Most readers know Memphis hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia from this past March when it surprisingly -- and quite deservedly -- took home the Academy Award for Best Original Song with "Hard Out Here for a Pimp." Its members' acceptance speech was perhaps the liveliest moment of the predictably ill-paced awards ceremony, matched only by the performance of its contagious hook-laden single from the movie Hustle & Flow.
But Three 6 Mafia had been struggling to pay its own rent well before the gentrifying hand of Hollywood came along to claim another victim in its colonial campaign against African-American artists and culture. Regardless of its success with the Academy, you can judge the true grit of Three 6 Mafia's Dirty South sound for yourself when the band appears at Summerfest on August 5 along with Young Jeezy, Yung Joc and Rick Ross.
Formed in Memphis in 1991 by Paul Beauregard (aka DJ Paul), Ricky Dunigan (aka Lord Infamous) and Jordan Houston (aka Juicy J), Three 6 Mafia helped develop and popularize the Southern hip-hop style that first came to prominence in the late 1990s through such rappers as Master P. In keeping with the tradition of Dirty South hip-hop, which traces its origins back to the bass-heavy Miami sound of 2 Live Crew, Three 6 Mafia matches upbeat melodies and fast, danceable beats with lyrics that celebrate a more hedonistic approach to life.
But simply because the band prefers a life of pleasure doesn't relegate it to the category of blunt-smoking ghetto slackers. Three 6 Mafia's popularity has its foundation in the same grassroots local popularity that propelled such acts as the Dave Matthews Band and Phish to national prominence. Through the circulation of mix tapes around the Memphis area and other hot spots for the burgeoning crunk genre, such as Atlanta and New Orleans, Three 6 built a core following of fans that paid off when it formed its own record label and started releasing its own albums. The members' entrepreneurial spirit (and large fan base, of course) attracted the attention of Relativity Records in 1997, a label that was eventually swallowed up by the Sony Corporation.
Three 6 Mafia would languish in the shadows of more popular Southern rappers for the next six years, steadily developing a loyal following outside the machinery of mainstream media exposure. Though its 2000 single "Sippin' on Some Syrup" debuted at number six on the Billboard charts, the band was largely ignored by radio stations and the various tentacles of MTV. It was its 2003 album release, Da Unbreakables, that produced hit "Ridin' Spinnaz" which began to garner wider attention for the seasoned Memphis rappers. Its most recent album, 2005's Most Known Unknown, was re-released in June with bonus tracks that had previously appeared on the Hustle & Flow soundtrack.
Casual listeners who go purchasing the album because of that catchy Oscar tune will undoubtedly be in for some surprises. Certainly the single "Hard Out Here for a Pimp" has a slight lyrical edginess to it, but placed against the infectious hooks, one might overlook what's being said. On the other hand, the album itself is a litany of misogyny and sexual obsession, and only true aficionados of crunk music will appreciate the point-blank descriptions of Three 6 Mafia's intimate affairs.
Like most male musicians, the musicians in Three 6 Mafia have a particular fascination with their own penises and the many ways in which their members can be used on, in and about -- one might just say "prepositionally" -- the female anatomy. Their musings about their erotic life constitute a significant chunk of their lyrical catalogue. Of course, this is nothing new in rap or rock -- consider Led Zeppelin's veiled citrus suggestions in "The Lemon Song": "Squeeze my lemon 'til the juice run down my leg." Except that Three 6 Mafia belongs to that clique of 21st century street poets who have no use for metaphor, thus rendering a terse, straight-forwardness about the matter of copulation and its related activities: "Put cha dick in her mouth / Give me head 'til I'm dead." That bit of instruction comes from the well-titled "Put Cha Dick In Her Mouth."
This is the type of content that has guardians of culture decrying the decay of family values on the pundit shows and in conservative columns. And yet if the wonders of oral gratification are news to any teenager in America these days, it's simply because they lack an Internet connection or a television.
With its blending of melodic grooves structured around beats that are best described in the language of culinary arts (cookin', steamin', sizzlin' -- take your pick), Three 6 Mafia picks up a poetic tradition that dates back 2,000 years to Catullus, that Roman bard who was an early champion of bitches and 'hos.
And while the band invites criticism from conservative pundits and rappers alike for its supposedly "shallow lyrics" (the same conservative pundits who most likely consider the verses of newly minted bluegrasser David Lee Roth to be supremely majestic), Three 6 Mafia very adroitly takes up themes of sexuality that have dominated Southern literature and music from the beginning. That same fascination with Eros that propelled the driving riffs of Chuck Berry, the sultry revivalism of Ray Charles and the too-sexy-for-TV gyrations of Elvis Presley is alive and well in the recordings of Southern rappers.
As is common amongst hip-hop conglomerates, Three 6 Mafia has a core membership with various players rotating in and out of the lineup according to incarceration schedules and personal politics. Lord Infamous is currently serving time and won't be with the Mafia when it visits Charlotte, nor will Crunchy Black, who left the group this year to pursue a solo career. Enter Project Pat, Juicy J's older brother, who was conveniently released from jail himself a little over a year ago and is thus available to step into Crunchy's place.
Despite the change in lineup, one thing is certain: Juicy J, DJ Paul and the rest of the Memphis Mafia will crank out the crunk when they bring their Dirty South sound to town.
Summerfest with Young Jeezy, Three 6 Mafia, Yung Joc and Rick Ross at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre; Aug. 5; 6:30pm; $55, $64, lawn seating $30. www.triplesix.com.