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Devil and the Details: The Undying Influence of Three 6 Mafia

No one was more important to unlocking the past decade of rap than a legendary Memphis group that broke up at the beginning of it

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Thursday, Ringer Films debuted Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss, its sixth and final installment of the first volume of the Music Box series. To mark the occasion, we’ve ranked the top 100 rap songs of the 2010s and are looking back at a few of the movements that defined the genre in the decade, including the SoundCloud rap scene that birthed Juice as an artist. Check HBO’s listings or HBO Max to watch the documentary.

Imagine thinking you own the devil. In 1994, when Bone Thugs-N-Harmony emerged from Cleveland with their breakout hit “Thuggish Ruggish Bone,” that’s exactly how a group of teenagers from Tennessee felt. While Bone Thugs shared some stylistic markers with the Memphis group Three 6 Mafia—tongue-twisting flows and lilting deliveries over beats that sound like a lazy afternoon in hell—it was the iconography that set the Southerners off. “‘Redrum,’ murder, 6-6-6 … ” one of Three 6’s founding members would later say of hearing Bone for the first time. “We [saw] somebody kind of on our same style.”

The late critic Lucas Foster once wrote that the rappers and producers who forged the sound of Memphis hip-hop in the 1990s were making music 20 years ahead of its time on equipment that was perhaps 10 years behind. No act embodies this better than Three 6 Mafia. While the rift with Bone Thugs would eventually be chalked up to a misunderstanding—and would lead to a widely watched Verzuz battle just this month—Three 6 has seen pieces of its aesthetics stripped, isolated, and used as the blueprints for several different strains of hip-hop, from the underground to its mainstream, through more than two decades. This speaks to the visionary power of the group’s early work, but also to the strange way influence can snake through subcultures—and how the internet has made those half lives of rediscovery and reinterpretation more unpredictable than ever.

We begin with two families on opposite sides of a city. In South Memphis, a teenager named Ricky Dunigan had begun writing songs with Paul Beauregard, the half-brother four years his junior. Ricky, who would adopt the stage name Lord Infamous, was on vocals and could handle the bass and electric guitar while the soon-to-be DJ Paul manned the drums and keys. By 1989, the pair, enamored of the rap music that was bleeding toward the city from all directions, dubbing themselves The Serial Killaz. Paul was soon distributing tapes of his DJ mixes throughout his high school; he gradually slipped more and more Serial Killaz tracks into the sequences, creating a surreptitious vessel for his production work and Lord Infamous’s cascading, already radical flows.

Up on the Northside, another teenager named Jordan Houston mirrored Paul’s trajectory from homemade mixes to high school empires to the city’s club circuit, which was at that point dominated by revered figures like DJ Spanish Fly. Houston—whose older brother, Patrick, would go on to become Project Pat—adopted the name Juicy J. When he reached out to Paul for help refining his beats, the two found an easy chemistry. The Serial Killaz remained intact, but DJ Paul, Juicy J, and Lord Infamous formed another act, the Backyard Posse. In 1992 and 1993, while Dr. Dre and DJ Quik were formalizing G-Funk in Los Angeles and the Native Tongues’ optimistic verve was being stamped out by Wu-Tang’s debut in New York, this trio of young men in Memphis released, in various combinations, the warring patterns for their eventual style: the grisly horrorcore and the outré sex raps, each version too extreme to be taken literally. Unless?

A steady stream of mixtapes and singles in the next couple of years saw each young artist sharpen his tools. It’s notable that, while prolific, Paul, Lord Infamous, and Juicy J returned over and over to a handful of songs, bringing them ever closer to their ideal states. They added one member, Koopsta Knicca, then two more in Crunchy Black and Gangsta Boo. A Lord Infamous freestyle rechristened them “Triple Six Mafia,” a name that, like those demos, would be tweaked until it was just so. Paul and Juicy worked out a deal with a local financier and launched an independent label, Prophet. It was through Prophet that, in the spring of 1995, the now six-piece group finally released its first proper album, Mystic Stylez.

Mystic Stylez was recorded in North Memphis. Paul would pick up his brother, Crunchy Black, Koopsta Knicca, and Gangsta Boo in his 1972 Pontiac Catalina convertible and drive to Juicy’s neighborhood, where the daily work was interrupted only by walks to the Whataburger down the street. What these sessions yielded was grim and Gothic but mesmerizingly loose. That triplet flow that Lord Infamous pioneered—in which each note is broken into three, and these sharp, staccato phrases counterintuitively form a fluid whole—unspools across tracks that seem to fill the entire mix even when the arrangements are minimal. Speaking of mixes: While these songs are rendered more crisply than their mixtape predecessors, many still sound, appealingly, as if they exist underwater.

