Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Game

By Chris Herrington

MARCH 15, 1999:  The biggest pop explosion to erupt from Memphis since Al Green in the early ’70s — the post-NWA “gangsta rap” of Three 6 Mafia and their various offshoots and cohorts — has followed rapper Master P’s megaplatinum New Orleans label No Limit out of the South’s inner cities and into the pop mainstream. And like the music of No Limit, the Three 6 Mafia collective — known by its corporate name, Hypnotize Minds — has blown up with music that glamorizes, commercializes, and perhaps worsens a preexisting inner-city culture of drugs and violence.

It’s tempting to dismiss the music of Hypnotize Minds on purely aesthetic grounds. Like the seemingly endless horde of No Limit soldiers, the crew from Hypnotize Minds hector and chant as much as they rap or flow. Unless, presumably, you’re part of the target audience, their music is a joyless and soul-deadening grind, unimpressive in its tough talk and repulsive in its careless brutality. But sales demand attention, and it’s worth exploring exactly what this music does and speculating as to why it’s so popular.

The nihilism that the music of the Three 6 Mafia collective embraces is an understandable defensive reaction against racism and a class war that takes its largest toll on African Americans. It’s no coincidence that “gangsta rap” arose during a post-civil rights, Reagan-Bush era of increasing economic stratification along racial lines, social breakdown, and racial scapegoating. And the music’s defiance is a perfectly reasonable response to an establishment culture that sees hip-hop style as a code for criminal behavior and that equates censoring the music to fighting crime.

Or that’s a theory, anyway. One that holds true in many cases, but not here. More than anything, what holds back the music of Hypnotize Minds is a fundamental dishonesty. The rampant sensationalism of the Three 6 Mafia family, as can be heard on all of their recent releases — Gangsta Boo’s Enquiring Minds, Indo G’s Angel Dust, the Kaze’s Kamakazie Timez Up, and most recently, the Tear Da Club Up Thugs’ CrazyNDaLazDayz — seems calculated for the sheer accumulation of profit, not the expression of a culture. In a hip-hop landscape finally recovering from two violent deaths, the music of Hypnotize Minds owes more to the insufferable narcissism of Tupac than the warm, regretful reportage of the much-missed Notorious B.I.G.

But for the sake of full disclosure, I have to admit that this music probably wasn’t made with me in mind. As a white, middle-class, college-educated 25-year-old, I fall decidedly outside of Three 6 Mafia’s core demographic. It’s barely relevant that I fell in love with hip-hop when U.T.F.O. and Whodini captured my imagination in elementary school: Hip-hop culture is a part of me, but I’m not quite a part of the culture.

The more pertinent question is this: Why does the music of Three 6 Mafia and other so-called gansta rap give so much pleasure to the young black men who are its core audience?

In some ways this stuff is the African-American equivalent of heavy metal, depicting street life with the same kind of cartoonish exaggeration. Like metal, “gangsta rap” serves to imbue its core audience with feelings of power in a culture that denies it. It also caters to young male hormonal confusion through titillation and sensationalism. The Three 6 Mafia collective recklessly invokes the Klan, Satanism, and slasher movies along with the usual brew of Mafia imagery and gang/drug culture. And “gangsta rap” certainly rivals metal in terms of romantic morbidity, death obsession, and misogyny.

So why shouldn’t alienated young black males have the same outlets for their aggression as white ones? They should, but an important difference is that metal is mostly a fantasy world, whereas hip-hop’s violent street life, though overstated, can be all too real. It’s always worth noting that as genocidal as the statistics surrounding young black men in this country are, the vast majority do live past 30, don’t go to jail, and have more important things to do with their lives than sling ’caine and face down thugs. But it’s also true that far too many young black men fall prey to the “game,” and it doesn’t take Bob Dole to see that music like that of Hypnotize Minds can be an exacerbating influence.

Depictions of violence, both functionally necessary and gratuitous, is nothing new on rap records, but the music of Three 6 Mafia, like some extreme heavy metal, celebrates a social pathology that is clearly affected regardless of how dire the backgrounds of individual members may be. The kill count flaunted on Hypnotize Minds’ latest, CrazyNDaLazDayz, probably approaches triple digits, but these self-named Thugs aren’t content to merely kill their victims. On “Wet Party” they drill a hole in their victim’s jugular, down a 40, and piss in his skull. On “Big Business” (“I kill, kill, kill, murder, murder, murder,” they chant, echoing a song title from Enquiring Minds) they tie someone up and throw him in a bayou. On “Triple Six Clubhouse” they claim, “We gonna cut you into itty-bitty parts.”

