“It was fifteen years ago, and I still don’t believe it,” says DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia, possibly the most shocking Oscar winners in history. The Memphis-spawned hip-hop group won Best Original Song in 2006 for the theme track from the Terence Howard-starring film “Hustle & Flow,” which bears the spectacularly unsubtle title of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”
It’s safe to say the Academy Awards had never seen anything like the group’s performance on the show, either. There was an elaborate, Oscar-level set themed around the film with dancers and dazzling lights, but there was also Three 6 Mafia swaggering across the stage in street wear while the film’s co-star Taraji P. Henson belted the song’s chorus, resplendent in a glamorous white dress and heels.
After the win was announced (with unadulterated delight) by Queen Latifah, the group — Juicy J, DJ Paul and Frayser Boy, L-R above, joined onstage by Crunchy Black — burst out from the side of the stage like ecstatic fans running onto the field after a surprise football victory, laughing and hugging and whooping and giving an impromptu (and largely unintelligible, due to their heavy Memphis accents) acceptance speech. Most remarkably, they’d defeated not only “In the Deep” by Bird York — from the night’s top-winning film, “Crash” — but also fellow Tennessean Dolly Parton, who send them a congratulatory note, saying she was glad the Oscar went to their home state.
Apart from the group, the person possibly most dazzled by the win was show host Jon Stewart, who, after quipping “You know, I think it just got a little bit easier out here for a pimp,” referenced their enthusiasm several times during the show. “How come they’re the most excited people here?,” he asked the glittering audience in a slightly scolding tone. “Now that’s how you accept an Oscar!”
The film, written directed by Memphis native Craig Brewer and produced by the late John Singleton (“Boys N the Hood,” “Poetic Justice”), still represents the high-water mark for street-level hip-hop at the Oscars. Eminem’s “8 Mile” won Best Song three years earlier, as did Common in 2015 (for “Glory,” which has an Oscar-friendly social-justice theme), but “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” is a complete anomaly in Academy Awards history.
After their victory, Three 6 Mafia had a flush few years, with two platinum albums and tours across the globe, and then took a break to develop their solo careers before reforming regularly for tours. Of the core duo, Juicy J (real name: Jordan Houston) has been successful as both a rapper and a producer: He produced three songs on Megan Thee Stallion’s debut and recently dropped a solo album called “The Hustyle Continues,” he’s also worked with Drake, A$AP Rocky, Nicki Minaj, Lil Baby, Ty Dolla $ign and is featured on Katy Perry’s 2013 smash “Dark Horse.” DJ Paul (Paul Beauregard) has collaborated with Yelawolf, Riff Raff, Gucci Mane and recently recorded several songs with Killer Mike; he’s also got a couple of solo EPs on the way, is a co-owner of the gaming and e-sports platform Faze Clan, and is opening a restaurant in Beverly Hills.
Fifteen years later, the two remember their “unreal” Oscar night, and the days before and after. (The conversations have been edited for clarity and flow.)
DJ Paul: How it originally started was, in 2001 we made these [direct to video] movies called “Choices” that we produced and starred in and scored. John Singleton was in my hotel room once and was like, “I would love to do a straight ‘hood movie like that in the South,” and Craig Brewer always said he wanted to work with us, so there was always talk from both of them about doing something with us.
Juicy J: We wrote a song for a Singleton movie called “Baby Boy,” he loved it and used it in the movie. Later on he said, “Craig Brewer is writing and directing a movie called ‘Hustle and Flow,’ I’m producing it and I want you to write some music for it.” He gave us the script and talked about the movie, it’s about a pimp having a hard time in the rap game, blah blah blah. From there we got the idea for the hook on “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” and went to the studio and finished the rest. He wanted us to do the whole soundtrack but they didn’t have enough money (laughs).
I found out we were nominated for the Oscar at like five in the morning, my phone was ringin’ ringin’ ringin’ ringin’. I answered — I can’t remember if John or Craig called me first, but I think it was John saying, “Congrats n—a! You got nominated for an Oscar!” I was like “What?!” I called Paul, then I immediately called my mom.
