Fifteen years ago, when Three 6 Mafia's "DJ Paul" Beauregard and Jordan "Juicy 'J'" Houston first started selling homemade mix-tapes out of the trunk of a car, hip-hop was an East Coast/West Coast thing.
Now, no other form of music thinks locally and acts globally in quite the same way: The genre is a crazy quilt of distinctive regional styles where staying true to your block is absolutely no obstacle to big-scale stardom. And by staying in Memphis to build their multi-million-selling hip-hop empire Hypnotize Minds, Three 6 Mafia helped create this world. Helped prove that, in hip-hop, you can be a star from anywhere.
This was true even before DJ Paul and Juicy "J" -- along with Hypnotize Minds artist Cedric "Frayser Boy" Coleman -- upped their pop-culture Q rating to the stratosphere by winning an Oscar for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," their contribution to Craig Brewer's made-in-Memphis movie Hustle & Flow. Even before Oscar night, the group that had titled their 2005 album Most Known Unknowns had become acknowledged hip-hop heavyweights on the strength of their smash hit and career-best single "Stay Fly," which not only landed them on MTV but was named as the 10th best single of 2005 in the Village Voice's annual national critics' poll, the highest finish for an album or single from a Memphis artist since the poll began in 1974.
In the process of crossing over to a much wider audience, Three 6 Mafia has met the mainstream halfway. Their best music is now more accessible and less intentionally antisocial, but they still lace their records with confrontational crunk tracks like "Knock tha Black Off Yo ***" and "Let's Plan a Robbery." They're still plenty controversial. I've struggled with their music before and likely will again. But you don't struggle with things you can more easily dismiss. And there's no dismissing Three 6 Mafia. Not this year. And no denying "Stay Fly."
In the middle of a hectic post-Oscar month, Juicy "J" met with the Flyer at Three 6 Mafia's Hypnotize Minds headquarters, tucked between law and accounting offices in a nondescript downtown complex, to talk about the group's amazing year and what's on tap -- Chris Herrington
Flyer: Several years ago during a press conference announcing your first major-label contract, you made a point of saying that you wanted to stay in Memphis. At the time, that wasn't a model for success. You'd seen other artists leave Memphis and be successful -- Eightball & MJG going to Houston -- but you hadn't seen artists stay here and make it.
Juicy "J": That's why we wanted to be one of the first artists to do that. We wanted our record company to be like Stax or Hi. There are a lot of major labels in New York and Los Angeles. But there's a history of independent labels here, and we wanted to keep that trend going.
Do you have a sense of how many records you've sold over the years?
About 13, 14 million maybe, if you count everything we've done. Which is a huge accomplishment for us, being an underground group.
So, 13 to 14 million records sold. Three straight albums debuting in the Billboard Top 10. With that level of success, was it surprising to see how immediate the impact of winning the Oscar was?
That was huge. We didn't expect it. I'm still shocked about the whole thing -- getting nominated, getting to perform, and then winning.
It still hasn't been very long, but what's been the immediate professional impact?
Sales are doing real good. The album is platinum. We've been doing a lot of television shows. We just inked a deal with MTV for a reality show.
What's the concept for the reality show?
It's a secret. But it's gonna be funny as hell.
Will it be filmed in Memphis?
We're going to film it all over, including Memphis. We've got a lot of stuff on the table right now. We're going to be in Jackass 2, the movie. We've got a lot of movie studios wanting us to write songs. And they want us to do some acting too.
What's the status of that Paris Hilton collaboration?
We met her and she said she was interested in hearing some of our stuff. We wrote a song for her and she went into the studio to listen to it. She took a copy of it and hopefully she'll use it. Nothing's written in stone right now. She had the Simple Life cameras in there while she was listening to the song.
When you watch Hustle & Flow, who do you identify with more: Djay or Skinny Black?
