20/20 Vision: Three 6 Mafia — When the Smoke Clears

The first in a new series, Sach O revisits the Memphis rap legends' 2000 LP.
By    January 17, 2020

As we welcome a New Year and a new decade, Son Raw will be taking a look at 12 albums that defined the year 2000 in music, to the tune of one a month. To start, we’ll take a deep into Three 6 Mafia’s When the Smoke Clears, a timeless Southern rap classic with a far reaching influence over the next 20 years of music and pop culture.

Like the proverbial Ship (Whip?) of Theseus, rap has lost and found so many parts, that it’s tough to recognize it as the same genre as 20 years ago, let alone 40. Occasionally, an artist like DMX or Jeezy rides it into the chop shop for scrap, other times a Puffy or Drake reupholsters the interior, but ultimately it remains the same ride, despite all appearances. Yet throughout the past 2 decades, one element that remained at its core, never falling off or being discarded, is the influence of Three 6 Mafia.

This would definitely surprise rap listeners in the year 2000. The crew formerly known as Triple 6 had certainly made their mark at the turn of the millennium, both in rap’s southern underground and via strategic growth into the mainstream via videos designed for maximum exposure on BET, but their impact hadn’t yet snowballed into legend. They were one of many rap groups from below the Mason Dixon line that a major label had signed to take advantage of Hip Hop’s rising profile beyond the East and West coasts, but they didn’t move as many CDs as No Limit, hadn’t signed an incredible record deal like Cash Money, didn’t aspire to the arty heights of Outkast, and didn’t receive East Coast tastemaker love like UGK or Scarface. If anything, rap fans in the know might have viewed their signing to Loud Records as too little, too late: an attempt by an East Coast label to sign a double-time horrorcore group in an era where southern rap was all about flashing riches and keeping things simple.

And yet Three 6 Mafia’s When The Smoke Clears: Sixty 6 Sixty 1, released in June of 2000, was ground zero for the group’s unlikely journey into rap’s mainstream, the beginning of a second act that saw the group balance it’s dark side with more accessible moments. Take the lead single, Sippin on some Syrup featuring UGK, a song that somehow encapsulates  the group’s two opposing musical poles. First, there’s sweet, orchestrated soul, in this case provided by a Marvin Gaye sample, that reaches back to the city’s Stax and Hi Records heyday and further back to the Black Church. Conversely, there’s the southern gothic menace, at the time dismissed as horror movie posturing, that serves as a response to the real life horror of drug-fueled violence and racist police repression in the Southern United States.

Where future hits like “Stay Fly” would lean strongly on the former, and early hits like “Tear the Club Up” went all in on the latter, “Sippin on Some Syrup” is in perfect suspension between the two extremes, opening with a menacing, sickly synth introduction and shit talking courtesy of group masterminds DJ Paul and Juicy J before transitioning to the aforementioned Marvin sample, an 80s deep cut that somehow sounded like the most futuristic of Timbaland bangers. The hook, courtesy of local legend and Three 6 affiliate Project Pat, is a wonder of modern subversion, sneaking the most blatant of drug references past clueless censors, and introducing a Texas trend to national prominence with help from that state’s fiercest advocates.

Within a few years, a short-lived major label Houston rap boom would signal boost syrup to worldwide prominence courtesy of Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, Slim Thug and Mike Jones, but while their drug of choice was proudly local, their music sounded owed as much to Three 6 as anything on a DJ Screw tape.

Had Three 6’s run ended there, it would have been enough to ensure their place in rap’s history books, but you’ll find elements of When the Smoke everywhere in rap’s subsequent two decades. Street single “Who Run It” predates Jay-Z’s turn towards soul by a solid year, and set the template for South-East crossover bids by T.I and Young Jeezy. Echoes of Tongue Ring’s seductive blend of druggy unease and dark sexuality can be found everywhere from Future and Drake’s hyper successful misery, to The Weeknd’s bacchanalian ID, to the latest wave of sex positive female emcees.

Meanwhile, a solid dozen album tracks here updated early Three 6’s ultraviolence for the hi-def era, proving the format to be surprisingly adaptable, just as early 10s phenom Lex Luger would when going back to the formula for Juicy J’s solo comeback. There’s even a (mostly unfortunate) team up with ICP – predicting Witch House’s awkward failure to appropriate the Memphis Underground’s edgy menace and a run of Supreme shirts celebrating underground Memphis rap. There’s nothing here that might lead to anyone expecting the group to win an Oscar, but there’s damn near everything else.

Perhaps it’s the group’s ability to balance and adapt its core elements to the moment that ensured the Three 6 Mafia’s sound would be ground zero for almost every subsequent shift in mainstream Black music, despite the group starting off as a niche hyper-local concern. While Lil Jon’ would clean up their crunk sound and almost thoroughly turn it into a jock rap fad, the group’s influence lay largest on ex-drug dealers like T.I, Gucci Mane, Future, et all – artists who tapped into the horror and excess of their lifestyles and found common groun with the group’s slasher flick aesthetics.

Further afield, the echoes grow more faint in terms of subject matter, but remain upfront musically: descendants of Juicy J and DJ Paul’s drum patterns alone can be heard everywhere from K-Pop, to EDM, to post-Reggaeton, to Bro-country to Pop R&B. Not bad for a group that many saw as upstarts challenging Bone Thugs and Harmony in the late 90s.

And yet, despite the Three 6 sound being thoroughly within today’s musical comfort zone, When the Smoke Clears still sounds as fresh and distressing now as when it first dropped. The group’s ever-changing roster of emcees was at its peak here, bursting in and out of earshot like South Coast Wu affiliates with a frightening intensity you just won’t find in many contemporary rappers, many of whom took to syrup sipping with a tad too much zeal. And despite the Major Label budget elevating the production quality past local tape status, the album bumps and knocks without sounding polished or bougie.

Ultimately, When The Smoke Clears became many things for many different audiences: yet another rap CD to bump in the whip for some, and a gateway to a much weirder array of music below the surface for others. 

So how are we supposed to feel that this album, among so many others, has stood the test of time and lays claim to an enormous impact on popular music, 20 years on? On one hand, it’s more than a little distressing that When The Smoke Clears’ musical influences remain so omnipresent: I can imagine more than a few Y2K backpackers slack jawed and in disbelief if you went back in a time machine and told them just how clout heavy this, of all of Loud’s releases, would turn out to be.

Surely rap can switch up those drum patterns, at least? But on the other hand, When The Smoke Clears remains such an essential touch point because it engages with everything that keeps rap relevant to this day: a mix of soulful celebration and the deeply disturbing violence lurking just beneath. That potent blend, and more than few 808s, keeps on mutating to this day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re still exploring its evolutions 10 years from now.

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