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You can’t talk about Southern rap without acknowledging pioneering Memphis posse Three 6 Mafia.

Formed in the early ’90s by producers Paul Beauregard (DJ Paul) and Jordan Houston (Juicy J), the duo emerged from Memphis’s burgeoning mixtape scene. DJ Paul had been piecing together tapes since high school, and transitioned quickly from simply making compilations of tracks he liked (LL Cool J, N.W.A. etc) to throwing together blends of original material. He took the blueprint of local pioneer DJ Spanish Fly and slowly began to make a name for himself, roping in his half-brother Ricky Dunigan (Lord Infamous) and other local artists such as Skinny Pimp and Playa Fly to spit bars over his beats.

Paul was eventually introduced to fellow DJ and producer Juicy J (who had also become locally notorious for a popular series of tapes), and along with Lord Infamous they formed Backyard Posse, the group that would later become known as Triple Six Mafia. Joined by Robert Cooper Phillips (Koopsta Knicca) and a plethora of backbenchers, they released their first full-length Smoked Out Loced Out in 1994, which cheaply laid out their raucous early style, punctuating it with comical skits and phone calls. Cribbing the sub bass-heavy electro backbone of DJ Squeeky (something which Squeeky hasn’t forgotten), Paul and Juicy threw crumbling ambient textures and strings into the mix, resulting in a record that was as terrifying as it was heavy.

From these decidedly lo-fi beginnings, the group switched up their name again, this time to Three 6 Mafia, absorbed core members Lola Mitchell (Gangsta Boo) and Darnell Carlton (Crunchy Black), and in 1995 released their first widely available album, the stone-cold-classic Mystic Stylez. A far cry from the self-styled ‘crunk’ the band would make their calling card later on in their career, this fathoms-deep collision of horrorcore lyricism and corrosive samples would serve as the touchpaper for plenty of rap to follow, but failed to lift the band from their local scene. Indeed, quantifiable success would come much later.

The band continued their ascent with breakout hit ‘Tear Da Club Up ‘97’ and the gold-selling LP Chapter 2: World Domination, but it wasn’t until 2000’s When the Smoke Clears: Sixty 6 Sixty 1 that they really began to make a mark, achieving platinum status and hitting number six on the Billboard chart. Even this, however, pales in comparison with the events of 2005, when DJ Paul and Juicy J were honored with an Oscar for their contribution of ‘It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp’ to Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow.

Oscar in hand, Three 6 Mafia (who had now gone through umpteen line-up changes) then attempted to move past their underground Memphis roots and make a move towards genuine mainstream pop music, racking up collaborations with Good Charlotte and DJ Tiesto in the process. It didn’t work quite as well as they’d hoped – despite pre-empting a worldwide trend, dwindling sales meant that the group’s tenth album Laws of Power was shelved indefinitely by Sony, and Juicy J’s interest shifted to his newly successful career as a solo performer. While the band was on a hiatus of sorts, a litany of young producers were falling out of the woodwork quoting Three 6 Mafia as their primary influence. The worldwide obsession with ‘trap’ was one thing, and then there’s Florida’s Raider Klan, who have based not only their entire sound on Three 6 Mafia’s early ’90s run, but their visual style and lyrical content too.

In 2013, the band stand as one of Southern rap’s most crucial outfits, but it can be tough to know where to start. Continuous line-up changes, name changes and label disputes have resulted in a catalogue that’s as sprawling and impenetrable as it is rewarding. To that end, we’ve put together a list of the Three 6 Mafia’s most important moments, from their fuzzy beginnings to their platinum-selling mainstream hits.

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TRIPLE SIX MAFIA
‘VICTIM OF A DRIVEBY’
(SMOKED OUT, LOCED OUT, 1994)

Through clouds of weed smoke and tape hiss comes this early cut by the crew when they were still recording as Triple Six Mafia. Produced by DJ Paul and Juicy J, backbenchers Lil’ Glock and S.O.G. detail drive-by shootings and various “devil thoughts, evil thoughts,” accompanied by little more than a drum machine and the disembodied spectre of Diana Ross. One of the few contributions to the Hypnotize Minds canon by Glock and S.O.G., the track would later be gussied up as ‘Mask and Da Glock’ for for Underground Vol. 1 and subsequently covered by Raider Klan descendants Amber London and Yung Simmie.

