French Montana, Lil’ Wayne, and Rick Ross in the “Pop That” music video (via YouTube)
French Montana’s “Pop That” was the last of a dying breed. In 2012, four rap juggernauts came through for an epic club banger. Rick Ross, Drake, and Lil’ Wayne joined the Moroccan rapper in a low key competition to drop the best bars. There were a few memorable lines, but the song’s most impressive feat was not a particular verse. It was the song’s shelf life. In 2015, I still heard “Pop That” everywhere. Sure, I partied more back then so I heard it a lot, but they had that thing playing in convenience stores! It speaks to the song’s impact. But more importantly, it speaks to the rareness of songs like “Pop That” in modern hip-hop.
Back in the day, posse cuts (tracks with verses by four or more rappers) were by-products of the industry’s landscape. Music creation was expensive and time-consuming. Each artist had to be in the same physical space to record music. If a song had big potential, more artists got thrown on the track. And most popular songs had a remix already in the works. The process fueled the chemistry and camaraderie that often came with collaborations.
But that’s no longer the case. It’s now cheaper than ever to produce and distribute music. Today’s rappers only link up if there’s additional value to gain. And those link ups are rarely in-person. Guest verses are often recorded separately and sent back and forth with ease. The digital era has reduced costly barriers, but some of those barriers have turned posse cuts and remixes into nostalgic memories.
A brief history
Posse cuts and remixes had distinct lives but similar lifecycles. Both stem from hip-hop’s ‘golden age’ when groups were more popular. In the 80s and 90s, collaboration helped record labels hedge bets. Since hip-hop still vied for credibility, artists had to accommodate. And since studio time was a limited resource, individual acts had to prove themselves on crowded projects before earning the industry’s trust to go solo.
Here’s former N.W.A. member MC Ren in a 2015 Wall Street Journal interview:
“[Record executives] started [putting] people in collaboration records. You buy an album and it’s like 15 people on there. You don’t get a chance to really feel that artist.”
Remixes got similar treatment. Diddy took credit for inventing the remix in the early 90s (despite the fact that my Jamaican bredren been remixing since the 60s but that’s another Trapital story for another day). Remixes were a twofold tactic: they put more artists on and got more mileage from hit records.
Sean Combs proudly followed the playbook from Motown Records’ Berry Gordy. The Hitsville USA executive was known for getting multiple artists to release versions of the same songs, like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Puff did the same with Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear” remix and plenty others.
But the internet changed all that for hip-hop. Here’s a quote from a 2016 Washington Post article:
Today, it’s easier than ever for artists to collaborate remotely, exchanging verses or beats online. And there can be a monetary incentive for going it alone.
“It’s more money in the solo play,” Ice Cube, once a member of N.W.A, told the Wall Street Journal in 2015. “The royalties don’t go up for how many members you have in the group.”
Music creation is essentially a pie. The more hands that want a slice, the less each person gets. In the “golden age,” gatekeepers were the ones who made the pie. Artists dropped their best verses to strive for larger slices in the future. But now that artists can make their own pie, they don’t have to share unless they want to.
The path the individual stardom
The shift from mega-collaboration to individual stardom is not unique to hip-hop. A similar, yet less drastic, version of this happened in Hollywood. The original Star Wars trilogy films were jam-packed with ensemble casts. In the 70s and 80s, space epics were a relatively young movie genre. Lucasfilm had to build credibility with both audiences and industry execs.
But if that original trilogy rebooted today, that galaxy far, far away would have dropped individual films, sequels, and prequels about Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and Princess Leia. It would have followed the same model that Marvel Studios laid out with superhero movies. Of the 22 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, only four are “Avengers” movies that bring all characters together. Those four films are tentpoles. They established storylines for each individual character to build on in standalone movies. And now that Disney owns the Star Wars franchise, it has pushed a similar formula with its more recent films like Rogue One and Solo.
Hollywood’s transition from collaboration to individual stardom is less drastic than hip-hop’s because tentpole films often outperform those with standalone characters. That’s not always the case in rap music. “Sicko Mode” was Travis Scott’s biggest song of 2018, but Drake had bigger solo hits that year with “In My Feelings” and “God’s Plan.” Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s collaborations have been popular, but none are bigger than either artist’s solo work. Since collaboration is less is a requirement, the bar is now higher.
Collabs are also riskier today since artists don’t record together. When artists hear guest verses from fellow rappers on the same track, it’s often too late to make changes.
It’s like a team project when the last person waits until the 11th hour to update the Google doc. If you’re running point on the project, what’s your next move? Do you ask for an extension so you can carefully review their work and do another round of edits? Or lightly edit it yourself because you’re frustrated, it’s late, and wanna move on? Some of you might like to think you would ask for that extension, but most of y’all know that ain’t happening.
Had Nicki Minaj and Cardi B been together when they recorded “MotorSport,” all the drama with Nicki’s lyrics could have been addressed on sight. When Rick Ross records guest verses on his own time, it’s less likely that other artists will call him out for lyrics that reference date rape or use homophobic slurs. These are changes that teams need to think through.
From cost saving to revenue generating
The generational shift from posse cuts to guest verses has an underlying strategic narrative of cost reduction vs. revenue generation. Both have a net impact on profit, but the psychology is different. The remixes and posse cuts of old were risk-averse strategies that “hoped” to generate more money because it was less expensive than producing new music. Today’s guest verses are made with the intention to expand growth and drive revenue. Now that the marginal cost of music has decreased dramatically, the mentality has changed.
Last year, DJ Booth’s Yoh Phillips wrote about how hip-hop transitioned from remixes to single guest verses. Here’s an excerpt:
With the days of bringing in 17 disparate emcees for a remix slowly dying, the power of a remix shifted to a single co-sign. Now, all you needed was one verse from a huge star to take your name beyond the stars.
Drake is the poster child for this kind of contribution to a lesser-known artist’s track, always keeping an eye out for how he can become a part of bubbling movements.
A feature from Drake is often called a “stimulus package.” The term positions the Toronto rapper as some sort of philanthropic donor, but these appearances benefit Drake too. If he did BlocBoy JB’s Shoot dance in his own music video, then he’s seen as a lame 30-something trying to fit in. But when he did it in BlocBoy JB’s music video, it’s an endorsement that keeps Drake engaged with younger rap fans.
“Pop That” verses, ranked:
3. Rozay (used to be my #2, but “let’s get these hoes on the molly” has aged terribly)
4. French Montana
There’s a group of producers whose business model relies on hip-hop’s collaboration culture. Jermaine Dupri lived for the So So Def Remixes where the whole squad got put on. The same goes for all those ‘Jazzy Phizzle product-shizzles.’ It’s yet another reason why producers have lost power.
DJ Khaled is another one. Most fans know that the 43-year-old’s best work is well past him. Tracks like 2007’s “We Takin’ Over” are memorable because each rapper brought their best. But today’s artists are less inclined to give Asahd’s father their best bars. It’s why he now makes awkward songs like “I’m The One,” which featured Justin Bieber, Chance the Rapper, Quavo, and Wayne.
It’s easy to picture Khaled watching an Avengers movies and identifying with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury. The fictional character can assemble a ragtag squad like none other. It’s the type of success story that can give someone like Khaled the confidence to say “Bet. Ima get Bieber and Quavo on this track. MAJOR KEY.”
Now, there’s plenty of lessons to learn from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But that ain’t one of them.
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