Three 6 Mafia released several albums that helped shape their legacy, but nothing quite matches up to their classic debut, Mystic Stylez. The album, which celebrates its 20th anniversary today, led the way for an entire subset of Memphis rap and would influence artists for decades to come.
The fact that Mystic Stylez has developed such a lofty reputation is a testament to the creativity and innovation involved. The album wasn’t a major release with a powerful label backing it. Mystic Stylez was an independent album released through Prophet Entertainment, which DJ Paul and Juicy J co-owned at the time with Nick Scarfo.
The foundation for Three 6 Mafia and Mystic Stylez was built in Memphis during the early ’90s as two DJs, Paul and Juicy J, decide to create their own music. Along with Paul’s brother Lord Infamous, they would release a variety of underground mixtapes that helped build their reputation throughout the city. These projects would feature a large lineup of rappers, which included future members of Three 6 Mafia. The tapes also included original versions of what would later be some of the Mafia’s most well-known songs. The lo-fi records helped establish a foundation for what would become Mystic Stylez.
By the time 1995 arrived, the group developed into its most familiar lineup: DJ Paul, Juicy J, Lord Infamous, Koopsta Knicca, Gangsta Boo, and Crunchy Black. There’s some debate as to whether Playa Fly and Kingpin Skinny Pimp are considered members or affiliates as they were both major contributors to Mystic Stylez. Fly would leave soon after the album’s release while Skinny Pimp remained an affiliate for a few more years. But, consider that a discussion in line with whether or not Cappadonna is an official Wu-Tang Clan member. Ultimately, these would be the core artists involved in crafting Mystic Stylez.
Mystic Stylez brought together horrorcore raps and occult themes with production that would sound right at home in a John Carpenter film. DJ Paul and Juicy J produced the album in its entirety and created a haunting soundscape in doing so. The two mastered the foreboding sound in their beats, but also showed their versatility with creations like the solemn “Da Summa” or the funky vibes on “All or Nothin.” The lo-fi sound the two cultivated got a bit of a facelift as the quality was much better for their proper debut. Still, this album wasn’t made to be dissected on your finest speakers as it maintains that made in the basement feel.
DJ Paul and Juicy J also had a penchant for the self-referential, tweaking past records and employing hooks utilizing vocals from their old songs. Take “Now I’m Hi Pt. 3,” which reused the now familiar “Triple 6, Triple 6, Triple 6, smoked out, now I’m high, really high, mane I’m about the south” hook that was part of past versions released by DJ Paul and Koopsta Knicca.
While the production was a major reason for the praise Mystic Stylez received, it was the performances of the MCs involved that took the album to another level. The lineup here was easily the most talented that Three 6 Mafia ever had. While DJ Paul and Juicy J could hold their own on the mic, their skills were best displayed behind the boards. It was the efforts of Lord Infamous, Koopsta Knicca, Gangsta Boo, Playa Fly, and Kingpin Skinny Pimp that turned this into one of the essential southern hip-hop albums.
With so many MCs involved, it’s impressive that each one manages to stand out with their own distinct voice. This is partly due to their contrasting styles. Lord Infamous’ rapid fire flow demands your attention to catch every single rhyme. Koopsta Knicca has a melodic delivery that sounds ghostly when paired with the grim production. Playa Fly’s heavy drawl makes him stand out from the pack, especially with his heavy use of Memphis slang. Gangsta Boo’s delivery is commanding, taking control of any track when she arrives. And yet with all these varying styles, they still mesh so well.
Three 6 Mafia may not have created horrorcore, but they might have perfected it. Few other rappers have managed to tell such dark stories without it becoming cartoonish. The title track, “Mystic Stylez,” displays this, particularly in Koopsta Knicca’s verse. Koopsta raps, “Bout to break ya somethin' off up in that house of torture/Steppin' to that Koopsta bitch/Da wicked witch of horror/Horror, the chambers that tame us/They came up/To feed off your soul, fool we live on ya anger/Now ya life’s in danger.” His words feel so ominous over the piano key-driven beat.
Mystic Stylez was a pristine encapsulation of what Three 6 Mafia had to offer. While it may not have made the immediate impact that some classic albums do, its legacy grew and helped inspire artists long after its release. Mystic Stylez ushered in a new style to the Memphis rap scene that became a blueprint for myriad Three 6 Mafia affiliates and imitators to use to this day. And in the digital age, it’s found a new life by captivating a new generation of fans as well as influencing artists like the A$AP Mob and SpaceGhostPurrp’s Raider Klan. 20 years later, Mystic Stylez's indelible mark on hip-hop is clear.
Justin Ivey is a writer living in Baton Rouge, La. Follow him @JustinIvey_.