Try to name all of your favorite Rap groups from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Instinctively, most of us can rattle off enough names to run out of breath before actually needing to think. Acts such as Group Home and Camp Lo inevitably slip your mind. A fleeting thought of The Pharcyde somehow reminds you of Tha Alkaholiks, and then, “Where the hell is my Dogg Food album?” A kid in New Jersey might favor The Artifacts, while my Shaolinian primacy demands greater respect for The UMCs.
Now try to list your favorite groups from any time after 2000. Need a minute?
Despite the presence of some captivating talents such as Elzhi (a former member of the beloved Detroit collective Slum Village), Lupe Fiasco, and Hopsin, an undeniable sense of dissatisfaction pervades much of Hip Hop’s core audience these days. Knee-jerk, stuck-in-the-‘90s traditionalists (myself included, to an extent) often attribute that lingering disenchantment to an abundance of superficial subject matter and simplistic rhymes. But the artists mentioned above, and a few not mentioned here, easily nullify such thoughts about the current scene.
Nevermind a debate about the substance and standards of one era versus another. It’s not about preference-based conclusions; it’s about Hip Hop missing something tangible—one of its most distinct, elemental aspects. This unprecedented void of traditional Hip Hop groups provides an explanation, a partial one at least, for the perception of inferior quality. Books and Drayz might have had successful solo careers, but would any Das Efx fan want to live in a world without Straight Up Sewaside or Hold It Down? H.N.I.C. was a dope album, but right now an estranged Mobb Deep might be cheating us out of another The Infamous or Hell On Earth.
To be fair, we’ve seen the rise of some praiseworthy crews recently, such as Odd Future and Pro Era. But they’re crews, not groups. They have more of a Juice Crew / D.I.T.C. vibe than Wu-Tang, or even Heltah Skeltah. Remember, the Boot Camp Clik collective began as a crew of separate groups.
When I interviewed Slaughterhouse about four years ago, I realized that the then, newly formed “supergroup” had actually ended a fairly significant drought of new Rap groups. As a collaboration of established soloists, we were already somewhat familiar with their capabilities. Aside from Slaughterhouse and the above-mentioned crews, Hip Hop hasn’t seen a debut from any significantly capable group since the Twin Towers still ruled New York City’s skyline.
Little Brother And The Tradition Of Hip Hop Groups
In August of 2001, rappers Phonte, Big Pooh and producer 9th Wonder, released their debut single, “Speed.” The trio called themselves, Little Brother, because they intended to carry on the tradition of groups likes Public Enemy and De La Soul.
“They were like our big brothers in the game,” Phonte said back in 2003. “Now they got a little brother following in their footsteps and carrying on the tradition of good music.”
In the years between the Run-DMC era and Little Brother’s emergence, there was the ‘90s, a decade highlighted by rugged, fiercely poetic duos, crews, and cliques. Sound evolved and subject matter changed to reflect the times, but the tradition persisted.
“Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow and them passed the torch to us,” Whodini’s Jalil said in the 1997 film Rhyme & Reason. “Us and Run-DMC, LL Cool J had it, passed it on with Rakim, Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions...They passed it on to who’s getting it, you got EPMD comin out, then you got A Tribe Called Quest comin’ out…The torch is going on, to the next one and goin’ on.”
Hip Hop’s Westward expansion in the ‘80s evolved into a generation of regionally distinct styles in the ‘90s. When Dr. Dre and Ice Cube established respective solo careers, Eazy-E went and found Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, who have secured Cleveland, Ohio’s inclusion in Hip Hop history. Meanwhile, the Southernplayalistic sounds of Outkast and Goodie Mob rose from the bottom of the map.
“We were nothing but a spinoff of Public Enemy and N.W.A. mixed all in one,” Goodie Mob’s T-Mo told Maurice G. Garland after the group’s 2009 reunion. “We followed them. There’s groups that followed us, too. We raised these groups that are out right now.”
