The first wave of UK punk was a big, loud, obnoxious negation of almost everything that had come before, of all the tasteful ’70s stuff that had been in the air. Johnny Rotten famously wore an “I hate Pink Floyd” shirt to his Sex Pistols audition, and the entire movement existed in direct opposition to the prevailing winds of rock history. But those punk kids didn’t hate every band that had come before. Certain stars got a pass. In David Bowie and Iggy Pop and Hawkwind and Slade, the punks heard kindred spirits, people whose motivations were the same as their own. The current SoundCloud-rap boom is not the fucking same thing as punk rock. It’s too small, too referential, frankly too dumb to resonate the same way. But there’s something similar in its energy, in its willful assholery, and in its near-total rejection of all the finery of what’s come before. But as with punk rock, there are exceptions. There are older artists who exist as beacons to those kids, guiding lights who were showing the same fuck-everything impulses years before the rest of the world caught up. And of the exceptions, nobody looms taller than Three 6 Mafia.
In the music that Three 6 Mafia were making in the ’90s, you can hear everything that makes the current SoundCloud rap wave so different from what came immediately before: The violence, the tension, the rushed and sing-songy cadences, the lo-fi production values, the sense of mystery and chaos and darkness. Three 6 were even moshing in their videos back when the only rap groups doing it were, like, Onyx and Flatlinerz. The SoundCloud kids like to call themselves “underground hip-hop,” and they clearly mean it in the Three 6 sense, not in the Rawkus Records sense. Those kids aren’t trying to bring their genre back to the fundamentals. They’re trying to inject a feeling of insanity and impending doom. The early music from SpaceGhostPurrp and his Raider Klan — the South Florida kids who arguably kicked off this whole wave around the beginning of the decade — was pretty much straight-up Three 6 pastiche. And those tendencies have continued in their aesthetic descendants: XXXtentacion, Ski Mask The Slump God, Wifisfuneral, Ghostemane, Pouya, former Raider Klan affiliate Denzel Curry. $uicideboy$, the New Orleans duo who have built a huge cult following, don’t even like it when people compare them to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony; they want it to be known that they’re inspired by Bone’s contemporaries in Three 6. (Around 1995, Bone and Three 6 even got into a pretty bitter feud over who birthed that eerie-singsong style. That’s long over, but maybe $uicideboy$ still feel like they have to pick a side.)
For a culty regional phenomenon, Three 6 Mafia have had a hell of a long tail. They’ve been an under-the-radar influence on rap for decades, from Bone Thugs’ mocking rasps to Migos’ triplet clusters. The whole Midwestern white-kid horrorcore style would look very, very different if not for their influence. The same is true of trap music, the thing that the SoundCloud kids are working to replace. And Three 6 have had a few weird moments of crossover fame over the years. There was 2000, when the UGK collab “Sippin’ On Some Syrup” hit radio just as the Texan lean trend was starting to gain traction nationwide. (Three 6, from Memphis, were either lucky or canny enough to capitalize on a trend that didn’t even come from their hometown.) There was 2006, when crew leaders DJ Paul and Juicy J, along with associate Frayser Boy, randomly won an Oscar after writing a song for the movie Hustle & Flow. There was 2013, after the group splintered, when Juicy J found unlikely solo success on the strength of the strip-club anthem “Bandz A Make Her Dance.” They keep coming back.
I didn’t think they’d come back again. It didn’t seem possible. DJ Paul seemed consigned to the nostalgia club-performance circuit, reuniting whatever old Three 6 affiliates he could find and jumping on other people’s tours. (When I saw him live at SXSW a few years ago, he was drunk as shit.) Juicy J is firmly embedded as a B-level member in Wiz Khalifa’s not-exactly-running-things-lately Taylor Gang crew. Gangsta Boo is in the Run The Jewels orbit now, and she never gets off tour, but she’s doing her own thing, not riding the Three 6 legacy. And saddest of all, in the last few years, we lost Lord Infamous and Koopsta Knicca, probably the crew’s most innovative rappers — Infamous to a heart attack in 2013, Koopsta to a stroke in 2015. But then SoundCloud rap came along, and now we’re going through a whole new Three 6 moment, one that’s only possible because the crew’s original driving forces understand what this new generation of kids love about their old music.
