10 Years Ago, Three 6 Mafia's 'Last 2 Walk' Almost Ruined Their Legacy

Three 6 Mafia
M. Caulfield/WireImage for Fox

DJ Paul and Juicy J of Three 6 Mafia attend the 2006 Billboard Music Awards.

For a few weeks this past March, something curious was happening on the Hot 100. Three songs on the chart -- “Plain Jane” (by A$AP Ferg), “No Limit” (by G-Eazy, A$AP Rocky, and Cardi B), and “King’s Dead” (from the Black Panther soundtrack) -- all interpolated the same 1999 track: “Slob on My Knob” by Three 6 Mafia’s Juicy J, released under the group’s offshoot project, Tear Da Club Up Thugs.

But step anywhere in contemporary hip-hop, and you’re bound to trip over some more Three 6 Mafia history. Three months ago, swarms of 25-and-under rappers like 21 Savage, Lil Uzi Vert, and Trippie Redd rushed to freestyle over the group’s 2000 track “Who Run It” when it went viral as a part of the #whorunitchallenge. Top-tier artists from J. Cole to Rae Sremmurd have all interpolated old Three 6 hooks within the past four years. Back in 2014, 2 Chainz downplayed the hype surrounding Migos’ triplet-laden flow by crediting it to decades-old Three 6 verses. Two of the most influential producer camps in 2010s Southern rap, Atlanta’s 808 Mafia trap collective and South Florida’s proto-SoundCloud-rap Raider Klan, both came up citing Three 6’s as their primary influence. Some newer artists even exist almost solely as Three 6 pastiche acts, including $uicideboy$, whose WhoSampled page lists dozens of flips of old Memphis classics.

Juicy and DJ Paul, Three 6’s producers and core members, are 43 and 41, respectively. Amid a month in which the similarly-aged Pusha T, Kanye West, JAY-Z, and Nas have also enjoyed plenty of attention, it may be tempting to assume that Three 6 are not far from this upper echelon of veteran legends with built-in fan bases and steady career paths. But that couldn’t further from the truth. Just 10 years ago, Three 6 looked dead in the water.

Last 2 Walk, the group’s ninth studio album, arrived on this day (June 24) in 2008. Its title alluded to the fact that Juicy and Paul were the final remaining members of the group, which had seen four other members depart over financial disputes during the previous eight years. The album limped to the finish line: It endured over a year of delays. It had two false-start lead singles before landing on “Lolli Lolli (Pop That Body),” a strip-club anthem that fared decently on the charts (peaking at No. 18 on the Hot 100) considering it was a blatant T-Pain imitation. Unlike every Three 6 album since 1997 -- minus their two film soundtracks -- it failed to go gold or platinum.

And for good reason: The album’s a mess. It does away with nearly all traces of the murky, dark aesthetic that became Three 6’s calling card in the late ‘90s and still remains their biggest artistic legacy. Paul and Juicy forsake their vintage-horror-soundtrack synths for ones that belong in ‘80s action flicks, then toss those into a busy mix with nu-metal guitar presets and Eurodance samples. (Seriously: They flip Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400,” a track you’ll recognize if you’ve ever watched a soccer game or played FIFA). The song “On Some Chrome” shakily interpolates the Christmas classic “Carol of the Bells.” The hooks, such as “Play with your PlayStation/Don’t play with me, boy” are atrocious. Good Charlotte even pop up on a song.

Last 2 Walk offers glimpses of Paul and Juicy’s brilliance, but mostly, it feels like they’re being pulled in a million directions at once. They’d forged their own unique path for so long, but they were now attempting to riff on the pop-dominant styles of contemporary Southern rap: Polow Da Don and DJ Toomp’s synthy stadium trap, Shop Boyz’s gimmicky “Party Like a Rockstar,” early trap-EMD fusions. If you have a soft spot for fizzy mid-2000s pop-rap, there's something familiar and inviting about this album, but Three 6 channeling that style is the equivalent of Marilyn Manson doing faithful Pet Shop Boys covers.

So what were they thinking? To answer that, you have to look to Paul and Juicy’s 2007 reality show, Adventures in Hollyhood. In 2006, Three 6 Mafia stunned the country by becoming the first rap group to win an Oscar for best original song, which they received for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from the Hustle & Flow soundtrack. They tried to capitalize on the buzz by landing an MTV reality show in which they move to Hollywood and attempt -- via soundtracks, screenwriting, and acting -- to become film industry mainstays.

Although wildly entertaining, the show flopped. Paul and Juicy failed spectacularly at their mission, save for a few cross-promotional appearances on other MTV shows (My Super Sweet 16, Punk’d, Rob & Big, Wild ‘n Out, etc.) and a placement on the Jackass 2 soundtrack. Adventures in Hollyhood was not renewed for a second season.

Considering Adventures in Hollyhood was filmed around the time Last 2 Walk was recorded, the show now paints a clear picture of artists who are hungry for ubiquity and spreading themselves too thin after unprecedented success. Instead of fueling them, the attention seemed to slow them down. As Paul puts it on one Last 2 Walk track, “So many shysters in my ears fool, trying to profit/ On my new fame, they will put new hands in my pocket.” (They may have also been distracted by drug use: “We need extra money for our habits,” Paul announces on the woozy album outro as he lays out plans for subsequent solo records.)

Soon after Last 2 Walk, Three 6 crumbled. They never officially broke up, but Juicy and Paul did indeed shift their focus to other projects: Juicy J signed with Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang label in 2011 and subsequently enjoyed a brief career revitalization as one of trap music’s forebearers, while Paul put out solo material and, in 2013, reunited the group’s four previously departed members under the name Da Mafia 6ix. To date, Last 2 Walk is Three 6 Mafia’s last studio album.

Even with all members active in the early 2010s, there still seemed to be shortage of the dark, trippy, mystic styles that they pioneered. There’s a certain corner of hip-hop that’s always pushing the genre into weirder, more menacing places, and with Three 6’s final statement acting as a failed crossover attempt, other artists began picking up where the Memphis legends left off. Gucci Mane (who’s only three years younger than DJ Paul but didn’t release music until 2005) called frequent Three 6 collaborator Project Pat his favorite rapper. Harlem’s A$AP Mob defined regional hip-hop conventions by taking more inspiration from Three 6 and UGK than JAY-Z or Cam’ron. Trap producers all over the South, looking to push their sound into scarier territory, began taking cues from Paul and Juicy’s gothic beats.

Somewhere around then, Three 6 became the hip name to drop as one of your influences, and the rest is history that’s been playing out on the charts in real-time. Even among today’s youngest rappers, who consider the 33-year-old J. Cole “old” and often go out of their way to disassociate themselves from ‘90s legends like Tupac and Biggie, the terrifying sound that Three 6 started crafting 25 years ago is a huge hit. It’s hard to imagine that ever being the case if Last 2 Walk had popped off a few hits, went platinum, and led to more diluted crossover albums that made Juicy and Paul tiresome fixtures in the news cycle rather than cult heroes. At the time, Last 2 Walk’s relative lack of commercial and critical success seemed like the kind of flop that would stain, if not undo, an artist’s legacy. Instead, Last 2 Walk paved the way for the group to have a different one altogether.