Can you imagine SpaceGhostPurrp’s face when he first heard “Murder On My Mind”? I can’t, since I’m not entirely sure what SpaceGhostPurrp looks like. But SGP has built a career by digging deep into, and reveling in, the sound of grimy mid-’90s underground Memphis rap music, specifically the early Three 6 Mafia stuff. Before they had their first taste of pop breakthrough, Three 6 were a loose confederation of hungry hyenas, talking about devil worship and spattered brains over clanking, gasping, hissing, generally explosive swarms of 808 thwacks and interstitial horror-movie music. On his own mixtapes, Purrp resurrects every last facet of that sound: The drowned voices, the murky bass-bleed, the tape hiss, the evil laughter, the songs that just sort of end when all the rappers in the room run out of bars about murdering you. And here we have a case of one of that sound’s architects, Three 6 co-producer DJ Paul, getting back together with a group of his old accomplices, roping in two members of his old rivals Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and then tossing Purrp on there, too. For Purrp, this must’ve been something like being the guy from Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, if someone had showed up in a time machine and invited him to sit in with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1932. SGP blends in with the chattering chaos well enough, which only attests to the malleability and timelessness of that original Three 6 sound, the one Paul resurrects here.
The history of Three 6 Mafia is a long and convoluted one; their internal issues make the Wu-Tang Clan look like a model of happy and calm coexistence. The group started in 1991, with Paul and Juicy J DJing house parties and making locally-circulated cassettes. At various points, the group seemed to involve just about every rapper in Memphis as an associate. By time time they scored their first real national hit — 2000’s “Sippin’ On Some Syrup” — the main core lineup of Paul, Juicy, Crunchy Black, Lord Infamous, Gangsta Boo, and Koopsta Knicca had already started to fall apart. Over the next decade, the group shed members even as its profile rose. And every time someone left the group, or got fired, or renounced their association, they’d fire off a dis track or five, to the point where it was nearly impossible for those of us outside of Memphis to remember who was mad at whom in any given moment. By the time Paul, Juicy, and then-associate Frayser Boy won a Best Original Song Oscar in 2006, it was just Paul, Juicy, and Crunchy Black. And then, soon after, it was just Paul and Juicy, collaborating with Good Charlotte and making appearances on Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, attempting to recapture the crossover-pop moment that ended the second they stepped off the Kodak Theater stage. If this had been the end, it would’ve been both sad and understandable.
But something else happened: Paul and Juicy both went underground, cranking out some very good solo mixtapes and rebuilding their respective reputations. In his Rubba Band Business tapes with Lex Luger, Juicy scored a couple of honest-to-god underground hits, which led to an actual hit in “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” which led to a late-career renaissance that nobody expected. And while Juicy has recaptured something resembling solo stardom, Paul has reformed every classic-era Three 6 Mafia member, minus Juicy, given them the awesomely ungainly name Da Mafia 6ix, and gone back to the tumultuously grimy underground fight music that earned him his cult-fame in the first place. At this point in the story, everyone is winning.
The happiest moment on Da Mafia 6ix’s debut tape 6ix Commandments, in fact, comes at the beginning of “Body Parts,” a nine-minute posse cut that serves as one of many sequels to a 1997 Three 6 track of the same title. On the intro, operatic voices churn, and old sample rumbles, and Paul excitedly bellows out the names of 12 rappers who appear on the song. And then there’s an explosion, and silence, and Paul again: “And I know you didn’t think I was gonna leave my boy Juicy J off of this motherfucker.” And then a fired-up Juicy J verse, an inexact double-time thing that never pauses for breath. Given the group’s history, I’d assumed that Da Mafia 6ix existed because of some irreparable Paul/Juicy rift. And who knows, maybe it was just an old Juicy a cappella Paul had laying around. But I’d prefer to believe that these guys, older and wiser, have buried all hatchets and realized how awesome they all sound together. And they do sound awesome; “Body Parts” doesn’t lose any of its breakneck impact over its nine minutes.
Now, you can’t expect the members of Da Mafia 6ix to have the same mystery-shrouded intensity that they had 15 years ago. It’s just not the way these things work. But given that these are middle-aged rappers reveling in old glories, it’s remarkable how great everyone sounds. There are some diminishing returns here, but they aren’t that diminishing. Gangsta Boo still has that great sassy snap in her voice: “White boys love it when I hit they weed pipe / Because they know it’s going down, I’ma fuck ‘em all night.” Cruncy Black’s powerful wheeze remains as craggy and mean as ever. Infamous and Koopsta have gone back to rapping like demon-possessed dolls. Younger guests like Yelawolf and SpaceGhostPurrp manage to fit in just fine, but it’s the older guys, like Bizzy Bone and MJG and Project Pat, who really demand rewinds. The beats, all of which Paul produced or co-produced, move between tingly unsettling atmosphere (the John Carpenter synth-squiggles of “Yeah High”) to outright anthemic boom (everything that happens on “Body Parts”). On “Remember,” Paul chops up the theme from Fame, and he makes it sound evil. More importantly, everyone involved seems to be having fun, to realize they’re back to doing the thing that they once did better than anyone else on earth. Nobody offers any thought to crossing over, or to making this sound palatable to anyone who won’t immediately love it. 6ix Commandments is a knowing cult object, a gift to the faithful. It’s not a comeback; it’s a return.
Download 6ix Commandments for free here.