Juicy J Stays Trippy: Inside The Rapper's Unlikely Comeback
After his Oscar-winning group went defunct, the Memphis MC slid to the bottom of the genre -- until he came back even bigger with a strip club banger.
Like most of Juicy J's best ideas, "Bandz A Make Her Dance" was hatched in the bathroom.
While holed up in a Washington, D.C., hotel room in early 2012, the Memphis rapper was sifting through a collection of beats from rising Atlanta producer Mike Will Made It when he stumbled upon a track with an ominous bass thump and twinkling key line. At first, Juicy J thought it was the foundation of a love song. "The beat reminded me of some Quiet Storm shit… it starts so slow, and it's really melodic," he says. And then, in the hotel bathroom, he realized that the five-word hook that had been rolling around in his brain for a while might work on the track, if it was partnered with a more uptempo rhythm. Hours later, the beginnings of a love song had become the stripper anthem of 2012.
"A lot of times when I'm recording, I smoke weed, I freestyle, and if I'm trying to get that last bar or that ending of the song, I'll go to the bathroom, because I always come up with shit in the bathroom," Juicy J says. His face lights up when he recognizes the unintentional pun, and quickly adds, "I mean, I've written many, many songs in the bathroom."
Most successful hip-hop artists maintain a tireless work ethic, but Juicy J's dedication to his music -- bathroom breaks and all -- is almost inhuman. The MC (real name: Jordan Houston) boasts about turning down vacation time and working through Christmas to get songs completed. His manager, Will Dzombak, professes that "Juicy records anywhere, anytime -- in his hotel room, on a tour bus, backstage right before he goes onstage, in between interviews."
Juicy J doesn't necessarily need to be this unyielding. His days as a member of Memphis rap crew Three 6 Mafia, which produced two million-sellers (2000's "When the Smoke Clears" and 2005's "Most Known Unknown") and one Academy Award for best original song ("It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp"), have secured his legacy and kept his bank account flush. But the rapper also recalls growing up in a two-bedroom Memphis apartment with six people, wondering whether there'd be food in the refrigerator each day, and uses that experience as motivation.
"I come from nothing," he says. "When I got a chance to make some money, I was like, 'Man, I'm not ever going back.'"
During a mid-July stop in Manhattan, however, Juicy J is letting himself unwind a bit. Wearing a red camouflage collared T-shirt and a matching hat, Juicy J clutches a half-empty bottle of Champagne in his left hand and take swigs in between answering questions about "Stay Trippy," his new solo album due Aug. 27. The rapper certainly has reason to celebrate: "Bandz A Make Her Dance" was an out-of-nowhere career resuscitation for the 38-year-old MC, cracking the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 five years after Three 6 Mafia effectively fizzled out. A joint deal with Kemosabe Records (the imprint headed by pop maestro Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald) and Columbia Records soon followed, as did a slot on a tour last fall opening for Wiz Khalifa, whose Taylor Gang Records brought in Juicy J as a partner/A&R rep in 2011.
"Stay Trippy" is a long, bruising rap opus with a star-studded guest list (Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, Big Sean, Wale), and Dr. Luke and Khalifa signed on as executive producers. It's an album that has conjured opportunities with big-box retailers and likely sponsorship deals. It's also an album that wouldn't exist if "Bandz A Make Her Dance" didn't take off last year, shaking awake the label that had indefinitely shelved Three 6 Mafia's last album.
The rap crew's downfall unexpectedly followed the most fruitful phase of its career, which began in 1995 with "Mystic Stylez" and led to a deal with Columbia in 2003. The brainchild of Juicy J and rapper/producer DJ Paul with a rotating cast of other members, Three 6 Mafia's brand of gritty hip-hop spilled into the mainstream in 2005, with the bombastic crossover single "Stay Fly" (961,000 downloads sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan) and a surprise Oscar win for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," from the Memphis-set film "Hustle & Flow."
That success soon resulted in unwelcome artistic suggestions. "The record label was like, 'You should do this pop song,' and I was like, 'But that's not what we started with,'" Juicy J says. (Naima Cochrane, Juicy's product manager at Columbia, says she doesn't believe there were creative differences between the group and the label, and says that "Juicy and Paul had different visions at the time.") Three 6 Mafia released one more album, 2008's "Last 2 Walk," which included the hit "Lolli Lolli (Pop That Body)" and has sold 335,000 copies. The duo's follow-up material was left in limbo, and Juicy J, who had moved to Los Angeles after the Oscar win, returned to Memphis alone to repeat the DIY formula that had worked for Three 6 Mafia in the mid-'90s.
"I was just doing songs with people from my hood," says Juicy J, who issued nearly a dozen independent releases between April 2009 and May 2012. "I had a street team passing out mixtapes, and sometimes I would get out there and pass out a couple mixtapes myself, just to get the feeling back."
