Flashback to 2012: whereas the main East Coast-West Coast rivalry had already been gone for more than a decade, the rise of several massive groups sparked a new debate about which side had the best music. On the west, Odd Future was at the height of its popularity. Frank Ocean had just released his groundbreaking Channel Orange, Earl Sweatshirt returned from Samoa and Tyler the Creator’s antics were suddenly appreciated by the mainstream after winning an MTV Award. At the same time, Top Dawg Entertainment was still treating its main artists, Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock as a crew named Black Hippy. On the east coast, the A$AP Mob started coming up as A$AP Rocky started making waves. Simultaneously, the Beast Coast movement, tying together rap crews Pro Era (Joey Bada$$, Capital Steez, Kirk Knight), The Underachievers and Flatbush Zombies, started coming up, mixing an old-school New York vibe with modern production and a youthful charm. On top of that, Cruel Summer, a compilation album by Kanye West his music label GOOD Music was released, featuring artists such as Big Sean, Pusha T, Travis Scott, 2 Chainz and of course Ye himself.
6 years later, however, these groups are hardly still seen as groups: Odd Future fell apart quite dramatically, thereby plummeting some of its less famous members back into the fringes of modern hip-hop. Black Hippy, despite some remixes and loose tracks, never became the super group many fans had hoped for. The A$AP Mob never had enough quality to actually sustain its image as a group and even though they still release collective EPs, only A$AP Rocky, Playboi Carti and A$AP Ferg are currently somewhat relevant. Pro Era suffered a similar faith after Capital Steez his death and after Joey Bada$$ decided to focus completely on his solo career. The Underachievers and Flatbush Zombies are still releasing albums, although they’ve also disappeared from the spotlight and GOOD Music never had the musical synergy to be seen as an actual rap crew rather than just a bunch of rappers releasing a compilation album.
Ever since hip-hop emerged as a genre, rap crews have been at its forefront. Crews such as A Tribe Called Quest, Outkast, The Pharcyde, Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang, De La Soul, N.W.A., and the Roots shaped the culture, using their collectivity to bring a wide array of sounds to the table. During the early 2000s, when hip-hop itself was going through a transition phase, most of these groups suddenly disappeared, leaving a generational gap. The sudden upcoming of these new crews were therefore a massive yet pleasant surprise to many critics and fans alike. In just a short amount of years, however, we seem to have returned to an era in hip-hop which is mostly focused on individual artists. Why did this happen?
Back when hip-hop started, its urban roots were often characterized through bare and relatively simple beats. The focus was on the stories and the wordplay rather than the music itself. Rap mostly lived up to its full name, rhythm and poetry. Whereas this definitely was an interesting style, the uniformity and the simplicity of the beats, the rather short list of lyrical subjects and the lack of flow switches that often distinguished the genre did create a risk of turning a rap project into something monotonous. Rap crews, through their potential of shifting between different rappers (and therefore also different energies, flows and styles), steered clear from this risk. What should also not be forgotten is the fact that hip-hop emerged as a music style for the streets. The marginalization, oppression and impoverishment of many people in the streets created an incentive for them to flock together. Due to the poor living standards of these young folks, friends were more than just friends – they were family members. This naturally enhanced their synergy and allowed rap collectives to be very successful.
When the new era of rap crews appeared, rap was changing. Its generalized images as “urban music” or “black music” started to evaporate as a new, younger generation of rappers stood up. In general (although there are a lot of exceptions), this generation grew up with more prosperity and less marginalization. This allowed new sounds and voices to seep into the genre. Subjects such as depression, sexuality, identity, love and happiness were being explored through different lenses and different instrumentals and hip-hop gained a whole new audience. This, I believe, created a new demand for crews. Unfortunately, however, the groups I mentioned before either lacked synergy (Odd Future, GOOD Music), talent (many A$AP members), originality (many Pro Era members) or simply a distinguishable sound. The meteoric rise of one member of the group put some spotlight on the other members of the group as well, but as time passed on, these groups turned out to be less uniform or interesting as expected. What made rap crews work in the 1990s was not necessarily an equal level of talent among all the members but a common style, a strong connection between the members and a collective objective. Many of the old crews worked because there hardly ever were any plans for solo careers – they were brothers and they’d support each other through good and bad times. As they usually had already been through the bad times together, they managed to stay together for a long time.
This is exactly why Migos is doing so great as a crew. Personally, I’m not very fond of the music nor do I believe that they are a very interesting music act. Their strong personal relationship (all the members are family), their focus on not just succeeding alone but succeeding together and their collectivity has made it easy for all three members to showcase their talent. They came up as a crew and even though I’m certain there will be solo projects, they will also remain a crew. The other main groups these days are acts like BROCKHAMPTON and Injury Reserve, although their styles will make it hard for them to turn into big, established hip-hop names (emphasis on the word hip-hop). BROCKHAMPTON’s origins, current composition and the different styles and levels of talent in the group will also make it hard for the pack to stay together for a long time. In the past few years, the group has already had to deal with the departure of several members (Rodney Tenor, Albert Gordon), and with the spotlight mostly on Kevin Abstract, at least its come-up seems very similar to that of Odd Future. Duos such as Run the Jewels and EarthGang have naturally also received quite some attention in the past few years, but maintaining a duo is naturally way easier than running an entire crew.
Will we ever see a third crew era? One of the current issues seems to be the financial aspect of music. Record labels invest heavily in artists in order to gain profits, much more now than in the 1990s when hip-hop was still in its early stages. Whereas the main artist(s) of rap crews are often financially interesting, many of the artists surrounding them aren’t. Record labels are only willing to invest in groups if it seems likely that the group will remain a collective unit no matter what, hence why Lil Yachty is famous now while his “Sailing Team” was only ever featured on one smash single, All In. This, to me, makes it unlikely that we’ll see a revival of rap crews anytime soon. And even though most rap crews were flawed, that’s a shame.