I guess everyone has to have a moment like this, a real soul-destroying glimpse at a favorite artist losing the plot and making terrible decisions for even worse reasons. I guess it’s a rite of passage. The thing that kills me isn’t just that I should’ve seen it coming; it’s that I sort of did. Look: it’s not like Three 6 Mafia are this unimpeachable artistic powerhouse or that they’ve spent a career resisting their most commercial urges before finally throwing their hands up and jumping in with everyone else. It’s not like I have a lot of illusions about this group. They’ve always had their own aesthetic, but that aesthetic probably owes its existence as much to circumstance as to the artistic visions of DJ Paul and Juicy J. They’re not maverick geniuses who formed in a cultural vacuum. Their monstrous, monolithic horrorcrunk style has precedents in Memphis get-buck music and in the thumping bombast of the No Limit house producers, as well as probably a few dozen out-of-the-trunk Southern rappers and producers who I’ve never heard and who I’ll probably never hear. They’re the products of a scene as much as they are the pioneers of one. And it’s not like they never tried to become popular. They’ve been part of the major-label machine for a decade, and they’ve knowingly crafted novelty hits, even showing up to the 2000 Source Awards brandishing baby-bottles full of cough syrup. They’ve made unwatchable straight-to-video action movies with absolutely no artistic value beyond their soundtrack albums. They’re also cold, calculating businessmen; Memphis is full of rappers they’ve used and discarded, and they’re down to two members now because they’ve fired or alienated virtually everyone ever included in their once-teeming ranks. Since their shocking Oscar win last year, they’ve grabbed every crass mass-exposure opportunity that’s come their way, popping up on My Super Sweet 16 and Studio 60 and every other TV show that would have them. But it’s still tough for me to describe just how much despair and humiliation I felt watching last night’s premiere episode of Adventures in Hollyhood, their new MTV reality-sitcom. If you’ve ever admired anything about this group, do yourself a favor and forget that it exists.
The premise of Adventures in Hollyhood is thin and bankrupt even by reality-TV standards: after winning their Oscar, DJ Paul and Juicy J move to Hollywood and do whatever they can to capitalize on their sudden and unexpected mainstream fame. They borrow a rented suburban house from their manager, who constantly lectures them not to cause too much ruckus or the landlord will kick them out. They take meetings with Hollywood bottom-feeders. They introduce themselves to their uptight white neighbors. Their assistant pisses on Jennifer Love Hewitt’s lawn. Hilarity ensues. Watching the show, you get the impression that these guys are dumb, bewildered nobodies with a freak success on their hands. There’s no indication that they built a regional independent music empire from nothing, that they’ve perfected a sound and worked with some of rap’s biggest names, that they’re artists and craftsmen rather than stupid, lucky yokels. Even Being Bobby Brown treated its subject with more respect and dignity. We get quick and deeply unsatisfying little glimpses of them at work. Asked to record a song for the Jackass Number Two soundtrack (a particularly shameless bit of MTV cross-promotion), they tell each other, “OK, we gotta make this crazy.” (They also use the exact same uber-clean guitar-laced beat they already used on “Crazy,” the last track on protege Lil Wyte’s Phinally Phamous.) Mostly though, we just see them mugging for the cameras and doing puerile, over-the-top shit: hanging out their car windows to catcall joggers, forcing the one neighbor who shoes up to their barbecue to listen to “Slob on My Knob,” stuff like that. The show itself treats them with a deeply problematic casual condescension; as they drive from Memphis to California, an Indiana Jones-style cartoon map traces a crooked line, and their car leaves a trail of diamonds behind it. The DJ Paul and Juicy J we see on Adventures in Hollyhood are extensions of the DJ Paul and Juicy J who show up on the closing skits of every Hypnotize Camp Posse album, acting out and frantically hyping all their upcoming projects. As for the DJ Paul and Juicy J who actually make the albums that come before those skits, they’re totally absent thus far.
The weirdest thing about all this is that, as far as I can tell, Paul and Juicy are totally complicit in all this buffoonery; it’s not like they’ve been manipulated by scheming MTV execs. The logo of their production company shows up at the end of the episode, and pretty much every single scene is painfully, obviously staged, somehow even less genuine and spontaneous than a random scene from Choices. So maybe I should be happy that one of my favorite rap groups is getting money and exposure, that Project Pat and Lil Wyte are suddenly getting face-time on MTV when late-night BET would barely touch them a couple of years ago. After all, the goofy-ass celebrity personas they’ve been creating for themselves haven’t had a huge effect on the music they’ve been making. Project Pat’s Crook By Da Book was a respectable if low-key entry in their catalog, and they also had a hand in maybe the best new rap song to emerge this year; they sampled Willie Hutch’s “I Choose You” to make the transcendently light beat for UGK and OutKast’s “International Players Anthem.” (As Noz points out here, they’re reusing that beat too, since they already used it for Project Pat’s “Choose U,” but that’s one of their best tracks, so never mind.) But it’s still almost unbearable to watch the people responsible for so much eerie, cathartic, immersive music debasing themselves to play tone-deaf modern-day Beverly Hillbillies. They’re better than that.