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TRIPLE 6 MAFIA
‘PAUL WITH DA 45′
(UNDERGROUND VOL.1: 1991-1994, 1999)

It’s important to remember that, first and foremost, Juicy J and DJ Paul are both producers, and both initially cut their teeth behind a deck not a mic. Their bass-heavy tapes were, at least in the early days, engineered with production in mind, and that’s never more evident than on Underground Vol.1. The 1999 compilation collects material from these rare early tapes, snipping tracks from DJ Paul’s collaborations with Lord Infamous, Juicy’s collaborations with Paul and both producers’ solo material. Early banger ‘Paul With Da 45’ is the perfect example of their fledgling sound, gluing together sizzling chopped vocal loops in lieu of proper verses over the kind of relentless low-end that practically drives you to the rim store on its own. Neons not included.

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THREE 6 MAFIA
‘DA SUMMA’
(MYSTIC STYLEZ, 1995)

Released independently in 1995, Mystic Stylez didn’t exactly break Juicy J, DJ Paul and the crew out of Memphis wilds just yet, but its importance is hard to underestimate, especially now. The U.S. was embroiled in an East Coast/West Coast tragedy, and only very astute (or very local) listeners were paying attention to what was going on in Memphis. Those that did manage to score a copy of Mystic Stylez, however, absorbed its gloomy atmospheres and neck-snapping beats, and rap’s landscape was changed, even if it took a decade or two to really take hold. ‘Da Summa’ – a haunting flip of Rick James’ much-sampled ‘Hollywood’ – might be the album’s most disarming track, at once relentlessly bleak and effortlessly soulful.

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THREE 6 MAFIA
‘TEAR DA CLUB UP’
(MYSTIC STYLEZ, 1995)

Three 6 Mafia’s first ‘proper’ single, ‘Tear Da Club Up’, was an anthem they just couldn’t let lie, and although it was a high point of the band’s ’95 debut Mystic Stylez, the track appeared again (albeit in a different form) on ‘97’s Chapter 2: World Domination. There’s a good reason for it too – the track epitomises the crew’s early sound with its sickly detuned synthesisers, aggressive bars and trunk-rattling low-end. It’s the original, though, that’s still the most effective, and while ‘97’s rework was clearly granted a higher budget, the Mystic Stylez cut is unshakably eerie, its damaged fidelity only adding to its menace.

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THREE 6 MAFIA FEAT. GANGSTA BLAC & M-CHILD
‘LAST MAN STANDING’
(CHAPTER 1: THE END, 1996)

A prototypical horrorcore track from the scene forefathers: with the bells and whistles of a slasher soundtrack, ‘Last Man Standing’ is a dispatch issued during their beef with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony (hence DJ Paul’s “The last man standin’ll never be part of the B.O.N.E.” line). Lifting its chorus from N.W.A’s ‘Alwayz Into Somethin’, Lord Infamous gets explicit: “Now I wipe your bone and blood off my windshield / I’m sitting in the park, fire on the lost, watching body parts / Burning into sparks, bloodied on my saw.” Thankfully, the Three 6 / Bone Thugs beef was limited to musical output; hatchets were eventually buried (though not literally).

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THREE 6 MAFIA
‘LATE NIGHT TIP’
(CHAPTER 1: THE END, 1996)

While many of its more popular joints were reworked and slotted into the easier-to-obtain third album Chapter 2: “World Domination,” there are still plenty of reasons to dig into ‘96’s The End. The album feels like a continuation of Three 6 Mafia’s gloomy debut, and still contains plenty of the grit that characterised their independent early canon. Saying that, ‘Late Night Tip’ is one of the album’s unashamed lighter joints and hilariously rips a sample from one-hit-wonder Lisa Fischer’s Art of Noise-aping ‘How Can I Ease the Pain’. It was proof that the crew could operate on a smoother level, and serves as a gauzy counterpoint to more aggressive cuts ‘Last Man Standing’ and ‘Body Parts’.

