Every Saturday morning in the spring of ‘05 I would stumble out of bed, hop in the car and head to the SAT class my parents forced me to take. The only thing that got my brain functioning that early was a 7-Eleven Slurpee and “Roll With It.” Likewise, after a grueling two hour lacrosse practice, where I listened to “Who Run It” to get me motivated, I would often rush to the nearest numbered convenience store for an ice cold, sugary drink. I mean, every Friday a Slurpee and some Three 6 Mafia became mandatory. Windows down, sun shining, the thought of weekend debauchery ahead of me, I’ve never felt more free.
DJ Paul, Juicy J, Lord Infamous and Crunchy Black were the devils on my shoulder. They would whisper words of encouragement when I would hesitate to smoke a blunt next to the pool at Patrick’s apartment complex and they were the soundtrack when we would head to 7-Eleven for cottonmouth-curing Slurpees soon after. Their beats would cut the tension while we watched Alex head into the liquor store with his fake ID for a case of Natty Light, but often coming out empty handed.
Though I always think of Kanye as the first and most important rapper of my formative years, in some ways he took a backseat to the iconic Memphis collective. However, it wasn't until recently when I heard about a possible Three 6 reunion and I went back to listen that all these memories came flooding back. When I pressed play on old Three 6 records I could practically feel the brain freeze again, smell the Natty Light.
Odd but true, my closest memories of Three 6 Mafia are tied to 7-Eleven Slurpees. Considering the legacy and wider perception of Three 6, I can’t think of a more fitting association.
Three 6 is a sucrose-filled treat. Their music tastes great, has a ton of flavor and color, but not much nutritional value. That's the appeal for a lot of people, and before Young Thug or Lil Yachty, Three 6 were one of the first ironically-beloved artists for white suburban kids. We loved them because they were raunchy, outrageous and did it so well. Shit, even the kids who wouldn’t know Juicy J from Juicy Fruit could rap to “Slob On My Knob.” I was no better. Three 6 initially drew me in because I stumbled upon their music at the same time I was also discovering drugs and alcohol.
As their wider popularity exploded to the point they landed an MTV show (I wonder what happened to Sugar Foot), it started to bother me that people might be become fans for the wrong reasons. But was I also a fan for the wrong reasons? While their outrageousness was certainly part of why I loved them, enough repeat listens over months and months started to deepen my appreciation. Though their early material sounded like it was recorded with one of those echoing toy microphones I would devour it, the music slowly becoming more than suburban shock value. I wasn't conscious of it at the time, but looking back with the knowledge I have now I can see what pulled me closer.
Great sampling is about taking something old and turning it into something new, something new and uniquely “yours,” and by this definition Juicy J and DJ Paul are two of the best to ever do it. In an era when samples were sped up and churned out rapidly (see Kanye or any Dipset song), the level of depth and attention to detail Juicy J and Paul took was unparalleled. They were meticulous, taking the smallest breaks or the most unconventional section of a oft-sampled work and building it into a whole new creation.
You may miss the artistry in a song called "Neighborhood Hoe," but listen to the way they distort that Jodeci sample. It's flawless. The same goes for "Lick My Nuts" where some X-rated bars are draped over a phenomenal Curtis Mayfield flip. Or how about the classic "Sippin On Some Syrup," which is built around a Marvin Gaye song? Bet you didn’t know that.
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Their favorite sampling source was clearly classic soul music, but don't box in Juicy and Paul -- "Put Ya Signs" is a flip of the MacGyver theme song. Sometimes the pair would take one source and flip it into two different songs with two completely different vibes. A sample source doesn’t get more traditional than Willie Hutch, but what they've done with his work is far from Sampling 101. You wouldn’t know it while listening, as the two efforts have remarkably different atmospheres, but “Testin My Gangsta” and “Poppin My Collar” are both built around the same Willie Hutch song.
"Testin My Gangsta," is built around an aggrandized flip on a early break and has much more flavor whereas "Poppin My Collar" is built of a break midway through the song and drips with a more creamy, glossy vibe. These were sample technicians capable of taking in the whole song and extracting anything they could possibly flip.
Sometimes, they even did it on the same song. So often sample-driven songs are based off one sampled element, maybe a vocal flip or a horn section, but Juicy J and DJ Paul took three different elements from the same source and created one song from all three breaks. Take another flip of WIllie Hutch, on arguably their best work (and arguably the best song ever in hip-hop) "International Players Anthem." They speed up the vocals, kick up the horns, grab the drums and mix them all together, rearranging and resizing them to fit a new vision. It’s one of the best flips in hip-hop history and going by that logic, so is "Still Fly" -- yet another example of a Three 6 song that features a Willie Hutch song flipped more than a red cup at a frat party.
Obviously that vocal sample engines the effort, but I marvel at they way they also took those drums and that string riff, biting off small fragments and then building them back up so they could fit their newly reshaped riff. And though it's not a sample, can we talk about their choice to helicopter chop the vocals on the hook? It's such a small detail but it's everything that makes that chorus so recognizable and catchy. For these two no stone has ever been left unturned, no wrinkle is too small, and that's what makes them two of the best, most unique samplers of all-time.
My initial analogy doesn't quite fit anymore, there's zero nutritional value to a Slurpee while it should now be obvious how much substance there is to Three 6's production, but it has led me to a more grandiose overarching point. Sometimes greatness really does come in unexpected packages.