Hookers and hustlers populate the gritty corner of 7th Street and North Memphis. A seductive brunette gyrates against a street lamp. A fight breaks out between two would-be johns. Nearby, in a shabby room soundproofed by cardboard drink holders, a few locals with hip-hop dreams try out their new rap song.
It's hardly a scene you'd expect to find inside the Kodak Theatre just days before the Academy Awards. But this year, Oscar enters new territory, making history with the show's first rap performance. Joined by a bevy of dancers, Memphis rappers Three 6 Mafia will perform their nominated song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from the film "Hustle & Flow."
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It's a big moment for Oscar and for Three 6 Mafia, who will bring their Southern style to a worldwide audience for the first time.
"We've got a lot on our shoulders," Mafia member Jordan "Juicy J" Houston told The Associated Press. "We're carrying hip-hop and Southern rap, plus our careers are at stake. But it's a blessing to be around all these big-name people."
A few taps on the high-hat and the Oscar stage becomes a Southern street corner. A torn chain-link fence reveals a beat-up garbage can and a pile of old tires. Wooden pallets lean against a brick wall. A kid with a basketball rides by on a bike. Behind him is the makeshift studio where the film's main character, played by best actor nominee Terrence Howard, rapped his dreams into song.
Only now, the studio, with its ratty chairs and ripped vinyl sofa, is filled with Houston, Paul "DJ Paul" Bauregard, Darnell "Crunchy Black" Carlton and Cedric "Frayser Boy" Coleman. "Hustle" actress Taraji P. Henson, who sang in the film, is there too, reprising her role on the song's memorable hook.
Except it took a few tries for her to get it right.
The group had to change the song's racier lyrics into more television-friendly fare. One key phrase in the chorus was cleaned-up to become "a whole lot of witches jumping ship." When Henson let the b-word slip out during a rehearsal, her face registered the mistake.
During Sunday's show, which is broadcast "live" with a five-second delay, ABC censors will no doubt have the mute button in hand.
But there's no way to silence the provocative dance style of the Krump Kings. Working girls undulate in skintight jeans and sparkly stilettos. Two Mohawked men on hands and knees, wearing spiked collars, are led out on leashes by scantily clad ladies. The guys break free and engage in a choreographed dog fight.
Show producer Gil Cates doesn't seem worried.
"It's wonderful to have representation of a different kind of music on the show," he said during the rehearsal. "It widens the interest in the Oscars and it's very relevant for 2006."
Filmmaker John Singleton, who produced "Hustle & Flow," said bringing Three 6 Mafia to the Academy Awards helps keep the show current.
"The Oscars have always been a bellwether of what's going on in the country at the time," he said. "Whether it's Henry Mancini playing 'Moon River,' or Prince won an Oscar for his score on 'Purple Rain.' So it's kind of appropriate the song got nominated. Southern hip-hop is the hottest thing going on now in pop music."