Little Brother stepped into the new millennium with classic material on deck and seemingly boundless potential. Pooh and Phonte filled a lyrical void, while 9th Wonder laced tracks with an airy, boom-bap sound that evoked Pete Rock and Ski. The group released their critically acclaimed—though weakly promoted—debut album The Listening in 2003, which led to a major label deal with Atlantic Records.
Tension began while recording their major label debut, The Minstrel Show, and it is widely believed that tension ultimately lead to the group’s demise. An outside demand for 9th Wonder’s talent grew. And while his time restrictions and limited contributions may not have been the underlying cause of their split, it was one of L.B.’s earliest public displays of internal turmoil.
Little Brother still excelled as an emcee duo, despite the departure of their most prominent member and in-house producer. It should be noted that aside from a brief Twitter spat and some press speculation, the reason behind the split has remained, for the most part, a mystery. Although the story lacks an easily identifiable cause for 9th’s departure, the broad sentiment seems obvious. The inevitability that their business relationship would corrupt their friendship drove Phonte and Pooh to a mutual disbandment after the release of Little Brother’s 2010 album, LeftBack.
"If you're doing business with a friend, you gotta decide, well, do I end this business relationship and keep my friendship?” Phonte told the Village Voice in 2010. “Or do I continue this business relationship and end up wrecking both?"
Oddly enough, the tradition that inspired Little Brother seems to have expired with them.
The Financial Benefits Of Being A Solo Artist
So if the tradition is dead, then who or what killed it? Was it the corporate types, apathetic conformists or maybe the vanity-driven egoism of artists incapable of recognizing how a partner can complement their own distinct abilities? Does anyone want to listen to a solo Greg Nice or Smooth B album?
Most likely, a combination of all of the above steered artists away from the tradition. The recurring narrative of bitter break-ups and ruined friendships certainly didn’t help. Major label aversion toward traditional Hip Hop groups might have further depleted whatever incentive remained.
The “industry” is always the easiest scapegoat. Arguing that corporate interests ended a tradition of critically acclaimed and marginally commercially successful Hip Hop groups over-simplifies reality. But to totally dismiss such an argument would be naïve. Corporate interests are inclined to value high-selling mediocrity over substance that only generates moderate sales regardless of medium or genre. And with the overall decline in record sales, radio-friendly, ringtone jingles become essential for mere consideration from a major label.
I think The Minstrel Show’s poor sales might have impacted Atlantic in a way that lead to the label’s mishandling of Saigon and Lupe Fiasco preceding the release of Lasers. Logically, why would a label continue giving artists enough freedom to make great music that doesn’t sell, when conforming to marketable trends seems far more conducive to the bottom line? The most effective strategy would be to control the content of soloists and not waste time with groups, which despite a few exceptions have never displayed much monetary value.
Little Brother produced a widely revered, classic album that floundered on the charts. The Minstrel Show peaked at #56 and spent only three weeks on Billboard magazine’s Top 200 Albums chart. That same year, one of 50 Cent’s more forgettable efforts, The Massacre, hit #1 and remained on the chart for over a year.
To be fair, the mishandling of group efforts wasn’t just limited to boom-bap era outfits like Little Brother. Boyz N Da Hood, one of the only traditional groups to come out after Little Brother, further validated any major label skepticism. The solo career of former member Young Jeezy dwarfed the moderate success achieved by the group. Anyone could have easily read this as an ominous blunder on P. Diddy’s behalf.
Signed to Diddy’s Bad Boy Records, the group’s debut and sophomore albums peaked at #5 and #51 respectively, on Billboard’s Top 200 chart. Jeezy’s Def Jam debut peaked at #2, followed by two consecutive #1 albums.
All relevant signs pointed to the dominant solo rapper who could grab his nuts and proclaim sole occupancy of G.O.A.T. status. To further illustrate, just look at Lil Wayne’s post-Hot Boys success and the recent ascendency of 2 Chainz after Playaz Circle.
