the studio until the light bulb flashes in his brain and he concocts a masterpiece—“gangsta and simple,” he said, because he won’t be “out here twistin’ my gotdamn ankles.” (That’s no small feat for a man of his stature.) “We pretty much came up doing this shit,” Duke said. “I feel like a lot of rappers don’t dance because,” and then he let out an exasperated and elongated “shiiiiiiiiddddd” as he rolled his eyes.
“Niggas think they too cool, ya know what I’m saying? Everybody don’t gotta dance. It just leaves more room for me to shine. I ain’t too cool to dance.”
Those moves—and the music—helped turn him into a budding star, beginning with 2018’s “Whole Lotta.” It was a smash: Well-known Atlanta dancers started making videos to the song, and rapper Offset liked what he heard. A few online messages between the two later, Duke found his way to QC, home of Offset’s group, Migos. He said he thought the messages were fake at first. But they led to his new reality: He was a frequent feature on Quality Control’s 2019 tape, Control the Streets Volume 2, and he’s gotten cosigns from the likes of labelmate Cardi B. When the money from his deal hit, Duke bought a bevy of things: jewelry, of course, but also one thing he loves chatting about, his tricked-out Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat. He beams thinking about what his new success has afforded him.
“That shit did something for me right there,” he laughs. “I can get used to this.”
Later that night, folks huddled in Chelsea Music Hall to hear Duke’s new project, waddling in from the cold to hear an old rap sound reborn.
It was a collection of New York socialites: influencers, drill music lovers, people who found themselves in Manhattan for a midweek reprieve. There were tributes to the late Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke, who was killed in Los Angeles that morning and whose booming Brooklyn sound was the hard-hitting, scratchy soundtrack of New York’s last summer. An assortment of sounds filled the room as people waited for Duke: Yachty deep cuts, Lil Uzi heaters, and homages to the late D4L rapper Shawty Lo, among others. Strobe lights touched every inch of the compound as a crew of black millennials bopped under the lights. It felt free. For a moment, it was just us and the bass, our shoulders shimmying to the snares, our hair flying in the breeze from the pounding speakers. The glory of New York lived here for a few hours, without pretenders, without posers, without the assumption that we’d live beyond the moment we were glued to.
Duke Deuce appeared from behind the fog of the smoke machine shortly after midnight, just as the event was originally supposed to end. Many who had showed up to see him had vanished by that point, unwilling to adhere to a talent’s schedule on a Wednesday night. This wasn’t a top headliner. This was the new King of Crunk in a city that doesn’t care about it more than a natural East Coast sound. At one point reps from Capitol Music Group said Duke would be on stage by 11, then it was 11:30, then people started moving, zombielike, out the door when he was nowhere in sight. When the DJ asked whether anyone was “ready to see Duke Deuce,” and nobody reacted, he said, “Yeah, I’m ready to see him, too.” It was the typical routine of waiting for an artist to appear at their own event. A metronome between curiosity and boredom. One has to strike the right balance. And here, it was nearly absent.
But once Duke came out, he was a Memphis powerhouse. The remaining crowd sprinted to the front of the venue as he stepped on stage. Duke danced the night away in a bright orange and turquoise North Face jumpsuit that made him look like a HollyHood astronaut. His boys surrounded him and jigged across the stage with a magic made on Beale Street. Ski masks covered their faces as they made finger guns. The energy was electric, but as Duke told me earlier, he doesn’t settle for satisfaction. He wants an explosion. In the middle of one of his slower songs from the back end of Memphis Massacre 2, he cut the music. “Let’s turn this shit up!” Everyone knew what that meant and the chaos that would subsequently ensue. His homies were disappointed. “How y’all don’t feel this shit?!” one asked. “It’s OK,” Duke reassured. “I got something for ’em!’”
When Duke played “Crunk Ain’t Dead,” the building went nuclear. “What the fuuuuuuck,” he boomed. “Ayeee ayyeee!!” The crowd shot back. This is what they’d waited four hours to see. The dancing Memphis man. The choreographed black joy. The uninhibited gall to stomp that stage out like it owed him money. “I’m a gangsta, muhfucka, and I’m standing on that shit!” Duke spat. A mosh pit of men rapped right next to his face, sweating next to each other like a gym class. Hell. I almost got killed in the resulting fervor. Then he stopped the song halfway and started from the top. He wanted to prove a point. He wasn’t going to tear the roof off his friends’ studios back in Memphis and not do the same at his New York coming-out party. It was an inspired performance. If he was trying to give us tinnitus, it almost worked.
Duke told me that he wants to be the best artist to ever come out of Memphis. The bigger names already support him, and he’s popular enough that he can support smaller acts back home. “I’m kind of standoffish, but I’ve got a big heart and I love to show love to other people,” he said. The legends of Memphis rap, “they fuckin’ wit me,” he said. And the movement isn’t his to bear alone. Juicy J is still a mainstay on the scene. Drake had DJ Paul on his last album. Travis Scott reappropriated Three 6 Mafia’s classic “Tear Da Club Up” for 2018’s “No Bystanders.” The sound is gaining newfound momentum behind Duke, but it’s never truly fizzled out.
People are going to catch on to his crunk rebirth. He believes it’s too strong. Too vital. Too important to the framing of hip-hop’s current sound. But they must, he stresses, understand where it came from. “People don’t understand that crunk came from Memphis,” he said. “I’m pretty much here to let the world know.”
What radiates from Duke is what he proclaimed the entire day I spent with him: He’s not trying to come off as a hard-as-fuck gangsta rapper at all times. He’s a goofball. He believes he’s down to earth. He has an infectious energy that you can’t help but smile and nod with when you’re around him.
At one point in the day, Coach K, who had been following Duke’s tail from the hotel to the venue, tells Duke that he reminds him of the late Heavy D—the self-described “overweight lover” who crossed over into the mainstream in the early 1990s—given the heft of each man and the way they danced. “Ain’t been a heavy muhfucka since him,” Coach K says. Duke gives a wry smile. Well, when’s the last time you saw a dude this size move like that outside of a football field? He’s gleefully and forcefully trying to revive a dead art. And he promises this isn’t a gimmick. He just has a certain way of gettin’ crunk.
It reminds me of how we left each other earlier that day. Duke’s friends were egging him on to do his signature ad-lib in the packed penthouse restaurant. He tried to hide his smile. “I would say it, but it’s going to be too loud,” he laughed. I told him to do it. Why not? His friends pushed and shoved, wanting him to remind the place who he was.
“They gon’ kick us out this muhfucka!” he chuckled. “Y’all see all these white people?!”
“We staying here!” one said.
“You paid good money!” another reminded him.
“Y’all really want this, huh?” Duke laughed again. “Y’all crazy as hell!”
Eventually, he let his guard down, and the man from the viral videos emerged. Duke craned his neck back and cupped his hand to his mouth and belts the now-signature Memphis sound from the top of the tower for all of midtown Manhattan to hear.
“WHATTT THEEEE FUCKKKKKKKK?!?!?!?!”
We all snorted. It was worth almost getting kicked out of the place. For a moment, the unsuspecting saw the Memphis shine off one of rap’s new generation in the boisterous crunk style the rest of the world has come to know and a young set of fans are getting acquainted to—through force, if need be.
An earlier version of this piece misstated that Kevin Lee is head of Quality Control Music; he is the COO.