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From Tragedy to Triumph: Walter Person III’s Mission to Elevate Memphis Music

June is African American Music Month. And while Fathers Day has come and gone, The Tri-State Defender declared June as “The Month of the Black Dad.” In that context, my conversation with Memphis-based music producer Walter Person III is a celebration of both music and fatherhood.

You may not be familiar with Person himself, but you’re probably familiar with some who have laid tracks at SonStorm Studios, his recording studio nestled in the heart of Midtown Memphis. Among them: 8-Ball & MJG; Al Kapone; Edwin and Walter Hawkins, and a slew of local rappers and musicians.

Walter Person III has a photo of his father at SonStorm Studio. Walter Jr. belonged to a group called “Circle of Fire” that was once signed to Stax. “They recorded in this very space. I remember it as a child,” Walter III said. “Having his picture up . . . I feel his spirit with me.” (Photo: Lee Eric Smith/Tri-State Defender)

You could say music — and entrepreneurship — is in his blood. His father was Walter Person, Jr., who performed with “Circle of Fire,” a group that was part of an attempted comeback for the Stax music label after its initial collapse. When the music thing didn’t pan out, Person Jr. went in a whole different direction: Land surveying. Eventually, Jackson Person & Associates would grow into a powerhouse in the construction industry.

That’s the business Walter III thought he would be in as a teenager. “I was being groomed to step into the family business,” he said. “But I lost my dad when I was 15 . . . completely redirected my life.”

Over the next 45 minutes, we talked about the past and present of the Memphis music scene, his own musical roots and how tragedy led him to naming his business “SonStorm Studios.” And of course, we talked about fathers and legacy. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Lee Eric Smith: I noticed you have microphones set up here in the main area. What are you currently working on?

Walter Person III: We’re currently recording the “Blood Bound” audio series, set in Memphis during the early 1990s. It’s an audio drama about a young guy dealing with family issues and the pull of the streets. It’s a seven-episode series featuring notable voice actors like Eight Ball and Kia Shine.

Smith: That sounds fascinating. Many people might assume you only do music here, but it sounds like you’re branching out. How has the podcast boom influenced your work?

Walter Person III: Absolutely, the podcast boom has been great for us. We do podcasts, audio dramas, and a Tiny Desk type series called SonStorm Sessions. We had Al Kapone recently, and we have more artists lined up. It’s important to showcase that we’re not just about rap; Memphis has so much more to offer musically.

Smith: Speaking of Memphis, can you tell us about your background and connection to Stax?

Walter Person III: Sure, my dad was in a band called Circle of Fire, produced by David Porter during the resurgence of Stax in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Stax was a big part of our lives, and my dad’s music history and legacy influenced me greatly. 

Smith: But Stax never really bounced all the way back. What happened after that?

Walter Person III: My father had a business, Jackson Person and Associates, here in Memphis. He was the first registered black land surveyor in Tennessee. They worked on major projects like the Pyramid, Rust College, the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta, and Riverside before the new developments. His company was a big, black-owned minority business in the city. 

We moved from our old neighborhood to a new one near Houston High School, and it was right after we moved that the tornado hit and changed everything.

Smith: The tornado?

Walter Person III: So back in ’94, there was a tornado that hit out in Germantown, right in the area around Houston High School. We had just moved out there maybe a month prior. So we were in our house less than 30 days, and that tornado came through a couple days after Thanksgiving and tore it up, completely tore the house down. 

There were 17 people in the house at the time, just hanging out on a Sunday afternoon after Thanksgiving. My mom and auntie were down in the kitchen cooking and doing what they do. The kids were upstairs playing, and my dad and uncle were in another room, you know, doing what they do. 

All of a sudden, it’s just, you know, no warning, no sirens, no anything. The storm came through. I remember just looking out the window and seeing rain almost going sideways and trees flopping back and forth, touching the ground.

Smith: Wow.

Walter Person III: In the blink of an eye, it was over. The whole house was torn apart. The only thing left standing was the concrete foundation. I was 15 at the time, my youngest brother was 11, and my middle brother was a year younger than me. 

Out of 17 people, three died in that storm. It killed my father, my youngest brother, and my uncle. 

It was life-changing. The storm redirected my life and my path. Me and my brother, we became “Sons of the Storm.” The name SonStorm Studios is a tribute to that event, to my father, and to his entrepreneurial spirit and music legacy.

