Post 13 September 2017

Ain’t Nobody F**king With The Clique: The New Era of Collectives

13 September 2017

Words: Nathan Tuft
Original photo by Marco Grey

Since its humble beginnings in the 1970’s, the concept of a team has been a long-standing tradition in hip-hop culture, dating way back to early rap and hip-hop groups from The Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five and Run DMC. The formula of hip-hop and rap is based on four simple elements; graffiti, rapping, DJing and break dancing and as such, the genre brought together groups of individuals of like-minded talents, who came together to form ‘collectives’ and use their individual talents to become stars. While members can have a range of talents; from rapping, singing DJing, producing and videography, all are involved in the long-term process and all play a key part in their collective success.

In the US, the early set tradition continued with groups sprouting from all over the country. Gangsta rap thrived with groups like NWA and Tha Dogg Pound, while East Coast alternatives like 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. The Wu-Tang Clan set the bar high for large crews, and De La Soul proved that three really is the magic number. There were also groups like Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill who showed that hip-hop has the power to bridge cultural gaps.

Throughout the 1990s, with such a proven success “in numbers”, many felt that they would continue to shape hip hop history but rap’s obession with ego took over and members broke free to pursue solo success; 2 Pac with The Outlawz, B.I.G from Junior Mafia and Ice Cube, Eazy E and Dr Dre from NWA. This continued into the millenium with focus shifted to individuals going it alone, with artists such as Kanye West, 50 Cent and Eminem gaining success (while many associate both Em and 50 with their respective collectives, both G-Unit and D12 came into light after the aformentioned’s initial success – Eminem re-joined D12 in 1999 after dropping The Slim Shady LP and G Unit was rose to major prominence post Get Rich or Die Tryin). It seemed that the day for groups and collectives was over, instead concentrating on the power of stars.

However, in the modern scene, the tradition seems to have gone full circle with artists creating collectives of their friends, fellow artists and creatives to form modern day rap groups. The success is clear, with collectives popping up on Billboard charts and having commercial, mainstream success. Black Hippy, who formed in 2009, launched Kendrick Lamar‘s career, landing him at #13 on the 2015 Forbe’s Hip Hop Cash Kings List, and confirming his status as a critical favourite with To Pimp a Butterfly, a dense, jazz-inflected record that denied fans singalong hits, yet still sold 324,000 copies in its first week. A$AP Mob‘s very own A$AP Rocky also had a fantastic 2015, with his album At. Long. Last. A$AP debuting at #1 on the Billboard chart and being celebrated by the likes of Rolling Stone and the New York Times.

But as well their respective figureheads, other members are allowed and pushed to make an impact. Up-and-comers can often “piggyback” on more established members’ popularity, performing on their tours and featuring them on their tracks. Black Hippys Schoolboy Q featured Kendrick on his 2014 single “Collard Greens”. Kendrick’s added hype likely paid off: ScHoolboy Q’s album Oxymoron debuted at #1 on Billboard’s album charts, whereas his previous albums, released before Kendrick blew up, peaked at around 100. A$AP Ferg also ate of the initial success of A$AP Mob with his track “Work (Remix)” featuring the likes of French Montana and Trinidad James and his albums Trap Lord and Ferg Forever making himself a household name. The appeal of these modern day collectives is down to a balance of mentorship and protection in a savage market full of oversized egos; while an artist may have just as much success on their own, having a dedicated team and a common motive resonates with fans and creates a movement that can be bought in to. It also creates an atmosphere of competitiveness with all those involved vying to better themselves and display their talents on a larger stage. It’s not just one artist or two artists, it’s a collective, an actual label that’s family at the end of the day,” said Kendrick Lamar of his fellow Black Hippy members in an interview with Fuse, We all wanna see each other win.”

As with any business venture, it’s all about teamwork, says Anthony Frasier, co-founder of the Phat Startup, a business development service that teaches entrepreneurship through hip-hop. Turns out hip-hop collectives and the startup economy have a lot in common, he says. “It’s all a culture of creating something from nothing.” Frasier also attributes the resurgence of collectives down to necessity and the need for homegrown, organic groundwork. Building a fan base can be a crazy uphill battle for young rappers, who face stiff competition from major corporations’ massive PR budgets. Without a label’s support, You have to be your own marketing team, your own agent, your own everything,” Frasier says. Collectives, on the other hand, can divvy up management responsibilities, allowing members more time to work on improving their craft.

This homegrown mentality is something that resonates within the UK urban scene, which has been forced to be self-reliant and “fend for itself”. Just like the early groups of the 1980s/90s, grime and UK rap took to building from the ground up and working alongside family and friends to create some teams, camps, gangs and companies. The garage scene in the 2000s saw groups such as So Solid Crew, Heartless Crew and Pay As U Go Cartel utilise the power of many and make work for in-house producers, engineers and technicians. With the birth of grime came a surge of young individuals looking to make a name for themselves and Boy Better Know, Roll Deep, Nasty Crew, Aftershock and The Movement serve as prime examples of groupings of people who grew up together and are focused on a common goal to succeed and produce quality material. Just like Black Hippy and Odd Future, these “crews” are able to instill their real life chemistry and use that to create honest and enjoyable music which people can relate to. As with the aforementioned modern US collectives, there will always be a natural leader (Wiley with Roll Deep and Skepta with Boy Better Know), but this does not halt their success as they remain loyal to their ties and remember their roots. In the UK, Roll Deep achieved a #1 in 2010 with “Good Times” and Boy Better Know have been played all the country (and beyond) thanks to the success of their tracks “Duppy” and “Too Many Man” amongst others.