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PROPHET POSSE
‘BODY PARTS’
(CHAPTER 1: THE END, 1996)

The horrorcore tag might have been draped around Three 6 Mafia from the very beginning, but their music never really slotted in comfortably alongside Gravediggaz, Necro or Brotha Lynch Hung. Rather, their warbling half-speed Satanism has always felt like a sideline to the crew’s status as Southern standard bearers. ‘Body Parts’ might be The End’s most horrific moment, whether it’s M-Child’s “slicin’ body parts in the park” or Lord Infamous’s “we gonna give you to the devil”, but it also serves as a triumphant posse cut. A celebration of the Memphis rap landscape, it might be dark – but then life in Orange Mound wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.

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THREE 6 MAFIA
‘HIT A MUTHAFUCKA’
(CHAPTER 2: WORLD DOMINATION, 1997)

Fight-starting posse cuts are a favoured weapon in the Three 6 Mafia arsenal, and they don’t come much more unapologetic than ‘Hit a Muthafucka’: “We ain’t going to stop until some damn fools die up in the audience,” DJ Paul threatens, over a bassline so sinister that it’s not hard to believe that countless Three 6 Mafia gigs have ended with (less than fatal) violence.

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TEAR DA CLUB UP THUGS
‘SLOB ON MY KNOB’
(CRAZYNDALAZDAYZ, 1999)

No stranger to in-your-face raunch, Juicy J starts this crew classic in inimitable fashion: “Slob on my knob / Like corn on the cob / Check in with me, and do your job / Lay on the bed, and give me head.” That’s how it continues, for just under two minutes: a tour de force of misogyny and pornographic detail, with the reductive, almost bored hook “suck a nigga dick or something.” Never afraid to cannibalise their back catalogue, they cribbed one of the song’s lyrics for 2009 single ‘Lil Freak (Ugh Ugh Ugh)’.

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TEAR DA CLUB UP THUGS
‘HYPNOTIZE CASH MONEY’’
(CRAZYNDALAZDAYZ, 1999)

It was Memphis-meets-New Orleans on this Southern rap super-posse cut. Three 6 (in their Tear Da Club Up Thugs guise), the Hot Boyz, and Big Tymers traded barbs and boasts over a beat co-produced by Mannie Fresh. That Cash Money bounce is there, and the Hot Boys do much of the heavy lifting, but Lord Infamous drops the most tongue-twisting couplet: “Cowards of the hour sickened by my tower flower power / Shower and devour face the boom boom boom power.” Silly? Sure. Memorable? Of course.

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HYPNOTIZE CAMP POSSE
‘AZZ & TITTIEZ’
(THREE SIX MAFIA PRESENTS HYPNOTIZE CAMP POSSE, 2000)

Only Three 6 Mafia could make this delightfully explicit cut sound orchestral. Perhaps inspired by DJ Assault’s 1997 ghettotech favorite, ‘Azz & Tittiez’ keeps things simple and lets Hypnotize Minds crewmember La’ Chat shine: the Memphis rapper outdoes her male counterparts at their own game, dropping lines like “I’m on that gin looking for a friend to put my ass in his mouth” and “I be the bitch that make you niggas hate these ass and titties.”

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THREE 6 MAFIA FEAT. UGK & PROJECT PAT
‘SIPPIN’ ON SOME SYRUP’
(WHEN THE SMOKE CLEARS, 2000)

If Three 6 Mafia had a theme song, it’d probably be ‘Sippin’ on Some Syrup’. Roping in Southern legends UGK and Juicy J’s brother and regular Triple Six affiliate Project Pat it not only came to define the crew, but a specific brand of Southern rap that was just on the cusp of international breakthrough. It still sounds fresh today, and DJ Paul and Juicy J’s smart flip of the synthesizer line from Marvin Gaye’s ‘Is That Enough’ is as recognisable as A Guy Called Gerald’s pioneering ‘Voodoo Ray’. It’s deceptively simple, and Juicy J still can’t perform (even to new fans) without giving the anthem a respectful few bars.

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THREE 6 MAFIA
‘M.E.M.P.H.I.S.’
(WHEN THE SMOKE CLEARS, 2000)

Another widescreen posse cut, ‘M.E.M.P.H.I.S.’ takes the ‘Body Parts’ blueprint and remodels it into a minor epic. It’s sorely missing Gansta Boo (by this point, it was proving harder and harder to actually get members to stick around), but with Lord Infamous, Crunchy Black, Young Buck, La Chat, Koopsta Knicca, MC Mack and T-Rock joining Juicy and Paul there’s no shortage of lyrical pressure. It’s the duo’s impressive production that sets this apart from the competition, though, with its chiming synthesisers proving an apt foil to the posse’s gravelly rhymes.