Last week, Juicy J released his Highly Intoxicated mixtape, and it’s the best thing he’s done in a long time. From a distance, it’s just another Juicy J tape, one loaded with young stars (Cardi B, A$AP Rocky) and usual-suspect types (Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa). But Highly Intoxicated also marks the moment that Juicy embraces his SoundCloud-kid fanbase, consciously calling back to that raw, murky mid-’90s sound. There are big, clean trap bangers on Highly Intoxicated, but they’re the exceptions. Most of the production comes from $uicideboy$, the two current stars who worship Juicy’s old sound more than any other. They even get to rap alongside Juicy and A$AP Rocky on “Freaky,” and it’s fun to hear these two scabby white punks attempting to do strip-club rap alongside one of the masters of the form. Other SoundCloud stars like SmokePurrp and the unfortunately-extremely-popular XXXTentacion also show up. The hectic crackle of those $uicideboy$ beats still suits Juicy’s voice. The whole enterprise reminds me a bit of Chuck Berry going full mercenary after young stars like the Rolling Stones started publicly worshipping him in the ’60s. (It’s not the first time Juicy has pulled that move, either. In 2010, when the Three 6-indebted trap sound was in ascendence, he teamed up with trap producer Lex Luger for the great Rubba Band Business mixtape, and then he did it again a year later for Rubba Band Business 2.) It’s a cynical endeavor, but Juicy knows how to handle this sound better than any of the kids who learned it from him.
DJ Paul is also figuring this whole thing out, though he’s doing it on a smaller level, and on his own. Earlier this month, Paul released his new album Underground, Vol. 17: For Da Summa, and like Highly Intoxicated, it explicitly calls back to Three 6’s dark, shadowy underground period. The album is a sequel to Paul’s 2002 solo debut Underground, Vol. 16: For Da Summa. (There were no Volumes 1-15.) Like a lot of Paul solo efforts, it’s a weird, patched-together beast, full of appearances from old associates (Lil Wyte, Paul’s late brother Infamous) and vaguely unexpected outside guests (Yelawolf, Riff Raff, Dave East, onetime nemesis Krayzie Bone). Sometimes, it’s just forehead-smack dumb, as with the skit where Paul convinces a friend to kill himself after learning that he’s about to have a baby with an “ugly woman.” But the sound of the album, mostly produced by Paul himself, is all flickering horror-movie synth-tones and church bells and gasping choirs. It sounds more like classic Three 6 than I would’ve thought possible. And coming from one of the main driving forces of the crew itself, it’s a more convincing Three 6 pastiche than anything the SoundCloud kids have yet managed.
There’s a moment on the Underground, Vol. 17 outro where Paul says, “This one was not supposed to be a comparison to Vol. 16 because that one was the hardest mixtape or album or whatever ever made in the world. It can’t be duplicated or beaten; I don’t give a fuck if you put together all the best producers and rappers in the world. It still couldn’t compete with Vol. 16. So this is just a new version of it.” He’s right. He’s not right that Vol. 16 is the hardest album ever made, though it is plenty hard. He’s right that he can’t compete with his old self. Neither can Juicy J. But on Underground, Vol. 17 and Highly Intoxicated respectively, Paul and Juicy have successfully recaptured some of their old mojo at a moment when the world seems ready to hear some music like that. And even if they aren’t doing their best work, they can still destroy all the kids that they inspired. They deserve whatever shine this moment brings them.
1. Rapsody – “Power” (Feat. Kendrick Lamar & Lance Skiiiwalker)
The big news here is probably the Kendrick guest verse, and that’s probably as it should be. Nobody can jump on a track and change its entire chemistry quite like that guy. But even before Kendrick makes his appearance, this is a nasty, funky, personal, considered piece of work, and it would occupy this spot even without Kendrick.
2. Rich The Kid – “New Freezer” (Feat. Kendrick Lamar)
And again! Here’s another song — this time, a crispy and rubbery post-Migos trap banger — that would’ve been perfectly fine without Kendrick Lamar. But Kendrick Lamar is on it, and things suddenly get fucking crazy when he shows up. Would you want Kendrick on your song? Would you trade the knowledge that you’d get more exposure for the knowledge that Kendrick would absolutely eat your face on your own song? How do rappers make these decisions?
3. Denzel Curry – “Ultimate Remix” (Feat. Juicy J)
This probably could’ve gone in the main part of the column: A Raider Klan OG invites an actual OG onto his Three 6-indebted track, and both of them proceed to wreck things. Cross-generation friendship can be a beautiful thing.
4. Young Martha – “Liger”
The Young Thug/Carnage union hasn’t led to anything earthshaking — or, at least, anything beyond the “Homie” video. But this is still a greasy, insinuating banger, even with that “I’m rich so I don’t gotta vote” line.
5. G Herbo – “Mirror” (Feat. Lil Bibby)
Exhibit One Bazillion in the case that Herb and Bibby should just form a group together full-time, that they should stop chasing stardom and just be prematurely crusty street-rap head-knockers together forever.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
One of the reasons Bodak Yellow went #1 cuz even the HATERS LOVE IT !! pic.twitter.com/CCHUhHvN8z
— iamcardib (@iamcardib) September 27, 2017