Friday night, Memphis hip-hop legend Ricky Dunigan, better known as Lord Infamous of Three 6 Mafia, passed away of a heart attack at his mother's house in Memphis. He was 40 years old.
One of Three 6 Mafia's founding members, Infamous was responsible for the group's name. He was a standout member in their earliest performances, responsible for tracks with in-your-face titles like "Lick My Nutts," and played a vital role in the group's development.
By the time Three 6 won an Oscar for the Hustle & Flow soundtrack, Lord Infamous was no longer with the group. But he had recently reunited with many past Mafia members and affiliates for the well-received tape 6ix Commandments as Da Mafia 6ix. He was also planning on dropping a solo record, which DJ Paul is now reporting will drop in March.
But when Three 6 Mafia truly crossed over in the mid-'00s, Lord Infamous' time with the group had already ended. Even has Memphis' classic '90s sound has been rediscovered by an entirely new generation, most younger fans probably don't realize how essential his contributions really were.
As sad as this time is for longtime Three 6 Mafia fans, David Drake (@somanyshrimp) and Justin Davis (@OGJOHNNY5) of Complex were inspired to reflect on some of the reasons that Lord Infamous looms so large in the history books.
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Justin: One of my earliest memories of Lord Infamous was the song "O.V." from the Choices soundtrack. I remember being put on to Three 6 by kids at my school, and they always pointed this song out in particular. Lord's first words were "Fuck with this super thug and get drug/Sweep your body parts under the rug," and from that point I was intrigued. While everyone in Three 6 seemed to be playing a parody of a horrorcore group (even though they denied it), Lord sounded like he was really doing it.
David: What was it about those lyrics that stuck with you? His lyrics were very evocative to me too. I keep thinking of "Anyone Out There"—his masterpiece, maybe?—from Chapter 2. Every talent he had came together on that track—that cracked, eerie voice. Variety of flows. The unreliable narration that makes it sound like he's mere seconds from cracking up—like, he's pulling your coat about this story, when partway through you're suddenly afraid he's gonna do you in too. Then there's the long, horrifying story, told in the first person. (Spoiler alert: he kills his family in the opening, then goes to an insane asylum, and escapes the asylum with the help of a maintenance man, only to end up buried alive by the end.) The whole story is dark as fuck, but what makes it especially so is the imagery he uses.
He doesn't just say, "the police walked in and there were dead bodies." He talks about the bloody bedposts, and that little piece of alliteration is so striking and frightening. I think what it is is that he knew that you had to be convinced that he really would do this to you. Three 6 weren't the first to do horrorcore, but for some reason, when they did it, it felt that much more effective than most everyone else's. Lord Infamous feels legitimately unhinged, like he's barely holding it together.
Justin: I think the fact that Three 6 had become a sort of urban legend is what stuck to me; they had the name and the chopped up John Carpenter samples, but compared to Lord Infamous, it felt like they were all just playing around. He sounded like an actual murderer. He was like the secret weapon of the group. While Crunchy and Juicy gave you a more grounded story lyrically, Lord Infamous was unmitigated chaos.
On "Wolf Wolf" from Da Unbreakables he loudly proclaims that he isn't satisfied until someone leaves paralyzed! The imagery and his energy brought home what the other members toe around on songs. I think a slept on quality about him is the fact that he could switch up his style effortlessly. "Late Nite Tip" immediately springs to mind when I think about his most impressive style changes.
David: Yeah, it definitely sounds of-a-piece with his blood-and-guts goth records, even though it's a song about sex—the same twisted vibe. The other thing is that, much like with "Anyone Out There," it's clear he was a lot more than the kind of one-dimensional Southern club rapper, that he was artful with the way he put words together. Not to mention he could really spit—he had a doubletime flow that worked even on the most hard-headed club records, like "Tear Da Club Up." Do you have a favorite Scarecrow double time track?
Justin: That's a toss up between "Who Run It" or "Tongue Ring." Probably "Tongue Ring," because it had an awesomely bad video. Can we talk about Lord Infamous' look? He was always left-of-center from the other members. The long spike through the nose and his overall disheveled appearance was Punk Rock to me. If Three 6 were The Misfits then Lord Infamous was definitely Glen Danzig.
David: Haha I'm not someone who will get those references. But yeah, he had presence. Man he takes off on that "Who Run It" though—swagging shirtless in the overalls, hanging out the side of the truck. "Splish, splash, brains on the ground, with a cannon round...." Total sidenote about "Tongue Ring" though—I definitely had a friend in high school who decided to edit out Gangsta Boo's verse because he thought it was too x-rated—like, he could deal with how out-of-control the usual Three 6 verses were, but hers were somehow too over the top, even by those standards!
That was just an alright Infamous verse to me personally though, Boo kind of outshines him on that. But sometimes-Complex contributor Ethan Padgett just reminded me of his insane verse on Mystic Stylez, "In Da Game." There's something crazily economical about him describing how quickly he's gonna bring death, its brusqueness is so cold: "Kickin in doors/Bodies are froze/Bloody ya clothes/Gun to ya nose." No wasted words. Just that rapid-fire flow unloading on the track. The percussive force of his words had the same violence as their content.
Justin: Mystic Stylez had the Bone Thugs 'N Harmony diss "Live By Yo Rep" right? Lord threatens to rip your skin off, boil it and pour your remains on your friends on there. Frightening stuff. Lord was essentially the glue guy of the group, he kept everything together between the different archetypes in the group. Juicy and Paul shifted to more of the crunk style rappers, Crunchy had his own vibe and Lord was the unchained dog that snapped you back into reality.
I think as the group dwindled and members defected he was given more of a chance to shine (Da Unbreakables) but his savage ability was probably a hindrance for the group as they went more mainstream. Imagine Lord Infamous going to the Oscars with Paul and Juicy....
David: Yeah, Mystic Stylez had the Bone Thugs diss. At the time, I knew Bone Thugs, but I had no idea who Three 6 were. They weren't national yet. But DJ Paul has been saying in interviews that Infamous was the source of the Bone Thugs beef, too. Infamous was the first one from the crew to do the, as Paul put it, tongue-twisting style.
Lord Infamous was a lot darker, more violent, more twisted and satanic and less mainstream friendly than, like, Stay Trippy-era Juicy J. I do think that when Lord Infamous was dropped from the group after Da Unbreakables—their last truly classic album, in my opinion—they were never the same. That was the real end of an era. They started to get a little more one dimensional.
Juicy J still makes some cool music, but to me, Three 6 Mafia's best stuff had the feel of a bunch of personalities moving the records in different directions. And Lord Infamous definitely felt like the blunt, violent, mystical horrorcore soul of the group, in a lot of ways. It used to be when they sampled a soul song—like on "Sippin on Syrup," which samples Marvin Gaye—you'd end up with a track that felt straight up evil. As they moved toward the mainstream with a song like "Stay Fly" (which is classic, don't get me wrong), the music became a lot more bright and pretty. I don't think it's a coincidence that this is around the time the group started to break up, atomize, and Lord Infamous wasn't working with them any more.
Justin: I agree, when they shed Lord Infamous from the crew, it took them to their greatest heights, but also took away some of the novelty they had as a group. I think that's what I will miss about the old Three 6 and Lord Infamous the most—they were masters at rearranging the southern sound into a macabre musical. I'm just glad I was able to be in the audience.