Smith: What were you thinking of doing with your life before the storm?

Walter Person III: Growing up, I was being led into taking over Jackson Person and Associates. I was majoring in civil engineering when I first went to college, but I spent my nights in the studio. I was really into music, rapping and writing since fifth grade, and I found myself in studios more often than in classrooms. Eventually, I realized that engineering and producing music could be my path. I wanted to stay close to music while also making a living, and this felt like the right direction.

Though Person has worked with known rap stars like 8-Ball & MJG, Al Kapone and more, he wants to appeal to a broader clientele. In addition to music, he’s conducted “tiny-desk” type concerts, and recording audio dramas. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith/Tri-State Defender)

Lee Eric Smith: How would you describe your role now? More of an engineer and producer than an artist?

Walter Person III: Yeah. At this point, because I’ve realized that I can make some money doing the engineering and producing part instead of recording my own music and trying to be a rapper, you know? The music I was doing and still do, it was never on no gangster rap trap type stuff. It’s just real reality type music. We might talk about some real stuff, but we were never like, “Shoot a ni**a, sell dope, blah, blah, blah,” all that type of stuff. 

The stuff I wanted to talk about, nobody was really checking for it. So, it was like, let me engineer, let me produce, let me find a way to still be in the music and around it. And when I get a chance, I can do some of the stuff I want to do on the side, but I can make some money and pay the bills being an engineer.

Smith: People might not know, but who have you worked with?

Walter Person III: I’ve worked with artists like Bushwick Bill from the Ghetto Boys, Edwin and Walter Hawkins, and several members of Three 6 Mafia. Many people don’t realize how much music history is tied to this studio.

Smith: Speaking of Memphis hip hop, how did it all start and evolve from your perspective?

Walter Person III: Memphis rap started with a lot of underground and gangster music in the early nineties. We were all about Memphis Underground. A significant moment was when Eight Ball and MJG hit the mainstream, making people outside Memphis take notice. However, Memphis often lagged behind other scenes. It wasn’t until recently that Memphis artists began to get the recognition they deserve.

Smith: And then there was “Hustle and Flow.” Ain’t nothing like a movie to draw attention to something, mane. (laughs)

Walter Person III: “Hustle and Flow” definitely put Memphis on the map in a new way. For those outside Memphis, it was their introduction to the city’s music culture. It showcased our sound, but also portrayed Memphis as more rural than it is. It was a mixed bag, but it brought attention to Memphis hip hop. Interestingly, a lot of the recording for that soundtrack happened right here in this building.

Smith: You’ve mentioned that you don’t just focus on hip hop here. What other genres are you exploring?

Walter Person III: I could show a million rappers coming through and doing their thing. But I just choose not to show that so much on social media because that’s not necessarily what I’m trying to attract. If word of mouth gets around, if you know about it and you know somebody that comes here, cool, that’s fine, but I’m not trying to say, “Hey, all rappers, come here.” You know what I’m saying? 

I like all types of music. I might be listening to Moneybagg Yo one day and then listen to a gospel song right behind it and an R&B song and a pop song, you know? So I like all types of music. So that’s what I want this place to be known for. I don’t want it to just be pigeonholed as a rap studio. I want all genres to feel welcome to come here and create music

Smith: What do you see as the next wave in Memphis music?

Walter Person III: I see Southern Soul gaining popularity because it blends R&B and blues, appealing to more mature audiences. Also, I think there’s a shift in hip hop with more artists focusing on positive messages and community upliftment. 

We need more music that talks about love, family, and respect, reflecting the real lives of ordinary people. I love working with rappers and hip hop artists, but I also want to be known for more positive and uplifting contributions. Inspired by my dad, I strive to create music that talks about love, family, and respect.

Smith: What do you think your dad would say about what you’re doing now?

Walter Person III: Man, you know what? I know he’d be proud. I’ve had some moments where I was on the fence, wondering if I was doing the right thing, if I was on the right path. But then I’ll get a message from somebody or something random that confirms I’m on track. I feel his presence here a lot of times. 

I was being groomed to take over the family business, but the storm changed my mentality. I wrestled for a long time with whether I was doing the right thing. But now, I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, carving out my own path and using this platform to help and influence the community in a positive way.

 

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