Many rappers came to prominence first as part of a group ( i.e. EPMD, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Wu-Tang Clan, and the list goes on). As time progressed, the concept (or rather unity) of the group would take a backseat to the individual. Whether it be the fans picking out whichever member they prefer, or whether there is that one particular member standing out amongst the rest (i.e. Andre 3000), the seeds were planted for one individual to embark on their own into the hip-hop wilderness. In light of this, has the nail been placed in the coffin, or is there still a bit of life left in the group concept?
Let’s face it. Real rap groups today are a rarity in hip-hop.
You can play it off to say crews represent the group concept, but that doesn't necessarily cut it. When we once had a plethora of groups like Wu-Tang Clan, Roots, OutKast, L.O.X., Mobb Deep, we now have the likes of MMG, TDE, YMCMB, OVO in their place. The aesthetic and make-up of a 'rap group' has definitely evolved. Is it for better or for worse, though? We investigate this in one of three editorials; which will also look at how collaborations and individual MCs have evolved.
While hip-hop still has some groups occupying the scene today, the present-day equivalent of the group is the crew. Crews dominate today's hip-hop landscape. No longer is there a natural-born unit of like-minded individuals from the same section of town. The town has transformed into a “factory” that hatches rappers proudly waving the crew flag, having overthrown the group regime. The unity is still there, but the population has changed.
Dreams of solo stardom can dominate the thoughts of any artist, but has that thought become the final nail in said group’s coffin? Groups that once formed like Voltron are now on life support. Still, without the group, we would have never experienced the likes of great solo stars such as Lauryn Hill or basically any Wu-Tang member you can think of.
It’s natural for all good things to come to an end, but has the demise of the rap group come sooner than expected? Between egos, yes men, members dying and label involvement, the answer could surprise you.
United We Stand
Flashback to a time when groups were all over the place with proper representation. Logos were present to make your favorite collective stand out amongst the crowded competition. From the black man standing in the cross hairs (Public Enemy) to the group’s name or letter in the middle of a great logo (Wu-Tang Clan, OutKast).
No matter what they rhymed about, one group member always seemed to be alongside the other to promote their overall message and image that went along with it. Some groups even used their fashion sense as a tool for unity. When you saw Run DMC you thought of Adidas shoes and black fedora hats. EPMD had their fisherman caps. Kriss Kross sported their clothes backwards.
And while the dress-alike concept faded, the groups’ unified image remained intact. The unity is always there, but, for some, there was always the allure of something beyond just the group setting.
The Fan Factor
Maybe it was the fans, who have a penchant for choosing sides. Although it’s never come to light, the reason for the break up of the early-2000s group Little Brother has generated many theories. One in particular involved which member of the group fans preferred, and cries for a solo offering from their favorite MC. In Little Brother’s short time in the spotlight, talk often included claims of Phonte being better than his partner-in-rhyme Big Pooh. So much so that the issue was addressed in a skit at the end of “Watch Me” (a track from LB’s “The Minstrel Show”) with two Minstrel Show fans saying the following about Pooh:
“9th’s beats was hot. Te’s rhymes were hot, but that other dude, man, I always forget his fucking…naw man it’s big Puff or something like that. Honestly man, I don’t even know. I think he’s just Te’s cousin anyway. Anyway, he’s the weakest link man. Definitely the wackest out the trio. In fact, I actually heard that nigga got dropped…”
The track would later segue into “Sincerely Yours,” where Pooh states his case for being a legitimate member of LB.
“I swear, some niggas wish they could replace me No bullshittin', I watched the rumors chase me 'til it had me in the corner, (back down) I mean, my back against the wall yo, I thought I was a goner I let the pressure get the best of - I let words make a mess of what's left of my pride but I refuse to hide, behind the silence and smiles It's been a while though, you hearin' me now Remember every foul comment that you motherfuckers spoke?”
Yes Men and the Drama Within
Maybe it was the individuals around the rapper that encouraged a particular MC from a group to venture out on his own. Or could it be tension within the group that prompts a rapper to jump ship?
After releasing The Score in 1996 to universal acclaim and success, a follow-up album would’ve been automatic for the Fugees. Instead, the trio separated and traveled down Solo Road. Although Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel generated a hit or two with their respective outings, it was Lauryn Hill who stood out the most with the success of her debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Nevertheless, the pressures of fame and dissatisfaction with the music industry caused a change in Ms. Hill that affected any chance of her reuniting with her Fugee brethren. Despite a brief reunion tour in Europe and the U.S. and a lukewarm response to their comeback single “Take It Easy,” Pras squashed official reunion dreams as he voiced his refusal to put up with Lauryn.
"Before I work with Lauryn Hill again, you will have a better chance of seeing Osama Bin Laden and [George W.] Bush in Starbucks having a latte, discussing foreign policies, before there will be a Fugees reunion," Pras stated in an Aug. 2007 interview with AllHipHop.com.
Lauryn isn’t the only group member to branch out on her own. And she won’t be the last. Inner turmoil could’ve prompted Cee-Lo Green to fully expose the artist within himself after leaving Goodie Mob, in spite of reports of him being unhappy with the direction of the group’s 1999 effort World Party.
The cover of Goodie Mob’s first album without Cee-Lo, One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show, didn’t do much to squash the beef theories, as it featured a monkey sitting with the remaining Goodie Mob members. The lack of Cee-Lo on the album did not sit well with fans, who thought the monkey was a symbolic reference to the Gnarls Barkley entertainer. Goodie Mob disputed that fact, saying the monkey actually represents the music industry not their former groupmate.
