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You knew I had to write about this: Three 6 Mafia, regional Memphis rap kingpins for the last decade and a half, pioneers of an endlessly compelling evil-slow-garbled primordial deep-South horrorcrunk aesthetic, my favorite rap group in the world, shocked the world and won an Oscar last night. The Clipse live review will have to wait another day.
When they got nominated, I wrote that it would’ve been almost impossible to imagine the group even getting nominated for a Grammy the year before. Three 6 protege Frayser Boy, who cowrote the song with DJ Paul and Juicy J, can’t even get his video for “I Got Dat Drank” played on anything other than BET Uncut since Viacom figured out that it probably shouldn’t be running videos that glamorize the recreational use of prescription cough syrup. There’s a photo on the inside cover of Frayser Boy’s album Me Being Me, a Polaroid labeled “HCP and MTV Wild Boyz,” like Frayser Boy was so starstruck meeting Steve-O and Chris Pontius that he had to make the photographic evidence of this meeting one of the only pictures in his skimpy CD booklet; this same guy, six months later, was onstage in front of the assembled royalty of Hollywood, soaking in their applause. The whole process leading up to the Three 6 guys getting the award is just dumbfoundingly unlikely: young white director decides to make a movie about a pimp who wants to make crunk music, films it in Memphis instead of Atlanta or Miami or Houston, recruits legends from the local underground to write songs for the movie instead of out-of-town ringers. Said movie does well at Sundance, becomes surprise hit, quietly becomes one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year despite not really being all that great. An obscure change in Oscar voting rules leads to only three songs being nominated for Best Original Song, none of which are the sweeping MOR Diane Warren ballads that almost always win these things, leading to the most wide-open race for this award in years. One of these songs is the movie’s centerpiece, the weepy pimp lament. And the movie’s director just happened to be smart enough to hire the group that’s dominated the Memphis underground for years to write the thing. The song wins. And so there they were, [updated] giddy with joy, not even sure what to say at the podium, jumping up and down, thanking Memphis and God and their moms and George Clooney and Ludacris and Select-O-Hits. (Jon Stewart: “That’s how you accept an Oscar!”)
I’d figured Dolly Parton to be the favorite to win, since she’s a universally respected legend of film and music and since her song, which is pretty good but not bombastic or showy, comes from a total Oscar-bait movie. There’s a long history of almost-underground left-field choices sneaking their way onto the Oscar telecast: Bjork in the swan dress, Elliott Smith linking arms with Celine Dion. But these songs never actually win. And so “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” has to be the least likely song to win the award since Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft.” It’s more than I could’ve hoped for.
On Friday night, I got into a long and involved discussion with some friends about what the group would wear to the ceremony. Tuxes would’ve been the obvious choice, but it’s virtually impossible to imagine DJ Paul in a penguin suit, his neck tattoos poking up out of it. Someone suggested pimp suits, which would’ve been topically appropriate, but the Three 6 dudes have never been the type of rappers to fetishize the whole imagined pimp archetype. (Even though it turns out that they did actually show up in gorgeous suits, only changing into street clothes to perform.) I was thinking they’d come out in turtlenecks and newsboy caps and slacks, but no, they went for full-on grubbiness, jerseys and T-shirts and baseball caps, the same shit they wear in every video and photo shoot. They did them. I’m glad, even if Juicy J didn’t wear a Misfits shirt.
Another Stewart quote: “If you’re keeping score at home: Martin Scorsese: zero. Three 6 Mafia: one.” This only gets funnier and weirder if you’ve seen any of the group’s ventures into film. I haven’t seen Choices or The Clean Up Man, but I have seen last year’s Choices II: The Set-Up, one of the most ecstatically awful entries into the enormously undistinguished mini-genre of straight-to-video movies made by rappers, a totally incomprehensible pileup of star-wipes and DJ Paul tripping over his lines and Lil Wyte getting stuffed into a car trunk and Tiny Lister, the big scary guy from Friday, calling a prison guard a bitch and DEA agents arguing the relative merits of Beyonce and Britney Spears. It’s not really any more unwatchable than, say, The Aviator (not that that’s saying anything), but it’s pretty incredible that the guys who made this movie can now put Oscars on their mantles.
In another way, though, it’s weirdly appropriate; more than any other major producers in rap history, DJ Paul and Juicy J have always completely immersed themselves in soundtrack-music signifiers, churning ominous strings and florid piano lines and and adrenal cluster-bombs of drum-machines. Aesthetically, they have at least as much in common with Nino Rota and John Carpenter and Bernard Herrmann as they do with Marley Marl or Ant Banks or the Sugar Hill Records house band. So an Oscar is maybe a more appropriate award for them than a Grammy or even, like, a Vibe Award; I wouldn’t be surprised if they follow up the Oscar win by following the RZA’s example and transitioning into film-scoring.
Maybe the weirdest part of the whole story was the group’s performance of the song. Terrence Howard actually recorded the song in character, but he didn’t want to perform it on the telecast. Depending on who you believe, it’s because he didn’t have time to prepare or because he hates rap in real life or because he didn’t think it would be appropriate to stand up in front of a room full of powerful white people and talk about being a pimp. Taraji P. Hinson, who also acted in the movie and recorded the song, did perform, looking amazing in a Marilyn Monroe dress and sounding great howling the hook. Paul and Juicy and Frayser Boy rapped their lyrics matter-of-factly after consenting to change them enough to make them suitable for broadcast; apparently, there will be “a whole lot of witches jumping ship.” And a gang of interpretive swing-dancers clogged up the stage acting out scenes from the movie in a laughably bizarre attempt to outdo the burning cars that Bird York had sung in front of earlier in the evening. The cameras alternated between close-ups on Hinson and wide-shots of the entire stage, barely ever zooming in on a member of the actual group. The Three 6 dudes are veteran performers, and I don’t know why they couldn’t have gotten the Dolly Parton treatment, holding down a bare stage all by their damn selves. But I can’t stay mad about that. One minute later, they were at the podium accepting their award, a great moment for the underdog.
Here’s DJ Paul on MTVnews.com: “I was trying to keep from looking in the crowd because I was nervous. I didn’t want none of my favorite actors to be giving me the finger.”