Cliques, Collectives and Clans: The Triumphant Return Of The Rap Group

The revival of the rap group is finally upon us. Here are five acts we have to thank for a new take on an old formula...
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The revival of the rap group is finally upon us. Here are five acts we have to thank for a new take on an old formula...

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The concept of a team has a long-standing tradition in hip-hop culture, dating way back to groups like The Sugarhill Gang in the late ‘70s and the slew of collectives that followed – Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Run DMC to name but a few. Gangsta rap had its star rosters in the form of NWA and East Coast alternatives like Wu Tang Clan, Mobb Deep and Junior MAFIA found huge audiences for their gritty, hardcore sound. Memphis rap group, Three 6 Mafia, were forging their own menacing take on hip-hop, with thuggish lyrics set to dark, displacing beats, while crews like Oakland’s Souls of Mischief were contributing to the West Coast’s laid-back sonic reputation.

Throughout the ‘90s there was the sense that such groups would continue to shape the hip-hop landscape, but by the end of the decade something had changed – rap’s obsession with the self had run its course, as the ego found favour over unity and groups disbanded in search of solo success. Hip-hop had always had its solo stars – take Biggie, Tupac, Jay-Z or Snoop Dog (each of whom had played their own role in a collaborative album) – but the new millennium seemed to be dominated by individuals, with the arrival of Kanye West, 50 Cent and Eminem, three rappers who would go on to define hip-hop for the next generation.

Now there appears to be a return to the group mentality that dominated ‘90s hip-hop, as collectives rise to the fore and shrug off their solo contemporaries.

Before I get attacked by an army of ill-informed rap fans it seems worth pointing out 50 Cent’s G-Unit were only formed post-Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and Eminem didn’t rejoin the Shady-signed D12 until 1999, following the death of member, Bugz. None of this is to say that there weren’t still groups – the impact of cliques like The Diplomats should never be underestimated – but there is no doubt they became increasingly overshadowed on the stage of hip-hop.

Now there appears to be a return to the group mentality that dominated ‘90s hip-hop, as collectives rise to the fore and shrug off their solo contemporaries.

Here are five groups we have to thank for their new take on an old formula...

OFWGKTA

A seemingly obvious choice, but also a logical point at which to start, the LA-based collective of rappers/producers/photographers/skaters/film-makers/designers, has had an undeniable impact on hip-hop, continuing to shock, offend and entertain ever since their debut mixtape, The Odd Future Tape, dropped in 2008. Foul-mouthed leader, Tyler, the Creator, just so happens to sweat creative vision as he set about shaping his Wolf Gang, which would become famous as exactly that – a gang. Their unyielding attitude to external features forces them to keep everything in-house, but with some of the most-talked-about rappers of the moment (Earl Sweatshirt anyone?) they present an intimidating force for false pretenders.

A$AP Mob

At first they were dubbed the ‘East Coast Odd Future,’ but it’s not a statement that’s insulting so much as it is inaccurate. The Harlem-based rappers/producers take more cues from Houston’s chop ‘n’ screw sound than they do their West Coast contemporaries and look up to neighbourhood predecessors like The Diplomats for that New York grit. The talent here is undeniable, ranging from the 18-year-old “Peso” producer, Ty Beats, to the business-driven 23-year-old manager, A$AP Yams. That’s not forgetting what brought them all the attention in the first place – A$AP Rocky’s debut album, LiveLoveA$AP, was a masterpiece of atmospheric beats, screwed hooks and switched-up flows, solidifying them as a group to be respected in their own right.

Progressive Era

Joey Bada$$ is the 17-year-old rap virtuoso at the helm of Brooklyn’s Pro Era, who dropped their debut mixtape, The SECC$ Tape, on Valentine’s Day of this year. While so much hip-hop seems dominated by synth-beats and industrial production, Pro Era has opted for a sample-based sound that they appear to have mastered. Their music recalls the ‘90s without falling into the trap of nostalgia-rap – there’s something exciting in the group’s fervent lyricism and a seeming confidence in their own ability creates the impression they’ve been around forever. Bada$$’ latest video, “Hardknock,” is a fitting introduction to the group, as Joey and fellow member, CJ Fly, exhibit their ferocious flows over a dark, bass-driven beat, courtesy of UK producer Lewis Parker. Joey’s first solo project, 1999, drops today and promises big things for a group barely anyone had heard of just five months ago.

RVIDXR KLVN

...or Raider Klan, if you prefer it without the ‘Klan hieroglyphics’. This sprawling collective of rappers/producers is perhaps the hardest to define on this list, but it’s safe to say that’s exactly how they’d like it. Klan-leader, SpaceGhostPurrp, is the most visible of the crew, but even his own output is shrouded in mystery – he played a role on A$AP Rocky’s LiveLoveA$AP and it was widely believed he was a key player in the A$AP Mob, but that relationship seems to have diminished in recent months (at least as far as anyone can discern). SpaceGhost comes from Miami, alongside some of the other rappers in the Klan, but geography seems to matter a lot less to these guys – spot Key Nyata in Seattle, Eddy Baker out in California or Amber London down in Houston. There’s much more the sense that they’ve been drawn together by a shared appreciation for early Three 6 Mafia, creating nightmarish hood jams as part of SpaceGhost’s never-ending quest to “Bring back Da Phonk”. The group’s obsession with the ‘90s is channelled through their own weird take on the world, resulting in some of the most interesting music to make this list.

Flatbush Zombies

4th January 2012 was the day Meechy Darko, Zombie Juice and Erick Arc Elliott arrived fully-formed with the song/video “Thug Waffle,” freaking out everyone with their sketched-out flow, synth-driven beat and unforgettable hook. Perhaps what freaked out people the most was the question of where the fuck these guys had come from? They dropped two more tracks in quick succession and have since followed up with videos for the hellish “S.C.O.S.A.” (or “Snorting Coke Off a Stripper’s Ass”) and last week’s “Face-Off”, which is arguably their best release to date.

Erick Arc Elliott is the man on the buttons, producing something like the musical equivalent to a zombie apocalypse – you can run and hide but everyone’s gonna die eventually. The best thing about these guys is that you get the sense they genuinely believe they’re the living dead, as Meech said in an interview “I died when I was 16 – that was the first time I did ‘shrooms. I got hit in the face with reality. After all the years of brainwashing and bullshit, that trip really woke me up. That’s when I became a zombie.” The Zombies have found love supporting the A$AP Mob at certain live shows and delivered a number of memorable performances at this year’s SXSW Festival.

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