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Memphis Freak

Three-6 Mafia Carves Out its Own Anarchic, Sinister

KNUCK AND BUCK: Crime Mob makes Three 6 Mafia’s eerie beats its own on its self-titled debut.

By Tom Breihan | Posted 6/15/2005

Late in 2002, the cover of Mass Appeal magazine screamed the words, “Crunk: It Might Blow Up, But It Won’t Go Pop.” Well, crunk blew up and went pop, and the main reason was the magazine’s cover star: Jonathan “Lil Jon” Smith. These days, it’s not uncommon to hear two or three Lil Jon tracks in a row on top-40 radio, a distinction that even Dr. Dre can no longer claim. Smith has found insane success by perfecting a formula: lightweight R&B singers like Ciara and Brooke Valentine singing pop songs over harsh, stormy Southern fight music, usually with the assistance of a grimy-ass rapper or two. It’s called crunk&B, and it runs the world in 2005.

But there’s more to crunk than Lil Jon. Most of the architects of the dense, aggressive brand of Southern rap enjoy none of Lil Jon’s mainstream ubiquity, but the music continues to thrive away from the spotlight, building regional empires in the cities of America’s Southeast. Choices II: The Setup (Columbia/Hypnotize Minds) is the soundtrack to an unwatchably bad straight-to-video movie starring members of the wooly, baroquely forbidding Memphis crunk collective Three 6 Mafia. And the album, barely promoted by its record label, sold enough copies to debut in Billboard’s top 10.

Three 6 has spent well over a decade perfecting its chaotic take on Southern rap, gaining and losing countless members and scoring occasional minor hits, such as 2000’s “Sippin’ on Some Syrup.” In the wake of crunk’s pop explosion, Three 6 house producers DJ Paul and Juicy J have found some work making tracks for stars like Ludacris and Young Buck, but the group’s mainstream visibility remains nearly nonexistent. But then, there’s not a damn thing pop about the group; its sound is defiantly regional and anti-commercial. On Choices II, the group members shout out to Memphis gangs and threaten to shoot up the club. They don’t need Ciara.

Every track employs Paul and Juicy’s ghostly horror-movie synths and slow, enormous drum machines in the service of anthemic, overwhelming chants, most of which revolve around the subject of Beating You Up; the chorus to “Official Crunk Junt” is simply “Now beat him up/ Beat him up like he stole something” repeated a bunch of times. Three 6 pared down to four members (Paul, Juicy, Crunchy Black, and Lord Infamous) in time for 2002’s excellent Da Unbreakables, and these guys have this thing down to a science. Individually, each is an underwhelming rapper (Juicy J claims to “date more stars than that boy Carson Daly” on “Squeeze It”), but each has his place in the group. With their damp, fierce snarls buried in the mix underneath Paul and Juicy’s thick swamp of John Carpenter pianos and ugly, thunderously churning strings, the group creates its own terrifying, violent world.

The Three 6 aesthetic doesn’t leave a lot of room for variety, and Choices II is far from the group’s best work. The slow, concussive chant-alongs grow turgid and oppressive over the CD’s 69 minutes, and the stunningly unfunny comedy skits aren’t helping anything. A far better example of the Three 6 sound is 2004’s Phinally Phamous (Asylum/Hypnotize Minds), the sophomore album from the group’s Caucasian protégé Lil Wyte. Paul and Juicy realize that Lil Wyte’s race probably gives him their best shot at crossover success, and they give him some of their strongest tracks: the brittle, blaring horns of “I Sho Will,” the chopped-up chants and heavy pianos of “I Did ’Em Wrong,” the glinting organ shards of “By 2 Da Bad Guy.”

It’s obvious and simplistic to compare Lil Wyte to Eminem, but the comparison fits; his hammering nasal flow sticks out immediately among Three 6’s slow, slurry voices. He also has an endearing dorkiness, claiming to “be the Willie Nelson of the next generation/ A rising legacy shining across every nation,” and comparing the paint on his car to melted Starburst. It’s easy to imagine him a punch-line-driven backpack rapper if he’d been born somewhere further north, but he also has a distinctly country streak. Wyte slides right into the pocket of the beat in a way that East Coast rappers rarely do, and he raps about stealing a truck of moonshine on one track.

The posse cut “U.S. Soldier Boy” might simply be a canny bit of marketing, but that doesn’t make it any less surprising to hear Lil Wyte rap about “50mm guns aiming at the terrorists” on the same track where Crunchy Black becomes perhaps the first rapper to name-check George W. Bush in a remotely positive light. Lil Wyte employs the exact same hyperactive flow on every track (even when he’s rapping about weed), and the album wears out its welcome before it’s over, but Phinally Phamous is still a great example of the Three 6 Mafia’s ominous cinematic boom at work.

The best Three 6 Mafia song of the past year, however, has nothing to do with Three 6 Mafia. It’s “Knuck if You Buck,” from Crime Mob, a quintet of Tennessee teenagers on Lil Jon’s BME label. “Knuck if You Buck” is a wholesale jack of the Three 6 formula: a glistening, evil minor-key horror-movie piano riff with ghostly music-box chimes, neck-snapping drums, a chanted chorus, and slurry, drawled verses buried in the mix. It’s scary and haunting and perfect. Most of the tracks on Crime Mob’s self-titled album are variations on “Knuck,” built on chants and horror-movie synths. Lil Jon contributes one track (the gurgly, disorienting “Black Market Bonus”), but most of the tracks come from Crime Mob’s young frontman, Lil Jay. Jay has a deep, heavy flow and an uncanny gift with eerie minor-key melodies and skeletal drums; his arrangements are cleaner and less chaotic than those of Paul and Juicy. But Crime Mob’s secret weapons are Diamond and Princess, the group’s two female rappers. Both have the sort of swagger that can’t be taught, and they take an obvious joy in what they do. They’re young and hard and tough and smart, and they deserve their own cult.

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