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A few minutes with D.J. Qualls of Memphis Beat

July 8, 2010

Whatever your feelings may be about TNT’s cop drama Memphis Beat, we can probably all agree on one thing: D.J. Qualls. He’s a middle Tennessee boy, he loves our city and we loved him in Hustle & Flow. We were lucky enough to have a few minutes with D.J. this afternoon (on the phone, no super secret celebrity sightings at the MRC) to pick his brain about Memphis music, barbecue and giving credit where credit is due.

What does it mean to you that the show is based in Memphis?
It was one of the reasons why I wanted to do the show, and initially when I signed on to do it I thought we would be filming there. I still feel like I’m doing the South justice. I feel like people don’t do the South justice, and I feel like if there’s a joke to be made about the South, it’s mine to make. … I think you get to see how good the hearts of Southern people are. … I think we do a good job of representing the spirit of Memphis, even though we don’t shoot there.

In the show, the Memphis music goes a long way to establishing the spirit of the city. How do you keep that feeling alive on the set as you film in New Orleans?
The creator of the show, Joshua Harto, is a Southern boy, too, and spent a lot of time in Memphis. I spent a lot of my childhood in Memphis. My grandparents lived in Collierville for a while, and also Memphis was just a destination. Everyone makes that teenage pilgrimage to Graceland, it’s midnight, “Let’s go to Memphis!” I got my first tattoo in Memphis. I feel like such a guardian of the city. Our biggest critics are Memphians. And I get it. They want a show called Memphis Beat to be shot in Memphis. What I urge everyone to do is, if you want a show shot in your town, you have to work with your state legislature. These jobs should be in our state. … I love this city. And our lead, Jason Lee, loves the city, too. We’ve all spent time there, we’ve all been there and gotten a chance to soak up what Memphis is about. And there are a lot of parts of New Orleans that look like Memphis. I mean not downtown, of course, but they’re working to find those places and pockets that look like Memphis.

Memphis has my heart. And I’m hoping that next season something changes and we’re shooting there.

(In keeping the Memphis spirit), the music definitely goes a long way. I mean, STAX. Isaac Hayes was a friend of mine, we worked on Hustle & Flow together. And I mean, old 60s and 70s R&B, those are my jams. One of my favorite places to go in New Orleans is called Vic’s Kangaroo Cafe — best 70s R&B juke box ever.

So the next episode centers around barbecue. If there’s anything Memphians love as much as their music, it’s their barbecue. So what do you think, will we be satisfied?
Well the episode really centers around a brother and sister who have a barbecue business. … Someone wants to buy their secret sauce, one of them wants to sell it and the other doesn’t. The setting is like Memphis in May, and we tried to do Memphis in May, but I guess it’s copyrighted and we couldn’t get it. So we called it Memphis BBQ Fest, something generic, but it’s that feel, set in that sort of venue. But the episode really is about sibling rivalry. My character goes undercover, it’s his first major assignment.

So what is your favorite Memphis music, past or present?
Al Green, man! Have you ever been to his church? He has to be my favorite. Booker T and the MGs. It’s so hard, whenever you ask me my favorite thing it’s so hard to answer, because a million things come into my head.

I was just at the STAX Museum. Isaac Hayes gave me a STAX hat before he died and I lost it on an airplane. I’m not even gonna lie to you, I cried. I was in an airport in Tokyo balling my eyes out. So I had to go to get another hat. It’s not the same, but I had to go.

That whole Memphis sound, it spreads everywhere. Bill Withers and Tina Turner, all these great artists, it all comes from Memphis. Memphis never gets its due, and I think a lot of Memphians are pissed about it. I think that’s a big part of why people are so upset that we’re not filming in Memphis.

But the blues is from Memphis. It’s not from Chicago, it’s not from New Orleans, it’s from Memphis.

I’d tell anyone, if you go down Beale Street, you’ll find blues musicians who’ve been in the same place for 25 years, who should’ve had record deals long ago, but they’re not doing it for the record deal, they’re doing it because they love it. I love the Memphis arts scene, in general, not just the music. There’s tons of independent film makers, Craig Brewer came out of there. It’s an amazing scene. It was then, it is now.

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