A case for Three 6 Mafia.
In this series, we'll be making the case for specific rappers to be included in "greatest of all-time" discussions. The more obvious choices (such as André 3000, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, 2Pac) will be ignored in favor of artists who tend to get overlooked these days, for one reason or another. Previously, our writers have made cases for Pusha T, Ice Cube, DJ Quik, Big Boi, DMX, Ghostface Killah, Scarface, and Lloyd Banks. Today, we're going to bat for Three 6 Mafia.
As 2017 starts to come to a close, and rap goes another year into the future, more and more we see styles change and evolve with time. Rap's always had an accelerated rate of evolution, and more and more you see people have a hot moment and then get left in the dust before anybody can even get used to having them around. But funnily enough, there's one group who's maintained a surprising amount of influence over the course of two or perhaps even 3 decades. They're arguably one of the most successful southern rap groups of all time, and helped put their home city of Memphis on the map in a time where most rap outside of LA and NYC rarely got treated with popular respect and recognition. Nowadays, you can hear their thumbprint in everyone from Gucci Mane to ASAP Rocky to XXXTentacion, and that hasn't stopped the individual members continuing to exceed their expectations for success. For candidates of one of the greatest rap groups of all time? Look no further than the infamous legends, Three 6 Mafia.
Three 6 Mafia, initially known as the more menacing “Triple Six Mafia” (as in y'know, 666, the devil, etc.) was based originally out of the work of founders and siblings DJ Paul and Lord Infamous. The duo, a pair of horror movie and heavy metal obsessed misfits, worked hard to develop a murky formula of gloomy beats and menacing raps inspired by the likes of Slick Rick, NWA, Geto Boys and others before finding kindred spirits all over Memphis. Though now well documented and with a massive cult audience, Memphis rap was once a hyper-productive niche scene where local DJs were the main focal point and usually had a rotating cast of guest rappers for their productions. As such it wasn't uncommon for the likes of DJ Squeeky or DJ Zirk to share a few MCs with Paul or his soon to be found production foil in former show DJ for 8Ball and MJG, the notorious Juicy J. More than a few names who were veterans of the scene and respectable southern rap legends in their own right such as Kingpin Skinny Pimp or Playa Fly would flirt in and out of the camp on these mixtapes, but the core was typically built around the partnership of Juicy J and DJ Paul as they proceeded to churn out bangers at an exhaustive work-rate to merely make it onto local cassette mixtapes. By the early 90s, Three Six Mafia already had a dense back catalog that made most major label groups seem lazy in comparison, and this was before even signing a record deal.
As the crew eventually seemed to coalesce into the classic line-up of Paul, Infamous, Juicy, Gangsta Boo, Koopsta Knicca and Crunchy Black, they also had developed a signature sound that while a few Memphis acts were dabbling in, Three 6 Mafia really devoted themselves to; there was the complex double-time 'chopping' styles of Lord Infamous married to his druggy horrorcore, paired well with Koopsta's haunting melodic falsetto staccato flows (often considered a possible antecedent to early Bone Thugs & Harmony, which would see both groups send shots back and forth for a period in the 90s). Then there were the records themselves ranging from the nauseatingly violent pimp rap of “Beat Them Hoes Down” to the lobotomized gangsta rap of “Ridin In The Chevy Pt. II” to the deranged serial killer themes of “Playa Hataz”. Not to mention proto-crunk get buck anthems such as “Tear The Club Up” and “Break The Law”, which would serve as a blueprint for Atlanta's invasion of the mainstream over a decade later. One has to ask themselves that without Three 6 Mafia allowing southern street rap to take as many weird turns as it did, would there ever have been a Pastor Troy, or a Waka Flocka Flame?
While we could easily cap off a great case for how innovative and foundational Three 6 Mafia was before they even managed to sign a major-label record deal, the fact is that this was only phase one of their career. After their self-released independent albums and mixtapes slowly permeated outside of the 'bubble' of Memphis rap, Paul and Juicy parted ways with former business partner Nick Scarfo and saw the group go to Relativity Records to release their 'commercial' debut in the form of Chapter 2: World Domination. The singles “Tear The Club Up '97” and “Late Nite Tip”, while extensions of ideas that had already been done to death in the grimy cassette fuzz of early Three 6, saw the group bringing their ideas into surround sound and finally attracting the attention of a national audience. This wasn't to say that Three 6 Mafia had sold out either, because anyone who was coming to the group with fresh ears would soon discover from deep cuts such as “Spill My Blood” and “Anyone Out There” would certainly explain just how twisted and deranged these rappers were compared to the rest of the scene in the 90s; also, this was the second Three 6 Mafia album to frequently introduce their secret weapon in Juicy's brother the now legendary Project Pat.
