Time was, great hip-hop was self-evident. With few exceptions, the best rap albums of the ’80s were also the most widely celebrated, and everybody knew a classic when they heard it. Then things got messy: The ’90s saw the rise and fall of a bitter bicoastal war, which gave way to an explosion of regional styles. These days, you need an atlas to keep up: Detroit succumbed to some well-known wiggers and a phenomenon known as acid rap, Mannie Fresh and Master P took over New Orleans with revamped electro beats, San Francisco embraced alt-rap MCs and turntablists, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony put Cleveland on the map by singing rap lyrics instead of speaking them. . . . On it goes, a constantly shifting labyrinth of hometowns and subgenres.
Perhaps no city has cultivated this aesthetic of urban insularity more assiduously than Memphis, which has spent the last decade nurturing a rap scene that few outsiders care about at all. Except for pioneering duo Eightball & MJG, who jumped ship to the Houston-based record label Suave House, Memphis rappers have been largely absent from both pop charts and hip-hop glossies. Then came Tennessee’s great black hope, a loose-knit, vaguely satanic, rabidly anticommercial group called Three-6 Mafia. A few years ago, they seemed as far from the Top 40 as you could get. But now, boosted by a deal with Loud Records (home to Big Pun and the Wu-Tang Clan), Three-6 have begun an unlikely assault on the hip-hop nation.
Three-6 Mafia make the least soulful, least upbeat black pop Memphis has ever produced. And if that sounds like an exaggeration, then you should hear “Sippin’ on Syrup”—the debut single from their new record, When the Smoke Clears: Sixty 6, Sixty 1. It’s a woozy celebration of prescription-strength NyQuil, with a tuneless, staccato synth beat that sounds practically prehistoric. The slow-but-keen Houston duo UGK drop by to “keep dope fiends higher than the Goodyear blimp,” but what makes “Sippin’ ” memorable is Three-6’s trademark free-form, nonrhyming verse: “NyQuil/will slow me down/something to keep me/easy./Nothing like that/yella-yella/that will have you/itching, man./ Talking like/’What’s up, fool?’/Vocal cords/ sounding lame.” Predictably enough, Loud Records’ corporate parents at Sony are having second thoughts about releasing a single that deals explicitly with pharmaceutical recreation (from “Cop Killer” to cough syrup—rap controversies ain’t what they used to be), but they’re too late, since the song is already an underground hit, thanks in part to a hilarious video where various Memphis high-rollers sip a thick, red liquid from baby bottles.
When the Smoke Clears sounds like it was put together by someone unable to tell rowdy gems (“Jus Like Us”) from dreary shout-alongs (“Just Anotha Crazy Click,” featuring Insane Clown Posse and Twiztid). The best track is “Who Run It,” a belligerent posse cut with a title sample that cuts in at the end of every bar of every verse. The chorus is typically unwieldy, but it’s also perfect for slamdancing (not yet considered passé in Memphis, apparently), and “Who run it?” has already become a hip-hop catchphrase.
When DJ Paul, Juicy J, and Lord Infamous (a/k/a the Scarecrow) first started making tapes in Memphis, lyrics were almost an afterthought. Some of their early tracks have been collected on a couple of independently released CDs credited to the Triple Six Mafia (the group later modified their name to preempt a Christian backlash)—Underground Vol. 1, 1991–1994 and Club Memphis: Underground Volume 2. The most successful experiments, such as “Paul, With da 45,” split the difference between Tricky and the Geto Boys, using simple loops and languid beats to create a thoroughly accidental sort of low-budget Southern trip-hop. But when the rapping starts, everything goes to pot: Most of Three-6’s early tracks are littered with embarrassing horror-movie clichés that even the most dunderheaded metal bands have the sense to avoid. In a singsongy voice presumably meant to suggest psychosis, Lord Infamous asks, “Why does the devil use me to commit these evil crimes?”
