Aaron Matthews was the original percussionist in Toto.
With the rapturous reception of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West has finally accrued a cult of personality to match that of Big Brother Jay. With that cult comes the ability to start trends. After all, MBDFT was one of 13 platinum albums in 2010, everyone wants what sells and ‘Ye’s weekly G.O.O.D. Fridays series has been copied by everyone from Swizz Beatz to Timbaland.
These knockoff song series mostly offer superstar collaborations between artists who clearly never sat down in the studio together, based on the idea that putting popular artists on the same track guarantees success. The internet hip hop economy is premised on these false promises of collaboration, like an e-list trailer hyping up its 15 second cameo from a real star. Feature credits are attributed for sampled vocals (it was nice of Biggie to spit a single line on your chorus). 6 minute songs switch from artist to artist without any thematic cohesion between verses, without any interplay. These are not real collaborations.
One of the G.O.O.D. Fridays songs was “Don’t Stop”, a throwback to long-rumoured supergroup Child Rebel Soldier comprised of Kanye, Pharrell and Lupe Fiasco. The idea of CRS was first floated round ‘07, with its genesis in Lupe Fiasco’s attempted remake of Thom Yorke’s “The Eraser.” After Lupe got Kanye to do a verse, Ye sent it to Pharrell and it dropped on Kanye’s pre-album mixtape. Pleased with “Us Placers”, the trio went on tour together and decided to do an album.
“Don’t Stop” supposedly dates from 2008, back when Pharrell, Kanye and Lupe were still working on their record. And it serves as a how-to for how a supergroup should put a song together. Pharrell produces the song by tossing together blaring horns, kitchen sink percussion and a stuttered clip of a girl crooning the title, while each rapper kicks a verse that reflects their unique character. Pharrell lends his particular blend of cocky nerdiness, Lupe frantically dashes through a dense mash of references I still haven’t deciphered and Kanye storms the last verse with a shit-eating grin as he compares bank accounts with Oprah, and breaks form by rhyming the names of luxury brands. “Don’t Stop” sounds better than anything Pharrell or Lupe have done in the last 12 months because it’s liberated from the concerns of shining on your own.
Lupe Fiasco is a very talented technical rapper and lyricist (go listen to his Enemy of the State mixtape for a reminder), but he struggles with writing actual songs and finding sympathetic production. He’s a rapper who would simply work better in a group context. Get less-talented rappers with personality and charisma to spare like Pharrell or ‘Ye and let them do the beats. “Don’t Stop” serves as a potent reminder of what Child Rebel Soldier could have been. The modern supergroup is inevitably doomed to failure, because ultimately ego wins out. Kanye got too famous to do a truly collaborative supergroup and replaced CRS’s record with the boardroom dream of Watch The Throne. I’m reminded of something Kanye said in an interview last year:
“As a celebrity, as soon as you become a star, as soon as it pops off for you? At that point, you stop growing. As soon as you don’t have to wash your own dishes any more”. It’s a combination of self-indulgence and ego that prevents someone in Kanye’s position creating genuine collaborations with other people. “All of the Lights” featured 11 different guest vocalists, and you can actually hear about 3 of them on the record. One of them is Fergie. Apparently, Elton John is singing somewhere, but you can’t really make it out. Given that there are 9 minute-songs elsewhere on the album, the Kanye showcase that is “All of the Lights” wasn’t an issue of space. But it’s true, rappers have forgotten the foundation of collaboration.
You need an equal exchange of ideas. The person you’re working with should be like-minded in a sense but still disagree frequently enough to keep things interesting. In other words, they should tell you when you’re full of shit. Hip hop thrived because of the interplay between different voices and older groups reflected this, from RUN DMC to Goodie Mob. What made Goodie Mob brilliant, for example, was the diversity of voices and perspectives in the group, from Cee-Lo’s helium-tinged optimism to Khujo’s guttural conspiracy theories. Recently there haven’t been enough album sales to go around and rappers have started going solo to avoid splitting the profits. But most solo stars in the past came out of groups, think of Weezy doing time with the Hot Boys or Kanye getting his start with the Go Getters. Lately rappers figured they could make more money and achieve more individual recognition outside of a group context so they skip that step.
But they miss the benefits of recording with a group: they incubate talent in a supportive environment. You match your weaknesses with the others’ strengths and vice versa and you develop because you’re challenged to work with others and improve. Now when groups do form, they’re pitched on how the individual rappers can sell double the records and get more attention together than on their own. This is how supergroups got started. Musicians who are already individually famous form groups with partnerships based on how many more records they can sell. You approach music with the mentality of a business man and the music suffers. The idea is that if you’re both selling to the same audience, you can work together and double your dollars instead of competing.
The Firm got started because Nas, Foxy Brown and AZ had each achieved a degree of commercial and critical success by themselves and saw an opportunity to make more money; after Corey got ousted from the group, they realized they needed someone to hold the grass and Nature said he was free on weekends. Beats by proven hitmakers Dr. Dre and the Trackmasters got the suits interested and made the record seem like a sure bet, but it was a mediocre album and flopped terribly. Despite the talent on the table, only Nas and AZ demonstrated any real musical chemistry and it showed through in the music. There has to be more reasons than money for you to work with someone, otherwise you end up with collaborations like that one.
In the past, groups formed premised on chemistry. Pimp C’s flamboyant drawl partnered perfectly with Bun B’s grounded, no-nonsense baritone. Rappers recorded together because they worked well together. Redman, Keith Murray and Erick Sermon formed Def Squad in ‘98 and put out an album together after years of collaboration; Sermon had mentored Keith and Red and produed most of their early work, and they in turn recorded some of their best work over E Double beats. The trio worked well together so the pairing made sense. Method Man and Redman worked as a supergroup because they understand each other musically and brought different vibes to the table. Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg and Warren G started 213 before they had a recording contract and their 2004 record has the sound of old friends enjoying each other’s company. It’s an equal showcase of talent committed to recording good music.
But recently, supergroups feel like the product of boardroom meetings. Take Slaughterhouse, formed when Royce, Crooked I, Joe Budden and Joell Ortiz had a collective realization that all their fans enjoyed typing freestyles in YouTube comments. It’s a rap group with four rappers who all serve the same purpose on a song; they’re all talented rappers to some degree but there is no sense of focused collaboration or pooling people’s skills to make something better. None of these rappers know how to write hooks or bridges, just verses. Budden and co. are all so bent on outrapping each other that they never quite get it together to write an actual song; for fuck’s sake, they brought in Pharaohe Monch to do one of the better hooks on the album.
Black Hippy work well together because there’s no sense of ego, likely abetted by a more moderate level of fame on the part of each rapper. From Kendrick Lamar’s raspy verbal volleys and Jay Rock’s gruff bark to Schoolboy Q’s slobbery burr and Ab-Soul’s nasal ramble, each rapper brings something different to the table and they bounce off each other in an entertaining fashion, with a palpable sense of joy when they’re rapping together. It’s the same sense of camaraderie I hear in “Don’t Stop” a genuine appreciation for what each rapper can contribute. While they’re not strictly speaking a supergroup, Odd Future’s collaborations succeed for the same reason. They enjoy rapping together, and more rappers should try for that vibe.