[4 January 2009]
There is no shortage of theories attempting to explain the reasons why hip-hop, as a musical genre, isn’t as satisfying as it was “back in the day”. Depending on when “back in the day” was (the late ‘80s? Early ‘90s?), rap fans have suggested a number possible culprits to explain hip-hop’s decline, including: the rise of Kanye West, the rise of haters of Kanye West, the popularity of Lil Wayne, the existence of Souljah Boy, the excessive attention paid to material possessions and monetary gain, the deaths of hip-hop luminaries, the consolidation of power among key corporate entities, and the music industry’s declining record sales.
My position is pretty simple: you can always find good music if you look for it. You just have to remember that sometimes the search is going to feel more difficult than you’d like. Having said that, I have to admit that there’s something I’ve been missing from rap, something I think would improve the art form as a whole if it could be added back to the mix: the posse track. I wish there were more truly engaging posse cuts showcasing hip-hop’s group dynamic. Individual rap personalities abound, and they should, given the competitive spirit of the genre. But we’ve been missing the flare that results from the artistic and creative friction of a posse song. Every now and then, we hear a few that get our attention, but they are few and far between.
Even the definition of a “posse track” is up for debate. The simplest description would be “a song with a bunch of rappers on it”. But how many rappers is a “bunch”? Hard to say, but definitely more than two. Set the minimum at three or four vocalists and there you have it. Group songs by the Wu-Tang Clan or Bone Thugs-N-Harmony would qualify as posse tracks.
A more restrictive definition dictates that a posse track must consist of verses from a minimum of three or four rappers and the rappers aren’t already in a group together. This would disqualify garden-variety group songs from Wu-Tang Clan and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, but tracks like “Swagga Like Us”—with verses from Kanye, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and T.I.—would most certainly be included. The problem with this definition is that it’s unclear whether a typical group song could be transformed into a “posse cut” by adding a verse from a random artist. What about a song by four members of Wu-Tang Clan plus Redman? Is that a posse track? So, to keep things easy, my definition of a posse track is a song with at least three or four rappers. No need to complicate things.
There have been some great posse cuts in the past, and it’s fun trying to compile a list of the best. This time, though, I’d rather discuss the ways posse cuts have been used and why they are effective. There are two essential types of posse tracks: the ones based on numbers and the ones that are focused on group identification.
Posse Tracks by the Numbers
Some posse tracks are effective because the song is fueled by the presence of multiple voices and styles. Having three or more emcees on deck becomes a natural and integral element to the song’s purpose.
One type of posse track that plays the numbers game is what I call the “cipher” cut. That’s the song that simply passes the mic from vocalist to vocalist in a relay format. Rappers are paraded one after the other, sometimes without a hook or a break. N.W.A’s “Parental Discretion Iz Advised” is a good example of a hook-less posse track, with the D.O.C. opening the song, passing the mic to Dr. Dre, who passes it to MC Ren, who passes it to Ice Cube, who finally passes it to Eazy-E. The format comes off like a freestyle session in which the rhymes are fluid and devoid of a unifying theme. Other examples include the Roots’s “The Session (The Longest Posse Cut in History)”, which is almost 13 minutes long, Black Sheep’s “Pass the 40”, and C-rayz Walz’s “Chorus Collection”, which is a near-15 minute long celebration about not having a chorus for the song.
Yet, Marly Marl and the Juice Crew’s “The Symphony” sets the standard for this type of song. Over a deft drum track and a piano loop rolling up and down the music scale, four emcees (Masta Ace, Craig G, Kool G. Rap, and Big Daddy Kane) rip the whole thing to shreds with perfect timing and lyricism. In terms of subject matter, “The Symphony” isn’t really about anything other than being better rappers than everybody else, but that actually makes the humor and delivery more apparent.
Posse tracks automatically encourage comparisons and competition. Take “The Symphony”. In terms of which verse was the best, fans seem to be split between Kool G. Rap’s verse (“Take a deep breath because you don’t have another left / Comin’ back like I’m avengin’ my brother’s death”) and Big Daddy Kane’s (“So just acknowledge the way that I kick it / ‘Cause if rap was a house, you’d be evicted”). But these were the last two verses of the song. It’s easy to forget that Masta Ace and Craig G set high standards with their verses, so Kool G. Rap and Big Daddy Kane really had to deliver. Further, in 2007, UGK teamed up with Kool G. Rap and Big Daddy Kane for a variation of “The Symphony” called “Next Up”. It’s interesting how one posse track builds on the legacy of another.
