Today, in honor of Halloween, I’d like to speak about an artist who has done more to embrace the dark side of life in his music than just about anyone else.
That person is Jordan Michael Houston; 41 Year old rapper, actor, academy award winner, and innovator.
You might know him as Juicy J.
While known for his modern club bangers like Bandz a Make Her Dance or his work with Wiz Khalifa (different rant for a different day), I’m here today to tell you why Juicy J is one of the most underrated rappers in the history of Hip-Hop. Yes, really.
What most people don’t realize is the sheer genre-shaping impact Juicy J has had over the course of his career. I’m going to go as far as to say that there was no greater force in the creation of what we now know as trap music than musical innovation of Juicy J and Three Six Mafia in the early 90’s.
As we proceed, we’re going to need a working definition for trap music. The most obvious classification is that the subject matter focuses on the trap: selling drugs, scraping by, living by any means necessary. Trap music puts a spotlight on the gritty struggle of surviving in an extremely impoverished environment, and frequently tells a rags-to-riches story of thriving despite these circumstances. It is a reactionary art form which reflects the struggles of poverty.
Sonically, trap music includes heavy 808 kick drums, complicated double time flows, heavy use of hi-hats, layered synths, and down-pitched vocals. These classifications can seem arbitrary, because so much of modern hip-hop includes these elements, but this is only because of trap music’s far-reaching impact. At the time of it’s inception, none of these things were typical in music. The real question is- where did this style originate?
If you asked someone on the street where trap music came from (you might have to be on certain kinds of streets to get any kind of answer), you would likely hear names like Gucci Mane, T.I., and Young Jeezy thrown around -early 2000’s Atlanta dudes who popularized trap music and brought it to the masses. If you were to Google around and try to find the roots of trap music, most answers would point you in the same direction. Hell, T.I. coined the term with his wildly popular 2003 album, Trap Muzik; it’s no wonder people associate him with it’s creation. He states in a 2012 interview that he believes he invented the genre.
“ … before I came in the game, it was Lil Jon, Outkast, Goodie Mob, okay so you had Crunk music and you had Organized Noise. There was no such thing as trap music, I created that, I created that. I coined the term, it was my second album, Trap Muzik it dropped in 2003. After that, there was an entire new genre of music created.” – TI in 2012, on HotNewHipHop.com
Now, Don’t get me wrong, I love Atlanta-style trap music and believe that artists of that era did a ton to push the genre forward and created a long-lasting culture of innovation in Atlanta. Though, to say that T.I. invented trap music is straight-up untrue. To me, saying that one person can invent an entire genre of music is a stretch no matter who it is. But, if we have to pin down who the true originators of trap music are, to me there is no group more deserving of credit than Three 6 Mafia.
Three 6 Mafia at their first record label meeting in 1991. (Juicy J top right)
What T.I. did in 2003 with Trap Muzik, Three 6 Mafia had been doing since at least a full decade prior. The memphis group was formed in 1988 when Juicy J, DJ Paul, and Lord Infamous met as teenagers. Their style was sinister, bass-heavy, and a combination of the murky instrumentation in the style of DJ Screw and hard hitting lyrics like west coast gangsta-rap N.W.A. Most importantly, they asserted that the trap lifestyle was something to be celebrated, something to take pride in. The group’s name itself is in acknowledgement that the life they led bordered on satanic.
“I remember we used to get into a couple shootouts and then go write in the studio [laughs]. It was at a time when Memphis was fun. Memphis had everything. Everybody was good at rapping. You actually rapped about what you did because at that time rappers couldn’t just come out and say you was ‘hard’ or [a] ‘killa’ because people would actually try you back then. You had to be about something. If you were popping somebody, locking them in the trunk you had to be about it because if you wasn’t people would call you out.” – Koopsta Knicca
This 1993 song, “Walk up to your house” perfectly epitomizes the innovation that Three Six Mafia brought to the hip hop stratosphere. It featured grizzly lyrics, unrelenting heavy 808 drums, and layered instrumentation. The song was released during Three 6’s mixtape period (1989-1994), where they had begun to gain moderate acclaim in Memphis, yet had not reached national attention. To a listener today, “Walk up to Your House” might not sound like anything particularly unique, but at the time of it’s release, no other artist was creating music in this style. Other southern artists of the period like UGK and Master P spoke about similar subject matter, but Three 6 was the only group to pair the ominous 808 and synth instrumentation with sinister and hard-hitting lyricism: the combo which came to define trap music.