Even with this slightly cleaner presentation, the horrorcore DNA comes through as starkly as on the homemade tapes. Sometimes this comes off as lighthearted young people trying to shock and impress their desensitized friends; this has its own charms. But you don’t have to squint too hard to see blurred lines between the slasher-film fantasy and the reality that Three 6’s members might have been grappling with. Toward the end of his verse on the title track, Koopsta Knicca raps:

Horror, the chambers, the demons that came up
To feed on your soul, for we live on your anger

Sales of Mystic Stylez were modest. It did not reach the top 50 on Billboard’s rap and R&B chart, and did not crack the Billboard 200 at all. But the group pressed on, expanding their power base in Memphis and, in 1997, signing a major label deal; they went gold, then platinum. Despite internal discord and personal tragedies, Three 6 became one of the biggest Southern acts of the 2000s, charting at will and even winning an Oscar for their contribution to the Hustle & Flow soundtrack. (Their influence was obvious then, too, albeit in a different lane than the ones that would open up later: see the way Mystic Stylez’s “Tear Da Club Up” predicts crunk, the raucous subgenre that flourished in that decade.) But it was not until several years later, and after a hiatus that turned permanent, that the extent of Three 6’s impact became unavoidable.

In 2011, a rapper from Harlem—whose parents named him after Rakim—exploded onto the internet with a pair of instant hits and rumors of a $3 million record contract. A$AP Rocky was hailed immediately as a generational marker, if not a generational talent: proof that the borders between different regions, between the underground and the pop charts, between the computer and the physical world had grown so porous as to be nonexistent. The decade that followed disproved this hypothesis. Rap today is as rewardingly fragmented as ever, offering radically different takes on the form by kids in Detroit versus their contemporaries in exurban Florida, by Chicago drill rappers versus the street slang stylists in L.A., and etc. But Rocky was a uniquely talented synthesist, and his omnivorousness would make him an enduring star. From the time he debuted, critics noted his debt to the Houston rap of DJ Screw and its later, mid-2000s pop breakthrough. It was also clear that he was cribbing from Memphis—specifically from Three 6 and those flows that Lord Infamous unleashed on the world.

A couple of years later, that rhythmic approach took over rap in a far more overt way. In 2013, the Migos, a trio of young rappers from North Atlanta, vaulted to the center of the genre. While fellow Atlantans like Future were flooding radio with pained, pliable Auto-Tune, the Migos offered an alternative: buoyant raps littered with triplets, the Lord Infamous flow made modern. In fact, the group was so consistent in their deployment of this style that it became colloquially known as “the Migos flow” while being adopted by rappers from across the country, but especially within Georgia. For a time in the middle of the decade, it was one of the most dominant delivery styles for mainstream rappers.

Underneath all this, Three 6’s influence was being metastasized by different kids in different ways. While the Migos et al. transposed a vocal style into the broader world of 2010s trap—with its synthetic clarity and razor-sharp percussion—a network of underground acts embraced Mystic Stylez’s hypnotic muddiness, its horrorcore imagery, and its lo-fi presentation. The chief example is Raider Klan, the sprawling collective of Floridians loosely organized under the rapper-producer SpaceGhostPurrp. By 2010, the still-teenaged SGP had landed on a musical and visual style that was at once obviously cribbed from early Three 6 and inextricably tied to early–Obama era internet culture, when young artists were living more and more online and Odd Future had turned antipathy into a new kind of magnetism. (The best SpaceGhostPurrp songs make your brain matter feel as if it’s been fried on a Wi-Fi router.) Raider Klan and its affiliate collectives spawned a variety of stars, from Denzel Curry and Robb Bank$ to Xavier Wulf and Bones, all of whom had palpable impacts on the direction of rap outside of the major label ecosystem.

Three 6’s influence tentacled through the Raider Klan kids and into the wider rap internet, becoming one of the dominant musical and visual modes of expression for young MCs and producers in the 2010s. It would not be a stretch to suggest that Kanye West’s Yeezus merch is indebted to Three 6, nor Lil Uzi Vert’s playful satanity or the jagged, handmade, conspicuously villainous raps that sprung from South Florida onto SoundCloud later in the decade, through rappers like XXXTentacion. When Rae Sremmurd, the sibling duo from Mississippi, tested the outer bounds of their influence by teasing a triple album, they began the rollout with a remake of “Side 2 Side,” even tapping Juicy J for a feature.

Three 6 also helped, however indirectly, pave the way for rappers with far different styles to reach national audiences from back home in Memphis, which became one of the decade’s creative hubs. Yo Gotti broke out as an unlikely star; before his tragic death this year, Young Dolph was something of a cult hero. Key Glock is carving out a reputation as a swaggering auteur, and Moneybagg Yo has married club music to psychic pain in a way seldom seen before.

Unfortunately, the 2010s were not as fruitful for the Three 6 Mafia members themselves. In 2015, Koopsta Knicca, who had split from the group some 15 years earlier, had a stroke and died. This came less than two years after Lord Infamous, who had also left Three 6 the decade prior, died of a heart attack while at his mother’s house in Memphis. Neither Crunchy Black nor Gangsta Boo remained with the group; while Boo earned some deserved acclaim for her pair of mixtapes with the Houston producer BeatKing, Crunchy struggled to capture the same attention. Juicy J alone seemed prime for modern stardom and scored a string of hits and high-profile guest features around 2013’s Stay Trippy. Yet even that record proved less consequential than the vapors of what he and his friends had crafted years prior.

And still, it would be impossible to overstate Three 6’s importance to the development of hip-hop in the 2010s. The rediscovery of their early records pushed the genre into more acrobatic modes and grimier spaces, urging young artists to build the future with raw materials from the past.

Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.