Where Did Hip-Hop Groups Go?

The loss of the great Phife Dawg shook the hip-hop community to its core, as made apparent by the huge showing at the celebration of Phife event which included musings by Kanye West, Andre 3000 and even Grandmaster Flash on what Phife meant to them. “Check the Rhime” was the first hip-hop song I discovered as a wee lad in my dad’s iTunes library and immediately added it to my own mp3 device. The blaring saxophone was infectious and even as a babe it had me nodding my head in rhythm. Up to this point I was familiar with artists like Elvis Costello and The Killers, so when Q-Tip and Phife started spitting my mind was blown. What was this form of music? The rhymes were catchy, the flows were pleasing to the ear, and I had no idea that I was listening to two MC’s who influenced the rap game so greatly. Losing one of them is a huge travesty, especially since Phife was part of one of the greatest groups to ever pick up a microphone. Equally as disappointing though is that the end of ATCQ is a huge hit on the already diminished number of hip-hop groups, a dying breed in today’s industry.

At the beginning of the year Chance tweeted about his interest in forming a group with Earl Sweatshirt. It got me thinking: in present day hip-hop we aren’t seeing many new groups form, which would make the duo a welcome addition to the lackluster list of groups we have today. Sure, we have Run The Jewels, Flatbush Zombies, Underachievers and you could throw Big Grams in there as well. OFWGKTA did a lot of work together before splitting up, but that’s a paucity compared to the amount of groups that were at the forefront of 90’s hip-hop. Of course there are other group acts out there like Atmosphere and Madvilliany, but the idea of a group for the purpose of this piece is an act where two or more MCs rap consistently together, not a producer/rapper duo.

The past was all about group hip-hop where two or more MC’s would pair up and use their various talents to create beautiful rap music.

The 80’s and 90’s were absolutely littered with such groups. You have legendary groups like A Tribe Called Quest, Outkast, Bone Thugs n Harmony, Mobb Deep, De La Soul, Hieroglyphics, Souls of Mischief, Run DMC, even the Beastie Boys; the list could go on forever. The past was all about group hip-hop where two or more MC’s would pair up and use their various talents to create beautiful rap music. Perhaps the propensity for groups was fueled by the fact that such acts were the way to go if you were trying to make it in the game, as fitting in with trends was the best way to start and market what was essentially a newer genre of music at the time. Maybe having another person to work with was more comfortable for artists trying to break into the budding genre. Of course hip-hop has become extremely popular since then, attracting more and more artists all competing to get their piece of the pie. Competition can’t be the only reason for ending the group rap era though, so what else is behind the disappearance of hip-hop groups?

Modern day hip-hop is all about the individual. Artist’s no longer perform and create music together consistently; instead, if you’re a fan of another rapper’s style you do your best to collaborate with them on a track, or even an entire album a-la Future and Drake or Kanye and Jay-Z. Why is this the only course of action, though? Of course, you can still be an individual in a rap group. While Phife was the Five-Foot Assassin with his rougher vocalism and style, Tip was the Abstract with his thought provoking lyricism. They played off of their prospective abilities, ceaselessly complementing each other from track to track. Chance and Earl would compliment each other perfectly as well, Earl with his dark, somber rhymes and Chance with his up-beat tempo and overall positivity. Be that as it may, a Chance/Earl duo will probably never become a reality as individualism has become the most prevalent mindset in today’s game.

Artist’s no longer perform and create music together consistently; instead, if you’re a fan of another rapper’s style you do your best to collaborate with them on a track…

You can hear it in lyrics all the time like the typical “I want all these bitches and money and drugs and cars and houses” type songs. Selfishness and greed have always been huge themes in hip-hop, but the difference between now and the past is what the “I” refers to. Today it’s all about “What can I do to make myself great,” whereas in the 90’s it was “What can WE do to make OURSELVES great?” Yet that’s just the trend, and trends are the easiest way to capitalize on talent and turn it in to a career. Greed isn’t a trend though and has always been present in music. Even back in the golden age of group rap, which can be seen in the biopic Straight Outta Compton with the Jerry Heller scenario. Perhaps there was a realization at some point that it was simpler for labels to control a singular artist rather than deal with multiple artists that were able to keep each other grounded and on the path they desired, thus creating more profits. Regardless, it’s disappointing that these themes have taken over in a way that has eliminated the desire to form groups.

However, this change hasn’t completely eliminated groups; collectives are like a first cousin. Black Hippy, A$AP Mob, Pro Era, and the latter part of Odd Future’s existence were such, groups of individuals who occasionally come together to create music as a singular unit. Collectives aren’t a new idea either; take the Soulquarians, a group that came together through their place of work. They’re just more prevalent now as they are also used as a brand. Nonetheless, collectives are more of a way for the rappers to support each other. Staying close to others and having them around to bounce ideas of off is great, and hopefully one individual takes off and the rest can ride their coattails to stardom. But that clearly is not the same way Tribe and the rest of the 90’s groups approached their careers; they were in it together for the long haul.

Today it’s all about “What can I do to make myself great,” whereas in the 90’s it was “What can WE do to make OURSELVES great?”

Perhaps one day hip-hop will welcome groups back with open arms like a mother who’s firstborn is returning from a long separation. The loss of Phife will not be quickly forgotten, and neither will the end of ATCQ who paved the way for what hip-hop is today. They made groups cool and laid out a blueprint for how to be a successful group act. They all had their role to play, Phife keeping the groups style grounded and current while Tip and Muhammad pushed the boundaries of what hip-hop was, all while coming together to create unique music that changed the hip-hop world. As the saying goes, sharing is caring, and Tribe along with the rest of the 90’s groups were able to share something that so many find difficult to: success. Today’s rappers have been so heavily influenced by these groups sounds and styles but not necessarily their philosophies, which is the key to seeing a resurgence. Of course, trends come and go; that’s why they’re trends. Just because the current trend is focused on solo careers doesn’t mean that groups won’t come back. As trends tend to repeat themselves and as more of the oldschool becomes cool again, perhaps we’ll see the new generation of rappers usher in another era of group rap. After all, isn’t two always better than one?