“How can we fathom a social life that tends toward death, that enacts a kind of being-toward-death, and which, because of such tendency and enactment, maintains a terribly beautiful vitality?”
— Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness”
What do you do when you are the underdog’s underdog? When you are the last counted and forever erased in a legacy of Black social music that carries your DNA? What do you call yourself in a world that has shown you nothing but strife, gut-wrenching joy and sullen grief that sits on top of your skin? You call yourself the Children of Satan and embrace what the world already sees you as, the undead. When the children of the undead — in this case, poor Black kids born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee — started mixing soul samples into the horrorcore sonics about surviving poverty, drug culture and making plain the reality of living in the Bluff City, they changed hip-hop forever. Three 6 Mafia, beginning as a trio of just DJ Paul, Juicy J and Paul’s brother Lord Infamous, launched a legacy of hip-hop culture shift that scared the public and made the world take a second look at the kids of the underbelly.
At their height, Three 6 Mafia put out nine studio albums containing the genius of DJ Paul, Juicy J, Gangsta Boo, Koopsta Knicca, Crunchy Black and Lord Infamous. While the truest origins of the group morphs based on what starting point you look at, the group officially formed in 1991 after the local fame of “Da Serial Killaz,” a 16-part mixtape series that led to additional members joining and official distribution deals from any country or blues label that would take them at the time. Lord Infamous, Juicy J and DJ Paul helped build the body of what we know as horrorcore, a subgenre of aesthetic, lyrical and thematic foundations that reverberates to this very day. Based on the use of distorted synths, warped samples and high-pitched triplet-laced verses, horrorcore was unheard of outside of Memphis, but the visionary minds of Juicy J and DJ Paul were determined to have their music reach past I-40.
Locally, on the ground, many date the origins of horrorcore all the way back to the mid-’80s during the war on drugs in Memphis. DJ Spanish Fly, Skinny Pimp, 8Ball & MJG and DJ Squeeky were all active members of the Memphis club and radio scene that built a mixtape network of blues sampling that birthed the horrorcore sound, visual aesthetic and thematic core that we understand today. While much of Southern hip-hop was invested in playing up Southern excess, rappers and DJs in Memphis were most concerned about staying alive and, if you’re lucky, getting the man next to you before he killed you himself. There was no space for luxury in a Black city trying to stay above water.
What is so often removed from the origin story of Three 6 Mafia is the political reality of Memphis, Tennessee, a Bible Belt city with a high murder rate that was still shrouded in unspoken Jim Crow policing during the war on drugs. The Black Christianity that was prevalent in Memphis and the South often disavowed talking about the dark truths of growing up Black, poor, erased and struggling to survive the violence. In the work of Memphis’ greatest rap, not only Three 6, but also Project Pat, Tommy Wright III and 8Ball & MJG, the music spoke to the everyday violence of their neighborhoods, communities that were deprived, stolen from and made to die. Their music parlayed into work that spoke on the transactional truth of everyday life, and the scarcity and paranoia that is nurtured at birth for people living in conditions of death.
“A social life strictly organized around encounters facilitated by the transactional service economy is almost by definition emotionally vacant. Hence the outsize importance of the latest black music (trap) in selling everything: Sweetgreen salads prepped and chopp’d by the majority minority for minimum wage, real estate roll-outs, various leisure objects with energetic connotations, the tastefulness of certain social gatherings. In the city of the mobile user and their memes, signs, processed and recoded desires, the desperate energy and beauty produced by the attempt to escape the narcocarceral jaws of death becomes a necessary raw fuel, a lubricant for soothing, or rather perfecting, the point of sale.”
— Jesse McCarthy, “Notes on Trap,” n+1 magazine
When the Smoke Clears: Sixty 6, Sixty 1, released in 2000, is one of the many classic albums that exist past and through Three 6 Mafia’s legacy. The album and continued fame moved the local legends from regional names to mainstream artists, able to satisfy listeners looking for the real darkness of southern Black life that wasn’t being played on the radio. While many saw Three 6’s gesturing toward Satan and demonic lyricism as mere acting, they were speaking to the reality of drug-related intercommunity violence that was the status quo of growing up in neighborhoods where life and death intermingled every day. When The Smoke Clears ended up being the end of an era; it was the last album featuring all of the group’s original members, and it was also their first album that went platinum, leading DJ Paul and Juicy J to being unlikely Oscar winners and reality stars.
When the Smoke Clears is a soundtrack of a hot, muggy mid-July day with the Three 6 Mafia crew as they encounter the demons of their own making and the ones always right behind them. The album begins with the distorted sound of Juicy J reading scripture and warning anyone listening that God and Three 6 Mafia are the only deities that we must be concerned with as we enter their world of dispossession and theft. When the Smoke Clears thankfully holds a balance of deep celebration of playing on the edge of chaos, while also keeping the listener unclear on just how quickly things can shift to rapturous murder-mind from the disassociated lifestyle of numbness that is second nature to the crew.
