Back in August, hip-hop celebrated its 47th birthday, an auspicious date marked by DJ Kool Herc’s legendary Back to School Jam in the Bronx. Born less than two years later and more than 1,000 miles away, Juicy J grew up with that music, first as a DJ, then as a producer and rapper. “I’ve always felt if you can make it in Memphis, Tennessee, as an artist, you can make it anywhere in the world,” he says, then adds a caveat: “But you gotta make it in Memphis first.” With DJ Paul and Lord Infamous, he formed Three 6 Mafia and brought that mindset to fruition. His career trajectory amounts to one long, strange trip, with milestones along the way including a Best Original Song Oscar for Hustle & Flow’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” and a Billboard Hot 100 smash with Katy Perry on “Dark Horse.” With his latest solo album The Hustle Continues released on Black Friday, and production credits all over his friend and protégé Megan Thee Stallion’s debut album Good News, rap’s foremost hustler spoke with Vulture about his extraordinary three-decade journey.
What sort of stuff were you spinning in your sets in the beginning?
In my early early days, I was DJ-ing in high school, playing stuff like [Afrika Bambaataa’s] “Planet Rock.” I started hearing about N.W.A. later on, it could have been ’89. I would play all kinds of music. I remember playing a lot of Rob Base, Luke Skyywalker, MC Shy D, a lot of breakbeats, too. I had this crazy DJ routine I would do. You remember the DJs would go back and forth on Technic 1200s behind their back? I used to do all that stuff, tricks on the turntables, shit like that. I was cold, man. There was a couple of up-and-coming Memphis rappers like Spanish Fly and a DJ named Soni D [who had a] song called “Smokin Onion” — people loved that in Memphis.
I don’t think people realize just how far back you go in hip-hop, well before you could hear this music on the radio.
Facts. I was DJ-ing clubs and any little birthday parties. I started when I was 16. I didn’t have the money to get the equipment, but I could scratch pretty good. Fuck that “pretty good.” I was the shit! I would listen to DJ Jazzy Jeff and I would try to duplicate his scratches and see if I could do the same things he did. I was a cold-ass scratcher. You know that transformer sound? I was fast and quick with it. I had some crazy techniques I was doing in my younger days. I met this guy named D-Magic. He was a DJ in town, kind of an old-school cat. I immediately jumped on his turntables, scratching and shit. He was like, “Damn, you cold, man. We should start a business.” So he would set the equipment up and I would come in and do the music. We’d split the money down the middle. Everybody knew me around town as Juicy J or Notorious Juicy J. I would spray-paint my name all over the streets, on walls, wherever I could.
So people in Memphis likely knew you first as a DJ before they knew you as a rapper?
Yup. There were a couple of rappers I used to fuck with [but] I felt like I was like a producer/DJ type of guy. I could do a dope rap, but I wasn’t really trying to pursue that. Back in the day, we used to do a beat through the turntables, like “Funky Drummer,” and we’d loop it. I would do a lot of that; that was my technique. And I would have the homeboys from the hood come in and they would rap. I grew up in a tough neighborhood [North Memphis], so everybody was pretty much a criminal. They would run the streets, rob, get in trouble, steal cars and shit. They would go to jail. So every time I would have a little DJ gig, I’d want them to come out and have them start rapping. But a lot of times they wouldn’t show up, because they got locked up. One day I just got tired of it. We were trying to pursue this music career, but you’re trying to pursue that criminal life. It just doesn’t mix. So I grabbed the microphone and said, “I’m gonna start rapping myself.”
Essentially, you became a triple threat — DJ, producer, rapper — out of necessity. And eventually you connected with DJ Paul and did a bunch of tapes together. Walk me through your relationship with him in the early days.
He was the hottest DJ on the south side of town and I was the hottest DJ on the north side of town. This guy that I knew when I was at OTS Records, which was 8Ball and MJG’s record label at the time, introduced me to Paul. Paul had a lot of equipment, a lot of keyboards and a nice, good, expensive 4-track. We just hit it off. We started making shit together and people started going crazy about our mixtapes. We started making a lot of noise. And Paul was always rapping, too, he and his brother, Lord Infamous, [with their] group the Serial Killaz. To make a long story short, we started Three 6 Mafia — me, Paul, and Lord Infamous.
I know over time the lineup shifted a bit with each album, and then there were the solo albums, all for your Hypnotize Minds imprint. What was it like having this outlet that you and Paul were producing so much music for?