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THREE 6 MAFIA
‘BABY MAMA’
(CHOICES: THE ALBUM, 2001)

One of Three 6 Mafia’s lighter-hearted tunes, Juicy J and La’ Chat offer a call-and-response ode to parenthood drama. The truth-telling is focused on the mundane (bounced checks, juvenile court appointments), with Juicy J pondering a move to Mexico rather than doing the stand-up thing. The track appears on the soundtrack to Choices The Movie, Three 6 Mafia’s 2001 entry in the rap direct-to-video game pioneered by their country cousins at No Limit.

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THREE 6 MAFIA
‘RIDIN SPINNERS’
(DA UNBREAKABLES, 2003)

Over their decades-long tenure, Three 6 Mafia have helped popularize plenty of Southern slang and culture. Their dedication to spinners gave hip-hop’s en vogue automobile accessory mainstream notoriety, and that imitation of brakes (“skrrr”) has re-entered the hip-hop lexicon thanks to 2 Chainz — who appeared in the song’s video, back in his Tity Boi phase.

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THREE 6 MAFIA FEAT. YOUNG BUCK, EIGHTBALL & MJG
‘STAY FLY’
(MOST KNOWN UNKNOWN, 2005)

It’s hard to put together a list of Three 6 Mafia tracks without at least acknowledging ‘Stay Fly’. The ’05 smash is still the group’s biggest selling single, and came at a time when the Memphis posse probably thought they couldn’t get more successful. This was the year that the Juicy J and DJ Paul managed to bag an Oscar for ‘It’s Hard Out There For A Pimp’, and ‘Stay Fly’ managed to capitalise on this notching up double Platinum status. The old darkness might have dissipated, but they were selling records, and giving a well deserved cosign to fellow Memphis rap legends Eightball and MJG in the process.

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THREE 6 MAFIA FEAT. MIKE JONES & PAUL WALL
‘SWERVIN’
(MOST KNOWN UNKNOWN, 2005)

The whip is a theme that’s never been far away from Southern rap – from OutKast’s memories of ‘2 Dope Boyz in a Cadillac’ to Drake’s awkward re-appropriation of Swangin’ – and, of course, Triple 6 had plenty to say on the matter. With contributions from Southern spitters Mike Jones and Paul Wall, the track details inebriated slow driving with a smirk and swagger that’s hard to ignore.

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THREE 6 MAFIA
‘POPPIN’ MY COLLAR’
(MOST KNOWN UNKNOWN, 2005)

Like ‘Stay Fly’, the single (and Top 40 hit) before it, ‘Poppin’ My Collar’ is a soulful slab of Southern rap based on a sample by Motown talent Willie Hutch. And even if its title reminds you of that repellent mid-decade trend, the Juicy-Paul beat is undeniable.

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THREE 6 MAFIA
‘IT’S HARD OUT HERE FOR A PIMP’
(HUSTLE & FLOW OST, 2005)

“It might be new to you, but it’s been like this for years.” Indeed. While this song was the first time that great swathes of (white) America had heard of Three 6 Mafia, the group had obviously been leaving their marks on hip-hop for some time. The song’s surprising Oscar win gave Three 6 the type of mainstream validation that had often been lacking elsewhere, and it secured the outfit’s place in the record books – both as the first hip-hop group to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song, and the first to perform at the ceremony. And who can forget their enthusiastic-as-all-hell acceptance speech?

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THREE 6 MAFIA FEAT. CHAMILLIONAIRE
‘DOE BOY FRESH’
(SINGLE, 2007)

Bizarrely nixed from Three 6 Mafia’s ninth album Last 2 Walk, ’07 single ‘Doe Boy Fresh’ would have been a highlight of the awkward hodgepodge of a record. Since the album’s release, Juicy J has claimed that Sony were nudging the band into a more commercial direction, and that would certainly explain the inclusion of Akon, Zombie Nation and Good Charlotte. Still, ‘Doe Boy Fresh’ is a return to the club-tearing crunk that Triple Six do best, and was a very welcome diversion.

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