DJ Paul is all business. His reputation (and livelihood) was built on the worldwide success of Three 6 Mafia, but today that facet of his output is just another investment, joining his myriad hustles: real estate (“for retirement”), merchandise (“for the fans”), and barbecue seasonings (“for [his] belly”). Memphis will always be home, but today he lives in Los Angeles for the opportunities. Maintaining the cultural and financial permanence that eluded many of his contemporaries, Paul rarely lifts a finger without considering longevity.
He was the nucleus of the Mafia, assembling its co-founders through family ties (his half-brother Lord Infamous, now deceased, who lives on through your favorite rapper’s triplet flows) and strategic alliance (Juicy J, whose inclusion brought along all of North Memphis to match Paul’s South Memphis street cred). Today, his future planning has paid off. He has fans, and lots of them, that will continue to hold him down for as long as he releases his brand of smoked out horror raps.
In addition to stop-and-start Triple 6 reunions,Paul has been working steadily on establishing a solo discography. He dropped Master of Evil last year and will follow it with two more projects due out within the next 30 days: Year of the Six parts one and two.
I caught up with Paul via a phone interview last December. Self-assured about his route to the top (with plaques and paper to prove it), he was unafraid to point out what he considers the missteps of modern rap. I got more time with him than I had any right to expect, and a bunch of BBQ secrets to boot. We talked about beef, serial killers, and real friends. —Corrigan Blanchfield
How’d you get into producing?
DJ Paul:Just like any job, man, it starts off as something you’re a fan of. If you’re flipping burgers at a burger joint you might not care about cooking at all—maybe all the way up to owning a restaurant it might just be something to do to pay your bills. But if you’re a sports fan, entertainer, something like that, you’ve gotta start out as a fan. I had uncles that had a gospel group called the Bogard Brothers that was really popular back in the day. They would teach me about publishing, and I’d hear ‘em play music after church on Sundays. I just grew up in a musical household, that was a big part of it. My dad was a real strong part of pushing my career towards music—he always said that he wanted me to be the next Michael Jackson. That didn’t work out, but I can say he did a good job in making me be one of the biggest rappers of all time. He pretty much hit it on the head—rest in peace, Pops.
Other than that, I just wanted to do it so I started by mostly DJing mixtapes as a way to get my music out. I’d put my music in mixes surrounded by hit songs. At that time, I’m young—in the 9th grade or whatever—so I couldn’t be pushing mixtapes of just my songs. But if I could get the dirty versions of the NWA stuff that was on the radio, Geto Boys and all that shit. After every five or six of those, I’d squeeze one of my songs in the middle. That was part one, and then part two I could finally get to mixtapes that were just songs that I would produce, either for me or my brother—rest in peace Lord Infamous—or for artists that I’d met over the years.
It went from there to the big leagues, man, to us making our own albums. But that’s how it started, just me making mixtapes and selling them at schools during lunch. From there I could do consignment in record stores, eventually get to starting our own label and selling a shit load at $7 or $8 a CD. This is back in the day when CDs sold for $16.99. I’m glad I came up in those days man, don’t even think about a rap career these days. A music career, period. But back then, we could push anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 copies independent. After a couple of those, we ended up signing a deal with Sony Music. That’s when it all blew up, that’s when we hit millions in sales.
Did you always have that in mind as a goal?
DJ Paul:It blew up past what we could’ve imagined. I had bets with friends that we wouldn’t go Gold on our first album (Chapter2: World Domination)—the single was this old Triple 6 hit called “Tear da Club Up” and this other track called “Late Nite Tip.” That went gold in a second, the album after that (Da Unbreakables) went platinum, then the album after that (Most Known Unknown) sold five million. And it’s still selling; that was the album with “Stay Fly,” “Poppin’ My Collar,” “Side 2 Side.” The following year, we won the Oscar, and the rest in history. It was a fun run, and it’s still fun—I did four tours last year, it’s a blessing.
What is it about Memphis that gave the city’s scene such a dark sound? It seems like y’all had the same hits as anywhere else in the South until the early 90’s.
DJ Paul:It’s because of us. We started making dark music—that was a sound that I created, and then everybody else started doing it. It was a dark city, man—back when I was a kid between watching horror movies with my sister and hearing stories that my mama would talk about with my auntie and all of them. Sitting in the beauty salon, playing with my toys and listening to my mama talk about all the people that got killed in my neighborhood, how this lady downstairs was washing dishes one day and someone shot her through the window, right through her face. Crazy stuff like that—I think about it today. There wasn’t any other music to make, growing up in dark surroundings.
So it was equal parts what you saw on TV and in real life.
DJ Paul:Yeah, because I was a different kid when I was young. As I got older, I got a little more out there—come high school I would get involved with gangs and stuff like that. But the younger me didn’t do nothing but stay in the house. I would stay in the house and work on music, locked in a real small room. My other friends had fake IDs and were going to clubs, messin’ with girls and all that shit. I’d leave for a couple hours during the day and play basketball with all my homies down the street, and then I’d go right back in the house and work on music all night.