The current UK landscape features a number of groups and collectives who are working together for the greater good. While the Section Boyz are proving that “Trappin Ain’t Dead” alongside the likes of Drake and Skepta, the focus has again shifted back to the youth with grime collectives The Square and YGG picking up accreditation and making headlines. Lewisham’s The Square gained attention at the back end of 2014 thanks in large part to Novelist, a then 17 year old who dropped unapologetic music which created a large fanbase. While Novelist initially embraced the love for himself and The Square, dropping infectious bangers “Pengaleng” and “Lewisham McDeez”, he left the group in September 2015, claiming that he felt he was carrying the rest of the group and wanting to pursue a solo career. While it seems that Novelist has made the right decision, featuring on the covers of both CRACK and Mixmag in recent months and touring the US, the spotlight has also been focused the talents of members Elf Kid and Blakie.

YGG on the other hand seem as thick as thieves or as Fabric referred to the trio; they share a natural, relatable energy and obvious friendship – the type that could only have been forged in the school playground”, which is likely part of their success. YGG’s biggest track “Okay” showcased their individual mic skills, but also their mutual chemistry, and is what saw them go from Radar and Rinse radio sets to being nominated in “One To Watch” lists from the likes of Complex UK to i.D Magazine. It’s clear that the idea of a collective has gained pace with grime star AJ Tracey kickstarting his own grime crew, MTP. While AJ remains the most notable MC in the bunch, he has brought through both Big Zuu and Jay Amo, who are both very talented, as well rappers Ets, Arkay, Sketch and Wax. MTP feel very nostalgic and a throwback to the crews of 2002-2005 era with comparisons to Essentials, NAA and Ruff Squad. There is a real competitive spirit amongst MTP and other crews where you feel that while each member will try and outshell the other, there is a real sense of brotherhood and camaraderie. With an ever growing obsession with being authentic and “British”, crews like YGG, Mellow Grime, MTP and The Square will stand out for doing what they do best; being themselves and making music.

There are also collectives who look to bridge gaps across genres and art forms, using the skills of different members to create art, music and visuals. London’s House of Pharaohs refer to themselves as collective of London youths bringing a new era to creative art” while Neverland Clan from Essex include rappers [Daniel OG],artists [Ryan Hawaii] and producers [Omlet]. House of Pharaohs have already been dubbed a U.K version of A$AP Mob, as they represent what it is like coming from a capital city like London, where cultures mix and fuse to create new waves of youth culture spanning music, fashion and the creative arts. Daniel OG also said on his track “An Ode To London”, I want to make London great again. No more imitators, showcasing their intention to use music for a greater good. Experimental hip-hop group 808 INK have given a new lease of life to the term “visual treatment” with their unique and aesthetically pleasing videos alongside their music, fusing elements of funk, infectious bass guitar notes and short and snappy snares and drums, with Billy’s Home being a standout project in 2015.

The introduction of a singer also opens up another stream of music, adding an additional bonus to an already successful formula. The direction worked perfectly for the Black Eyed Peas, who initially formed in 1995 (as a trio) but didn’t find mainstream commercial success until they added singer Fergie in 2001, scoring three Top 10 albums and 14 UK #1s in the process. A modern equivalent would be UK’s The Age of L.U.N.A who after adding vocalist Daniella Thomas (and producer NK-OK) in 2013 to the previously existing grime duo ZangWu, have found success gaining airplay on BBC Radio 1 as well as impressive co-signs from big name DJs including Huw Stephens and Mistajam. Since the release of their self-titled debut album, critics have been quick to pick up on their versatility and use of unique samples, sounds and song structure. Rap collective Last Night In Paris have been making a name for themselves since their 2014 EP release, Roses+, a record filled with dark, chilled-out beats that some them drawn comparisons to A$AP Mob, Flatbush Zombies and The Underachievers. Showing that they are not just about the music, the collective recently collaborated with director Karim Huu Do on a short film titled Pure set between the concrete streets of London and the knotty countryside which also gained the group attention for their versatility and mixed skill sets. With a group that features singers, rappers and producers, LNIP strive to better themselves as individuals and as a group and are constantly recruiting people for the team.

So what does the future hold for collectives and their success in the current UK scene? Well one thing is for sure, the current trend will see solo breakouts and stars forged due to their popularity and overriding talents. But in a modern age of social media and music sharing, its also a given that no-one will get left behind. With all the acts featured in this piece, there is something for everyone and it has been shown that if there is a fanbase for something (or someone), then it will speak for itself. While success can never truly be measured through chart placings or money earned, it is proven that collectives offer nothing but positivity, creating platforms for individuals to shine and make a name of themselves.