EPMD’s “Headbanger” is also a benchmark moment in posse cut history. Erick Sermon, Parrish Smith, K-Solo, and Redman got together for a rowdy audio assault, with each verse upping the ante and culminating in Redman’s irreverent and energetic closing. Redman’s ability to totally rock the proceedings was never in doubt. After all, if you ever want an incredible verse that talks about nothing at all, he’s your guy. That’s not a dismissal of his skill by any means. The guy is, quite frankly, awesome at stringing words, phrases, and rhyming couplets together in interesting ways. Just don’t expect a dissertation out of it.
Competitiveness can raise your game. It can also have unintended consequences. For example, LL Cool J’s “4, 3, 2, 1” featured Canibus, DMX, Redman, and Method Man. As the story goes, Canibus wrote a verse with a line about borrowing the microphone tattoo from LL’s arm. Offended, LL demanded that Canibus rewrite the verse and, even though Canibus agreed to do so, LL’s eventual verse seemed to be retaliatory. The whole thing exploded into a beef, with Canibus taking a shot at LL with “2nd Round K.O.” (“So I’ma let the world know the truth, you don’t want me to shine / You studied my rhyme, then you laid your vocals after mine”). LL shot back with a diss track of his own. What started off as a posse track with a few hot emcees and an up-and-coming artist turned into a conflict. It should be noted that a similar move occurred in another LL-hosted posse track, the remix of “I Shot Ya”. After verses from Keith Murray, Prodigy, and Fat Joe, a young and talented Foxy Brown almost stole the show. Then LL appeared at the end with a line about having crushed Kool Moe Dee, Hammer, and Ice-T in previous beefs, adding that he’d battle anybody in the rap game, “Female rappers too…I don’t give a fuck, Boo.” His saying that after Foxy’s verse could have turned into something heated.
As indicated by “The Symphony” and, to some degree, the “I Shot Ya” remix, the final order of the verses can be as important as the production or the lyrical content. The key spots in these songs are the first and last verses. Usually, one of these plum positions will go to the star of the song, which is either the rapper or group whose name is attached to the song (i.e., Notorious B.I.G. is the anchor for “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems”), the hot rapper of the moment (i.e. Redman and Method Man used to be the kings of the rap cameo, like Lil Wayne is now), or the rapper who drops the best verse.
I’ve always found it odd when the “star” of the song gets sandwiched in the middle of a posse track. It was strange to me that Tupac Shakur’s verse was second after Kurupt’s in “I Got My Mind Made Up”. I mean, it was Tupac’s song. Even though the follow-up rhymes by Redman and Method Man were pretty good, Tupac’s appearance in the middle always made me hesitant about finishing the track.
Another type of posse track that capitalizes on having multiple voices is the “Unity” cut. These songs have discernible themes and each rapper’s verse is supposed to add perspective or experience to the motif. In this context, having more than one rapper on the scene enhances and galvanizes the song, as the central theme is strengthened with each successive verse. As the saying goes, there’s strength in numbers.
Posse tracks with political themes exemplify this approach. They are perfectly suited to express the will of the majority, or at least a respectable minority, and they are usually designed to gather momentum against a community problem or societal issue.
“Self Destruction”, masterminded by KRS-One, totally rules this subcategory of posse tracks. KRS-One’s Stop the Violence Movement organized a battalion of rappers against crime and violent behavior. Check out this wickedly great roster of rap artists who were down for the cause: KRS-One, D-Nice, Ms. Melodie, Stetsasonic, MC Lyte, Doug E. Fresh, Kool Moe Dee, Just-Ice, Heavy D, and Public Enemy. In 2008, KRS-One revived the Stop the Violence Movement to record “Self-Construction”. This time, he vowed to get 55 rappers together on one track! Along those same lines, but with respect to slightly less dire consequences, Heavy D recruited rappers to rhyme without using profanity in “Don’t Curse”.
