If we were naming hip-hop’s best musical groups, which ones would we list? I pose the question because group identification creates interesting scenarios within hip-hop culture, from the formation and maintenance of group identity to the difficulties of promoting the lyrical skills of a group’s various members. Keep in mind that, in our hypothetical list, we’re naming “groups”, not “collectives” (which eliminates posses like the Juice Crew or the Native Tongue Family) or duos (which definitely eliminates Gang Starr, probably eliminates EPMD, and might eliminate post-9th Wonder Little Brother). We’re looking for “individual groups”—an oxymoron of sorts—which means the group should have at least three regular members. Not all of the members have to be rappers; one can be a deejay, like Jam Master Jay was for Run DMC or Spinderella was for Salt-N-Pepa.
If we started with the ambiguously defined Old School Era (let’s say the late 1970s to 1989), we’d certainly save spots on the list for Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Treacherous Three, the Sugarhill Gang, Whodini, Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Stetsasonic, and NWA. I’m inclined to give the Fat Boys a shout-out, and if we’re categorizing groups by their first major releases, we could add De La Soul in this time period, too.
Important groups from the 1990s would include: A Tribe Called Quest, the Roots, Arrested Development, X-Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers, Leaders of the New School, Naughty by Nature, Digable Planets, Boot Camp Clik, Hieroglyphics, and Wu-Tang Clan. I think Brand Nubian was formed at the end of the ‘80s, but I’ve always associated them with 1990, the year of their debut One for All.
Post-2000 hip-hop (let’s call it “The New School”) has seen a decrease in group activity and a move away from a community orientation. As a result, posses are on the decline while individualism is on the rise. There’s G-Unit, Jedi Mind Tricks, Polyrhythm Addicts (with Tiye Phoenix stepping in for Apani B. Fly), eMC (composed of veteran emcee Masta Ace, Stricklin, Wordsworth, and Punchline) and the three-man ensemble (Von Pea, Ilyas, and Donwill) known as Tanya Morgan, but lots of folks are rolling solo.
In his Terrordome blog, Public Enemy’s Chuck D has frequently alluded to this state of affairs in which the “I” takes precedence over the “we”, where self-preservation rules to the point of ignoring the larger communal picture. His point makes sense, especially when we consider that hip-hop’s rise of individualism appears to coincide with an increased preoccupation with materialism, not only in terms of song lyrics and imagery, but also in terms of our reality TV shows that seek to help us curb our excesses. Every week, someone on the tube is trying to help us clean our homes, spruce up our décor, pimp our rides, or choose an appropriate mate. The isolation that results from an individualistic aesthetic is the antithesis of the “cultural” theme hip-hoppers promote. Culture implies cooperation and community. At the same time, though, I would have expected more beefs and rap wars in an era of self-aggrandizement and conspicuous consumption.
In lieu of the formal group dynamic, we’ve seen the often-criticized use of guest rappers on hip-hop albums. Although guest spots are great for adding variety to an album, as well as exposure for the guest rapper, critics and fans alike have noted the dangers of relying on guests. Mainly, there’s the possibility of being overshadowed by those guests, where the intended star gets upstaged by well-executed cameos. The more guests you have, the easier it is for you to get lost in the shuffle.
However, despite the dangers and critical backlash, 2008 has shown us that the guest rapper methodology can be put to good use. Akrobatik’s Absolute Value, for example, features performances from the likes of Talib Kweli, Chuck D, Mr. Lif, Little Brother, and Bumpy Knuckles. The Roots’ Rising Down offers a similar experience, with guest vocals from Mos Def, Styles P, Common, Wale, Peedi Peedi, and Saigon, among others. The influx of outside voices threatened to relegate the Roots’ chief emcee Black Thought to the background. A significant portion of the Rising Down critique is split between those who think the guest vocals actually highlighted Black Thought’s lack of charisma (who are those people?) and those (like me) who think Black Thought blew everybody out of the water and it’s too bad he didn’t have more verses.
All of this analysis regarding guest verses eclipses one of the biggest rewards for having guests in the first place: the high profile guest appearance that garners attention for being so unique or for snagging such a well-known personality. Wale’s Seinfeld-inspired mixtape, The Mixtape About Nothing, contained a brief appearance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a Seinfeld alumna, of course, and star of The New Adventures of Old Christine. Her stint on the microphone accompanies every mention the mixtape gets. Same thing with Tom Waits’ beatboxing cameo on Atmosphere’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Sh*t Gold. In defense of both examples, I have to admit it’s pretty freaky to think of Julia Louis-Dreyfus saying “muthaf*cka” on a mixtape and Tom Waits beatboxing on a rap album.
On the other side of the fence, Lil Wayne apparently looked at the guest rapper situation from a different angle. While his latest release, The Carter III, showcases Babyface, Bobby Valentino, Betty Wright, Juelz Santana, Fabolous, and the ubiquitous T-Pain, Wayne took his career to the next level by being a guest rapper, in addition to releasing all those mixtapes that everybody says they like so much.
Hip-hop groups usually reap the benefits that guest rappers bring without suffering so many of the negatives. Take a group like Wu-Tang Clan, easily one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time. Each member possessed a unique style and a distinctive delivery, enhanced by the RZA’s haunting production and the group’s martial arts theme. Wu-Tang sidestepped the soloist’s problem of playing second fiddle to the guests. The downside is that such a group has to work extra hard to establish and showcase those distinctive qualities. It’s a delicate balance between highlighting the special talents of each member and maintaining the cohesion of the group dynamic. Listeners want to be able to distinguish the group’s emcees without losing the collective flavor of a polished act.
Of course, big problems arise when the members disagree with one another or when one member’s persona outpaces the group’s progress. Sometimes, the two situations are intertwined and lead to the demise of the entire group. Back in the day, when Ice Cube left N.W.A. and traded disses with his former homies Eazy-E, MC Ren, DJ Yella, and Dr. Dre, it saddened me that “the world’s most dangerous group” had lost its momentum. Sure, N.W.A.‘s next record, N*ggaz4Life, sold extremely well and is generally well regarded but, in my opinion, things just weren’t the same. In particular, I thought the first half aimed at some explanation, albeit an unsatisfactory one, for the group’s use of the N-word. The rest of the album, though, devolved into silliness, including a couple of numbers with the rappers breaking out into song. In my estimation, the split changed the chemistry of the group.
Overall, musical groups are difficult to maintain. Have a listen at the heated argument at the beginning of the Roots’ Rising Down album. We’re lucky they’re still around. And so, with that sentiment, I won’t resort to recommending a list of my favorite hip-hop groups, although I will admit that I’m partial to A Tribe Called Quest. Instead, I hope that we’re thankful for the groups we’ve had and the ones that are still with us.