Some music rains down on us from above in Bieber and Rihanna-sized droplets. Other sounds bubble up from the streets. That’s where Three 6 Mafia’s Juicy J got his start. Juicy J, a.k.a. Jordan Houston, worked his way up with his buddy DJ Paul (Paul Beauregard) the old-school way, beginning in the early ’90s.

Back when the hip-hop world was focused on the two, feuding coastal scenes, Juicy J and DJ Paul’s Memphis crew started bringing local and regional rappers into their studio in an attempt to create a brand and promote their hometown. For Juicy J, not much has changed.

“It’s the same thing I’m doing now. I’m still bringing people in,” the Memphis rapper says. “It makes your brain bigger as a team.”

Known for their club bangers and their over-the-top “horror-core” gangsta rap, Three 6 scored an improbable Academy Award in 2005 for their song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from the movie Hustle and Flow. It helped turn their subsequent album that year, Most Known Unknown, into a multi-platinum success. Hell, they even had their own MTV reality show, Adventures in Hollyhood. It was soon cancelled. In the movies, they call this foreshadowing.

Not even Juicy J’s bandmates realized it. However, the band’s 2008 record, Last 2 Walk, didn’t even go gold. Juicy J feels vindicated in that he knew it wouldn’t last.

“That’s just how it is. I’m a musician and a producer, so I know music, ya know? I was right,” he says. “It was great at the time, and then that was over. So I mean, it is what it is. I don’t regret anything. I evolve. I made lots of money. I make even more money now. Everything is great. At the time, it worked, and now it’s a different thing. It’s 2012. Everything’s different.”

Since then Three 6 Mafia has released one more album (2010’s Laws of Power) while Juicy J released his second solo album (2009’s appropriately titled Hustle Till I Die) with a third, Still Trippy, due next year. He’s whetted appetites with several mix tapes, including a couple last year with white-hot producer-du-jour Lex Luger (Waka Flocka Flame, Wiz Khalifa).

Today, Juicy J is riding high on his successful summertime strip club anthem with Lil Wayne, “Bands a Make Her Dance.” The track uses a beat Juicy J earmarked for the song because it fit the vibe.

“Anytime I hear anything that catches my ear, I just go for it. I don’t think about it, I just make it happen,” he says. “It just reminded me of a slow-jam beat, and that’s how I wanted to make this song. I want this song to be … a song that chicks could dance to slowly and that was the perfect beat that went right with the song.”

The single arrived as part of Juicy J’s Blue Dream and Lean mixtape, which showcased a slower, switched up delivery and a new focus heavy on weed and psychedelics (e.g. “Drugged Out,” “Get Higher,” “Juicy J Can’t (Say No),” “Geeked Up on Them Bars,” “You Trippy Mane”). It’s a prelude to Stay Trippy, for which Juicy J spent more time revisiting his Memphis roots.

“I live in Los Angeles and I live in Memphis, but I went back to spend a little more time there ’cause that’s where I made my hit songs,” says Juicy J. “I went back to get a vibe.”

While it’s possible to go home again, you won’t find it the same, and that holds true for the music business as well. It’s changed dramatically since Juicy J started more than two decades ago. He makes no bones about how the internet has simultaneously made it easier and much, much harder to make it in the biz.

“Back then we’d sell our mixes out of the trunk. Now everything’s online. You post your mixtape up. There’s good music, people are going to go download it. It’s so easy to get,” he says. “Back then, you didn’t have to work so hard. Let me put it this way, you could put CDs out, and you could sell your CDs out the trunk, and then actually turn around and sell records. Now everything is free and some people don’t get a chance to sell any records. They might have a buzz, but they don’t sell no records.”

Don’t expect any tears from Juicy J. He’s a hustler, and if there’s one thing a hustler doesn’t do, it’s complain about the game. He’s too busy getting his grind on. And that’s exactly what Juicy J suggests when we ask him what’s happening these days. “I just stay in the studio and stay working. That’s what I’ve been doing since day one. And that’s what I’m going to keep on doing. Never change, everything the same.”

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