Chicago’s G Herbo effectively ignited rap Twitter three weeks ago when he shared a video of him freestyling over Three 6 Mafia’s “Who Run It” beat at Dallas radio station K104. The mere spectacle of Herb excelling on the legendary Memphis rap group’s production wasn’t a surprise, or what drove the dialogue surrounding the video. He’s been wowing fans since he was an 18-year-old trading bars with Nicki Minaj on her 2014 track “Chiraq.” But, in this clip, there was a detectable energy within the first ten seconds which indicated it was going to be something special. Herbo needed no time to adjust to the beat. He punctuated each of his bars with the phrase “or something,” which set the clip up to be a catchy track—something that freestyles rarely achieve. The arms-folded shoulder bounce that Herbo does while flowing, inspiring K104’s DJ Bay Bay to duplicate it in excitement, also gives the track something that’s proven to make singles resonate with the masses: an accompanying dance.
The most crucial element of the freestyle, which has now been released as a full song with an official video, is that Herbo is rapping over a beat produced by Juicy J and DJ Paul 19 years ago, when he was likely entering pre-school. Conversations around the relationship between rap’s newer and older generations in recent memory have been reduced to what side has lost the true vision of what hip-hop is supposed to be. It’s a limited exchange because artists like Herbo, who’d likely satisfy the ears of rap fans who don’t want their music coming from kids with colored dreads and a lack of lyrical depth, are often left hanging in limbo. With his “Who Run It” freestyle, he’s indirectly giving a history lesson to his fans and peers who might not be aware of the Three 6’s legacy beyond smash hits like “Ridin Spinners” and “Stay Fly.” And now that honorary Memphian Drake is largely responsible for the song’s full version being released, and rap stars like A$AP Rocky, Trippie Redd, and Lil Yachty have tried their hands at the beat, “Who Run It” has a chance at being 2018’s “The Race,” but with an educational twist.
Three 6 Mafia’s influence has been particularly strong for the better part of this decade, but it still feels underappreciated in the way that rap fans commemorate all-time greats. Much of A$AP Mob and Spaceghostpurrp’s aesthetics when they broke onto the scene in 2011—both musically and sartorially—tie back to the dressed-in-all-black, triplet flow horrorcore that the group popularized in the mid-90s. Last year, Juicy J’s “Slop On My Knob,” which he originally wrote as a high school junior in 1993, was sampled for both A$AP Ferg’s “Plain Jane” and G-Eazy’s “It Ain’t Safe.” Both of those songs peaked in the top 30 of Billboard’s Hot 100. This year, Memphis newcomer BlocBoy JB recruited Drake for one of the biggest debuts in recent rap history with “Look Alive.” That song samples Project Pat’s 1999 track “Out There (Blunt To My Lips),” which was also produced by Juicy J and DJ Paul. What’s especially ironic when viewing this Three 6 Mafia-embracing trend by rappers of today through the lens of typically dead-ended intergenerational dialogue, is that Juicy J’s unlikely second wind of his career has largely been due to his embracing of the youth.
That could be a lesson for Juicy’s peers who are dissatisfied with how this current crop of rappers show respect to their forefathers. Maybe there’d be more of a reciprocal relationship between different eras of the genre if—instead of antagonizing misinformed people born in the mid-to-late 90s—collaboration was regularly encouraged. But by the same token, Juicy J probably sees more of himself in the controversial youth than he does with artists who were active in his early years. Three 6 Mafia embodied what it meant to make outsiders uncomfortable. They played with the idea of Satanism for the bulk of their run and because they came out of the DIY class of southern rap, they never fit into the hip-hop that people believe is losing its honor with young rappers of today. In recent memory, collectives like Odd Future and Florida’s Raider Klan built on this kind of discomfort, in which a relationship with dark forces became part of their marketing schemes at the start of this decade. Like Three 6, Odd Future also took a style and way of life that was thought to be for outsiders, and made it mainstream. And if none of the aforementioned elements are actual factors in why the Memphis group is being honored so heavily right now, at the very least, their menacing, and sometimes chaotic, production style has transcended time periods better than most artists who were active during their prime.
The rejuvenation of “Who Run It” is just starting, though. Rap, more than any other genre, is sustained by competition and the best way to start a trend is for the person who sparked it to perform exceptionally well. A 30-second clip of G Herbo having his way with a nearly 20-year-old gem is creeping into the minds of rappers across the internet and asking themselves, “Can you outdo this?” If you know a rapper, then you know that, even if they know the answer is “no,” deep in their hearts, they’re going to try anyway. There will be rappers, international and local alike, hopping on this beat in the coming weeks. From this point forward, when you hear the “Who Run It” instrumental, you’ll have to stop in your tracks to fold your arms and move your shoulders back and forth. If nothing else, you’ll remember that most lines end with “…or something” and start reciting them. That’s the beauty of the viral rap moment. Like this song, “The Race,” and Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” a decade ago, it creates a universal language that people can speak when they may not interact otherwise.
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