Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself,’ from the 2002 film 8 Mile, was the first rap song ever nominated for an Oscar. It won. Three years later, Three 6 Mafia’s ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp’ became the second rap nominee (and winner). 2014’s Selma won its sole Oscar for ‘Glory,’ a rap song written and performed by John Legend and Common.
Three for three. No musical genre is more sure-fire. Clearly, if you want to win a Best Original Song Oscar, you just have to get a rap song nominated. Of course, that’s the hard part.
Of those winners, Three 6 Mafia’s ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp’ was the biggest surprise. Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow was very well-received, and earned Terrence Howard a Best Actor nomination for his breakthrough role, but could anyone have expected a trio of Memphis rappers writing about the difficulties of the pimping life to take home Oscar gold?
I was thrilled by this win, because of how delightfully unexpected it was, but also because the song played such an integral role in the film.
The scene embedded below shows how the song comes to life, with Memphis drug dealer and pimp Djay enlisting an old friend with radio connections to record one of his raps. One of his prostitutes, Shug (the wonderful Taraji P. Henson), sings the hook. It’s thrilling to see the spark that lights in Shug when she first hears herself on tape.
I’ve often been a rap naysayer on this blog, but I love how this scene captures the power of hip-hop as a creative outlet for a hustler like Djay.
You know it’s hard out here for a pimp (you ain’t knowin)
When he tryin to get this money for the rent (you ain’t knowin)
For the Cadillacs and gas money spent (you ain’t knowin)
 Because a whole lot of bitches talkin shit (you ain’t knowin)
 Will have a whole lot of bitches jumpin ship (you ain’t knowin)
In my eyes I done seen some crazy thangs in the streets
Gotta couple hoes workin on the changes for me
But I gotta keep my game tight like Kobe on game night
Like takin from a ho don’t know no better, I know that ain’t right
Done seen people killed, done seen people deal
Done seen people live in poverty with no meals
It’s fucked up where I live, but that’s just how it is
It might be new to you, but it’s been like this for years
It’s blood sweat and tears when it come down to this shit
I’m tryin to get rich ‘fore I leave up out this bitch
I’m tryin to have thangs but it’s hard fo’ a pimp
But I’m prayin and I’m hopin to God I don’t slip, yeah
Man it seems like I’m duckin dodgin bullets everyday
Niggas hatin on me cause I got, hoes on the tray
But I gotta stay paid, gotta stay above water
Couldn’t keep up with my hoes, that’s when shit got harder
North Memphis where I’m from, I’m 7th Street bound
Where niggas all the time end up lost and never found
Man these girls think we prove thangs, leave a big head
They come hopin every night, they don’t end up bein dead
Wait I got a snow bunny, and a black girl too
You pay the right price and they’ll both do you
That’s the way the game goes, gotta keep it strictly pimpin
Gotta have my hustle tight, makin change off these women, yeah