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Interviewing rappers usually requires permeating layers of publicists, childhood friends, and occasionally lawyers, but Eightball, one-half of celebrated Memphis duo Eightball & MJG, answers his cell phone immediately as I arrive in his hometown, and half an hour later, he pulls up in front of my hotel in his own black Hummer. Not one of those smaller, eco-friendlier Hummers, either—the full-on, "let's exhume some dinosaurs" 2005 model. On our way to their studio, we pass through Orange Mound, the largely black neighborhood, built on a plantation, where the pair grew up. A giant neon Kellogg's sign presides over the local plant. "On the weekends, you could smell the cereal," Eightball remembers in his generous baritone, noting that the odor was preferable to that of the nearby dog-food factory: "That smelled like somebody was cooking a horse."
MJG arrives at the studio in his '86 flatbed Chevy pickup, which sits on enormous rims and spews filthy exhaust. Inside, they get high and play me the video for the slow, gothic title track to their new album, Ten Toes Down, out last week. Filmed at a fireworks store near Chattanooga, it conspicuously eschews many of hip-hop's typical set pieces: "There ain't no dancing bitches, swimming pools, or jewelry," Eightball notes, proudly. Adds MJG, speaking of the duo in the third person: "There they go again, still sounding the same."
Unlike Memphis's other famous rap group, Three 6 Mafia—preparing their own 2010 mid-career CD, but with entirely different goals—Eightball & MJG haven't enjoyed any massive national success. But Eightball's confident, laid-back delivery and MJG's fierce, antsy pleading remain a potent combination. Their raunchy, soulful, occasionally conscious lyrics complement Delta blues–derived beats and gritty Memphis flavors—from the vibrant Stax legacy to the grim reality of bombed-out storefronts. Both rappers can spit fast, but they tend to excel over slower, funkier, percussive r&b. 1995's "Space Age Pimpin'," off their essential On Top of the World, for example, features airy synths, porn-flick bass, and a breathy hook. "Slip on the latex and dive in," Eightball advises. "Swish!"
Ten Toes Down recalls the duo's mid-'90s golden era, chock-full of slow, menacing, 808-driven affirmations and threats. It's an attempt to fertilize their Southern roots and win back fans they lost during their unfruitful mid-'00s Bad Boy years, during which fanboy Sean Combs put them in Bentleys and coated their sound in a thick pop sheen. "Once you cross a line, you can't go back," frets Eightball, citing Combs as an example of a rapper whose blinged-out, high-flying image undercut his street bona fides. "I don't think we're one of the groups that can go so far commercial. [Our fans] won't accept it. We had a single, 'Ridin' High,' that was a fast dance song, but people just don't want to hear that from us."
Still, the group's place in the rap pantheon is secure, having spent nearly 20 years helping to define the sound and swagger of the Dirty South. They deserve mention in the same breath as Luke Campbell, Scarface, UGK, OutKast, Goodie Mob, and the Hot Boys.
Oh, and Three 6 Mafia, the shock-rap pioneers who, after snagging a 2006 Oscar for Hustle & Flow's "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," proceeded to cross the line with gusto: an MTV reality show, a move to L.A., and, on their upcoming album, Laws of Power (due in late June), a collaboration with name-brand Dutch auteur DJ Tiesto. While that group insists they're still making music for fans of classics like "Slob on My Knob," Eightball isn't so sure.
"It's just my opinion, but after the Oscar, they weren't the same," he says. "Even their hood stuff don't sound like that Three 6 Mafia that took over Memphis, after we kicked the door open. I think people's music changes with their surroundings, sometimes."
"I still don't believe it, because we'd never won anything," says fast-talking Three 6 rapper Juicy J, speaking from his Cadillac truck as he drives from L.A. to Las Vegas. "It shocked us, it shocked the world, it shocked the people on Mars." He adds that he frequently takes his statue out of its safe, holds it, and thanks God. (It's hard to imagine Meryl Streep doing this.)
They may call themselves a mafia, but there's nothing particularly suave or intimidating about Juicy and his counterpart, DJ Paul. Born with a stunted right arm, Paul is full of wry, sarcastic humor, while Juicy regularly acts the fool, sometimes intentionally, but often not. The fact that they seemed so poorly groomed for celebrity is what made their 2007 MTV show, Three 6 Mafia: Adventures in HollyHood, so much fun. Yes, it featured plenty of those dreaded dancing bitches, swimming pools, and jewelry, but often the guys found themselves out of their comfort zones, such as when Juicy calls Laguna Beach star Kristin Cavallari "Kristin Calamari" and, on their Ashton Kutcher–arranged date, begs in vain for her to come home with him.
"I wish it could have kept going," Paul says now. "That show took us to a whole other level."
Indeed, they now seem light years removed from their days as mixtape DJs and crunk trail-blazers who combined the dance-floor spirit of Miami bass with the dark themes of Geto Boys. In the early '90s, Paul would make beats at home and test-market the bassy, pounding results that night at his club, Paul's Playhouse. The music once sparked a melee in the lobby involving dozens of people, he recalls, with someone whipping out a gun. Paul later found a man lying under a bathroom sink, shaking. "He had been shot through his side, and then it went into his heart. He died right in front of me."
Such gruesomeness figured heavily in their early horrorcore music, which featured shout-outs to Lucifer and rowdy tales of conflict and dismemberment set to sinister beats. Paul collected a Time-Life series on serial killers and kept it in the studio; the group went by "Triple Six Mafia" until changing it to their less-Satanic-sounding current moniker. However: "We do not worship no devil, man," says Juicy. "People ask me that shit every day. There's no way you could have had our success worshipping the devil."
Affiliates including Juicy's brother, Project Pat, Lord Infamous, and the rare female Southern MC Gangsta Boo came and went, eventually whittling Three 6 down to a duo. Early in the aughts, they pivoted definitively toward the mainstream, hitting big with tracks like the Oscar-baiting "Pimp," the deliriously upbeat "Stay Fly" (featuring both Young Buck and Eightball & MJG), the boilerplate Auto-Tuned jam "Lolli Lolli (Pop That Body)," and now the Tiesto collaboration "Feel It," which all but demands a glow stick.
Juicy brags that he used to be Eightball & MJG's back-up DJ at the local skating rink, but naturally isn't pleased to hear of his mentor's sell-out charges. "If someone said, 'If you do this song, you can make 10 to 15 to 20 million dollars,' would you be like, 'Nah, I'm gonna just chill with my hardcore fan base and nickel and dime here and there'?" He adds that Three 6's recent solo albums, mixtapes, and Laws of Power street singles have been marketed to an urban, rather than an international, audience. "We got so much stuff coming out that sounds like the old Three 6 Mafia," he contends, correctly. "Yeah, we got some pop stuff that our underground fan base wouldn't understand, but it's all good when you see the $20 million check in the mail."
As to the charge that their post-Oscar move to California has changed them, DJ Paul doesn't buy it. "I still do the same shit in L.A. that I did in Memphis," he says. "I still barbecue on the weekends, drink Bud Light beer, and piss outside."
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