Myself, I think I identify with Djay, because I struggled. I didn't come from a home like he came from, but I did come from a real broke, poor background, growing up in North Memphis. There were six people in my family living in a two-bedroom apartment. So I came from that hustle. I made demo tapes in my mama's house and tried to get them heard. I'm not like Djay, but I identify with his struggle. I used to ride around in a raggedy, beat-up Chevy. He had the perm. I had the curl back in the day. Coming up out of Memphis, which is a small city, trying to get your music heard: It's not like it is now. Back then people weren't trying to find artists here.
Skinny Black was a character who had left the city and had a sort of negative attitude about it, which is very different from you and Paul. But I'd think you'd have to identify with him to a degree. Surely, you're bombarded by people trying to get you to listen to their demos? It must be constant.
Yeah, all the time. But I'm always interested in what's coming up out of this city. We're trying to grab artists out of this city. Everybody in this company is from Memphis. This city is on the rise right now, so we try to keep it home.
Most of the attention Three 6 has gotten recently, especially locally, has been because of the Oscar win. But it seems to me the story of your breakout year really begins with "Stay Fly." Is it accurate to say that's the most successful song you've ever released?
Yeah, that is the biggest single we've ever had. And "Poppin' My Collar" is the biggest second single we've ever had.
You've created hundreds of songs, but did you realize when you were working on the track for "Stay Fly" that you were onto something special?
When we made it, we just knew it was a good song. You never really know what a hit is. And that song was a smash hit. It crossed us over to the next level. MTV. Heavy rotation on BET. We knew it was a good song, but we didn't know it would be like that.
There's a Grizzlies version of "Stay Fly" that gets played at the Forum when the team comes out on the court. How did that end up happening?
We wanted to do something for the team. We love the Grizzlies. We've got season tickets. A lot of other teams out of town were asking us to take the "Stay Fly" song and do something for their city. My reaction was, no offense, but we live in Memphis. So we made it and gave it to the DJ guy at the Forum, and he loved it.
Did Paul get any grief for wearing Phillies gear at the Oscars?
Naw. Paul wears that "P" because his name is Paul. He doesn't wear it because of Philly.
Your music has changed a lot over the years, but it's retained a distinctive sound. Even early on, it wasn't just straight beats-and-rhymes hip-hop. It was more atmospheric, more dense, more like a film score or soundtrack music. How did that style develop?
Well, if you listen to our music, it has a Memphis sound. Those bass lines. Sometimes we use a scary, crunk track. But if you listen to "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," it's got that Memphis soul sound, and that's where we come from.
To what degree has your music become more mainstream, and to what degree do you think the mainstream has become more like your music?
Well, we've been around for a long time, but I think a lot of people are just starting to catch on to who Three 6 Mafia is. [Our music] is straightforward. Some of it is straight gangsta; it's gutter. We've got music a lot of different people can relate to.
The name of the current album is Most Known Unknowns, which seems to imply that, with the explosion of Southern hip-hop, you've made an impact on fans even if they don't know much about you specifically.
That's why we named it that. We've been around for so long, over 15 years. We've got gold and platinum plaques. Me and Paul have produced and written probably 90 percent of the records you see here. We work hard, man. A lot of people don't understand. They think this happened overnight. But we've been working and hustling for years. It took us a long time to get where we got. It's not an easy job. It's not just the music. We run a record company. We've got artists to manage. We've got a staff. You see that punchcard machine over there? We've got to keep track of everything. We play the producer role. The executive role. The musician role. We do a lot.
With all the attention has also come a good bit of criticism. Wendi Thomas of The Commerical Appeal called the Oscar win history the city should hide from. A local minister implied you all were pawns of the devil. How do you react to that?
You can't win an Oscar worshipping the devil. It's bad that people say negative things about one another. But winning the Oscar was a blessing from God. It was huge for Three 6 Mafia. It was huge for Memphis, Tennessee. Anyone who has anything bad to say about it, I just pray for them. I've got nothing bad to say about anybody. We're blessed right now. This is our year. I'm feeling so good right now, I ain't got nothing bad to say.