Three 6 Mafia continued to grind in their local scene, before releasing their first studio album, Mystic Stylez, through their own label, Prophet Entertainment. If Trap Muzik was the work that defined the genre to the public, then Mystic Stylez was the precursor which made it possible. Three 6 maintained their murky style with songs like, “Break da Law”, “We Got Dope”, and “Sweet Robbery” but their work began to take a turn to a more mass-marketable sound. The song, “Da Summa” was the first song of theirs allowed to be played on local radio. The album, like the majority of Three 6’s work, was produced by Juicy J and DJ Paul.
Juicy J and DJ Paul, 1993 (Paul on left, Juicy on right)
“[Juicy J] was the man who helped me. We went half-and-half on the studio time. We paid $4,500 to record and mix Mystic Stylez and Juicy helped make beats as well. I would be on my keyboard and I would sample and do drums. Juicy didn’t really play keys too much so he controlled the drum machine. I would use my Roland W30 keyboard and he would use an MPC 60 drum machine and we would put them together and make a lot of the beats together. Both of us also wrote songs. He, Lord Infamous and I wrote hooks and we were the three main writers of the songs.” – DJ Paul
While Mystic Stylez did not do very well commercially, it was the first time Three 6 Mafia’s unique style gained any sort of widespread exposure. Their all-encompassing darkness and embrace of taboo after taboo (drugs, violence, sex, occultism) was something no other artist had done to the extent they had. This proud disregard of societal norms paved the way for the confrontational and individualistic style of trap music. The influence of Three 6’s tough talking rhetoric over bass-heavy minor key beats is especially apparent when comparing the Mafia’s work to the popular music which preceded it, and that which came after it.
Continuing with the T.I./Atlanta comparison, below is one of Three 6 Mafia’s most famous singles compared to one of T.I.’s biggest off of Trap Muzik, and a hugely popular Atlanta song which preceded them both, “Player’s Ball”, by Outkast. The song came out in 1993 during Three 6 Mafia’s mixtape period, and was a massive hit. The beat of the music is faster, set in a major key, and more lyrically positive than either the Three 6 or T.I. song.
Outkast – Players Ball (1993, 2 years before Mystic Stylez. 11 years before Trap Muzik)
Three 6 Mafia – Sippin on Some Sizzurp – 2000 (5 years after Mystic Stylez)
T.I. – 24’s (3 years after “Sippin on Some Sizzurp and a whole 8 years after Mystic Stylez)
It is not just the early 2000’s trap scene of the south which felt the influence of Three 6 Mafia and Juicy J’s dark instrumentals and lyricism. Just about any modern rapper you hear embrace the macabre or spit over heavy hitting sinister beats owes a big part of their sound to the mafia. Heavy influence of the mafia sound can be heard in artists like A$AP Rocky, Wiz Khalifa, Chief Keef, even pop artists like Justin Timberlake (Memphis native) and Rhianna.
“Trap is so funny to me, It is literally Three 6 Mafia from 1991. Everything does comeback in a different form.” – Justin Timberlake in a 2013 Hot 97 interview
Three Six Mafia’s history stretches another two decades from Mystic Stylez, but to cover that in depth would require a blog post even longer than this one. Juicy J and Three 6 continued to make well regarded music and actually didn’t peak in popularity until the mid-2000’s. In 2006, in one of the funniest and least expected entertainment moments of all time, they won an academy award (first rap group to do so) for their song, “It’s hard out Here For a Pimp”. It wasn’t until 2009 when Juicy J began drifting away from the mafia to focus on his solo career and create the tracks he is commonly known for today.