When Three 6 Mafia's "Hard Out Here for a Pimp" won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song, they reacted to the announcement so joyously, leaping and cheering across the stage as they picked up their trophies, that they struck the millions watching around the world as happy country bumpkins that happened to hit the lottery.
It was, however, a complicated moment that elicited a range of reactions. Some complained that the Academy gave a prestigious honor to a group that, superficially at least, seems to represent some of the worst stereotypes of Southerners, and African Americans in particular. (It didn't help that Hustle & Flow, the movie that featured the song, was a lame exploitation flick barely redeemed by Terrence Howard's lead performance as a pimp who tries to become a rapper.) Others felt that both the group and the movie accurately reflect certain realities of Southern life. And nearly everyone wondered, how in the hell did Three 6 Mafia win an Oscar?
Fans and critics tend to underestimate this group because it's essentially a party band that celebrates pure debauchery. Formed in Memphis, Tenn., during the early '90s, Three 6 Mafia emerged during the "horrorcore" craze, a subgenre influenced by slasher films and espoused by artists like Geto Boys, Brotha Lynch Hung and Esham. The crew originally called itself Triple Six Mafia, but it eventually jettisoned the silly Satanism and Y2K-apocalypse themes for a more ordinary and appealing kind of evil. They are one of the few rap groups to discuss abusing "hard" drugs like cocaine, which is somewhat taboo in hip-hop circles. And their songs can be disturbingly graphic: "Slob on My Knob" ends with a woman's decapitation, while on "Tongue Ring," female emcee Gangsta Boo threatens to perform fellatio with a razor in her mouth, "straight slicing your sh*t."
Amoral lyrics may be part of Three 6 Mafia's appeal, but it's the music of Juicy J and DJ Paul, the two producers who head the group and its related label, Hypnotize Minds, that elevates these songs above the nonsense of other horrorcore stars like Necro and Insane Clown Posse. They virtually invented the "crunk" style of Southern bounce music with their first hit, "Tear Da Club Up." Like DJ Screw, the Texas producer who pioneered slowed-down vocal loops, Juicy J and DJ Paul utilize "screwed and chopped" choruses to create songs akin to sports chants. They've survived two decades by being receptive to changing trends, though that hasn't always been a good thing. On the 2009 single "Feel It," they dabbled in dance pop with Flo Rida, Tiësto and Sean Kingston.
Still, it's that complete lack of self-consciousness about good taste that makes them a critic's darling in an age where dirty South esotericism influences much of Internet culture, from rap groups like Odd Future, SpaceGhostPurrp, and A$AP Rocky to electronic artists like Salem, oOoOO and Zomby. Despite several gold and platinum plaques and a recent MTV reality series (the corny post-Oscar victory lap Adventures in Hollyhood), the group seems unchanged by mainstream success, still reckless and willing to do whatever they want no matter the consequences. We've long celebrated the "street fightin' man," the thug who acts upon his first impulses. Three 6 Mafia fits the current ideal of a pure Southern man of action.
A little goes a long way. The collective encompasses not only Juicy J and DJ Paul, but also sometime member Lord Infamous; affiliated acts like Project Pat and Lil Wyte; and former members Gangsta Boo, Crunchy Black and Koopsta Knicca. Multiply that by two decades of material, add all the Southern artists with whom the two producers have worked, from T-Rock to La Chat, and include Juicy J and DJ Paul's solo projects and Hypnotize Minds Posse compilations, too. That's dozens of hours to sift through. And unlike Wu-Tang Clan, another group who spawned an entire universe of sound, Three 6 Mafia have never made a truly classic album. Their best moments are individual songs, like "Sippin' on Some Syrup," a tribute to codeine-laced juice with UGK; the vicious cipher session "Body Parts"; and their biggest hit to date, the club anthem "Stay Fly" with 8Ball & MJG and Young Buck.
For those willing to take a deep dive, here's a relatively short primer on the Memphis pioneers' catalog, with an eye toward quality more than chronology.