DJ Paul: I was layin’ in bed and Jay called me: “Hey, we’re nominated for an Oscar!” I didn’t really know what it meant so I was like, “Let me call you when I wake up.” I laid back down and I Googled it and saw the gold man — I knew what that was, and that it was big, so I called him right back, like, “Holy shit! We’re nominated for this? For what?”
Juicy J: I called my mom, “Hey mama, I got nominated for an Oscar!” But my daddy was actually having surgery that day, so she said, “Boy, you’d better get your butt down to the hospital, he’s about to go into the operating room!” When I got down to the hospital she was like, “I thought about what you said — you got nominated for an Oscar? That’s huge!” My dad couldn’t believe it — he had just got out of surgery so he was in some pain, but he was happy and said he was proud of me and loved me. In the beginning my parents didn’t [support his musical efforts], they thought I was wasting my time: “That stuff ain’t gonna last.” I’d always tell them I was gonna be a big musician and producer and be rich as hell. My dad was like, “Boy, you crazy.”
DJ Paul: My lawyer called and said, “Hey, the producers want to talk to you guys about performing on the Oscars.” “Holy shit, you serious?” So we flew out to L.A. to meet with them. We went to some office in Century City and they told us what to expect if it all goes down: “You can’t sell the award, you can’t do this and that,” they took us through the whole process. I asked [the late, longtime Academy Awards producer] Gil Cates, “So do you want us to wear suits when we perform?” and he started laughing. I think he was getting some shits and giggles out of it, like “I’m gonna shake this shit up!” He was a really cool dude.
Juicy J: We rehearsed for a few days before, going over and over and over the routine. The stage had this like, ditch, and if you looked down you could see the orchestra under the stage. That’s why we had to keep rehearsing: If you made a wrong turn you would have fell down into the orchestra.
DJ Paul: All these executives were watching us rehearse.
Juicy J: You could tell they were thinking, “These guys are gonna curse.” When we did the rehearsal, about 30 people from the network came in together, pens and pads with them, and all sat down at the same time. We performed, and they stood up and walked straight out, they didn’t clap, they didn’t do shit. I don’t really know what they was doin’ but they was watchin’ us, so we didn’t curse at all. But you could tell, whoever had the mute button was ready: “Hit the button! They gonna say something crazy!”
DJ Paul: They seated me next to George Clooney at the Oscar luncheon at the Beverly Hilton before the show. He was the reason why I got all these tattoos — I was sitting at home watching one night watching “From Dusk Till Dawn,” which is one of my favorite movies, and I saw all these tattoos that he had. I immediately called my boys and we went to the tattoo shop at like one in the morning and I tried to mimic his tattoos. But then I looked at George and he didn’t even have tattoos! I told him that whole story, he was laughing. He was really cool.
Juicy J: At my table I sat next to Tim Burton, with the crazy hair? That dude’s legendary as hell, he was cool as fuck.
DJ Paul: On the night of the show, we sat in the audience until right before it was time for us to go on. They came and got us, and we went to the dressing room and changed out of our suits into street wear for the [performance], and then changed back into our suits after.
Juicy J: We had to keep [the performance] clean — normally we would have had a lot of cuss words and drinking.
DJ Paul: Was I nervous? Hell yeah! We had Nicole Kidman in the front row — I’m not used to that at my shows.
Juicy J: I was nervous as fuck, I ain’t gonna lie to you, man. I kept thinking, “If I mess up, I’m gonna be a laughing stock on national television.” (laughs) We’d said we weren’t gonna drink before going onstage, but Paul said “Hey man, step in the bathroom with me right quick.” He pulled out a bottle, “I know we said we wasn’t gonna drink, but let’s go ahead and take a shot,” so we took a shot together.
