Back in the day when I wasn’t even a teenager, before I had status and I hadn’t ever heard of a pager, you could find lil’ J Monk listening to hip-hop. His pops used to say it reminded him of the protest songs from the Vietnam era. In those days, rappers all rolled with a crew. Major labels weren’t paying much attention to the fledgling genre and if they did, they barely understood it. So rappers honed their skills amongst each other. Those with the most talent, of course, gained admiration and notoriety, and it was an honor to be considered a member of a movement like that. The Furious Five, The Cold Crush Brothers, Force MDs and many others were all well-known crews before any of them struck out on their own. A bit later, acts like the Juice Crew were renowned as a collective besides being solo atrists. It wouldn’t take long before even the corporate execs noticed there was something going on in the streets.
Something in the dynamic shifted in the following years, though. With a record contract becoming more and more of a viable option and the focus of the mainstream public concentrating more on the vocalist and less on the DJs, producers, dancers, graphic artists and other talents in the crew, both record labels and rappers tended to gravitate towards solo acts. After all, a rapper could now try to bypass the come-up within his own circles and aim straight for the spot on the charts, and record labels would rather cut what they perceived as excess meat and promote the single vocalist instead of the myriad performers. After all, promoting and managing a single guy or gal, who they figured was bound to be the main attraction anyway, was less taxing on their investment and easier to manage while handling promotional duties or cajoling him/her into commercial exploits. A win on all fronts, right?
Not so much if you wished the genre to go forward. Record companies invest capital in acts and they want a return on that investment. This doesn’t lead to much experimentation as experimentation is more or less a gamble by default, so labels don’t put their big bucks towards riskier project; they prefer those that have already proven themselves to be successful, thereby bringing the genre to stagnation as everything starts to sound similar. It’s not some nefarious plot to destroy hip-hop, it’s just the way that money rolls. Two recording artists who experienced this detrimental effect to their music first hand were Robert ‘Prince Rakeem’ Diggs and Gary ‘Genius’ Grice, b.k.a. RZA and GZA of a lil’crew you might’ve heard of called the Wu-Tang Clan.
Wu followed their own aesthetics and instincts, refused to conform to outside standards both creatively and on the business end. They honed their skills within their own circle and came out swinging once they had perfected their style like a true Shaolin monk. A prerequisite for Wu signing as a group was the clause that every member could sign a solo-deal, even with different labels. Every other label had a marketing budget for the solo acts. But with their strong unifying brand, an ad for a solo member would function as an ad for the group ad its other members simultaneously. They gambled on themselves and won. Still, this didn’t lead to the floodgates opening for crews with their own sound, as the benefits for the way they handled their business was primarily in the interest of the Clansmen themselves. Labels weren’t planning on changing their business model, but it did signal to popular artists that their crews could be valuable brands.
While there was plenty of classic material from crews and solo artists in the following years, the crews major labels were mostly interested in were those that had already proven their commercial value, and the easiest way a new crew could have commercial value was by centering around an already established star. Enter The Weed Carrier. With every rapper with two albums or more under his belt putting on his homies, it became an alarming pattern to anyone following rap; rapper gets succesful, rapper increases the ratio of lame features to dope ones on album, rapper announces group album nobody asked for, album eventually receives average to weak reviews but sells reasonably well, so the trend continues. The phenomenon became so prevalent that the term “weed carrier” (a person who holds the drugs for the A-list artist, to potentially deflect legal problems in case of hip-hop cops) became a common word in rap circles for the background hype men and assorted homies who were rewarded for their loyalty with a spot on the inevitable group album.
Then, the internet rose to prominence, and with major labels seeing themselves as unsinkable vessels, they comfortably ignored the iceberg named “filesharing.” But the might of the majors imploded in the first decade of the new millenium, and rap had never forgotten the lessons taught by the Wu-Tang. With a record deal no longer the primary objective for aspiring rap artists, the Wu model now seems to make far more sense. There is nothing left to loose in honing your own skills and sound, polishing your craft and creating a unique aesthetic outside of the machine. Which is exactly what the current crop of web-savvy rap crews that generate the most buzz are doing.
The early to mid 90s are often referred to as “the golden age” in rap, and rightfully so. But let’s keep our nostalgia from clouding our judgement on its lesser aspects. The prevalence of the weed carrier and the increased bypassing of the old school crew dynamic eventually resulted in an age dominated by glitzy pop-rap. Every significant era in rap is defined by grassroots movements cultivating their own style, from the Juice Crew to NWA to Wu and countless others and from the turn of the century through most of the following decade, these type of movements seemed to be in danger of extinction. With the Internet now providing direct and unlimited access to countless artists for consumers, and vice versa, to potentially countless consumers for artists, it’s exactly those type of crews that generate the most buzz, and in a somewhat ironic twist, secure label deals.
To stick out among the vast crops of rappers and beatsmiths you can’t afford weak links in your crew. You can’t afford to sound like a derivative of what’s hot at the moment and you can’t afford to not pay dues. Not if you want a career with any realistic shot at longevity. The music world and the trends in it move faster than almost anyone can fully keep up with, but you’ll turn heads when you have them boppin’ with your own sound. From OFWGKTA to J.E.T.S. to Black Hippy/TDE and A$AP Mob, you’ll find members more famous than others, but very few who can’t pull their own weight. These are all artists who shaped their own unique brand working with a group of likeminded artists. Jet Life afficionados Curren$y and Fiend were even signed to fit into the mold of a larger label at an early point in their career, but it wasn’t until they found and developed their own niche that their careers hit their current renaissance.
Only time will tell which contributions of this recent wave of autonomous hip-hop crews are strong enough to create a lasting impact, but chances to do so are a lot better when you’ve got a team unafraid to criticize each other and not overly concerned with what’s popping in the mainstream.
So let’s toast to the future of rap, and the return of the crew dynamic that’s building it!