The standout record and the most popular single from the album is “Sippin’ on Some Syrup,” a song that melded the two worlds of UGK’s Texas chopped and screwed with the horrorcore of Memphis that began a long legacy of Southern hip-hop posse cuts. Passion of the Weiss’ Son Raw says it best about how the sonics of the hit speak to the breakdown of the song in and of itself:
“Sippin’ on Some Syrup” is in perfect suspension between the two extremes, opening with a menacing, sickly synth introduction and shit talking courtesy of group masterminds DJ Paul and Juicy J before transitioning to the [Marvin Gaye] sample, an ’80s deep cut that somehow sounded like the most futuristic of Timbaland bangers. The hook, courtesy of local legend and Three 6 affiliate Project Pat, is a wonder of modern subversion, sneaking the most blatant of drug references past clueless censors, and introducing a Texas trend to national prominence with help from that state’s fiercest advocates.”
“Sippin’” is the beginning of Juicy J’s mainstream genius, as he leads the production of the record in Three 6 Mafia’s first public step toward mainstream collaboration, a step made without sacrificing their values as children of the undead.
“The beat, when it drops, is thunder, and causes the steel rods in whatever you’re riding to groan, plastics to shudder, the ass of the seat to vibrate right up into your gut. The hi-hat, pitched like an igniter, sparks. Snare rolls crescendo in waves that overmaster like a system of finely linked chains snatched up into whips, cracking and snapping across the hull of a dark hold.”
— Jesse McCarthy, “Notes on Trap,” n+1 magazine
The top half of When the Smoke Clears is full of the sharpest bars from Lord Infamous, one of the creators of the triplet style. Infamous meets the listener on the edge of every lyric, from “Weak Azz Bitch,” which brings our first meeting of La Chat, we are taken on a full tour of North Memphis, and Three 6’s status as Bluff City royalty is established. “They wanna dress like / Wanna sound like / Wanna be like / Ride like / Get high like / Make cheese like / The motherfuckin’ Three 6, bitch you got a problem wit’ ’em?” Infamous raps.
The darkest corners of the album arrive at the core of the project, as murder-mind becomes most evident and more of the sexual economy of Memphis becomes evident; we get a clearer idea of how Black women and men were interacting in the conditions of the city. Black Southern women and femmes run us through the slower tracks such as “Where da Cheese At,” “From Da Back” and “Tongue Ring,” where they take center stage as the true arbiters of the economy of dispossession and ultimately know the soft spots of the hardcore shell. “Fuck Y’all Hoes,” “Whatcha Know” and “Touched Wit It” is murder-mind in full effect. These songs move as testimonials of poverty, death, sacrifice and, sadly, a life of theft that is home. They do not glorify these realities, but ask those listening to only empathize with them as who they are and nothing more. No sympathy or luxe ideas of death, but asking to be heard with an open ear, even if the message doesn’t connect to all.
The superstar power of Gangsta Boo is one of the most underappreciated parts of When the Smoke Clears. Boo, who, while not often given her flowers, is the alpha and the omega of how we understand Southern women rappers. Her legacy of work, along with La Chat, keeps the core of When the Smoke Clears fresh and honest. With Gangsta Boo’s sharp lyrical prowess and La Chat’s features, it keeps the album honest to the fullness of Three 6 Mafia’s world. La Chat and Gangsta Boo are not accessories or secondary players in this world, but notably autonomous people making decisions about the men in their lives, the sex they want to have and the money they need in the moment. Gangsta and La Chat are at times sharper than the men of Three 6, as they continuously know their time is money and they have little to waste. While they both hold minimal space on the first half of the album, they keep the second half grounded and light, as the rest of the crew move deeper into lustier and braggadocious tracks.
What feels most critical about When the Smoke Clears is how deeply it continues to influence hip-hop as we understand it. Crunk music, trap music, the use of the triplet verse and the latest rise of horrorcore Soundcloud rappers all would not exist if not for the work of Three 6 Mafia. Even while the Chitlin’ Circuit of hip-hop spread patterns, sounds and style all cross the South, something else happened in Memphis. The city of grind, the city that birthed the children of the undead, has built how we understand global conceptions of Blackness that will continue even if people forget the names and faces of Three 6 Mafia.
Say it ugly. Say it full of dirt and ready to kill. Say it as if you were ready to die and this last breath was your Hail Mary. Say it like you are on your way to hell when the smoke clears.