He also stayed active on Twitter, which is where he met Khalifa before the 25-year-old Pittsburgh rapper's "Black & Yellow" breakthrough in 2011. "I was working on a mixtape, and I was like, 'I want to get you on some records.' He was like, 'Man, I grew up on all your music,'" Juicy J recalls. Two weeks later, the pair met up and became fast friends in Los Angeles, and Khalifa brought in the veteran rapper as a part owner, A&R rep and artist on Taylor Gang in order to have "an OG in the game" help out with the rising indie label.
Meanwhile, Dr. Luke, who began his career producing hip-hop groups like Gravediggaz and Nappy Roots before helming smashes for Katy Perry and Britney Spears, had been close with Juicy J since Three 6 Mafia's mid-'00s glory days, and was planning to work on the follow-up to "Last 2 Walk" that never came. "As Three 6 was sort of disintegrating, we would get together and just write for fun," Dr. Luke says. "I'd go to his house [in L.A.], he'd go to my house. When we were writing a bunch -- this was before 'Bandz' but after 'Stay Fly' -- he was always grinding. He'd write a song every day, and he'd tell me, 'One of them's gonna go.'"
The Mike Will-produced "Bandz A Make Her Dance," of course, was the one that went, after Juicy J surreptitiously released the song on Twitter in May 2012. A month later, the rapper put out a new version with Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz -- both of whom he had known since they were teenagers -- and the song exploded in the clubs in a way that the rapper hadn't seen during his Three 6 Mafia days. The song's success grabbed the attention of Columbia; Juicy J was still signed to the label under his Three 6 Mafia deal and remained uneasy with the group's treatment. Enter Dr. Luke, who signed a deal with Sony in November 2011 to launch Kemosabe with artists like Ke$ha on the roster.
"Dr. Luke and Juicy are very close, and Luke is part of the Sony system, so it only made sense to partner up with Luke and do a joint venture," Dzombak says. Dr. Luke adds, "I was interested but obviously wanted Columbia to bless [a joint venture], and Columbia was like, 'If you guys have a relationship, please, that's even better.'"
"Bandz" was rereleased on Kemosabe/Columbia last September after the label deal was finalized, and the single eventually peaked at No. 6 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart on its way to selling 1 million downloads. With Dr. Luke signed on to executive-produce "Stay Trippy" and broaden Juicy J's musical appeal, Khalifa helped expand the rapper's brand by taking him on his 2050 arena tour last fall, which Juicy then followed with a Stay Trippy headlining run in the spring.
"[Khalifa] really helps Juicy see the bigger touring picture -- doing music venues as opposed to clubs -- and the importance of merchandising," says Dzombak, who also co-manages Khalifa. The Stay Trippy trek featured sellouts at 1,500-capacity venues, and during a show at Los Angeles' House of Blues on June 8, pop star and noted hip-hop enthusiast Miley Cyrus hopped onstage to dance to "Bandz," with fan-shot videos of the stunt going viral. Throughout the album buildup, Juicy J has stayed active with his 1.1 million Twitter followers and with online initiatives like the Bandz Stripper Name Generator, which launched late last year and allowed fans to share their custom stripper name on their social networks.
Recorded primarily in hotel rooms while on the road, "Stay Trippy" is the full-length equivalent of that Cyrus stage cameo, with mainstream personalities entering Juicy J's merciless hip-hop atmosphere. "The Woods," for instance, features fellow Memphis native Timberlake and production by Timbaland, and combines a pop sensibility and sparkling beat with crushing rhymes. According to Columbia's Cochrane, "The Woods" is "definitely an option" for a future single, following "Bandz," "Show Out" (featuring Young Jeezy and Big Sean) and current radio single "Bounce It" (with Wale and Trey Songz). "We just started with 'Bounce It,' and there's no shortage of single options," Cochrane says. "We'll probably see another three singles out of this before we even think about letting the album slow down."
In the meantime, a fall college headlining tour is being considered, and Juicy J will perform at this year's four Rock the Bells shows, beginning Sept. 7 in Los Angeles and wrapping Oct. 5 in New York. Cochrane notes that Best Buy will carry an exclusive deluxe edition of "Stay Trippy" with three extra tracks, after the retailer reached out to Columbia about the project. "Juicy's been killing it, and major brands are just starting to realize it," she says. "Maybe it takes something like Miley going onstage to twerk or Justin being on the album for them to really take a look at what Juicy's been doing over the past year, but we're having several different conversations for the future, be it for tours, sponsorships or merchandising deals."
Juicy J's brand has never been more attractive, and he knows how unlikely his comeback has been. "It's almost impossible when you think about it, especially in rap music. R&B, rock, pop could be different, but in rap music, once it's over, it's over," he says before taking another gulp of Champagne. As he approaches 40, Juicy's realistic about his shelf life as a red-hot MC, but already has a contingency plan in place. "I want to be the president of Columbia Records, maybe CEO -- kind of like L.A. Reid," he says. "I look up to those guys -- Barry Weiss, Clive Davis. I always wanted to run a major label, and I feel like I got the skills to do that. The one thing about me is that I won't sit behind a desk the whole time -- I'll go to the clubs and see what's hot."