Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Group Mentality in Hip Hop Music

Think about getting your ass kicked.  Rather, think about the moments that lead up to you getting your ass kicked.  If you are about to get into a fight, it would be nice to have some backup.  It’s not that you can’t handle yourself, and you need your friends to do the work, it’s more about the comfort and security of it. Like if anything gets out of control, you’ll be okay.  Some of those friends may be smaller and weaker than you, therefore not worth much in the fight.  Some of those friends may be inconsistent, and can’t always provide the backup that you need.  However, you have support. You have encouragement.  It’s easy to kick some ass when your homies are there for you.
            This is basically how I feel about the group mentality in hip hop.  It’s much harder to go it alone.  I praise rappers like Nas, who has showed us his worth and longevity without latching onto a group of similar artists. However, as time goes on the importance of the crew grows exponentially. 
            Wu-Tang is a fine example, but we’ve all heard enough about them so I’ll make it quick.  Had Rza not been there to provide the structure and blue print for the group, Wu Tang would have crumbled.  Had Rza not provided a signature production style to accompany each rappers’ voice and delivery, Wu be gone.  BUT, if it weren’t for these extraordinary rappers who individually matched Rza’s production methods and energy, Wu would have no charisma, no lasting appeal, no pop culture significance, nothing.

            A highly relevant group for this topic is Black Hippy, which consists of rappers Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, and Schoolboy Q.  Lamar provided the spark that the group needed.  His style just so happens to be the most listenable and approachable by current standards.  His production choices are unique, but more importantly provide something for everyone.  He’s charming. His marathon, fill-every-syllable type of style appears on tracks like “Ronald Reagan Era”, and “Rigamortus”, which are both on his well-received album Section.80.  Traces of the traditional LA/West Coast rap scene are audible in Lamar’s music, yet there is something new there that seems to appeal to the masses.  This mass appeal allows for the other Hippies to enter the picture in an open environment. 

            Whereas the ASAP Mob and Black Hippy crews arrived on the hip hop scene almost simultaneously, there are other ways to acquire group support than coming in hot with an established crew.  Evidently, skill does come into play sometimes (NOT saying ASAP and BH are not skilled, they are).  Drake aligned himself with Lil Wayne because Wayne saw talent in young Aubrey, and decided to give him a shot.  What happened after was the interesting part.  After becoming affiliated with Young Money, Drake adopted a style that satisfied millions of fans, but disappointed just as many.  Drake himself has stated that he wished he could have spent more time on his debut album, Thank Me Later. The result was a remodeling of Drake’s sound, which is featured on his latest album Take Care.  This new approach for Drake has earned him a few million more fans, and has given him the R&B/Hip Hop crossover crown.  He is renowned for his ability to mix the two genres and the incredible style with which he does it.  At a time it seemed like Wayne was the obvious innovator of the group, but other Young Money artists like Drake, Tyga, and Nicki Minaj have proven the power can shift. 
            Then there are crews like GOOD Music.  Totally unfair.  How can you have Kanye West, Pusha T, Q Tip, Mos Def, Kid Cudi, and Big Sean all on the same team? If rap were a game of dodgeball, I’d sit the match against GOOD out.  Alas, with great power comes great responsibility, and whatever one GOOD artist does, it will have to be supported by the other artists, which is not always beneficial.  Yes, this is the case with all of the groups I have mentioned thus far, but the stakes are not as high as they are with the GOOD crew, because all of that star power brings overwhelming attention.  Too much attention on the internet can ruin an artist’s career.  HYPOTHETICAL If Q Tip makes Big Sean a beat that is too ‘throwback’ for his general audience, the backlash could be intense.  Then you may have Sean fans hating on the old school rap culture that remains a part of Q’s style.  That may cause another backlash of Q supporters, hating on Sean’s fans for not respecting the classics.  Then Kanye and Pusha get divorced, the family splits, and it’s a whole thing.  These guys are smarter than that though, they know what their fans want, therefore they make the right matches within the label. 

            Perhaps the most interesting factor in the group mentality is the role of the leader. I mentioned before that Lil Wayne used to be the most powerful figure at his label, but now he has sort of shifted into the same rank as Drizzy and the others, if not slightly inferior. Often the leader will act as the voice of the group until the others are ready to take the spotlight, or more regularly, until the audience is ready to hear and see different things.  Tyler the Creator is the leader of Odd Future as far as image goes, but Frank Ocean, Hodgy Beats, Syd the Kid, and Earl Sweatshirt have all gone on to diversify the group’s sound, and have taken the reigns for making the dark and moody music that Tyler was initially responsible for.  I also referenced Kendrick Lamar as the initial leader of Black Hippy, but as time goes on more credit is being given to Schoolboy Q.  Even more recently, the supposed runt of the group Ab-Soul, has just released a killer album entitled “Control System” showing fans and listeners that he is indeed a force to be reckoned with. 
            Leaders emerge, other members take control or gain attention, the power shifts.  It seems to get a bit messy when this is not the case.  Legendary beef has formed in groups like A Tribe Called Quest, where a leader emerges and stays in his position throughout the course of the group’s career.  Q Tip is largely seen as a better rapper than Phife, and Q’s production is a staple of hip hop music, making it hard for Phife to get his due credit.  Of course there are cases where one of the group is simply the best, hands down. I dare you to name someone from Black Moon who isn’t Buckshot.  How about name someone from the Goodie Mob who isn’t Cee-lo? What about any one of the Furious 5 from Grandmaster Flash & the Furious 5? This is not to say none of the reader will be able to name these artists, but some people just never get their time to tan in the spotlight. 
Same thing goes with producers like J Dilla, DJ Premier, and Pete Rock, who all have a catalogue full of beats that trump whichever rapper appears on almost any given track.  Slum Village would be nothing without Dilla or Elzhi, and Group Home without Premier? Pshhhh, yeah right. 
All I’m saying is, it matters who you know.  Rappers are not afraid to use connections to get where they want to go, it’s just how it works in the entertainment industry.  J. Cole admits to lurking outside of Jay-Z’s office to hand him a demo. Big Sean admits the same for Kanye West.  Drake needed Wayne’s star power to get him into the music biz.  Every rapper wants a protégé.  Someone to befriend, make famous, and then to profit off of.  It sounds dirty, but it’s a very good business tactic. I don’t see Drake whining about Lil Wayne exploiting him, nor do I see Big Sean or J. Cole complaining about their success.  The group mentality is both to be feared and admired.  If you’re going to try to be a rapper, make some friends.  

by Ken Glauber