Nevertheless, the seed was well-planted. The rest is up for questioning.
Solo Greatness and Other Perks of Leaving the Group Behind
Although fans are sad to see their group come to an end, in all honesty, we would never have gotten the quality and level of music we received had artists like Lauryn, Method Man, A$AP Rocky or Cee-Lo not stepped out individually and exposed themselves to solo stardom.
Let's talk current day. For Rocky, it wasn’t an album that opened up solo possibilities. The release of his mixtape, Live. Love. A$AP garnered a healthy buzz for the A$AP Mob fixture that led to a two-year, $3 million record deal and the release of his 2013 debut album Long. Live. A$AP. The offering, which includes the hit “Fuckin’ Problems” featuring Drake, 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart with 139,000 copies sold in its first week. Needless to say, Rocky could rest easy about eating off his solo career.
Rocky’s fellow A$AP mobster, A$AP Ferg may soon join the same league, judging by the praise given to his first album, Trap Lord.
A$AP Mob isn’t the only group (crew) boasting successful soloists. Odd Future’s, Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt have also found success outside their collective, with Earl’s most recent album, Doris, debuting on Billboard’s top five with 49,000 copies sold in its first week. Tyler’s 2013 opus Wolf, sold 89,895 copies for a number three debut on the Billboard charts. The bottom line: a solo career can be a good thing without all the drama associated with breaking the group chain.
Unlike Ms. Hill, these artists weren't stepping away from a concrete group to obtain solo success-- they were, as we have already discussed, part of the modern-day 'group' also known as crews. Drama is often avoided with crews, whose members are not as strictly bound to each other as ones within a group. Unlike those who are in an established group, crew members are able to move more freely, without a serious commitment to collaborate or reunite with fellow members. When they release a collective album, it almost acts a bonus factor for the fans. In short, those folks are on their own time. All else can be put secondary. Nevertheless, they still have the benefit of a support system. The crew provides a nice safety net that allows members the chance to fearlessly walk any path they choose to travel, knowing, whatever the result, it’s all for the good of "the movement." "The movement" has become an important aspect of any crew or collective these days-- it's a way of not only tying the individual crew members together, but also makes a strong attachment between the crew as a whole and the fans.
Although there are success stories, the number of artists who don’t make it outside their respective groups or crews can be just as much. With the Fugees, Pras became the least successful compared to Wyclef and Lauryn. The rapper’s claim to fame lies in his only hit from the Bulworth soundtrack single, “Ghetto Superstar” with Mya and the late Ol' Dirty Bastard.
Needless to say, a less-than-stellar time out of the group spotlight can be a sign that it’s time to come back to the mothership. Especially with tremendous fan support, the idea of a reunion becomes a real possibility. The question is, can success outside the collective make the unit tighter and more dominant, or cause a rift that cannot be easily stitched?
Reunited and it Feels So Good?
After many years and a couple of well-received albums, the now-solo rap star is faced with questions about when, and if, a reunion will take place with the group that first burgeoned their career. For crews, the question is often less dominant, because there is no serious attachment in the first place.
For Tyler, The Creator and his Odd Future collective, it's like he never missed a beat. Odd Future still continues without any public displays of conflict while each member takes a turn going the solo route. The same can be said for A$AP Mob, as we previously mentioned, Ferg is now stepping up to bat, following Rocky's own success. The A$AP Mob still functions amicably, picking up some functionalities of a group while maintaining their movement and solo careers-- they're set to release a debut group album, L.O.R.D.
Goodie Mob weathered their storm and squashed any perceived beef as Cee-Lo took a break from Gnarls Barkley and coaching on NBC’s "The Voice" to come back to what brought him to the table. The result: Goodie Mob’s” 2013 album Age Against the Machine, which mostly received positive feedback from critics.
Not everyone is so fortunate. The highly-anticipated Fugees reunion proved to be uneventful, even with talk of an album on the way. Lauryn’s new attitude proved to be too much for Clef and Pras.
"I feel the first issue that needs to be addressed is that Lauryn needs help... In my personal opinion, those Fugees reunion shows shouldn't have been done, because we wasn't ready,” the rapper/producer told Blues & Soul in September 2007. “I really felt we shoulda first all gone into a room with Lauryn and a psychiatrist... But, you know, I do believe Lauryn can get help. And, once she does work things out, hopefully a proper and enduring Fugees reunion will happen."
While nobody expects things to be exactly as they were before, fans do check whether or not the quality is still there as well as the chemistry. If it's not present, the result taints the legacy of the once-mighty collective.
And that's for members who are alive. After the death of Jam Master Jay, Run DMC vowed to never perform live again. Knowing how different their show would be without their late DJ, it was better for Run and DMC to leave things as they were. Aside from Jay Z’s Made in America festival in 2012 and the Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, TX, that same year, Run DMC has remained off the group radar.
With Wu-Tang, the death of ODB had a different effect. Instead of calling it quits, the group chose to continue on (at least until the release of their final album). The Clan was still a force to be reckoned with, but without Dirty, it seemed incomplete.
No matter what goes down, the lifespan of a rap group, like anything, is filled with ups and downs. Somewhere, the next big group (or is it crew?) is being put together right now and preparing to make a dent on the local, regional and national scene. Viva la movement.
So no, the rap group isn’t dead. The resurrection continues.