Memphis-based hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia made its bones through underground mixtapes but would soon find itself creating a sound and laying the groundwork for a style that would eventually be copied and cloned by many others as it rose to fame.
Members of the group include Juicy J, Crunchy Black, Gangsta Boo, Koopsta Knicca, Lord Infamous and DJ Paul, and some of Three 6 Mafia's biggest hits are "Stay Fly," "Sippin on Some Sizzurp," "Who Run It," "Tear da Club Up 97" and "Ridin' Spinners."
"To be honest with you, we was before our time," DJ Paul says over the phone about the group's ability to remain relevant for such a long period of time. "We were talking about drugs and getting crunk and fighting in the club and crazy stuff that no one was talking about. So when we came out talking about it, we were so far ahead of our time that no record labels wanted to sign us. Radio stations didn't want to play it and this and that."
Undeterred, the group decided to seek alternate ways to break into an industry that wasn't yet quite receptive to hip-hop that wasn't from New York or out on the West Coast.
"We put our own money behind it," he recalls. "We put up $4500 and put the music out ourselves and it blew up. We believed in it. It was so far ahead of its time and now it's just catching onto the masses."
Three 6 Mafia's music has sold nearly six million albums to date. Two of their albums, When the Smoke Clears: Sixty 6
, Sixty 1
and Most Known Unknown
, have been certified platinum.
"We sold millions of records on our own, and now, the young kids done got ahold to it, and it's brand new to them," Paul says. "These young kids grew up with the more laid-back friendly rap that was going on in the mid-to-late 2000s. Now, they're in their late teens and early twenties and starting to hear about the aggressive rap that we did. They're going back to it like, 'Holy crap. This is the fun stuff.'"
And while the music is fun, DJ Paul understands that there's a drug element that has a presence in the music as well.
"Snap crackle pop rap was one thing, but this is hardcore, get high to it, get crunk and have fun in the club music," he says. "That's what it was made for, and that's what the kids are doing now. Drugs is the most popular thing in the world right now, with marijuana and things being legal. It was drug music and now it's drug time in our society."
In the early stages of hip-hop in Memphis, there were only a handful of DJs making noise in the city. DJ Paul's biggest influence was undoubtedly DJ Spanish Fly, who, without being aware of it, was laying the blueprint for DJs who would also rap as well.
"He was making the Gangsta Walk music," Paul says about what drew him to Spanish Fly. "He had a song called 'Gettin Away with the Medicine' talking about getting away with selling drugs and things like that. Mostly, what attracted me to him more than everyone else was that he was a DJ who was rapping. DJ's weren't rappers back then, they were guys who played rap songs that rappers made. He would loop these rap instrumentals and throw a soul loop on top of something and rap over it."
The do-it-all-yourself approach that Spanish Fly had to creating music was not lost on DJ Paul.
"He did this with no drum machine or nothing, just using a mixer and looping on cassette tape," Paul continues. He turned himself into a rapper without knowing he was. He just rapped for the fun of it, just to throw some extra excitement onto the mixtape and not knowing he was creating something major."
In 2006, DJ Paul, Juicy J and Frayser Boy were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for 'It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp' from the film Hustle & Flow
, which pitted them against songs from Crash
. Moments after they performed the song with film star Taraji P. Henson, the group was announced as the winner of the award, making them the second hip-hop act to take home the Oscar.
"Obviously winning the Oscar," Paul points to as a career highlight. "Then, there was our first gold plaque for Chapter 2: World Domination
with the "Tear Da Club Up" single on it. There's really too many to name, man. We've been around for 30 years — so many great accomplishments."
Speaking of films, much of the horror element in Three 6 Mafia's music stems from the group's fascination with movies from the genre, but DJ Paul feels like fans have been getting slighted as of late.
"I don't even remember the last horror movie that I saw that liked," Paul says. They've been skipping out on us man. I liked "Us" that was cool. It's a couple more but I would have to go back some years. I would have to go back to the first Saw movie. The remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre
was good and no one really does good remakes but they did a good job with that one. I liked the remake of Friday the 13th
When it comes to his horror flicks, DJ Paul likes to keep it as real as possible at all times.
"As for fresh brand new, I can't think of many because I don't like that sci-fi shit," Paul says. "I like a physical killer that can be hit in the head and shot at. I don't like nothing where you stand in the house and a finger reaches out and touches you and when you turn around ain't nothing there. Fuck that. I like something that can happen in real life or is based on a true story. Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre was based on the story of Ed Gein. I like stuff like that."
Untimely deaths have dwindled the size of the group (Lord Infamous passed in 2013 and Koopsta Knicca in 2015), but the remaining members of Three 6 Mafia have reunited and embarked on a tour. On Friday, March 13, that tour will make a stop at the Agora. DJ Paul feels that the best time for the reunion to happen is now.
"The sound is so popular right now," Paul says. "Everybody is remaking our music. It's just the right time to do it. I clear like three or four samples a week from people remaking our songs and putting them in movies and commercials. The sound is on top right now."
Naturally, with a reunion, the question soon arises about new material. DJ Paul insists that it will happen, but there's no timetable in place at the moment.
"Just one step at a time," Paul says. "We'll start with the tour. We're going to make some new music eventually but we'll start with the tour. We'll get everybody back in the same room together, hangin' and kickin' it, and we'll see where it goes from there."
Three 6 Mafia, 8 p.m. Friday, March 13, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave., 216-881-2221. Tickets: $69-$125, agoracleveland.com
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