KRS-One’s Stop the Violence Movement sparked a parallel sentiment from the West Coast of the United States. Dubbed as the West Coast All-Stars, California rappers assembled to help combat gang violence. Their song, “We’re All in the Same Gang”, brought together several popular acts of the late ‘80s: Oaktown 357, Digital Underground, Above the Law, Body & Soul, N.W.A., Tone Loc, MC Hammer, King T, Ice-T, Young MC, and Michel’le. Anti-gang rhymes by Above the Law, N.W.A., and maybe Ice-T might invite skepticism as to their sincerity. A song like N.W.A.‘s “Gangsta Gangsta” (“Do I look like a muthafuckin’ role model?”) seems incongruent with an anti-gangsta mantra. In this situation, working with a slew of other rappers takes the edge off the skepticism. When the song came out, I know I was surprised to hear N.W.A. and Above the Law in the “same gang” as MC “U Can’t Touch This” Hammer and Young “Bust a Move” MC.
“Self-Destruction” and “We’re All in the Same Gang” pointed toward self-improvement and community activism. Other posse tracks pointed at the world at large and demanded improvement from others. N.W.A.‘s “Fuck the Police” would be an example, if you’re okay with counting the song’s verses by three of the group’s members (Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy-E) as witnesses testifying against police brutality along with Dr. Dre’s role as producer and judge. Public Enemy’s “Burn Hollywood Burn” (featuring Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane) would also fit the bill here, aiming at Hollywood’s treatment of black actors and the perpetuation of racial stereotypes in movies (“Many intelligent black men seemed / To look uncivilized when on the screen”). One of my favorite political posse tracks is George Clinton’s “Paint the White House Black”. Here, Clinton invites rappers Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Public Enemy, Yo-Yo, MC Breed, and Kam to help him give the U.S. political system a lyrical nudge. In all of these songs, having more than one rapper deliver the message emphasizes community strength and solidarity.
Immortal Technique’s “Peruvian Cocaine” used the posse track format to illuminate the distribution channels of the narcotics trade. Each rapper in the song assumes a character that’s affected by that distribution model, from the field worker, to the drug lords, to the C.I.A., to the kid in the ‘hood selling drugs on the street corner, to the cops who put corner sellers in jail. Devin the Dude’s “What a Job”, featuring Snoop Dogg and Andre 3000, outlines the rigors of life in the entertainment business through the testimonials of the three talented rappers affected by the rap game. “What a Job” is reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest and Brand Nubian illuminating the pains of the music industry in “Show Business”.
While I am in complete agreement with posse cuts paying tribute to another artist or fallen comrade, such as Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard tribute, “Life Changes”, posse cuts with sex themes baffle me. The classic jam in this category is De La Soul’s “Buddy”. The song’s sexual content was obscured by clever lyricism by major players of the Native Tongue Posse: Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, and Monie Love. But, notwithstanding the lyrical smokescreen, I’ve never been able to understand the appeal of sex-themed songs voiced by several artists.
It gets more bizarre when the song lyrics get more explicit. As each rapper in Kurupt’s “I Wanna…”, or Shawnna’s ode to oral pleasure “Gettin’ Some”, proudly and graphically declares his or her desire to have sex, I find myself wondering about the perspective of the song. Are the rappers meant to be talking to each other? Are they sharing their feelings with the audience? Are they all talking to one specific person? Very, very weird.
Posse Tracks and Identity
When posse tracks aren’t based on numbers, they are likely to be based on group identity. In this situation, the rappers in the posse track are either representing a crew or a specific location, or they are affirming a shared trait or characteristic. Occasionally, they are emphasizing the fact of the collaboration itself or spotlighting a rapper on the rise.
Representing your crew or hometown is an important hip-hop maneuver. Prior to the infamous East Coast-West Coast beef, rappers were proud to acknowledge their spot on the globe and their affiliates as the best of the entire field. Every rap hotspot had a set of crews shouting out the city or region, representing that area to the fullest. Compton, California had N.W.A. and Compton’s Most Wanted. Houston, Texas had the Geto Boys. New York and its boroughs have had a multitude of emcees and rap acts.
Miami, Florida’s DJ Khaled seems to be making a living from posse tracks. One of his songs, “I’m So Hood”, focused on group identity. In the song, being “hood” was linked to sporting triple large T-shirts, wearing your pants below your waist, and having gold in your mouth. It might sound silly until you consider how cool it is to have a song that speaks directly to your affiliations. I still remember the song “Raise Up” by rapper Petey Pablo because, even though it’s not a posse track, it was dedicated to my home state of North Carolina. When crew or hometown identification is involved, having lots of rappers on the mic indicates a widespread feeling of pride and inclusiveness.