I would be making beats and reading serial killer books. This was back when TIME Magazine would let you order those special collections off TV. They’d have shit like ten books about World War II or something—I wasn’t interested in that, but they brought out one about serial killers and that interested me. We got that collection, and I got involved loving serial killers. With those ingredients there wasn’t any other way the music could end up. My first group with Lord Infamous was called the Serial Killers, people still beg me for that EP.
How much emphasis was placed on authenticity? Could people separate their real lives from a rap persona?
DJ Paul:We never thought, “oh we have to rap about this or that, we gotta live up to this rap.” There are different ways to do music—you can please the fans, like a lot of artists, make some money to live off if you’re smart with it. That won’t let you survive as a legendary artist and a household name. You’ve gotta do the music for yourself and what you feel, what’s really in your heart and mind. You can lead the fans in that direction, and that’s what they really want to be. They want to be in your head, seeing what you do. If you take an artist like myself, or an Andre 3000, a D’Angelo, you can tell that the artist is making music that’s really from their heart. You’ll put a song on the album and not even give a shit if people like it or not. You’re looking for that one person out there that really feels it, that thinks it’s the best joint on the album.
They might be smoked out on some weed or some shit, but that’s what it takes to get them to really listen to the music, even to the little ambient sounds in the background. Artists like that don’t need to ride the bandwagon. As long as you stay in your own lane, you’ll have loyal fans that’ll follow you no matter what you got going on in life. Some people want a million followers, hot songs on the radio, chicks that wanna bang you when you walk in the room. Or you can be that dude with the steady following that’s gonna pick up any CD that you put out for 20 years, go to your concerts, and do whatever the hell you tell them whether it’s illegal or not. That’s what I’d rather have, those hardcore fans that’ll follow me off a bridge if I tell ‘em.
How did Memphis rappers get so organized into cliques? It seems much more group-focused than some other scenes from that era.
DJ Paul:A lot of people saw it as an opportunity to stay with a group of guys that would help them progress. These days, rappers don’t believe in doing anything on their own. They always wanna depend on somebody else to pull them up out of the hole, put the hot rapper on their single. It just makes it easier if you can hook up with a clique that’s already hot. Some people like the easy route. I don’t really care for it, it always ends up being a bunch of people that just turn on each other anyway.
I’m not the type of guy that grew up needing to have friends—still today, there are grown men that have to have friends. There’s no such thing as a friend. Associate is cool, somebody you might go to the bar with, get a drink here and there, whatever. As far as a friend, someone to come over to my house and watch TV? I don’t need all that. You even need to watch some family—a lot of family you gotta watch out for even more than friends. Immediate family is all I need. People weren’t made to be trusted.
On that note, I was wondering where all of the Memphis beefs tended to come from—were people usually trying to come up by dissing more established rappers or could it be more personal?
DJ Paul:Beef comes from two different things in rap: there’s always somebody trying to be famous by talking about somebody that’s bigger than them, which is usually the case. A lot of people get big off that—Yo Gotti, for instance. He came up by beefing with Three 6 Mafia and it worked out for him. Sometimes it can escalate to a physical altercation, and then if they don’t win that then the beef backfires. The other thing is people who beef because they feel that their style got stolen by somebody else, and that’s what we had with Bone Thugs. We’ve squashed that now and become good friends, but back when we were young and in high school we thought they’d stolen our style because they rapped over slow beats and said “666” from time to time.
Come to find out there was a lot of that in the Midwest and it was just a coincidence. It’s just like anything else, you get some money and success and it’s gonna change. We started having beefs with all kinds of people—old members of the group, all kind of shit. That’s just part of the game, people chasing money. I don’t even wanna mention them man, there’s so many but they ain’t nobody. Guys sitting at their house, trying to figure out how they’re going to feed their kids. They realize they made a mistake, or they’re in jail, or dead. Life’s too short for enemies. Some people want enemies, I see rappers beefing all the time because they think it’s so cool. I already did that when I was young, ain’t nothing that I want to go through for my whole life. That’s stupid.
Coming up, did everybody in Memphis know everybody else? There was so much coming out in that 1994-95 era that it seems like the whole city must’ve been involved.
DJ Paul:We were keeping an eye on everybody else because it’s a small city. There were a lot of tapes coming out back then but only about 20 rappers in the whole city. Nowadays if you walk into a room you might find 20 rappers. It’s so easy right now, press one button and it’ll play a whole piano line and chords. I’m sure there were more, but the ones that everybody really knew about couldn’t have been more than 20. Those were the ones with us, whether they started with us or eventually joined up. We weren’t really out there trying to add people, that’s the last thing that you want to do. We just wanted to make music and happened to find some people bringing different things to the table along the way.
That’s why our first album was Mystic Stylez—it was about everybody being different. Nowadays you get groups of rappers that all sound the same, and that prevents their solo albums from ever popping—what are they gonna do different, what are they gonna talk about? In Three 6 Mafia, everybody sounded different. That’s how we could all do successful solo albums, some of us still today. Gangsta Boo is still doing features, Juicy J is still doing amazing things as a solo artist. We didn’t ever want to split the money up more than we had to—anyone coming in had to be helping us create the strongest clique possible.