Somewhere between exits 30 and 31 on Long Island's Northern State Parkway, Juicy J, ensconced in the back seat of a chauffeured SUV, tugs a bottle of Möet rose from a Louis Vuitton tote bag and sends the cork flying with a phwokk! His tour videographer, Max, currently rolling a joint on his laptop's touchpad, jumps in his seat, startled by the sound. Juicy, the Memphis-born rapper and producer who made his name with veteran Dirty South hip-hop crew Three 6 Mafia, laughs, grabs an empty Dasani water bottle and starts filling it up with champagne. "I'm a bottle-drinker," Juicy J says, "but I'm-a hit you up first." He spills a little on the floor mat as we take a tight turn, then passes over the makeshift flute. It's around four in the afternoon, but for Juicy J, right here, right now, it's happy hour. "Yeah, man!" he cheers, hoisting his bottle high for a toast.
Juicy is en route to Jones Beach, where he's going to join his pal Wiz Khalifa onstage tonight – Wiz has sold out the 15,000-seat amphitheater there, and Juicy is the surprise guest. He's long been one of hip-hop's most winning hedonists, crafting catchy couplet upon catchy couplet about gloriously filthy strip clubs, money and drugs, and that persona is on proud display in the SUV: He's chasing swigs of the champagne with puffs of sour diesel weed. "This shit is far," Juicy says, peering out of the tinted windows as tree-lined parkway gives way to sandy scrub. His demeanor is affable, his build slight. Between his shaved head and his narrow, glassy, wide-set eyes, he resembles a dinosaur with a dispensary card. "Juicy will have me sit for an hour and roll him up, like, 100 joints," Max, a long-haired skater-looking dude, says. "It wasn't part of my job description when he hired me, but I've gotten pretty good with experience."
At the amphitheater, well-tanned white kids in board shorts and bikini tops are already lined up at will call. Security guards in polo shirts direct us to the artist parking lot, where Juicy emerges in the outfit he'll wear onstage: black sequined sneakers, black leather cargo shorts, an iridescent plaid button-down covered with the Louis Vuitton monogram. He's got on two gold chains and a gold Rolex President with a generous sprinkling of diamonds on its bezel. When I ask if it's a custom job, Juicy seems scandalized. "These are actual Rolex diamonds!" he says. "Write that down! It's not no aftermarket bullshit. This watch cost me $35,000. I got more-expensive watches, but I like this one cause it's not too flashy. I'm not trying to get robbed." He grins. "And, you know, I can wear this to dinners, to business meetings – I don't wanna go in there and blind people."
Business has been booming for Juicy recently. In just a few weeks, on August 27th, his major-label solo debut, Stay Trippy, will be released, carrying more buzz than he's enjoyed since 2006, when Three 6 Mafia won a Best Original Song Oscar for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," off the Hustle & Flow soundtrack. Juicy was raised by a preacher dad and a librarian mom; his parents, his older brother (the rapper Project Pat) and his two sisters split a two-bedroom apartment in North Memphis. "It was in the hood," he recalls. "We had a let-out couch in the living room, and my parents slept out there." He grew up adoring Isaac Hayes and Sha Na Na ("They made me want to be a drummer") – but as a teen, Juicy began DJ'ing and rapping, putting the money he earned stocking groceries at the Piggly Wiggly toward his own four-track recorder. He soon began collaborating with a rising South Memphis star named DJ Paul. "We bought a cassette-tape-pressing machine that pressed four at a time, and we'd run off our own mixtapes," Juicy says. In time-honored Southern-hip-hop fashion, they sold their music out of car trunks, but they preferred another, ingenious technique: "We sold our tapes to car-stereo stores in Memphis," Juicy says. "You could come in and get a car stereo, then buy our mixtape on the way out."
Juicy and Paul's crew, Three 6 Mafia, soon generated a huge cult following thanks to regional smashes like the gross-out sex jam "Slob on My Knob" and the woozy "Sippin' on Some Syrup," which helped usher in rap's codeine-high craze. By the end of 2006, they had cracked the Top 10 on Billboard's Hot 100 (with 2005's stuttering, soulful "Stay Fly"), picked up that Oscar and guest-rapped on Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/Love-Sounds. Despite all this, the duo wound up shelved by their label, Columbia, after an abortive attempt to go pop that made them some "extra-stupid money" touring overseas. (The highlight of that adventure was a goofy EDM song they cut with Dutch trance DJ Tiësto in 2009, "Feel It," which won over Euro rave kids but fizzled here.)
For a time, Juicy made peace with the enforced hiatus. "I was a little bitter with the label, but at the same time I under- stand it's business," he says. "And I don't wanna brag, but I'm rich. Super-rich. I'm not married, don't have any kids. You're looking at a dude with nothing – it's just me and cash."
Even so, he quickly grew restless. "I never considered myself a solo artist, but I was sitting at home in this big mansion in L.A., smoking weed, kicking it, doing nothing, and I was like, 'Why not?' I went in the studio. I didn't know what was gonna happen. It's a message to the person out there that wanna make it: I got bread, but I'm still out there busting my ass."
The trilogy of solo mixtapes that ensued spawned several underground hits, marked by bullying beats and Juicy J's defiantly low-concept, irresistibly fun hooks: "My mansion sittin' on 40 acres/Who the neighbors?" he chanted on one standout track. "Kobe Bryant from the Lakers!/ Now that's paper!" Juicy started performing on his own, "just trying to make show money," he says, and "trying to get the buzz back up for Three 6 Mafia."
