20 Years Later: Three 6 Mafia’s ‘Mystic Stylez’ Stands as One of the South’s Best Albums
The ‘90s babies who were not born in the South most likely got put on to Three 6 Mafia by 2005’s “Stay Fly,” the song that propelled them to mainstream and reality television status. That’s not a bad intro; it’s a triumphant, brass-filled ode to the flourish. The tinges of Memphis soul adds life to the excess for a deserved move into the spotlight. “Stay Fly” is a good intro, but a misleading one.
It also isn’t Three 6 Mafia’s most influential work. That honor belongs to Mystic Stylez, which dropped 20 years ago on May 25, 1995.
The immediate descriptor that comes to mind when describing Mystic Stylez is the word “dark.” It’s a cliche adjective, but it’s a true one. The lo-fi, homemade feel gave the phantasmagoric production an extra sense of paranoia.There’s also at least one crime being described in every song and a majority are felonies. Mystic Stylez was also molded by darkness. Before officially forming Three 6 Mafia, co-founders DJ Paul and Lord Infamous (known as Da Serial Killaz in the early ‘90s) used to study the motives of serial killers for some inspiration. Paul had full-sized portraits of them. Three 6 Mafia’s violent descriptions weren’t just purely based on imagination either.
“I remember we used to get into a couple shootouts and then go write in the studio [laughs],” Koopsta Knicca said in a retrospective interview with Nah Right. “You actually rapped about what you did because at that time rappers couldn’t just come out and say you was ‘hard’ or [a] ‘killa’ because people would actually try you back then. You had to be about something.”
Listen to Three 6 Mafia's "Live By Yo Rep (B.O.N.E. Dis)" Feat. Kingpin Skinny Pimp & Playa Fly
The lethal setting that influenced Mystic Stylez isn’t the lone piece of context to focus on. As a Memphis-born project, Three 6 Mafia’s debut album is inherently part of the city’s soul lineage, which birthed the likes of Al Green, Otis Redding and Booker T. & the M.G.’s. There’s no “Let’s Stay Together," willing to “Slip yo ass in a coffin” and catch a charge, Gangsta Boo isn’t really that interested in romance.
Even with that in mind, Three 6 Mafia isn’t drastically far from that lineage. If you listen closely enough, there’s a faint, soulful thread that runs through the the 73-minute project that links it together. The influence is overt in some songs, too. “Da Summer,” an early standout that’s inflected with a woozy sense of nostalgia, complete with a woman singing on the hook. Elsewhere, it’s intriguing to see how such an influence can be used to trek into the very real darkness of the human mind. So, Mystic Stylez is also an album of potential.
The hip-hop that was coming out of Atlanta was far more accessible than what Three 6 Mafia was creating at the time. The Dungeon Family crew (OutKast, Goodie Mob and the Organized Noize production team) brought promises of spiritual growth and awareness in addition to indelible but experimental production. In Louisiana, Master P’s No Limit Records and Birdman’s Cash Money Records made their steady rise to mainstream and became archetypes of southern hip-hop’s hustle. Mystic Stylez came from a city relatively unrecognized for its busy hip-hop scene, and the masked men and crucifix didn’t look all that welcoming either.
As a result, Mystic Stylez became one of the more overlooked influences in hip-hop. Its sound was one of the few from the South A$AP Rocky borrowed from on his route to become one of New York’s marquee talents. There are numerous connections, but two of the clearer ones are Live. Love. ASAP’s "Get Lit” and "Keep It G.” The former isn’t particularly nefarious (then again, Rocky’s discography isn’t really known for that), but it does carry that horror movie dissonance within its production. “Keep It G” (which features SpaceGhostPurrp, who cites Three 6 Mafia as one of his main influences) centers its hazy jazz around a repetitious, ghastly hook. It’s disarmingly entrancing like a good portion of Mystic Stylez.
Listen to Three 6 Mafia's "All or Nothin'"
Mystic Stylez is also cited as one of the forerunners of trap and crunk. T.I. popularized the former with 2003’s Trap Muzik, while Lil Jon did the same for crunk by, well, being Lil Jon. But it was Three 6 Mafia who unveiled the potential of knocks, hi-hats and off-key chords. Justin Timberlake, who collaborated with the group on "Chop Me Up,” can attest to this.
“Trap is so funny to me,” Timberlake said in a Hot 97 interview. “It is literally Three 6 Mafia from 1991. Everything does comeback in a different form.”
Of course, the aesthetic doesn’t stick if the artists behind the mic don’t have the skills to compel. Three 6 Mafia also came with that. Gangsta Boo had that charisma that attracted the listener through the murkiness. Juicy J’s presence was more influential on the boards; it’d take a while for his on-mic star power to fully develop.
The late Lord Infamous was perhaps the most impressive. There weren’t many rappers who spit with that kind of verbal dexterity and speed. Lord Infamous was also instrumental in deciding the group’s direction.
“He brought a lot of mysterious mystique to the Three 6 Mafia brand -- not even just the group -- the brand,” Gangsta Boo said in a Nah Right interview. “We were always known as a dark group and the reason it was called Mystic Stylez was because each one of us is mystic. Each one of us had our own different styles and it came together so well.”
Things have changed. Three 6 Mafia blew up from underground clique to Oscar winners. And some things have not. Gangsta Boo is still charismatic and not all that interested in romance. But what's changed things for the better is the presence of the internet. It allows things like obscurity and distance to be lessened into minor inconveniences. Most things are available with a click, and as a result, listeners no longer have to scavenge to find influential threads that started from albums like Mystic Stylez. They just need the willingness to step into the dark.
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