Fast-forward fifteen years and those words are prophetic in ways even they could not have imagined.
Today, the Memphis rap act is as instantly recognizable as Stax legend Isaac Hayes once was with millions of record sales, hit singles and videos, a reality television series, and an Academy Award to show for it all. The Triple Six name carries so much cachet in youth culture it became the hook of 2010’s megahit by Far East Movement, “Like a G6”: “Sippin’ sizzurp in my ride like Three 6/Now I’m feelin’ so fly like a G6.”
Success, however, has been two decades in the making for the group, who formed in the early 1990s as the Backyard Posse. Coming out of a Bluff City underground rap scene that gave MC Hammer his Gangsta Walk and made Atlanta the crossroads of “crunk,” Three 6 Mafia plied an intense, lyrically and musically dark “horrorcore” style that quickly set them apart from other Dirty South gangsta rappers including the hardest of the hardcore to emerge from Memphis such as Al Kapone, 8Ball & MJG, Gangsta Pat, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, and DJ Squeeky.
By their first album under the Three 6 Mafia moniker, 1995’s Mystic Stylez, founding members DJ Paul (Paul Beauregard), Lord Infamous (Paul’s half-brother Ricky Dunigan), and Juicy J (Jordan Houston), had added three more members: Crunchy Black (Darnell Carlton), Koopsta Knicca (Robert Cooper), and Gangsta Boo (Lola Mitchell). When Mitchell left the group ca. 2000 for a solo career, another female rapper, La Chat (Chastity Daniels) briefly stepped in. Three 6 Mafia, in fact, rarely get credit for the role women played in the development of their distinctive look and sound.
The act quickly made a regional name for themselves, a combination of hard work and hustle, D.I.Y. business acumen including the launch of two labels – Prophet Entertainment and Hypnotize Minds – and partnering with key players in the local music industry from Niko Lyras at Cotton Row Recording to Select-O-Hits, the record distribution company run by members of the Phillips music dynasty. All the above helped the group sell nearly 200,000 copies combined of their first two albums, Mystic Stylez and The End, the latter notable for its seductive sampling of Stax/Malaco singing great Johnnie Taylor on the radio hit “Good Stuff.”
As a result, Sony affiliated label Relativity of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony fame signed Triple Six in 1997. Their first gold record – and the first for the city of Memphis since its soulful prime – quickly followed with Chpt. 2: World Domination. By 2000, the act survived a Relativity merger with Columbia imprint Loud and found even greater success, scoring another gold album with 2003’s Da Unbreakables and going platinum with both When the Smoke Clears: Sixty 6, Sixty 1 in 2000 and Most Known Unknown in 2005. Embracing controversy and commerciality in equal measure, Three 6 Mafia also perfected their formula for catchy, celebratory hip-hop anthems such as “Stay Fly,” “Ridin Spinners,” and “Sippin’ on Some Syrup.”
As producers and songwriters, principle members DJ Paul and Juicy J have released dozens of additional records by acts allied with their self-described Hypnotize Minds Posse including Frayser Boy, Gangsta Blac, Indo G, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, Lil Wyte, and Jordan’s brother Project Pat (Patrick Houston), who gave the Three Six camp one its biggest non-group hits with the 2001 smash, “Chickenhead.”
At times menacing, course, and carnal, the Three Six Mafia brand has been so associated with the extremes and bravado of gangsta rap, Juicy J once commented that fans sometimes confuse the fantasy with reality for the act. “We meet people and they’re like, ‘Man, I thought you were going to jump out of the van with bats, riding down the street shooting pistols in the air!’ If we did that all day, we’d never get anything done. It is a business.”
Mainstream awareness – and acceptance – culminated in 2006 at the 78th annual Academy Awards, when they won Best Original Song for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” their soundtrack contribution with then-Hypnotize Minds artist Frayser Boy (Cedric Coleman) to the Craig Brewer film Hustle & Flow. The Oscar was groundbreaking on a number of levels. Not only did it make Three 6 Mafia the first rap group to win an Academy Award (solo artist Eminem had previously won), they became the first rap act to perform at the Oscars. Even more notable, they were the first African American rap act to win an Academy Award, an honor that unites Three 6 Mafia in the history books with fellow Memphian Isaac Hayes, who was the first black musical artist to win an Oscar in 1972 for “Theme from Shaft.” Watch the acceptance speech on YouTube »
Three 6 Mafia followed their historic achievement with a 2008 American Music Award for favorite rap group. An MTV reality show starring the group, Adventures in Hollyhood, ran for eight episodes in 2007, though the oddest byproduct of fame occurred four years later when DJ Paul beat out cast members from The Sopranos, The Hills, and The Real Housewives of New Jersey to win the VH1 restaurant competition, Famous Food.
In terms of cultural impact, Three 6 Mafia’s best songs capture the joys and indulgences of club life all the while embedding deeper levels of commentary, often through the emblems of status and escape for disenfranchised black urban youth. Such an ability to at once entertain and speak to power suggests continuity with older regional African American music forms, none more so than blues. The Mississippi Hill Country variety shows particular compatibility, for example, between the juke grooves of R. L. Burnside and the hypnotic, incessant beats and verbal/musical riffing that Three 6 Mafia and its like-minded peers practice. It’s a “Memphissippi” sound, notes rap scholar Ali Coleen Neff, that not only reconciles rural traditions with urban technology and street smarts, it acts as a subversive force in the hands of an immensely successful act like Three 6 Mafia by creating a space for the aesthetics and authorship of Southern rap in the realm of commercial music.
Whittled down to the production team of DJ Paul and Juicy J, Three 6 Mafia released its tenth official studio album, Laws of Power, in 2012, the same year Juicy J had a smash club single with “Bandz a Make Her Dance”, featuring Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz. Juicy J will release his latest solo album, Still Trippy, through Wiz Khalifa's Taylor Gang label, while DJ Paul – who has launched his own brand of barbecue sauce and rub – is planning a reunion album with former Triple Six members. In a genre that rarely nurtures careers, the rap impresarios behind Three 6 Mafia continue to show remarkable hit-making endurance, one of many reasons why they belong in the inaugural class of the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.