Three 6 Mafia’s Underground Vol. 1: a retrospective

Ameer Abuali remembers Three 6 Mafia's Underground Vol. 1 on its 20th anniversary, noting its influences on hip-hop today

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Memphis Tennessee rap group Three 6 Mafia consists of producer and rapper DJ Paul, rappers Juicy J, Lord Infamous, Koopsta Knicca, Crunchy Black, and Gangsta Boo. The group got its start on the underground rap scene of Memphis in 1990. The method of mass-producing physical cassette tapes in a homemade style, were the tools of the group. Instantly their unique horror-eque sound and unique rapping styles made them stand out. They would also be known for their hit songs ‘Stay Fly’ and Grammy winning collaboration on the soundtrack for the film Hustle and Flow and the song ‘Hard Out Here for a Pimp’.

In 1999, Underground Vol. 1, a compilation of the groups first songs and mixtapes was released. This gave fans globally a window into the origins of the group and its personal sound. A first time listen to Underground Vol. 1 is truly an experience. Lord Infamous (1973-2013) in his signature mellow tone announces the beginning of ‘Ridin’ N Da Chevy’ – the first track on the album, as DJ Paul’s notorious percussion and booming bass engulf the listener in an unfamiliar soundscape.

The project is 15 songs, some which are considered some of the rarest and early recording by the group. This project could be seen as the progression of the group from beginners to the masters of their own sound, as the uniqueness of each song is felt when listening. Songs like ‘Now I’m High, Really High’, ‘Playa Hataz’, ‘Mask and Da Glock’ and ‘Don’t Be Scared’ showcase the sound that would be attributed to both Three 6 Mafia and the Memphis underground. The unique production, accompanied with the ice-cold, psychopathic styles of members Juicy J and Lord Infamous, would instantly propel and emphasise the sound of the group, but also the uniquely Memphis sound.

The ice-cold, psychopathic styles of Juicy J would instantly propel and emphasise the sound of the group, but also the uniquely Memphis sound

When retrospectively looking at the underground Memphis rap scene, it is clear that while Three 6 Mafia weren’t the originators of the city’s sound, but they were the pioneers. DJ Spanish Fly is often credited as being one of the founders of the signature Memphis sound. Some key pioneers of the Memphis underground included Three 6 Mafia, Tommie Wright III, Gangsta Boo, Project Pat, and many others, as the nation shifted its attention to the music coming from the south.

Underground Vol. 1 was released March 2, 1999, however the album is a compilation of the first few mixtapes released by the group and the respective members. While the group may have been releasing music prior to Underground Vol. 1, this was the first-time fans got to hear the humble beginnings of the critically acclaimed group. Prior to their rise to fame, the group, as well as other Memphis artists, released tracks and mixtapes on physical cassette tapes, therefore this compilation was crucial to preserving the groups underground sound.

this compilation was crucial to preserving the groups underground sound

Twenty years later, following many critically acclaimed releases, the sounds of Three 6 Mafia and Memphis are still relevant in rap. The “triplet” flow, often mistakenly credited to the Migos, has its roots in Three 6 Mafia’s Mystic Stylez, as the members utilized the flow heavily. Desiigner’s ‘Panda’, and his subsequent mixtape New English, feature eerily distorted sounds, similar to that found in the production of DJ Paul.

On his most recent album Scorpion (2018), Drake, and Jay-Z, rap over a DJ Paul beat on ‘Talk Up’ that purposely sounds very Memphis-esque. Following that with Drake’s constant referencing of his father’s Memphis roots, and his spending summers in the city absorbing the culture. Further south, the new wave of “punk rap” coming out of Florida, including rappers Smokepurrp, Lil Pump, Denzel Curry, and Wifisfuneral, utilize common Three 6 Mafia and underground Memphis tropes.

On the underground circuit, rappers including Bones, and $uicideboy$, knowingly deploy techniques and production that are uniquely Memphis, as an artistic nod to Three 6 Mafia and Memphis underground. Most recently in summer 2018, G Herbo kicking off the trend, and other rappers including Trippie Redd, 21 Savage, Trippie Redd, Lil Yachty, and Lil Uzi Vert, of remixing the classic Three 6 Mafia song ‘Who Run It’, as the significance of the song and production was only heightened by these remixes. ‘Plain Jane’ by A$AP Ferg is a direct interpolation of the song ‘Slob on my Knob’ by the group, which would give Juicy J infamy for. As far back as 2010, SpaceGhostPurrp, a native of Florida, began crafting a ‘new’ Memphis and Three 6 Mafia sound, projects including, Blackland Radio 66.6 and Mysterious Phonk. These projects would see Purrp take the infamous style and add a new perspective to it. They would also cement his own status as a pioneer of this new Memphis-esque “horror” sound, and further establish the legend of Memphis. Directly influenced, or controversially argued as theft, A$AP Rocky’s many projects would feature this SpaceGhostPurrp and Memphis style, much to the ire of Purrp himself. In 2019, A$AP Rocky released a snippet of his song ‘Babushka’ which features the classic sounds of Memphis, and directly samples Tommie Wright III’s ‘Still Pimpin’. Furthermore, the snippet was accompanied by a video featuring Rocky at a rave-like performance and cutting to DJ Paul at the same performance in a repeating loop.

It is clear, that although Three 6 Mafia’s Underground Vol. 1 and the Memphis sound, are 20+ years old, their relevance and significance in rap music is timeless. It is almost a rite of passage to feature the tropes and the signature sound of Memphis, and the group which pioneered the sound, Three 6 Mafia.

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