Three 6 Mafia may be the closest thing hip hop has to Black Sabbath: a deeply original group whose aggressive sound and grim lyrics seemed to hold them back from mass appeal, until they became one of the genre’s most influential acts.
This year, the veteran Memphis group is touring for the first time in over a decade, with DJ Paul, Juicy J, Gangsta Boo, and Crunchy Black back together along with longtime Hypnotize Camp Posse affiliates including Project Pat, La Chat, and Lil Wyte. The tour hits the Fillmore on Saturday, so here’s a sampling of 24 fan favorites from Three 6’s prolific original run from 1995 to 2008.
Formed in the early '90s by teenage MC/producers DJ Paul and Juicy J, Three 6 Mafia started out following in the provocative footsteps of other early Southern rap groups like the Geto Boys, writing envelope-pushing lyrics about Satanism, oral sex, and serial killers. But even as they drew attention for shock raps and their 1995 Bone Thugs-N-Harmony diss “Live By Yo Rep,” Paul and Juicy displayed impressive production skills and pop savvy on tracks like “Da Summa,” the first Three 6 song that got airplay on Memphis radio.
Songs like 1996’s “Gette’m Crunk” helped popularize a term, crunk, that would eventually be recognized as a subgenre of southern rap that Three 6 Mafia epitomized. With hard-hitting snares and ominous synths, the group’s first few albums set the template for all their later work and countless disciples as the sound of hip hop moved away from breakbeats and towards 808s. Juicy J debuted the famous opening lines from the future hit “Slob On My Knob” on 1997’s “Whatcha Do,” while the group’s signature “yeah ho” chant made its first appearance on “Mafia N****z.” One of their early crunk anthems, “Tear Da Club Up,” proved so popular that the group released an album, 1999’s CrazyNDaLazDayz, under the name Tear Da Club Up Thugs, at the time the crew’s highest charting release.
After the crunk and trap sounds that Three 6 influenced became ubiquitous, the group reached their commercial peak with 2005’s Most Known Unknowns and a 2006 Oscar win for their work on the film Hustle & Flow. In this period, DJ Paul and Juicy J heavily sampled the Blaxploitation-era work of Motown producer Willie Hutch on the hits “Stay Fly” and “Poppin’ My Collar,” as well as deep cuts including “Testin’ My Gangsta,” “Don’t Cha Get Mad,” and “Hood Star.” But on their last album before going on a long hiatus, 2008’s Last 2 Walk, the newly mainstream group toyed with more overtly pop sounds, pairing an unlikely sample of Zombie Nation’s ‘90s techno anthem “Kernkraft 400” with the late Pimp C of UGK on “I Got.”
Sadly, in 2020 you won’t see Three 6 Mafia with every member of its classic ‘90s lineup: Lord Infamous died in 2013 and Koopsta Knicca died in 2015. But DJ Paul and Juicy J still have all the recipes for their signature sound. And when Juicy J recently asked fans on Twitter what songs they’d like to hear on the tour, responses included album tracks like “Where’s Da Bud,” “Half on a Sack,” “I’m So Hi” and “Put Cha D. In Her Mouth.”
Three 6 Mafia
Where: The Fillmore
When: 7 p.m. Sat. Mar. 7
Tickets: 18+: $59.50; more info here