The timing proved perfect, though, for a solo outing. Juicy realized that the style he'd been mining for years – bluntly catchy refrains barked over ominous, bottom-heavy loops – had become hip-hop's dominant sound, and he hooked up with young, in-demand producers like Lex Luger and Mike Will Made It, whose beats owe a clear debt to those Juicy was cranking out years ago for Three 6. He also noticed that his long-standing love of mind-melting narcotics had come into vogue. Fans began appearing at Juicy J shows wearing T-shirts emblazoned with one of his catch-phrases: WE TRIPPY MANE. "Now everybody's trippy," he says. "You walk in the club today, people are smoking weed, popping whatever, in their space, enjoying themselves. I don't do acid, none of them crazy drugs, but that's no disrespect to anyone who does." (Another new fan: Miley Cyrus, who twerked onstage at one of his recent shows, in a clip that quickly went viral on YouTube.)
Last year, a smoky stripper anthem called "Bandz a Make Her Dance" broke big for Juicy. "I wrote that song in the bathroom," he says. It's a zone, it turns out, of constant inspiration for him. "I'll go in the bathroom and come up with crazy ideas. I could take a piss, whatever, walk in the door, it hits me." Juicy J released "Bandz" himself online, pumping it with constant tweets and e-mail blasts, "and it started getting spins fast, with nobody even working it," he says. "Billboard was calling my agent, like, 'What is this?'" The single, which has since notched over 37 million YouTube views and sold more than a million copies, got Stay Trippy greenlighted at Sony. The album features Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Khalifa, Timberlake and executive production by teen-pop mastermind Dr. Luke. "He's one of my best friends," Juicy says. "We hang in the studio, go to a bar, talk about music."
One person he rarely sees these days is his old partner DJ Paul, although they often e-mail about their group's financial interests. "We're cool," Juicy insists. "He's a businessman like me. We've had a successful business together – now we successful on our own. We're both rich. It's all good." When asked if he sees Three 6 Mafia picking back up in the future, Juicy replies, with some evasiveness, "Right now, man, I'm really working on this album."
The beats on Stay Trippy are almost uniformly hammering and minor-key. Strippers remain Juicy's main lyrical muses and help keep him in touch, as he explains it, with the streets. "I been in the most ratchet strip clubs you can imagine - places where girls get naked, you could smoke weed and people been killed outside," he says. "I come from shit. Nigga broke? I understand, I been broke. I feel your pain. That's why I still record in hotel rooms. I'm not impressed by big studios. This is coming from a nigga who got money. I'm giving you inspiration – I use a $100 microphone, and that's the vocals you hear on iTunes, platinum."
We make our way backstage, headed for Wiz Khalifa's dressing room. Much of Stay Trippy was recorded fast and loose, Juicy says, any time the vibe felt right. "At the end of the day, niggas is gonna say, 'Juicy J don't give a fuck, he's not a diva, he's a legend, he's a genius,'" Juicy says. "'And when you meet him, he's a cool motherfucker.'" In the dressing room, he cracks open a bag of sour-cream potato chips and tilts it toward me. "You want a Ruffle?"
Across the room, Wiz Khalifa, tall and lanky in ripped gray jeans and scuffed checkerboard Vans, is doing tricks on a skateboard near a carton of doughnuts and two coolers of beer, surrounded by a half-dozen buddies and co-workers. He brought Juicy J on board as a partner in his label, Taylor Gang, in 2011, and has acted in part as the older rapper's leading ambassador to younger crowds who might not otherwise know him. "Every show on this tour, I've been asking the crowds if they want me to bring out Juicy J," Wiz says. "They freak out. Then I say, 'Well, too bad, he's on his own tour.' So tonight they're gonna go crazy that you're here."
Wiz balances the skateboard against an ottoman, plops down onto a big, felt-covered beanbag and unzips a backpack. "You wanna do a dab, Juicy?" he asks. He produces a miniature blowtorch, a water pipe fitted with a small metal cup and a folded sheet containing a sticky substance known as wax. "This is pure THC," Wiz explains. He blasts the metal cup with blue fire till it's aglow, dips in a gob of wax, draws deep from the other end of the pipe and expels a tremendous column of vapor. "Doing a dab is the equivalent of smoking, what, like, 10 blunts?" Wiz says between coughs. A guy in Wiz's entourage adds, "The last motherfucker I saw do dabs, he slid down the wall, passed out, his lips turned white, then he came to and started crawling out the room, man!"
Everyone laughs. Juicy smiles, sits on the couch and Instagrams a picture plugging his release date. The champagne and sour diesel notwithstanding, Juicy doesn't go as hard as he once did. "I've done so much," he says. "I've done groupie shit. I'm interested, but I'm more interested in getting paid." I ask if he wants a wife and kids. "I work too much," he replies, so instantly that you get the feeling it's a question he's mulled plenty. "It might never happen. I hope it does, but I been so busy. I'm stuck in those musical notes. I don't think it's a happy thing. Do I enjoy myself? Somewhat, but not all the time. It's actually kinda fucked up, but I can't get out of it. 'Where's Juicy J?' In the studio. 'Twenty years from now?' In the studio."
Wiz fires up the blowtorch and offers the pipe to Juicy J. "Maybe after the show," the older MC replies. "You got them 25-year-old lungs. I do one of those, I'm-a step out and fall right into the audience." He shakes his head, chuckling at the image. "The crowd wants me to be high," he says. "But they don't want me to be asleep."