Even during the golden era, Rap groups seldom hit #1. A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats Rhymes and Life eventually did. But in these times, The Low End Theory’s peak of 45 would’ve deterred support for Midnight Marauders, which hit #8, and preceded the chart-topping Beats. This happened during a brief stretch, when quality music actually equated to success. In 1995, ‘96, and ‘97 alone, we saw #1 albums from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, A Tribe Called Quest, and Wu-Tang Clan, respectively. That’s part of why people refer to the era as golden.
The lack of #1 albums from emcee duos and small groups seems even more severe than that of larger groups. Outkast didn’t hit #1 on the Top 200 until they released two solo discs, packaged as a group album with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.
The success of Tha Dogg Pound’s 1995 #1 debut album might have had as much to do with timing as merit. Death Row’s momentum—following The Chronic and Doggystyle—had, at least partially, powered Dogg Food’s success. Still, a few years later, Daz and Kurupt traded lyrical blows on diss tracks and verbal jabs in the press, as the friends/business conflict eventually got the best of them. Their 2005 reunion seemed more like a genuine reconnection of long-time friends, a la EPMD, than the soap opera saga of A Tribe Called Quest’s forced return, or The Fugees ill-fated resurrection.
Until Big Boi’s ominous “Gillette shit” remarks this week, Outkast, was one group that never seemed to struggle with personality clashes or conflicting individual ambitions. Nevertheless, their label’s infringement overrode the group’s lack of self-destructiveness.
Jive Records seemed to suffer from dollar-driven myopia while Big Boi recorded his solo album, Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. The ATLien refused to cave to Jive’s demand for simplistic, catchy tunes, and eventually took his album to Def Jam, with Jive’s permission. Jive, however, banned Andre 3000 from appearing on his partner’s solo album, because Outkast was still signed to Jive as a group. The label’s vindictiveness overshadowed the technical validity of their decision, and ultimately denied Hip Hop a solo project that reflected Big Boi’s full potential. Jive didn’t care for the distinctness and creativity that brought Outkast to such legendary status. They just wanted a buzzing single.
“They told me to go in and make my version of Lil Wayne's ‘Lollipop’,” Big Boi told GQ shortly before the album dropped. “[H]ow you gonna tell me to go bite another MCs style?... That's the highest form of disrespect ever.”
Enter The Void
Most things in life are too complicated to indicate one sole cause, especially so in this situation.
With Outkast, we can safely assume they fell victim to label politics—which is strange since moving 10 million copies of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below has to make them one of the most successful Hip Hop groups ever. With Playaz Circle, 2 Chainz's newfound popularity and commercial success made it clear that being a soloist was more profitable for him. And, in the case of Goodie Mob and Black Eyed Peas, we can connect the dots and see that changing personal aspirations (for Cee-Lo, will.i.am and Fergie), and the prospect of not having to divide those royalty splits as much, made breaking up—even if not on a permanent basis—inevitable.
But for every cautionary tale, there are groups like De La Soul that have been rocking together for the better part of two decades. And despite a very public breakup on Yo! MTV Raps, Leaders of the New School's brief reunion at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival proved that Hip Hop groups can eventually find common ground. Admittedly, sometimes it’s only a temporary reunion to satiate the fans.
Still, any ephemeral satisfaction from a reunion can’t fill the void of new groups. And although various intertwined complexities underlie the cause, there is at least one easily identifiable effect of the tradition’s absence; fans will suffer. Hip Hop, right now, feels about as complete as New York City’s post-9/11 skyline. Sure, there’s plenty to admire, but the captivation has waned.
One World Trade Center now unctuously stretches 1,776 feet into the sky, like some kind of proverbial middle finger to the perpetrators and their sympathizers. We can only hope a new group rises to serve as a proverbial middle finger to the industry, much like Wu-Tang did for RZA. Right now, it seems like the mountain climbers with electric guitars took heed to the Wu’s warning, but rather than protecting their own necks, they ripped the jugular right out of our genre.
Michael Cohen is a freelance journalist from Staten Island, New York. He has contributed to the New York Daily News, The Village Voice, Urban Latino Magazine and others. He is currently working on his first documentary film, Staten ill-Land; Forgotten Flava From The Forgotten Borough. You can follow him on twitter @mcohenSINY