Harry Houdini performed magic under its marquee. Dick Van Dyke sent belly-aching laughter careening over its velvet seats. B.B. King unleashed the thrill of Lucille’s wailing strings over its orchestra pit. And Robert Plant sent the thunderous echoes of rock n’ roll around the glimmering sconces of its mezzanine.
Founded in the 1890s and rebuilt as a resplendent, 2,300-seat gilded age home for traveling entertainers in 1927, The Orpheum Theatre has been host to a who’s who of musicians, comedians and theatre productions passing through Memphis for more than 130 years. Add Duke Ellington, Dionne Warwick and Isaac Hayes to the list of icons who’ve shared its stage and a picture begins to emerge of a theatre steeped in the history of global pop culture and brought to a boil in the city that gifted the world blues, rock ‘n roll and a significant chunk of modern hip-hop’s sound.
And yet, as hip-hop celebrates its official 50th anniversary, The Orpheum stage has had little to contribute to the party—until now.
On September 17th, a Nashville-area transplant adopted by the Memphis community is taking center stage to celebrate hip-hop in the most opulent theatre on Beale Street. He’s doing it by bankrolling the project himself.
Tyrone Stroble, stagename Tyke T says he’s spending $40,000 to produce Tyke T and Friends Present: Ten Years of Driven. Featuring independent artists from across Memphis—Izzy Moore, Moe Javi, and St.Courts—the show is set to act as a southern fried counterweight to the LL Cool J, Jazzy Jeff and The Roots-headlined F.O.R.C.E. Live tour that brought an East Coast slate of hip-hop acts to neighboring, 18,000-seat FedExForum in August.
While Tyke T doesn’t proclaim to be on the level of hall of fame legends, he does say the Orpheum stage is a world class home for musicians deserving of a brighter spotlight. “When you hear Izzy Moore from Whitehaven, you can hear the pain in her voice,” he says. “She has one of the most incredible voices I’ve ever heard in my life. When you hear Moe Javi, you listen to the bars of a street profit because he’s been through the shit. When you see St. Courts, who bills himself as ‘The Enforcer’ from North Memphis, you see a superstar in the making.”
The concert is set to celebrate a decade of Tyke T’s “Driven” label, one that began with a pen and a pad in an apartment off of Kirby Parkway and has taken the lyricist and producer to stages at the city’s annual Beale Street Music Festival, live performances at Memphis Grizzlies home games and national album launches with billboards in New York and Los Angeles.
“We’re celebrating a decade since the launch of my very first album in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s called ‘Overlooked’ and it’s a very ambitious album that I’m so proud of. I wrote those songs. They made it to national stages, to your favorite t.v. shows like ‘Love and Hip-Hop’ and ‘Power’ and onto video games. Those songs were amazing for me. But for me to play them on the stage of a place where hip-hop isn’t traditionally given a chance. For little Tyke T to be doing that? I can’t even describe that feeling.”
A Segregated Past
To date, Tyke T and Friends is only the second hip-hop act to headline The Orpheum this year following a performance by Chicago-based rapper Tink in June. Its a statistic not lost on the show’s namesake artist, who says the prestige the theatre brings also comes with a bittersweet dose of its segregated past. “If we’re just being straight, there were times when African American people probably couldn’t even walk in that building,” he adds. “Now, my son gets to sit beside the stage and watch me perform.”
From 1940-1976, The Orpheum subsisted as a movie theatre operated under the regional Malco brand. For much of that time, the theatre was segregated under Jim Crow laws with a separate box office marked “Colored” and designated seating for Black patrons in its upper gallery.
But Memphis is more than the signs of its past. And Tyke T says that’s one reason he relocated from the Nashville area to the Bluff City 12 years ago. “My manager Shahidah Jones always tells me to be who I am. I’ve always respected Memphis because the as a transplant because I’ve never tried to be something I’m not. Memphis has a history of doing that going back to the Stax Records days with Otis Redding and Sam & Dave.
“I’m not a street rapper. But I am that person who people look in the eyes and tell me what I cannot be. I am a person that has been doubted and told what I cannot do. That’s the whole theme of my music—it’s being driven to show people they’re wrong about you.”
Tyke T describes the push towards showtime as the most stressful 90-day stretch of his life. He says there’s no guarantee he’ll recoup the investment putting him on stage. Ticket sales have come from as far away as Florida, New York and Atlanta, however. Backed by sponsorships from Middle Tennessee State University, Black Lives Matters, the Downtown Memphis Commission, Bumpin 96FM, the Carter Malone Group and the National Civil Rights Museum, it seems increasingly likely that the Orpheum will be filled to the rafters for a genre that deserves bonafide celebration in one of the capital cities of southern hip-hop.
And while the most celebrated Memphis rap artists—Three 6 Mafia, 8Ball & MJG and Yo Gotti—may not be on stage, the spirit that birthed the bars and beats behind their chart-topping global hits will be glowing in the determined hands of Tyke T & Friends.
“I can see it now,” says Tyke T. “I can see that we can fill the venue. Coming out of sound check, seeing what’s about to happen gets me really excited for this.”
Bars of Hope
Memphis needs hope. Following the November 17, 2021 slaying of hometown hip-hop hero Young Dolph, civic pride fell into a tailspin. Even as Dolph’s protege and collaborator Key Glock takes up the mantra of his cousin’s Paper Route Empire label and fellow Memphis rappers GloRilla, NLE Choppa, Moneybagg Yo, BlocBoy JB and Duke Deuce find themselves regular fixtures on the Billboard Hot 100, a palpable sadness can be felt over the city.
Tyke T says the loss of Dolph coupled with the traumatic footage of the fatal January 7 beating of Tyre Nichols at the hands of the city’s police department has cast a cloud over Memphis that has yet to be shaken. His music, he hopes, will help. Perhaps now, more than ever, Memphis’s embarrassment of talented musicians have the power to uplift its people.
In an attempt to do that, Tyke T purposefully set ticket prices for his event at an inclusive level. The same seats selling for $150 at Gladys Knight or more than $500 each at September’s Jerry Seinfeld show are set at just $25 for Tyke T and Friends.
“People are still feeling those things and we are hurting,” adds Tyke T. “I want them to be able to come to the show and experience a good night for two hours. Forget about it all with some really, really good independent hip-hop music. Go to a place that is really inclusive, have dinner and some drinks then go home safe and have a great time.”