Consider LL Cool J’s “Farmers Blvd (Our Anthem)”, in which Uncle L was far more humble and community-oriented than he was on the aforementioned battle tracks “4, 3, 2, 1” and the “I Shot Ya” remix. “Farmers Blvd” was about LL Cool J’s promise to return to the street where he used to hang out with his homeboys. And return he did, giving some of them (rappers Bomb, Big Money Grip, and Hi-C) a chance to kick a few lyrics on his song. Likewise, U.K. rapper C-Mone showcased her crew on “The Magnificent 7”, in which each emcee represented “Notts”, or Nottingham. Back when Nas, AZ, and Foxy Brown were still committed to taking their super-group, the Firm, to worldwide heights, they had a song called “Firm Fiasco”, modeled after the movie Goodfellas, with each rapper reminiscing about working with the others and rapping about the good life as notorious figures.
Along these lines, rappers are quick to represent their labels on posse tracks. Dr. Dre moved to Death Row Records after squabbling with former N.W.A. pal Eazy-E. When Dr. Dre released The Chronic, it contained the posse track, “Stranded on Death Row”, featuring Kurupt, RBX, the Lady of Rage, Snoop, and Bushwick Bill, and using elements of the beat from EPMD’s “So Wat Cha Sayin’”. Similarly, P. Diddy’s “Bad Boy for Life”, playing on Diddy’s record label named Bad Boy, promised longevity (“We ain’t goin’ nowhere / We can’t be stopped”).
Sometimes, you can see a posse track coming a mile away just from the title of the song. Posses are relative easy to summarize with descriptive nicknames. You know it’s a posse track when you see song titles like: “The Militia” (Gang Starr featuring Big Shug and Freddie Foxxx), Fatal’s “Outlaws”, “The Usual Suspects” (Mic Geronimo featuring DMX, Fatal, Cormega, and Ja Rule), “Young Casanovas” (Junior M.A.F.I.A. featuring Mace, and Kam), and “Desperados” (AZ and Nature of The Firm, plus Canibus).
Another subcategory of identity-based posse tracks involves a shared trait or characteristic. The most obvious examples are songs addressing gender. With a lineup of female emcees poised to do damage to systemic chauvinism, a song like Lil Kim’s “Not Tonight” remix makes its point more convincingly than a song by a single performer. Reworking Kool & the Gang’s “Ladies Night” as its hook, Kim’s song featured Angie Martinez, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes of TLC, Da Brat, and Missy Elliott. Compare that with Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.”, a powerful work that spelled out the word “unity” in the same way Aretha Franklin spelled out “respect”. Denouncing sexism and domestic abuse, the Queen handled all the verses herself, using her verses to convey different experiences and viewpoints. A remix of “U.N.I.T.Y”, featuring other determined female voices, might have had an equally powerful impact. Brandy’s remix of her single “I Wanna Be Down” accomplished this on a lesser scale, bringing MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, and Queen Latifah along to circle the wagons around sensuality and romance. In this way, identity, tied to gender, becomes an important component of an effective posse track.
Femininity plays a crucial role in the tracks already mentioned, as well as in songs like Erykah Badu’s “Love of My Life Worldwide” (featuring Queen Latifah, Angie Stone, and Bahamadia) and Foxy Brown’s N.W.A parody “B.W.A.” (featuring Mia X and Gangsta Boo). Salt-N-Pepa’s “Whattaman”, featuring funky divas En Vogue, took us along a different path. I consider “Whattaman” a posse track since Salt, Pepa, and deejay Spinderella each contributed verses and En Vogue provided the soulful hook. But “Whattaman” wasn’t about women. It was, to quote the song, about giving “much respect due” to the “good” men in the world. It was pretty effective, too, except for one strange line about praising a man with a “body like Arnold with a Denzel face”. Can you really imagine Denzel Washington’s head on Arnold Schwartzenegger’s body? Shiver.
The “spotlighting” track is a third posse cut situation in which identity becomes central. Here, a popular and/or up-and-coming rapper is showcased or introduced on a track with his or her peers and comrades. The spotlighting technique was one of the ways I used to learn about “new” rappers and upcoming releases. A lesser-known rapper would be included on a more famous rapper’s posse track, and this would generate buzz for them both. EPMD used this technique with K-Solo (“Knick Knack Patty Wack”) and Redman (“Hardcore”). Another example is A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” featuring Leaders of the New School and a now-legendary closing verse from Busta Rhymes.
The bottom line is, posse cuts, whether focused on identity or the number of rappers on deck, have played an important role in hip-hop. And they are still vital to the culture. The more, the merrier. It would be great if the posse track technique could be revived.