Then I was in there doin’ pushups just to get my blood flowin’, I ain’t never been that nervous in my entire life. Then we walk onto the stage and I’m off to the side doin’ pushups and the curtain goes up! (laughing) I get up and I see Jamie Foxx out in the crowd, “Yeah! Three 6 Mafia!” Then I felt good.
DJ Paul: When I looked in the front row and Jamie Foxx gave us a thumbs-up, I was like, we must be doing something right. It was super cool.
Juicy J: I ain’t gonna lie: I got almost close to [falling into the orchestra]. My cue was to turn around, and I remember looking down and seeing the orchestra. But we’d rehearsed hard and made it happen. The dancers and everything, everybody did a great job.
DJ Paul: All of us were gonna go back to the dressing room, but they were like, “No, you have to wait here on the side of the stage because you might win.” I was like, hell, we ain’t gonna win. But I looked over and they had this, like, cart with a couple of shelves, and there were three Oscars on the top. I’m thinking, we’re the only song that had three writers on it, we’re finin’ to win. And [the stagehand] saw me looking over, and she took one and put it on a bottom shelf to fake me out.
I told Juicy — he didn’t wanna look at all — like, “Juicy! We finin’ to win!,” but he just kept looking straight ahead, “How you know?” “There’s three Oscars on the top … wait, now there’s two.” “Aw, shit.” But then she pushed the whole cart to the other side of the stage where Queen Latifah was at.
Juicy J: We was up against Dolly Parton, how is Three 6 Mafia gonna beat Dolly Parton? I don’t know if you can see it on [the video] but I’m nervous as fuck, movin’ my thumbs and biting my lips. Then they called our names.
DJ Paul: We went crazy, we was happy as hell. My lawyer/manager at the time had given me a piece of paper with a list of people to thank, but I threw it away because I was like, “We’re not gonna win.” But I wished I still had it because [in the acceptance speech], I named everybody in the world except for people who had something to do with it — I didn’t even name John Singleton or Craig Brewer, and they made the whole movie! I was namin’ people I’d just met, I named George Clooney just because he was cool when I met him. I hate that I didn’t name them, Craig Brewer, and rest in peace, John Singleton — thank you for everything.
Juicy J: It just seemed unreal to me. We didn’t prepare no speech because we didn’t think we was gonna win. We said the first things that came into our minds — I said thank you to Jesus, Paul thanked George Clooney. I still couldn’t believe it, we walked offstage and I’m saying “Did we really win??”
DJ Paul: I’ve still got the envelope framed with the [winning announcement] and the Oscar luncheon invite and the ticket.
Juicy J: I was ready to party, “Let’s get drunk and meet some beautiful actresses!”
DJ Paul: You know how after the Oscars are over you go upstairs to the Governors Ball? A million people were calling me but the only person I answered the phone for was my mama. She loved the movie “Grease” and when she called I was getting on the elevator and John Travolta was there, “Mama, guess who I’m in the elevator with?”
Juicy J: We met so many people that night —Will Smith, John Travolta, I was waiting for my limo standing next to Steven Speilberg. He lit up a cigar and said congratulations.
DJ Paul: What’s the big magazine that always has a big Oscar party? Vanity Fair? Went there, saw Russell Simmons, saw Salma Hayek — she was pissed at me! I’m a huge fan because she was in “From Dusk Till Dawn” too, and I went up to her and was telling her what a big fan I was. She said to me, “You know all of your brothers and sisters in Africa are dying because of these blood diamonds you’re wearing.” I was like [sad trombone sound]. I had on like an $85,000 watch and all this platinum jewelry, I was shining! But she didn’t like that, that’s when that “Blood Diamonds” movie was out. I was like “Okay, nice to meet you,” I’m gonna get away, this is getting weird.
Juicy J: I wasn’t even listening — Salma Hayek was like “Didn’t people die for those diamonds in your mouth?,” but the whole time I was just looking at how pretty she was. I was starstruck, like “Salma Hayek’s talkin’ to me!,” but she was talking about the diamonds in my mouth.