Man, it was a dream come true. I wanted to be like Berry Gordy and the guy from Stax Records, Al Bell. I read all those books about Motown; my mom was a librarian, so I told her to check out every music book. I was 13. I felt like I was talented, but I didn’t know nothing about the business. I read all those books front to back. I would use that knowledge when we started Hypnotize Minds. I knew about publishing. I knew about managers. I knew what producers get. I knew what artists get for royalties. It gave me a little bit of leverage when we started our own record label.
Though you first dropped a solo project back in 2002, your 2009 album Hustle Till I Die feels more like the transition to your career post–Three 6 Mafia. Were you trying to push a solo career then, or was it more about the volume of music you were creating that made sense to put out that record?
I really wasn’t. We were living in L.A. at the time. Columbia [Records] kept calling us asking where’s the Three 6 Mafia record. It was a lot of pressure on us. So Paul did a solo tape and I did a solo tape, just to keep some extra money rolling in. I was actually scared to be a solo artist. I didn’t think people really wanted to hear me. Don’t get me wrong, my little albums used to sell what they sold, but I felt like that was off of the Three 6 Mafia buzz. It wasn’t like I had a name for myself.
There was just a lot going on. I had just won an Oscar. I wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on in the outside world. I had a nice big-ass house, smoking weed, experimenting with different pills, you know, girls in the hot tub and parties every night, Playboy mansion every weekend. I was living a fast life. My brother, Project Pat, would come visit me all the time. He would always tell me, “What the fuck y’all doing?!” He was like, “Don’t you know y’all name is not as popular as it used to be?” He used to kill me. I had money. We’d take a year or two off. That’s how we used to work. But Pat saw a lot of other rappers coming up. I noticed that the phone wasn’t ringing like it would. Things weren’t really going the way it was going [before].
When I started working on Hustle Till I Die, I took a trip to Atlanta. I got around, went to some clubs, and just listened to different things. I was curious. I did a record with Gucci Mane. That was a dope session. My brother was there with Drumma Boy, who was a new up-and-coming producer from Memphis. I was like, That man’s beats is hard as fuck. It was like a different sound had kicked in. The way Three 6 Mafia was going — it had ended it. Music changes! A new wave was coming through, and our wave was pretty much done. I believe the reason we couldn’t keep up was because we was living in L.A. If I would’ve been staying in Memphis, I probably would have knew what was going on.
How did that impact Three 6 Mafia as a group, internally?
Dealing with Columbia, we had this A&R. She was trying to change our sound. We did a couple of them pop records, but that wasn’t us, man. I mean, we put an album out [2008’s Last 2 Walk], that song “Lolli Lolli.” We had success with whatever we did, but it wasn’t selling like the last stuff. It wasn’t like “Stay Fly,” “Sippin On Some Sizzurp,” and “Poppin My Collar.” Let’s be real, the Three 6 Mafia buzz was dying. We all were frustrated, and I felt like we should put things on hold for a second. Why ruin it? If you’re gonna get all the way up to the top and then throw out some bullshit, you shouldn’t even do nothing at all.
[By 2009] I was really thinking about retiring. I had a house in Memphis, this beautiful house that I never lived in. I built it from ground up and it had like four acres of land. I was like, You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna go back to Memphis. I’m not gonna lie to you. I was really losing my mind. I was going to so many parties and popping Xanax every day and smoking weed and smashing different girls. And that’s cool, don’t get me wrong. That’s a really good life. But at the end of the day, I mean, how long is that gonna last? So, I went back to Memphis and I loved it. I was telling people I was retired.
But obviously you didn’t. Instead, you ended up having this resurgence as a trap artist. What do you attribute to that?
Project Pat had a handful of new, young rappers and producers. He found some talented motherfuckers. He was starting a little record label. And I told Pat, “I’ll put the money up and y’all just run the record label and I’ll just get profits off of it as a silent partner.” I would jump on these artists’ songs with them and make some beats to put out with them. And then all of a sudden, when I would jump on these people’s songs and in the videos, they would post some of them up on Worldstar. What was crazy was these artists were unknown, so people weren’t really looking at them, they were looking at me.
Somebody hit me on Twitter and was like, “You gotta listen to this guy named Lex Luger.” So I looked up his name and found out he made Rick Ross’s [2010 hit] “B.M.F.” That record was going crazy. I think I’m Big Meech! Larry Hoover! And I was like, “That sounds like some old Three 6 Mafia.” But it sounded different because [Luger] was using a laptop. It didn’t sound old-school vintage like the ’90s or early ’00s. I reached out to him. You know, I’m used to rapping [over] my own beat. It took me a couple of weeks. I was trying different shit. We came up with this idea to do a tape together, all Lex Luger beats on a Juicy J mixtape. I had a gut feeling that this shit was going to really do something.
