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Hip-Hop's game changers: Three 6 Mafia

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When hip-hop started 50 years ago, it's fair to say that for most record labels, it was pretty much just a curiosity. By the 1990s, though, it had become a big business. But for artists working outside the major label system, there wasn't much hope of nationwide success. Then came a group out of Memphis, Three 6 Mafia. One of the co-founders, DJ Paul, once said they spent $4,500 making their first album and turned it into 45 million. Cultural critic Kiana Fitzgerald has been taking a look at a few of hip-hop's game changing moments. Today, she examines Three 6 Mafia's album "Mystic Stylez."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET ROBBERY, PT. 2")

THREE 6 MAFIA: (Rapping) But now my n***** talking about robbing...

KIANA FITZGERALD, BYLINE: This particular album is a prime example of horrorcore, which is a subgenre of hip-hop. The members of Three 6 Mafia had an outright obsession with slasher films like "Friday The 13th," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Halloween." There are certain songs that you can hear, like, a haunting laugh in the background, like on "Sweet Robbery." They just have this laugh on repeat. It just gets in your ear, and it makes you feel like something bad is about to happen. But it's so exciting at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET ROBBERY, PT. 2")

THREE 6 MAFIA: (Rapping) A sweet robbery, robbery. I cruise in my Chevy, shaking these late nights. And soon, the killer within me will come out again to take another life.

FITZGERALD: This album is, in some ways, the beginning of the darker side of hip-hop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET ROBBERY, PT. 2")

THREE 6 MAFIA: (Rapping) Them cops can't roll to Triple Six, so no lord could save them. I tried to leave Satan after that, but now I ask him another favor.

FITZGERALD: The most enduring song of "Mystic Stylez" is "Tear Da Club Up," which was kind of like a preview of crunk music that would really start coming out of the South in the late '90s and 2000. These really sinister synths and this repetitive chant - tear the club up, tear the club up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEAR DA CLUB UP")

THREE 6 MAFIA: (Chanting) Tear the club up. Tear the club up. Tear the club up.

FITZGERALD: And it's one of the most interpolated, reworked songs in hip-hop history. It's something that has really been embraced as a core element of what hip-hop is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEAR DA CLUB UP")

THREE 6 MAFIA: (Rapping) Backed up by the .45 and the .38. You want to take this clique to war? Fool, it'll be a mistake.

FITZGERALD: Three 6 Mafia worked outside of any kind of traditional machine when it comes to the music industry at large. So just because, you know, they're from a southern town and they're not, like, a part of the bicoastal rivalry, Memphis really became a place of inspiration. Three 6 Mafia laid the groundwork for the late 2000s to the mid-2010s of underground hip-hop. And that was one of the more exciting times in contemporary hip-hop, you know, SpaceGhostPurrp, ASAP Mob, Raider Klan.

I know that kind of sounds like I'm just making words up, but (laughter) these are all real acts. And it also inspired the SoundCloud rap movement. It was this kind of DIY attitude that you can trace back to Three 6 Mafia that made that era so potent in saying - you know what? - they did it with what they had in their pocket and in their mind and in their heart. And they were just successful because they wanted to create something that really spoke to their region and their lifestyle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEAR DA CLUB UP")

THREE 6 MAFIA: (Chanting) Tear the club up. Tear the club up. Tear the club up. Tear the club up.

MARTIN: That was Kiana Fitzgerald. Her new book is called "Ode To Hip-Hop: 50 Albums That Define 50 Years Of Trailblazing Music." She will break down another album for us next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEAR DA CLUB UP")

THREE 6 MAFIA: (Rapping) Since he inside, days gone - get hypnotized. Let's start a riot in the club. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kiana Fitzgerald is a freelance music journalist, cultural critic, and DJ. She writes for the world from deep in the heart of Texas.
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