For Memphis rap pioneers Three 6 Mafia, it was a long road to the top and a short stay. First formed in 1991, the group — led by the core duo of Juicy J and DJ Paul — built a regional empire the hard way, selling CDs out of proverbial car trunks before partnering with local indie distributor Select-O-Hits to branch out further.
By 2005, though, more than a decade of real-life hustle and flow finally paid off in a major way, with the Sony-released album Most Known Unknown topping both the rap and R&B album charts and a career-best single — the epic, nearly elegant "Stay Fly" — becoming the band's most commercially and critically successful recording.
The following spring, the group found themselves the improbable owners, each, of a little gold statue named Oscar, winning Academy Awards for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," from Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow.
But what felt like a breakthrough at the time was soon revealed to be a culmination instead. The band swiftly traded in on their celebrity over their art, starring in the short-lived MTV reality series Adventures in HollyHood, and didn't release a follow-up to Most Known Unknown until 2008's Last 2 Walk, which, starting out quick but falling off just as quickly, broke a four-album streak of gold or platinum album sales. A long-rumored next album, Laws of Power, remains unreleased.
But a funny thing happened on the way back down: Co-founder Juicy J, who, like others in the group, had long moonlighted as a solo artist in mixtape and indie form, found himself with both a grassroots hit in the form of the strip-club anthem "Bandz a Make Her Dance" and a fruitful new collaborator in the form of younger breakout rapper Wiz Khalifa, who later made Juicy J a partner in his Taylor Gang imprint.
In the youth-oriented world of commercial hip-hop, artists aren't supposed to reinvent themselves, win over new fans, and find new levels of popularity more than 20 years into a career. But Juicy J, whose major-label solo debut, Stay Trippy, was released via Columbia Records on August 27th, is living proof that it can happen.
"It's a blessing, man," Juicy J says of his journey, initial humility morphing into well-earned pride. "It's hard to stay in this game. It's one minute you're hot, the next minute you're not. To be an OG from then to now that's still moving forward, almost like a brand-new artist, is huge. You can't count many rappers that have done that."
This solo reinvention was not by design.
"It wasn't planned. I didn't expect it. I was just doing mixtapes," Juicy J says by phone from Pittsburgh, where he was airport-bound to make a Las Vegas show. "I just never gave up. I felt like I still had so many songs in me that people needed to hear, so I just kept working. Then, all of a sudden, my name started getting out. People started noticing and paying attention."
Unlike most rappers who build an online following to attract label attention, Juicy J was already signed to Columbia, but being signed to a major and having them actually release an album are two very different things, as too many local rappers can attest.
"I already had a deal, but they weren't really pushing the song at first," Juicy J says. "I put it out online for free. Gave it to the fans."
It was the groundswell success of the single that got Columbia to refocus on an artist already in their stable.
"It's harder now. You have to have a little bit of buzz going on for yourself," Juicy J says. "Columbia was watching me while I was making my mixtapes. It took a minute for them to call me, but they saw what I was doing. [They thought,] this guy has hustled his way back up and gotten his name back out there, and he's still signed with us. So they were happy about that. Which is all good. It's all business. They're putting me in a lot of work right now and pushing my album, but nothing is ever going to be easy. I'm still grinding and still hustling."
"Bandz" has been followed by singles "Show It," "One of These Nights," and the current "Bounce It," which is smoother than "Bandz" and features a surer rap flow from Juicy J. Among the high-wattage guests on these songs and others on Stay Trippy are rappers Wale, Young Jeezy, and Lil Wayne, R&B stars Trey Songz and Chris Brown, and hometown pop superstar Justin Timberlake. While the album has an illicit vibe, the violence that laced Three 6 Mafia's music has mostly been exchanged for more realistic and perhaps more widely relatable vices in the form of drugs and strippers, as the album's title and its smash single suggest.
"I think my solo stuff is a little different but with the same feel," Juicy J says of the contrast. "We're not living in 2002 or 1998 anymore. Back then, it was a different kind of grind. But when you hear the album, you can still hear the Three 6 sound, but it's more polished and mixed with the new. It's relevant but still has a feel of back-in-the-day."
The evolution has opened up Juicy J's music to a whole new audience.
"I've still got the old fans, but I have new fans now that don't know nothing about Three 6," says Juicy J, who says he's maintained a primary residence in Memphis. "Some of them have probably never even heard of [the group]. They don't even know about my past."