Once in the major-label system however, the gloves were truly off. While plenty of rap groups get a deal and think world domination comes platinum single at a time, Juicy and Paul were in it for the long-haul. Compilations of old material would soon be reissued and remastered in order to get new fans a chance to hear their older classic underground material, solo albums by the group members and affiliates like La Chat, Lil' Wyte and Project Pat among others flew out the pipeline via their Hypnotize Minds imprint, not to mention side-projects and guest production for folks outside their camp. Of course, with this excessive work rate and string of hits and successes brought a few tensions over money, not to mention stints of incarceration for Pat and Infamous, which led Three 6 Mafia to be reduced to the trio of Crunchy, Juicy and Paul for their 2005 album Most Known Unknown. For maybe any other group, going from a sprawling collective to the bare bones might spell disaster for a group who'd already been going in the public eye for well over a decade, but go figure, it was another peak for Three 6 Mafia and saw two of their biggest singles emerge: “Stay Fly” and “Poppin My Collar”.
Post-Most Known Unknown, Three 6 Mafia also had a bizarre turn from not only rap icons but proper celebrities. After being commissioned by John Singleton to do scoring work for Hustle & Flow, Paul and Juicy would find themselves able to proudly boast afterward on record that they were Academy Award Winners after their “Hard Out Here For A Pimp” earned a coveted Oscar. As a result of this atypical win, they found themselves briefly charming their way into Hollywood proper and managed to score a (underrated and hilarious) reality TV show as well as briefly do forays into EDM and pop-rock, yet their music seemed a bit strained as a result. Both Paul and Juicy worked on solo material that catered to their older fans who were rediscovering their classic material as old anthems such as “Sippin on some Sizzurp” or “Slob on my Knob” continued to gain new life with generations who were barely kids when the songs were first released. Once their ninth studio album Last 2 Walk was released, it seemed Paul and Juicy were going to be consigned to underground icon status would simply have to rest on a proud legacy as rap icons. But not if Juicy J had anything to say about it...
During their period of career fluctuation, Juicy and Paul had found themselves often being utilized to help assist rappers such as French Montana and Wiz Khalifa who were looking to branch out into the southern rap realm, and whom better to have cosign you and produce you than perhaps the only group who could claim to have produced both Justin Timberlake and UGK? During this period, Juicy seemed to truly find himself at home alongside rising acts such as Webbie and Gucci Mane, and before long he was doubling down on re-establishing himself as a producer and rapper of merit. His infamous Rubba Band Business mixtape series with the then rising Lex Luger soon became classics, and before long Juicy J was being talked about in the same conversations as rappers who were close to half his age. Khalifa, in a gesture of foresight, soon signed up Juicy to his Taylor Gang imprint and before long, somehow at age 38 found himself on the top of the rap charts with his club anthem “Bandz Make Her Dance”. Paul, on the other hand, continued to experiment with the boundaries of rap and dubstep, before he eventually saw fit to finally put a rest to all the old grudges and reunited the Three Six Mafia classic line-up (sans Juicy) as Da Mafia 6ix. By this point, thanks to the likes of Spaceghostpurrp, ASAP Rocky, Bones, $uicideboys and many others, those warped and bizarre mixtape experiments of Three Six Mafia were to a whole generation of rappers what Ice Cube and Scarface were for them. Sadly the reunion was short-lived after both Infamous and Koopsta passed away after long-standing battles with substance abuse, just as they were able to be appreciated for their own individual brilliance within the group.
After such passings, it feels that the existence of Three 6 Mafia is up in the air while Juicy and Paul still continue to work on solo material, the latter coincidentally taking the time to mentor Infamous' sons who appear to be eager to work in the footsteps of their family in crafting dark Memphis-style rap while the former has just closed out the year with his newest release Highly Intoxicated. Yet as long as the remainder of the group are still alive, they appear to show no signs of slowing down and continuing to put out music that manages to impress new fans when their former peers have either called it quits or find it difficult to keep the spark. With another decade coming to the close however, it's just another decade where Three Six Mafia has maintained an incredible hold on the imaginations of millions of people, proving that they truly did succeed when they boasted they would hypnotize minds.