DJ Paul: And then I pissed off the lady from “Sin City” [Carla Gugino], she got mad at me because I didn’t hold the door for her when I was walking in. I would have, I open the car door for my girl and everything, but I was trying to get in there without dropping this Oscar! She looked at me just frowning, I was like damn, I messed this one up too (laughing).
And even after all that, I still ended up bonking my Oscar’s head anyway! I bumped it up against my partner’s Oscar and it’s got a big scratch on its head now. I call my Oscar “Scarface.” He’s got a little smile scratch on his head, so if anybody ever steals my Oscar, I’ll know it was mine.
Juicy J: Then we tried to go to this big Oscars party Prince was having at this big-ass white house in Beverly Hills, and they wouldn’t let us in! We had the Oscars in our hands but they was like, “Nah.” “Come on man, I love Prince! Damn!” (laughing) I still don’t know why they wouldn’t let us in.
DJ Paul: And to make it worse, the next day we heard he performed in the living room and did encore after encore till like four in the morning! I was like damn, I missed a free Prince show and a tour of his house. Him and John Singleton were friends, but John was the one who went to the door and they came back and said “No, y’all can’t come in.” I don’t know, man. He probably didn’t want any competition for all them women up in there! (laughing) He was tryin’ to hog ‘em!
Juicy J: Everything happened so fast, my mind was racing that night. I got free room service, got into clubs for free, I got upgraded to a better hotel — it was so nice, if you want some food, just push a button; you want sushi at five in the morning, they’ll make it for you. We got free everything: any restaurant, I’d set that Oscar down, “What would you guys like? Everything is on the house.” The power of the Oscar, man.
DJ Paul: I woke up in my hotel room the next morning with my housecoat on and a bottle of champagne in my hand, and the phone ringing because the Hollywood Reporter or somebody was calling for an interview and taking pictures of us. Then we did some interviews and flew back home.
When we landed there was so many people in the airport waiting for us, there was applause, the minute we stepped off the airplane people started going crazy, it was almost like a little parade at the airport for us. It was crazy.
Juicy J: When we got back to Memphis, Dolly Parton actually sent us a letter congratulating us and signed it, saying she was just happy [the award] came back to Tennessee.
DJ Paul: I’ve only seen our performance once in my whole life — I’m just like that. When we make videos I see them when we’re making them and approve them, and that’s it. I don’t listen to our records, I don’t have my plaques on the wall. Why? I want to feel like I don’t have them — so I can stay hungry, y’know?
Juicy J: It was a dream come true, man. We had never won nothing in our entire lives and then we were international stars overnight. Everything got bigger, we did shows overseas, got a lotta good money and beautiful women. It motivated me even more: If I can win an Oscar, I can do anything in life.
DJ Paul: I was reading about some actress who keeps her Oscar on the top of the toilet in her bathroom so all her guests can see it. I was like, “That’s a pretty scary place to keep an Oscar.” Don’t toilets shake when you flush ‘em? Or somebody would steal it — my friends would steal it. Hell, some of my best friends would steal it.
Juicy J: I’ve told these stories a lot, but I like telling them because I want people to understand: I came from nothin’, six people living in a two-bedroom apartment in the hood, just trying to hustle and make it — and I haven’t stopped! I’m looking around now [at trophies]: I got a gold solo album, a couple of American Music Awards, MTV VMA Awards, Katy Perry sold over 20 million records, everything I done with Megan, A$AP Rocky, Travis Scott, Drake, Nicki Minaj. And I’ve invested my money, I didn’t take it all and spend it on a chain. Ain’t nothing wrong with jewelry, but invest it for the future and your kids. I’m still out here rollin’, man — my goal is to do film score next. Hell, I might get another Oscar!
DJ Paul: I’m still trying to figure out how it happened. It was just so out of the ordinary, one of those out-of-nowhere, boom-in-your-face kinda things. Common won, and John Legend, but that I can see. But us? Some gangsta dudes winning an Oscar with a song about pimpin’? Nobody saw that one coming.