Thursday, 22 January 2015

Three-6-Mafia - Mystic Stylez (1995)

Some years ago I happened upon a day time chat show in which one of those Jesusy evangelical backmasking obsessives confronted the lead singer of Venom - or possibly some other Venom personage.

'You record backwards subliminal messages on your records in order to warp young minds and turn them to Satan,' he blustered, apparently believing he'd just exposed the truth of a major conspiracy.

'Yes,' the Venom bloke agreed helpfully. 'Yes, we do!'

Three-6-Mafia seem to be coming from that same place, or at least they were in 1995, which I notice is now, rather terrifyingly, as long ago as was Jailhouse Rock when I myself first started listening to music. Anyway, whatever terrible claim you may have heard of that there rapper's music, Three-6-Mafia do that shit with brass knobs on and a big fuckin' smile on their faces; or, they used to. I'm not sure quite what they're up to these days as I drifted away when Gangsta Boo jumped the increasingly blingy ship. What recent stuff I've heard has a bit more of a club vibe, all squeaky synths, crunk juice and riding spinners. It's okay in so much as it does it's job, but I much prefer their earlier, more conspicuously evil incarnation.

Mystic Stylez was recorded back when the cost of those ice-grill vampire fangs imposed a fairly low budget on the recording of this, their first and best album. At least that's how it appears - gas-powered samplers creaking away, cracked casings, masking tape, distorted effects through what sounds like a vintage spring line reverb, and an album that may originally have been issued as a series of 78s, judging by the sound quality. It's the same basic griminess which is always attributed to the Wu-Tang Clan, but Three-6-Mafia did it better, underpinning the whole with a bass so deep that most of the time it's a feeling rather than notes; and compositionally it's nothing like the music of those Staten Island kung fu obsessives. Agonisingly slow beats invoke the more pants-wettingly terrifying John Carpenter soundtracks, contrasting with the staccato flow of triple time galloping raps wherein Juicy J and the gang do their best to scare the living shit out of you; and they succeed with a vertigo inducing sound akin to being knifed through a cough syrup haze. The science, so to speak, may not be lyrical by the terms of J-Live or related worthies, but it's exactly as lyrical as it needs to be.

Just to bang on about this one for the umpteenth time, the most misunderstood aspect of this kind of rap is not so much that it encourages or glorifies violence, that it's sexist or homophobic, or that it's lacking in redemptive qualities; the most misunderstood aspect is that it necessarily requires either the approval or endorsement of anyone still getting misty eyed over the era of De La Soul and socially responsible messages heard over a coffee shop tannoy system. This reduces to the notion that rap by definition must do only one thing, subject to the approval of people who don't actually like much rap when it comes down to it. Three-6-Mafia were always more Eazy E than anything else, with that same amoral glee taken in whatever it is that will piss you off the most; and because not only are these records done for themselves, for their friends, and for anyone else who wants to hear them - as opposed to anthems of moral guidance for the greater good of humanity - but because, sometimes smash it up is as legitimate an argument as anything with more syllables and a friendlier smile. So not only do they commit all the supposed cardinal sins as defined by rap's most vocal critics, but they added a few of their own on this album, Venom-style showbiz Satanism and cannibalism to name but two. In any other genre, this may have come across as faintly ridiculous, but here it not only works, but it's fucking chilling - an hour or so of cold funky sweats and adrenaline rushes which place the listener directly at the centre of the robbery, the street shooting, and the raw terror; and if you really need it to, yes - at least some of this can be considered a metaphor for the horror film of daily existence in one of the more frequently shat upon demographics.

As I've almost certainly said elsewhere, Mystic Stylez is why I find it difficult to take all those power electronics clowns seriously. It's not so much that Three-6-Mafia necessarily ever did any of the stuff described here for real, but they're almost certainly closer to some of it than William Bennett or even Michael Gira ever were, and they're not stood in an art gallery handing out tastefully shocking limited edition prints of it. Mystic Stylez sounds like no other album ever recorded, even in the context of the Three-6-Mafia's own catalogue. It's probably one of the darkest records ever made, and possibly one of the finest; and Break Da Law is still the greatest inducement to the dispensation of good old fashioned pissed-off get back since Straight Outta Compton.

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