As a young producer for Three 6 Mafia, the long-running Memphis rap group with a gift for grimy, bulldozing beats and brawling hooks, DJ Paul was offered the chance to perform in Russia. He declined.
“I was young at the time, and I turned down the show because I heard the weather was bad, it was cold all the time,” the producer explains. “I always had a thing about Russia because of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV — ‘the Russians don’t like us, man,’ that’s what I used to think. But I was a kid watching too much shit on TV. Made me miss some money!”
He’s not making this mistake a second time. In the last few years, a group of Russian producers, including Kaito Shoma, Pharmacist, and Lxst Cxntury, have been crafting singles that are heavily indebted to vintage DJ Paul productions, embedding snippets of classic Memphis tracks deep in instrumentals that roll like army tanks, slow and imperious. As these songs have started to amass millions of streams, DJ Paul is seeking out these young artists halfway across the world, partnering up to help them officially release music that relies on previously uncleared samples and working on new tunes together.
“It sounds like my childhood stuff,” DJ Paul says of the music being made by his young Russian disciples. “It reminds me of when I was a teenager in high school creating all those sounds.”
Though Three 6 Mafia never enjoyed much in the way of commercial hits — they cracked the Top 40 just three times — the slow tempos, triplet flows, gloomy atmospheres, and hyper-active drums in their 1990s releases all helped pave new roads for southern hip-hop. Now that foundational elements popularized in Memphis, Houston, Miami and elsewhere have infiltrated pretty much every genre of popular music, Three Six Mafia have become one of hip-hop’s most significant groups, an ensemble sitting in the middle of a wide, sticky web of influence.
Their sound helped spawned prolific scenes in Florida (Raider Klan) and New York (the A$AP Mob); massive stars like Drake and Cardi B have also paid homage. (Some acts have been forced to acknowledge their debt to Three 6 Mafia through legal means — Travis Scott settled with DJ Paul in 2019 after lifting a chant from one of the producer’s older tracks.) Three 6 Mafia’s “beats were some of the most advanced,” high-powered producer Metro Boomin told GQ in 2018.
One of the latest branches on the tree of Three 6 Mafia’s influence has been branded phonk, a term that has been in use for several years. Ryan Celsius, a Memphis hip-hop mega-fan whose YouTube channel has amassed more than half a million subscribers, identifies at least two prominent strains of the sound. He describes “the Florida-influenced stuff” as “rare phonk,” which relies on “more of a cleaner, almost mainstream trap sound.” “The vocals are still on top of the main mix and you can hear what the rapper’s saying,” Celsius notes.
In contrast, he refers to the Russian version of the sound currently gaining popularity in some corners of the internet as “drift phonk,” partially because “the visual aesthetic is related to street racing.” There are sonic differences between the two strands as well. Unlike the crisper sounds from Florida, in drift phonk, the Memphis samples are buried under blown-out drums, according to Tyler Blatchley, co-founder of Black 17 Media, the label that has distributed some of DJ Paul’s solo singles.
Producers “sometimes have the vocals so distorted and filtered you can’t really hear what the person’s saying,” Blatchley continues. “But you can hear the Memphis cadence; it’s like another instrument they use.”
Though other artists indebted to Three 6 Mafia’s style, including Ghostemane and $uicideBoy$, can sell more than 3,000 tickets at a single show in Russia, casual listeners might still be surprised to hear about the latest continent-crossing musical exchange, only possible in this hyper-connected era: young producers in Russia devoting themselves to a black art form dense on regional slang and spoken in a language they may not even understand.
But DJ Paul doesn’t bat an eye. “Our sound’s popular everywhere right now,” he says. (He predicted this would happen on the 2000 track “Just Like Ous:” “They wanna dress like/Wanna sound like… the motherfuckin’ Three 6.”) “There’s not one single person in the world not doing the Three 6 sound, New York to Amsterdam to Norway,” the producer adds.
That being said, DJ Paul’s connection with his Russian admirers is a recent occurrence. Late last year, Blatchley stumbled across a track by a Russian act as it was going viral on TikTok. Kaito Shoma’s “Scary Garry” is just 100 eerie seconds, punctuated by horror-house laughs, garbled jabs of distortion, and barely intelligible Memphis chants. It has been used in more than 550,000 TikTok videos, often creepy clips where the main character is ambushed suddenly by a ghost-like figure.
“I recognized the samples as Memphis, Three 6 Mafia stuff,” Blatchley says. “Scary Garry” wasn’t available on Spotify or Apple Music, but it had already earned several million plays on YouTube. “That’s when I showed it to Paul,” Blatchley continues. “I bet if we put this up on Spotify, it’ll do well, because the trend is growing.”
DJ Paul agreed to clear the samples of his music; “Scary Garry” is now on all streaming services credited to him, Kaito Shoma, and the Memphis vocalist Kingpin Skinny Pimp. The track has already picked up more than 13 million streams on Spotify.
For a more agitated take on this sound, try the Russian producer Pharmacist, whose “North Memphis” recently topped the 20 million stream threshold on Spotify. Lxst Century’s “Odium” (15 million on Spotify) already seems ready to soundtrack energy drink commercials; while Ghostface Playa’s “I Don’t Give a Fuck” (5 million on Spotify) is certain to ignite rowdy mosh-pits. Black 17 Media, a partner of Sony Orchard, is now distributing “Scary Garry,” “North Memphis,” and three other songs each from Kaito Shoma and Pharmacist. Blatchley brokered all the deals over the last four months.
Why are these songs surging now? Both Blatchley and Celsius believe the timing may have to do with technological developments: Not only the increasing influence of TikTok, which emerged as a force in 2019, but also Spotify’s launch in Russia in the summer of 2020. These factors combine to make it easier for Russian tributes to 30-year-old Memphis rap mixtapes to reach a growing audience on faraway shores. “I think that’s causing a lot of the buzz right now,” Celsius says.
That buzz is likely to grow further since DJ Paul has gotten involved. While he doesn’t use the label “phonk” — “for us it’s just Mafia music, Memphis music” — he’s planning to record new songs with Lxst Century and is in conversations with Shoma about collaborating as well.
DJ Paul is also finally ready to visit Russia. “I hope the end result of this,” he says, “is being able to go over and perform some of these records with the guys.”