But do you acknowledge how someone could be troubled by that song or the movie, since a pimp, by definition, is someone who exploits women? Do you see why someone would be sensitive to that?
As far as the movie, I don't think anyone should be concerned about that. You've got movies out here, like Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, where people are getting killed. It's just entertainment. Everybody knows it's entertainment. You can't please everybody. Doesn't matter what you do. If you're sweeping a floor, one person will walk in and say, "You missed a spot." Somebody else might walk in and say, "You did a good job."
That was a great movie. It was huge for Memphis.
As far as the pimp thing: There are pimps everywhere. Pimps aren't just a pimp on the street with a woman. You can get pimped at the bank. You can get pimped at your job. I can get pimped at my job. You can work at McDonald's and your boss can be pimping you. Look at the Enron scandal; a lot of people got pimped there. It's not all about a woman and a dude on a street corner.
You may have heard: They won an Academy Award. But even without the Oscar buzz, Three 6 Mafia would still be riding high on what may be their best album yet, this year's Most Known Unknowns. Now if they can just survive all the bandwagoneers, including the same city-government sycophants who pulled a resolution honoring the group at the last minute several years ago -- without telling them -- because they were too controversial.
-- Mark Jordan
Personal preferences aside, I have to give it up for any local act that wins a frickin' OSCAR. I'm not sure we can even know the ramifications for the local music scene yet. -- Jeremy Scott
I used to listen to their mix tapes that you could purchase at Mr. Z's down on Cleveland. Now they're sitting front row at a Knicks game ... in New York. Spike Lee, move over. The Dirty South needs a seat. -- Gary Crump
Although wanted for first-degree murder of the English language, they're now immortalized in the music world. Everyone else [in the local music scene] is light-years away. -- Chris Walker
It's not just their music. It's their rags-to-riches story. I remember sitting in the studio with them over at Cotton Row years ago after they signed their first big record deal. Paul and Juicy said they would never leave Memphis. They wanted to be successful musicians in Memphis, not successful musicians who moved from Memphis. Three 6 represents Memphis to most of the popular music fans right now, and contrary to popular belief, hip-hop and rap is the music that's making money in this town. No matter what you hear, it's all show business, so think about that when you criticize their persona, lyrics, etc.
-- Pat Mitchell Worley
Memphis representation at the Oscars made us all smile! -- Zac Ives
Beyond "Pimp"Some of the best of Three 6 Mafia:
1. "Stay Fly" (from 2005's Most Known Unknown): With its eloquent, insistent production and Juicy "J"'s syncopated vocal hook, this is the most epic and overpowering track they've ever released. And by uniting with longtime Memphis rivals/comrades Eightball & MJG for topics they all probably know intimately (marijuana and their own inherent flyness), the verbal/vocal content is almost worthy of the unstoppable music.
2. "Chickenhead" (from Project Pat's 2001 Mista Don't Play): Project Pat and La Chat team up for a crunk equivalent to Otis Redding and Carla Thomas' "Tramp." The most playful production and funniest lyrics in Three 6 history.
3. "Two-Way Freak" (from 2001's Choices: The Album): That slinky pager-sound-effect hook is one of the most creative and memorable musical moments they've ever come up with, especially paired with the creeping bass groove that echoes it.
4. "Sippin' On Some Syrup" (from 2000's When the Smoke Clears): A woozily expressive description of consuming Jolly Rancher-doctored cough syrup out of baby bottles, with help from Houston heavyweights UGK and a stuttering hook that presages "Stay Fly."
5. "Don't Save Her" (from Mista Don't Play): In a town with as many churches as traffic lights, this is as cold as it gets, with a killer bass hook. And Crunchy Black's borderline evil, half-sung, half-rapped closing verse is about the most unnerving-yet-convincing moment in the Three 6 catalog.