10 Years, 100 Songs: #58. “It’s a Tennessee Thing…”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 11, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
No doubt one of the great underground-meets-mainsteram music moments of the Naughty Oughties came when Three 6 Mafia, they of the decade-long tenure as southern rap cult favorites, got nominated for an Oscar–short of a Newbury or Nobel Peace Prize, about the most well-recognized and prestigious award we have to give out in American pop culture. Few sights were more surreal than watching the group perform the song in a mock-musical set at the Oscars, with the guest female vocalist (who may or may not have actually been Taraji P. Henson, still not sure) subbing the word “witches” into the “‘coz there’s a whole lot of bitches jumpin’ ship” line, and then climaxing the performance with the solo “YOU KNOW IT’S HAAAAAARD…OUT HEEEEEERE…FOR A…..PI-I-I-I-I-IMMMP!!!!!!” It almost seemed like a Chappelle’s Show skit, but in a classic No One Wants To Ask Why This Is Weird Lest They Look Out of Touch moment, Three 6 not only got away with the performance, but actually won the damn thing. “I think it just got a little easier out here for a pimp!” aptly remarked host Jon Stewart.
Of course, as fun as the moment was, just about everyone who knew Three 6 Mafia agreed that the song itself was kind of corny and far from the group’s finest moment. Not that I was an old school fan of them or anything–I knew the bigger cult classics like “Tear Da Club Up” and “Sippin’ on Some Syrup,” but really, the Three 6 song that had captured my heart was their real mainstream breakthrough, “Stay Fly.” The song lacked the righteousness and arguable social conscience that might make at least slightly palatable to Academy Award voters, but there’s a reason why it was “Stay Fly” that was the actual hit song of the two–namely, that it was about a million times cooler in every respect than “Pimp.” In fact, as far as sheer zoned-out, sunglasses-at-night slick goes, you’re not going to find a song really anywhere this decade that slayed as much as this one did. And it had a subject matter explicit and unapologetic enough that even classing up a performance of it like a musical from the 20s wouldn’t have made it broadcastable on a major network.
As detailed in our #62 entry, there have been an entirely countless number of hip-hop songs devoted to the sticky-icky. I question, however, if any of them have been as ambitious, far-reaching, and downright epic as “Stay Fly” (originally titled “Stay High,” if you must know, though I always preferred the way the former sounded). I mean, my God, listen to that beat. That main sample, taken from Willie Hutch’s “Tell Me Why Has Our Love Turned Cold,” with its sweeping, high-pitched strings and faint, chanting vocals, with that booming, near-apolcayptic bass running under it…it sounds like a beat huge enough to necessitate two simultaneously turned keys to access it. It’s almost operatic in its grandiosity, the kind of beat that Puff Daddy would have killed for in his more messianic-leaning days. Three 6 Mafia could’ve been rapping about their upcoming Fantasy Football draft over it and it would still have boomed from every strip club, SUV and ironic hipster party during early 2006.
But it wasn’t just the beat that spoke to Three 6’s desire to give due to the totality of their subject matter justice in “Stay Fly.” They even enlisted some of their famous friends in the pursuit, getting Young Buck and 8Ball & MJG to show up for the party too. There’s six of ’em in all, each getting one verse (approaching the song like all the best hip-hop posse cuts), and their diversity of approach is what keeps the song humming along. If you don’t like the loud, obnoxious proclamations of DJ Paul, just hold on, because in just a handful of measures you can get to Young Buck’s more laid back, matter-of-fact style. And if all else fails, you’ve got MJG at the end as the song’s secret weapon (looking like Predator via T-Pain), whose intoxicating exuberance and verbally acrobatic delivery on the song would be undeniable ot all but the most jaded of southern rap acolytes (especially with the song’s classic final couplet “And we be like Bill Clinton, girl / Take it out yo’ mouth, we’ll shoot it down right on yo’ chest”–forever immortalizing our 42nd President’s place in hip-hop culture). But once again, the beat renders this all but irrelevant, since southern rap’s finest would all have to be actively trying to fuck this song up for it to be anything but a classic.
That said, a song this huge needs an anchor, and “Stay Fly” gets a super-fine one in the form of its fair-enough chorus: “I gotta stay [fly]-ay-ay-ay, ay-ay-ay-ay-ay / Till I die-ay-ay-ay, ay-ay-ay-ay-ay.” Not the most creative of hooks, no doubt, but one catchy, simple and understandable enough to be impossible to resist chanting along to while listening in any social situation. It even does an excellent job of belying the song’s stoner nature, as the monotone, scratch-repeated “ay-ay-ay” part of the hook will instantly remind any ‘heads listening of the plateaued, untouchable nature of a decent pot buzz. One should also not neglect the importance of the video in the song’s appeal, as it presented “Stay Fly” as something of a community effort, keeping the clip exciting by constantly moving the action from hotel to limo to club and back, like the entire city was in on the fun. Equally importantly, it did lesser-informed listeners such as myself the favor of introducing the song’s cast of characters in a clear, one-at-a-time manner–nothing more embarrassing than mixing up your 8Balls and Juicy J’s.
Three 6 Mafia’s Oscar win did not necessarily have a profound impact on much of anything, aside from the fact that the boys could now shout “THREE 6 MA-FI-A! ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS!!” at the beginning of later hit “Doe Boy Fresh” without fear of legal action (which also makes me wish that the group could have a two-second cameo in some upcoming Merchant-Ivory-esque flick, so the previews and DVD box could say “Featuring Oscar Winners Anthony Hopkins, Hillary Swank, Marcia Gay Harden and Three Six Mafia”). And regrettably, despite the huge success of “Stay Fly” (a #13 pop hit, and it felt a lot bigger), the trio appears to be heading back in the direction of underground status (or as they somewhat inspiredly put it, Most Known Unknowns). It’s probably for the best–before you know it, they’ll be using their epic beats and famous friends for weightier causes like the health care crisis, the floundering economy, and the divorce of Jon and Kate Gosselin. We’ll stick with the weed, thanks.
(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)
The List So Far:
100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite”
79. Nas – “Made You Look”
78. Royksopp – “Eple”
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha”
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)”
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet”
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz”
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes”
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle”
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps”
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot”
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone”
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!”
67. Incubus – “Stellar”
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together”
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard”
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie”
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure”
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite”
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get”
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity”
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan”
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly”