Apu Rambles: The Wonder of Rap Groups (and Their Possible Shortcomings)

by Apu

wu

I’ve always found rap groups to be interesting. And with that I’ve just won the award for the most generic opening sentence in a written piece for January 2017.

Music made by a good group (keyword: GOOD) can be the coolest thing you hear all day. It’s crazy hearing vastly different personalities colluding, bringing different perspectives, styles, and presences to a track while completely complimenting each other. Many times it can be more exciting to listen to a group than a solo artist; the constant change in performers keeps things fresh in a way that may not always happen when listening to a solo artist. You don’t know which group members will be on which track, or what each member will bring to the table. There’s a support system in the form of friendly competition, where each member pushes the other to go above and beyond, leading to some rappers having the best verses of their careers on group songs. And group music is different than posse cuts. While posse cuts can bring together huge rappers to make great songs, the vast majority of the time, there’s not nearly the sort of unity and fluidity that there is on group music when the mic is passed.

It’s a simple fact. Hip hop would not be where it is now if it were not for rappers forming crews and making music together. Whether it be the earlier years with Sugarhill Gang introducing hip hop to wider audiences, to Run D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, NWA, Geto Boys, the Wu-Tang Clan, Onyx, Westside Connection… The list goes on and on. They were a staple of hip hop in the golden era, and remained to be a driving force in hip hop well into the ‘00s.

I don’t know why they were so big in the formative years, especially compared to now; maybe having a crew onstage helped hype crowds up while performing more effectively than having just a single rapper, leading to better shows and subsequently wider acclaim and greater success. Perhaps that’s why rappers still go up onstage with hypemen, even when they may not need one to help out when the main performer needs to take a breath. Whatever it may have been, there’s nothing quite like seeing a group together. There’s also nothing quite like seeing a group implode after the first album or two because of success changing the approach to making music, causing chemistry to fade and beef to ensue.

I personally think that the biggest contributing factor to a group’s greatness is chemistry. There has to be a foundation for the sound that a group will use, especially when members develop themselves as solo artists with sounds that deviate from the group sound. Take, for example, the Wu-Tang Clan. RZA created that dark, soul-sampled boom bap with Enter The Wu-Tang. However, given that Wu always meant to branch out to become solo artists, the following solo albums each had a different tone from the debut group album. Tical was more bassy and smoked out, Return To The 36 Chambers was muddier and more twisted, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was more piano and string-driven resulting in a Mafioso tone, and Ironman was more driven by R&B and lighter soul samples. Aside from Liquid Swords, which was fairly similar in tone to Enter The Wu-Tang, they all had their own sound to them to reflect the personality and charisma of each member outside of the group.

However, when they reunited to do Wu-Tang Forever, they went back to a similar style as Enter The Wu-Tang: heavy soul samples and more classic boom bap. Sure, the sound had advanced, but the overall tonality still screamed Wu-Tang as a whole, as opposed to more Raekwon or Ghostface. They had the production base offered by RZA, which meant that other producers like 4th Disciple or Inspectah Deck had a blueprint to follow.

Of course, having that base meant that the subsequent group albums (and even solo albums) were prone to the flaws that came with the failures of RZA. Being that RZA was the de facto leader of the group, him losing beats in a flood ended up creating issues for Wu as time went on. After that, RZA’s decision to change his production style with his Bobby Digital persona made The W and Iron Flag sound off-putting. By the time A New Tomorrow came around, RZA sounded totally uninterested in making music; it seemed he would rather score movies and help Cilvaringz be a cunt.

But he was still the leader of the group, so they had to follow him.

It was a similar situation with D-12. D-12 has two members who produce: Mr. Porter and Eminem. While Proof was the spiritual leader of D-12, as well as musical when they were doing mixtapes and features, Eminem clearly led the group on the albums. Devil’s Night sounded almost like it could have been called The Marshall Mathers LP 1.5: Introducing D12. That’s not nearly even close to being a bad thing – that album is a classic to me. However, it did end up being a bad thing for them on D-12 World. Most of the songs that Eminem produced did not follow a D-12 kind of style. They were like less-gangster G-Unit beats, much like Encore’s production. The only possible exceptions to this are My Band, Bitch, and Come On In (which ended up sounding more like a Mr. Porter beat). Mr. Porter’s beats were perfectly suited to D-12, and showed a potential evolution in their sound from Devil’s Night that could have been very cool, as it was grimy but sillier and jazzier at the same time. Em’s leadership, however, prevented that sound from being explored more aside from songs that Em wasn’t even on. Had he passed leadership to Mr. Porter, the album may have sounded more like Barbershop and I’ll Be Damned and less like Leave Dat Boy Alone and Get My Gun.

While pure democracy in a group would likely lead to no progress at all, one person can’t be the leader for the entirety of the group’s albums. There needs to be a constant passing of the baton. Otherwise the leader may end up running the group into the ground. It seems RZA has finally understood that, because he’s given Ghost the wheel for the next Wu album. Given Ghost’s artistic style with live jazz instrumentation on fairly recent albums like Twelve Reasons To Die I & II, Sour Soul, and 36 Seasons, it will likely be a breath of fresh air for the group, rather than the aimless plodding of RZA’s production on A Better Tomorrow. I’m personally expecting it to be their best in 2 decades.

Groups without chemistry just don’t work. I already know I’m gonna get shitted on by underground hip hop fans, but I personally don’t think Slaughterhouse is demonstrates good group dynamic. Each member is a very talented emcee in his own right (although fuck Joe Budden for life for beating a woman into having a miscarriage). However, there is no feeling of unity among them. Every song that they do sounds like a posse cut. As I stated above, a posse cut can be cool, but if you’re gonna be a group, you have to sound like a unit. It’s weird too, because Joe Budden and Joell Ortiz do back and forth every once in awhile, but they don’t sound natural doing it. Nearly every song either boils down to a cypher that may or may not have a hook in it or an emotional track with each member just saying their piece and not trying to tie themselves into the rest of the group; oftentimes the verses may only share emotion in common and can be about completely different things which throws off the mood of the track. A group needs to have chemistry, otherwise it just doesn’t work. Unfortunately, Slaughterhouse doesn’t have much of it.
Slaughterhouse are also too similar to each other, which oddly doesn’t help their chemistry.

Another part of what makes some groups successful is the roles that members play. When Slaughterhouse do music together, everyone does essentially the same thing in a song. There’s no variety. You need some rappers to be the tough talkers, the more grounded members, and what is quite possibly the most important role: the clown. It can get tiresome to hear so many rappers talking about similar street subjects all the time; you need an ODB to your Wu-Tang Clan or a Sean Price to your Boot Camp Clik (RIP to both) to add some comic relief. The role that guys like them played helped to distinguish the groups from most other hardcore underground groups.

Everyone wants to be the toughest or most lyrical, and people get lost in the mix of everyone else trying to do that. When you put together a group of people trying to be tough or lyrical, that effect may get even worse. Throw a clown in there (who still has skills, mind you), and suddenly your presence becomes more impactful. You have someone who can still spit with the rest of the members, but is spewing clever, witty one-liners and creating a different reaction than the listeners get from listening to the other members. But it’s a fine line; you have too many members who clown around and you’re viewed as a comedy rap group, nothing to take seriously. So a group needs to be diverse, but still maintain similarities enough to where there’s still chemistry.

Groups are wonderful for hip hop. They’re a healthy mix of competition and brotherhood. I wish there were more groups out now; you’d think that with the increased usage of the internet in hip hop music that there would be more groups linking up from city to city, but for some reason that’s not the case. These days it’s always a wonderful treat to see a group either reunite, especially if they haven’t done music in years. With things in hip hop seeming to go back to the way they were (that’s a topic for another time, I don’t feel like opening that can of worms for the basement-dwelling stuck-in-the-90s hip hop nerds to feast on), perhaps we’ll see more groups being formed.

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Author: Extraordinary Nobodies

A hip-hop blog ran by hip-hop fans.

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