Growing up on the north side of Memphis, Juicy J and his family, “six people in a two-bedroom apartment,” he explains, would routinely stop eating dinner or watching television to drop to the carpet at the sounds of gunshots.
“Ducking on the floor every night, you know?” he remembers. “I had a lot of crazy close calls back then. I wasn’t afraid; that was just my environment. I didn’t know nothing else.”
In It Came From Memphis, music journalist Robert Gordon writes that the city is “the sort of environment where great art develops in obscurity. The ideas are strong, because, like weeds growing in a concrete sidewalk, they must force themselves through.”
It’s not a bad place to start when thinking about Juicy J. As an exercise, you might try keeping the image in mind the next time you listen to his music. Not the reality-TV bluster or syrup-blurred hedonism. Weeds growing in a concrete sidewalk.
Having courted chart success, controversy and Hollywood as a co-founder of Memphis’ evil rap empire Three 6 Mafia, Juicy (born Jordan Houston) is today in the middle of a career resurgence almost unheard of for a rapper nearing 40.
“I’m pretty much working with everybody in the game right now,” he says proudly, and it’s only a slight exaggeration. Ask him where it comes from, this persistence and resilience, and he will tell you about Memphis.
It took long enough, but the city is finally getting its due as a sort of Southern rap skeleton key, the fertile crescent of buck, crunk, the “Triggerman” and the gangsta walk. While New Orleans and Atlanta were building and profiting on such Tennessee exports all through the ’90s and early aughts, Memphis struggled to keep pace. “It’s a smaller city,” Juicy says, addressing the oversight. “It’s hard to be heard. You gotta keep making noise, making noise, making noise.”
The son of an itinerant preacher, Juicy started DJing at 16, ditching his birth name after an epiphany prompted by a stick of Juicy Fruit chewing gum. He idolized local soul legend Isaac Hayes, but emulated guys closer to his own frame of reference, like DJ Spanish Fly, who helped solidify Juicy’s ambitions with his late-’80s anthem, “Smokin’ Onion.”
In the early ’90s, Juicy linked up with his South Memphis counterpart DJ Paul and gathered a rotating roster of friends and relatives (including Juicy’s older brother, Project Pat) to convene what was first known as the Triple Six Mafia, a collective that ostensibly embraced Satanism. Roleplaying the brutal extremes of their favorite horror films, as well as the early gangsta rap of Geto Boys and N.W.A., the group’s members gave their music a distinctly Memphian twist, harnessing the city’s dreary vibes in nihilistic celebrations of degeneracy and hopelessness. As Pat would later put it, “If you’re in it, represent it.”
The tape hiss, morbid fantasies and cold 808s of the group’s early work have since become fetishized by collectors and nostalgists, and it’s not hard to see why; there is a melancholy and a desperation there that is virtually unique in hip hop. The goal, to borrow one of Juicy’s phrases from Prophet Posse’s 1998 single “Favorite Scary Movie,” seems to have been to “tape record the face of death.”
Juicy rarely thinks about this aspect of his music today, having spent the last decade assuring the press that he doesn’t actually worship the devil. “Memphis is such a dark city,” he says, “the music just came out dark.”
Three 6 Mafia went pro with a string of high-energy call-and-response chants like “Tear Da Club Up” and “Who Run It,” fight songs that launched them beyond the chitlin’ circuit for good. “People would go wild, with mosh pits and everything,” he says of their shows from this period. “Except this was the hood. Hood mosh pits are something else.”
After winning an Oscar for a contribution to the Hustle & Flow soundtrack, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” the group began leaning broad, starring in reality shows and alienating its original base with radio-pandering pop-rap production. It’s not a move Juicy regrets, though he does view his recent solo output as a kind of corrective measure.
“When people get out of the circle, that’s when they get off track,” he says, “I try to keep my ear to the streets, to stay around younger, up-and-coming people. I adapt.”
In his case, of course, adapting to the times means moving closer to where he started, as many of the younger producers he’s worked with, like Lex Luger and Mike Will Made It, grew up listening to Three 6. Still, the goal here isn’t necessarily progress—it’s relevance.
“I grew up with nothing, man, absolutely nothing,” Juicy says. “So, no matter how much money I made, it didn’t matter. I’ve never felt comfortable. I gotta keep working. Because it’s not like things are going backwards—they’re getting better. So, why would I stop?”
WHO: Juicy J Stay Trippy Tour w/ A$AP Ferg
WHERE: Georgia Theatre
WHEN: Wednesday, May 1, 9 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $25
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