In case there's any confusion: Da Mafia 6ix (formerly Three 6 Mafia) are not conscious rap. Twenty-three years into the crew's storied career and it remains one of Three 6's only constants. Lineup shifts, name changes, reunions, even death haven't changed that, but just in case, on new release 6ix Commandments, co-founder DJ Paul reminds us, "This is that straight street, hood shit." Well, there you have it.
Hardly able to contain my enthusiasm, I've spent the last few weeks defending Da Mafia 6ix. Admittedly, most of the group's opponents fall into the "I don't like that rap stuff" crowd. However, even many self-professed hip-hop heads struggle to embrace Three 6. It's a shame, but not hard to see why. There are no critic-friendly jazz samples or heady poetic turns in Three 6's music. Rather, it's cold and hard and bleak; the word is macabre. So grim, in fact, that even the ever-chilly GZA sounds warm and inviting by comparison.
Your cup of tea or not, Three 6 are a cornerstone of modern hip-hop. Ten years before T.I.'s Trap Muzik, these Tennesseans were already several years deep in a style of rap that would later be known as trap -- a form that's now dominating popular hip-hop. John Carpenter-esque piano lines married to layers of haunting instrumentals and funereal lyricism, Three 6's albums express the mercilessness of street-life more sharply than most. It's surely one of the reasons they're often hard to stomach, not to mention, a factor in why many listeners have difficulty relating to their sound. It's uncomfortable to share in stories this real. It's simply much, much easier to dance (and laugh) to a mindless track of Drake or 2 Chainz mumbling about their genitalia than it is to stare into the abyss of suppressed Southern black America. So it goes.
Cut to Dada Saturday night, and everyone is out of their heads, drunk, stoned or simply lost to elation. The club's been frenetically buzzing for an hour, we've been waiting, waiting, waiting for Da Mafia 6ix to arrive. A sliver of hope comes when the crew's sound guy begins fiddling with wires on stage; at least it's some semblance of progress. A small fog machine starts spitting clouds; two mic stands frame the stage, each dressed with a neon Halloween skeleton.
Fifteen minutes pass and lights begin to strobe, masked figures rush the stage, cloaked and brooding. Faces revealed, and I can make out DJ Paul, Koopsta Knicca and Crunchy Black. Finally, music happens. "Break The Law" opens the set, and while the MCs are vocally in sync, they visibly struggle with the small confines of the Dada stage, appearing clumsy and disoriented. Less than five minutes in and there's a problem: The sound equipment has malfunctioned. If you've ever been to a rap show then you know this already, but silence is a sobering downer in this context. It's like watching a bottle rocket wildly spit sparks only to see it fizzle anticlimactically. Similarly, Da Mafia 6ix fail before leaving the earth.
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The concert resumes, and in a matter of moments I feel like a fool. Like I've been duped. Because masked in the sheets of lighting and fog, braggadocio and crazed energy, hides a hollow center containing absolutely nothing. At its heart, Da Mafia 6ix's performance was a showcase of every cliché and repugnant quality outsiders unfairly project onto rap: bottles of liquor were raised high, like totems for worship; women were both dismissed and praised as sexual currency; and drug abuse was highlighted as a means to glory, not self mutilation.
The most offensive part was how transparent the whole affair was, almost as if it was the crew's intent to play up their most prosaic traits. Case in point, Crunchy Black spent every moment -- literally every second on stage -- either collecting selfies or encouraging members of the audience to do so on his behalf. All but ignored were the sources of brilliance that launched Three 6 Mafia into the echelons of hip-hop fame, the imaginative samples and tension-build maneuvers we've come to expect were either absent, or so deeply buried in the mix as to justify forgetting them. It's in this moment that I'm kicking myself for every word I threw out in defense of these guys. The result was not so much anger as depression; it was a sad scene, not a reprehensible one.
Still, in all the waves of indifference, there was an instance that stopped me cold. Maybe he was looking just over my shoulder, but for what seemed like much, much too long, DJ Paul shot me a stare. It was unsettling, a glassy gaze eerie in virtue of its total lack of consciousness. Out from his reflective fangs and painted skin, the message that escaped was a disheartening one: "Nobody's home."
Fault me for a weak stomach, but I just had to get out of there. I had glimpsed behind the curtain and there was no wizard, no magic, just cheap gimmicks, weathered figures and dwindling talents. I didn't want to face that anymore. I clawed my way out of the tangle of bodies until finally I found myself outside. It was from here that I would watch the remainder of Da Mafia's set. At that vantage point -- removed from the party-like flurry inside -- the impression was that of a legend receding into the distance, a group basking in the fading glow of their former triumphs. It was a shameless display, certainly, but a well-deserved one.