Somehow, the Three-6 Mafia eventually coalesced into a group, releasing three full-length albums, one EP attacking Bone Thugs-N-Harmony for stealing their style (so much for Cleveland’s contribution to hip-hop), one album credited to Tear Da Club Up Thugs (cashing in on their regional hit “Tear da Club Up”), and an endless succession of spin-off solo albums by Mafiosi with whimsical names like Koopsta Knicca, Project Pat, Gangsta Boo, Gangsta Blac, Indo G, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, and the Kaze. Along the way, Three-6’s music progressed into abandoned dream-sequence muttering (and Cleveland-style crooning) for a more precise lyrical attack, hammering the first three beats of every bar to create a shockingly flat-footed sound. By the time they released Chpt. 2: World Domination (1997), they were about as funky as Cannibal Corpse, walking a similar line between insanity and inanity.
The group’s first record for Loud was a compilation released this past spring called Three-6 Mafia Presents Hypnotize Camp Posse, meant to showcase Koopsta Knicca and the rest of the Memphis minor leaguers. “Who Run It” first appeared here, alongside less anthemic fare. The only track that would sound out of place on a Three-6 Mafia record is “Big Mouth, Big Talk,” by the Mafia’s Atlanta franchise, T-Rock and Pastor Troy. It’s a high-spirited laundry list of ways to get shot, but it doesn’t hint at the noise Troy made last fall when he released an anti-Master P diatribe called “No Mo Play in G.A.”—an extraordinary song comprising four minutes of threats against P’s New Orleans-based No Limit army (“Since everybody think they soldiers, then what’s up? We’ll go to war”), most of which are drowned out by the sound of a machine gun spraying bullets.
It seems fitting, somehow, that the most exciting member of the Hypnotize Camp Posse doesn’t even come from Memphis. Late last year, Pastor Troy proved “No Mo Play in G.A.” was no fluke when he released a bizarre debut album called We Ready I Declare War, which beats the Three-6 Mafia at their own game. Troy’s main musical weapons are a synth stuck on “piano,” a willingness to yell every word at the top of his lungs, and a fondness for multitracking, all of which combine to create a cacophony that sounds like a roomful of drunks arguing with an early Steve Reich record. His quirky, wild-eyed style isn’t exactly hummable, but Troy often sneaks a simple melody into the racket, and he’s not above sending out off-kilter shout-outs to Bill Withers (“Ain’t No Sunshine”) and the Beach Boys (“Help Me, Rhonda”). His obsession with the church goes beyond simple blasphemy: He dons a priest’s robe and a garland of bullets for the front cover, and compares himself to the archangel Michael in a grim shoot-’em-up called “Eternal Yard Dash,” rapping, “I got those halos/Hello/Motherfucker/Shit, nigga/I’m talking to you/Slap the clip in the Tec 22.” All in all, Troy isn’t much more subtle than the Three-6 Mafia, but his songs are less stylized and more mysterious—he creates twice as much musical mayhem with only half as much huffing and puffing.
This spring, Troy reluctantly collaborated with his hometown archrival Miracle to turn “No Mo Play in G.A.” into a bass-heavy hit called “Bounce.” That single earned Miracle a record deal with Universal Music, and Miracle’s success has done little to improve his antagonistic relationship with Troy. (Universal is reportedly working out a deal with Troy, too, and there’s talk of a national rerelease of We Ready I Declare War.) In the meantime, Juicy J has distanced himself from Troy’s beef with Master P, which may explain why a few No Limit soldiers show up on When the Smoke Clears. But while Hypnotize and No Limit seem to be getting along, a new hometown rival has emerged: A former Three-6 business associate has launched Phatidef Music, which has managed to lure away former Mafia member Indo G. Mere months after its national debut, the Hypnotize Camp Posse is already under siege.
If all this antagonism seems unnecessary in such a diverse musical landscape, then you’re missing the point: All this antagonism is precisely what creates such a diverse musical landscape. In some sense, the Three-6 saga might seem like a tale of urban isolation, a reminder of how insular American cities can be. But it’s also exciting to watch hip-hop become a kind of domestic world music, spawning hugely divergent styles in neighboring cities that might as well be distant continents. This diversity is the product of mutual disdain, given voice by competing fiefdoms whose only common ground is a shared credo: Think locally, rap globally. Indeed, the limitless variety of contemporary hip-hop is fueled by the parochialism of rappers themselves, who have created a wild sonic universe that wouldn’t exist if we could all just get along.