Of course, these days, the racial dichotomy between rap and metal is not so concrete. The most popular modern metal bands (Korn, Limp Bizkit) are rap-bred. And most demographic breakdowns estimate rap’s consumer base as 70 percent white. For most of these pretty fly white guys (and girls), and surely many of their black counterparts, the music of hardcore rap acts like Three 6 Mafia functions as a kind of rebel art: The gangsta rapper as outlaw folk hero. But this is “rebel art” that merely customizes the sexual hierarchies and capitalistic values of the larger society for its own selfish purposes.

However much fans of Three 6 Mafia, and perhaps the artists themselves, see the music in opposition to establishment culture, it only serves to affirm the worst aspects of the power structure: capitalistic greed, power through violence, and misogyny. The act of rebellion that gangsta culture supposedly embodies is actually an acceptance of the dominant culture’s system of belief and a fulfillment of what mainstream America expects from the young black men who embrace the gangsta lie. The sad truth is that, all too often, minority cultures construct themselves through the lens of a dominant culture organized to hold them back, and the records of Hypnotize Minds are aural evidence.

But not all whites who buy Hypnotize Minds records identify with the disenfranchisement and anger it documents. One need only spend a bit of time in East Memphis record stores to see how many middle- and upper-middle-class white kids are buying this stuff. One could argue that this is a sign of cultural outreach, a sign of the desire to break free from the class-bound universe into which they were born. But one can’t help but wonder whether some of these kids really listen to Three-6 Mafia, Gangsta Boo, and the like as a means to (perhaps unconsciously) reinforce their own (inherited) racism. For these white, suburban youths, Three 6 Mafia may well be the modern equivalent of a minstrel show.

Of course this music has female fans too, and, Gangsta Boo, Three 6 Mafia’s most visible member, is indeed a woman. But the music of Hypnotize Minds still embodies hip-hop’s greatest weakness in its rejection of femininity, or “all dirty hos” as these guys prefer to say. The concept of masculinity espoused by this music is so rigid and myopic that Indo G feels the need to assure listeners that there “Ain’t No Bitch In My Blood.” In the Hypnotize Minds universe, women achieve whatever measure of respect they can by being as tough (read: violent) and desensitized as the guys, but that still doesn’t mean that they aren’t expected to “Suck A Little D**k.” And, as the Three 6 boys repeatedly make clear, they shouldn’t expect any reciprocation. Not since the Starr Report has sex been depicted as such a crude, pathetic transaction. Sample lyric from Tear Da Club Up Thugs’ “Slob on My Nob”: “First find a mate, second find a place, third find a bag to hide the ho’s face.”

Even worse is a completely remorseless sexual abuse vignette from the same album’s “A Nigga’s Worst Downfall”: “Every night after we fucked, I used to beat her with my fist,” raps one of the Thugs. “Dragged the ho down on the ground, like a nigga train a hound.” Then when the woman dares to press charges, the song’s narrator has her killed.

But the most troubling aspect of the dominance the Hypnotize Minds school of rap has in Memphis may be the assumption it’s bred, among fans and non-fans alike, that this is what the music is. In truth, the sweet beat-and-rhyme science hasn’t been as artistically healthy in a decade, and has never been as varied. As depressing as the commercial explosion of No Limit Soldiers and their Memphis and Houston sound-alikes may be, the new sound of young America is worth getting excited about: Pan-African ambitions (the Fugees) and down-home wisdom (Atlanta’s Outkast and Goodie Mob); East Coast, post-Biggie skillzmeisters (Nas, Jay-Z, Jeru tha Damaja) and anti-Tupac Bay Area turntablists (DJ Shadow, Invisible Skratch Piklz); Staten Island mad scientists (the Wu-Tang Clan) and Atlantic Coast hit-makers (Missy Elliott and Timbaland); old-timers (Public Enemy, De La Soul) and upstarts (Canibus, John Forte); bohos (Roots, Mos Def and Talib Kweli) and weirdos (Kool Keith, Prince Paul).

Hip-hop’s family tree has grown to be thrillingly vibrant and diverse, but the music of Hypnotize Minds and the like is, at best, junk food amid a smorgasbord of delights. And no amount of local or regional patriotism will make it anything more.

Chris Herrington is a freelance writer living in Memphis and a frequent contributor to the Flyer.

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