Those Rubba Band Business tapes with Lex Luger, really that whole period in the early 2010s, was wild. We got “Bandz a Make Her Dance” from that period, and you were just coming up with these slogans like “You say no to drugs, Juicy J can’t.”
Around that time, I was smoking a lot of weed. I was high every day, drinking that yellow syrup and that purple syrup. I’d find myself in a different space. Keep in mind, I used to write down my raps with a pen, but when I started smoking weed and sipping lean heavily, I started just coming off the head with that shit. I felt like I had this superpower when I would drink lean and pop a Xanax. I felt like I could do anything.
I was in L.A. and I had this little apartment. I used to have a studio session called Stoners’ Night. Everybody would come over, I would get a big-ass bowl of weed, and everybody smoked weed and popped bands and drank lean and we would just make music. Those drugs made me so stress-free. I didn’t give a fuck or care about anything. I just cared about getting high every morning and making music. The vibe was crazy. I had girls in there — this girl was talking about this other girl and she was like, “That bitch, she’s ratchet.” I was like, “That’s what they call them, huh? ‘Ratchet.’” That’s where I got that line from. I thought that word was amazing.
And suddenly you had this rekindled brand that you created off these projects, which set you up for 2013’s Stay Trippy.
One day I was sitting there, smoking weed and Xanned out of my mind. I was like, I’m trippy as fuck. You know, the word tripping has been around for years, like ’70s slang — a person on acid taking a trip. But in my mind I looked at it like being trippy meant not so much drugs, but doing what you want to do, happy in your own space. I felt like I was making trippy music.
There’s a YouTube video of me dancing on top of my Rolls-Royce. That motherfucker was like, “Yo, what’s wrong with you?” I said, “I’m trippy!” I’m high as hell, fucking going out of my mind. But understand: I had made so much money. I had won an Academy Award, sold 30 million records. I was so drunk and fucked up that night. One of my homies was driving and he said I wouldn’t wake up, so he left me in the car in front of the driveway. I woke up in the passenger seat of my car that morning. TMZ was out there, taking pictures. I just felt like I was just having the time of my life.
So much of this period up through Stay Trippy was marked by this hedonism in the lifestyle that you were living. But, in recent years, you’ve scaled back on at least the hard drugs aspect of it. What changed?
Well, I still rap about certain things here and there. I mean, I’m smoking weed right now. That’s a given thing. I consider myself a real musician. I can’t talk about the same thing over and over again. I can, but I have to try to put it in a different kind of way. It’s gotta be another point of view. I get burnt out quick. We’ve done that, what’s next? Whether I’m still on the drugs or not, what is next for Juicy J’s career? At the end of the day, I’m growing, I’m not getting no younger. Some people just stay on drugs until they burn completely all the way out. I had a crazy Xanax addiction that I had to go get some help to get off of. I’ve got a daughter now. So it’s different. I’m not nobody that stays in the past. I move forward. So in 2020, you’re gonna hear a 2020 Juicy J. He might be doing some trippy shit.
Three 6 Mafia, the mixtape era, the trippy era — that influence is so prevalent now in what’s out there, including artists like Megan Thee Stallion. How do you feel seeing your legacy represented in this younger generation of hip-hop artists?
It’s a blessing. The stuff we was doing with Three 6 Mafia and stuff I was doing solo, I never thought it was going to be this big. I wake up one morning and everybody’s sampling my music. I’ve been a producer from day one. I got a lot of stuff coming out that I produced on.
But even when you’re not the producer, there’s still a lot of instances where the music owes a lot to the work you did previously.
Facts. Everything that I put my hand on is relevant today — the flows, the snares, the drum patterns. I always looked at Three 6 Mafia as a special group. I didn’t know exactly where we were gonna go with it, but I always felt like the music was special. I never sold the publishing. We never sold it. I always looked at like, What the fuck am I gonna have to eat when I retire? Thank God I didn’t, ’cause you see what’s happening now. It’s going through the roof. I clear like two, three samples a day. We’re like the Princes and Michael Jacksons in rap music. We can tour for the rest of our lives on rap. People will still play our music like they play it now.
I’m just waiting for somebody to try to challenge me to a Verzuz battle, ’cause I’m going to pull out the old Three 6 Mafia. I’ll pull up my new shit. I feel like I could go up against anybody.
You’ve got the records. Who do you think would be a worthy opponent?
Honestly? I never put myself low. Always put yourself in the highest position possible. I could go up with Jay [Z]; I could go up with Nas. I know it’s a different kind of category, but I could go up with OutKast or with whomever. A lot of motherfuckers would probably look at that and laugh, but if they looked at my catalogue, they’d be like, Man, that dude, right! He can go with pretty much anybody and probably fuck around and win.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.