From 'Surf' to 'TPAB,' Music Enters the Age of the Squad - DJBooth

From 'Surf' to 'TPAB,' Music Enters the Age of the Squad

Solo artists are old school. In 2015, seemingly every notable album has come from massive collaboration.
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The making of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was even more magical than the music that it produced. Kanye turned Avex Recording Studio in Honolulu into Rap Camp, a hip-hop Hall Of Justice. He handpicked and summoned his super friends to come and collaborate in secrecy, Q-Tip called the creative process, “music by committee.” In a room with legends, superstars, up-in-comers, and geniuses Kanye allowed them to dissect, strip, or add on to whatever he was working on. Egos didn’t clash, everyone respected the larger purpose, Kanye making Pusha T constantly re-write his verse on “Runaway” because he needed more douchebag was frustrating for King Push but for the greater good. The experience documented by Complex’s editor-n-chief Noah Callahan-Bever really gives insight into the kind of creative space that occurred during the making of the album and the G.O.O.D Friday records. Hip-hop has always been full groups, cliques, and crews, but this collective process was even bigger, even more expansive; a committee and everybody had a voice. Kanye’s Rap Camp was a sanctuary where one man orchestrated the talents of many to make a masterpiece.

For the last few years we witnessed a large number of cliques and collectives being born and flourishing in hip-hop; seemingly every new rapper has a full-fledged creative army by their side. Odd Future, Pro Era, A$AP Mob, Black Hippy, G.O.O.D Music, these were teams of artists comprised of more than just rappers, including producers, engineers, videographers, graphic designers, everyone moving together. Of course, there have been collectives for years - The Diplomats, G-Unit, etc. - but the biggest difference between earlier collectives and those fully functioning now is how openly we see them mix and mingle amongst their peers. Especially in 2015, artists aren’t just collaborating, not just adding a dope guest verse to a beat, they are turning studio sessions into a community of creatives, music by committee. It feels like there’s a real sense of comradery that is mixing with the spirit of competition in hip-hop now, a desire to make the best music, a passion that isn’t possible to achieve alone. Artists are going outside their comfort zones and finding the missing pieces that they need. It’s no longer just sending emails back and forth, spending a day in the studio making a hit single, it’s spending weeks, even months together in the studio, everyone adding their own voice.

A pivotal moment in the making of To Pimp A Butterfly was when Flying Lotus met with Kendrick during the Yeezus tour. While helping Kenrick with his visual show, Fly Lo played him a folder of beats. Only one of those beats from Fly Lo was used on the album, but most importantly that same night, Kendrick met Thundercat. It was that meeting, not a folder of beats, that ended up truly mattering. It established a deep creative relationship and resulted in Thundercat’s intergalactic funky bass sounding all over the album, fitting in perfectly within the experimental jazz production that Kendrick, Sounwave and Terrace Martin had been crafting. Not only did he bring his bass but his overall genius, that’s the word everyone used when describing Thundercat. You can tell that Thundercat spent a lot of time working closely with Kendrick, so closely that they were able to make a song from scratch to perform on The Colbert Report. During Flying Lotus' cover story with Fader, Thundercat leaves his house near midnight to attend a session with Kendrick. Kendrick had a vision for this album, one that he couldn’t make to fruition without the aid of others. He put his faith into well-known legends like George Clinton and Ronald Isley while also keeping an open mind that allowed him to see the purpose of a promising underground emcee like Rapsody, a bass playing prodigy like Thundercat, and a fairly unknown producer like Knxwledge. It took a village to create this album.

A village is also the best description of what The Social Experiment did with Surf. Now that’s an album that truly represents the kind of creativity that comes from many different minds working together with a purpose. Every person involved with the music brought a tone, texture, or personality that fits like the perfect piece in an incomplete puzzle. It’s not like a DJ Khaled album, which is more like a compilation of attempts to make hit records with the hottest artists. There’s no creative vision in Khaled’s approach, he sells singles, while The Social Experiment crafted an album. With all the features, no one feels more significant than any other member. I never imagined an album that has both Erykah Badu and Quavo from the Migos but it works. It shows the creative range that allowed this project to be both ambitious and enjoyable, they took the right kind of risks, allowing anyone into their fold that had something interesting to offer, from vibraphone players to singers. A spirit of open creatively that Khaled knows nothing about.

When you have the resources, it makes a world of a difference. J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive is by far his best album, one that has no rap features, but the overall creative process was very collaborative.

There are so many vocalists and instruments utilized this time around, he expanded his soundscape to make this album into something special. Over 93 people were acknowledged and thanked by the end of his spirited celebration on “Note to Self.” Everyone from producers to engineers, even The Social Experience was shouted out. It gave us an overview of expansive the world of album creating is. While Cole was showing love to each and every one that assisted, A$AP Rocky acknowledged one reoccurring feature on his album, Joe Fox. Before he encountered Rocky, Joe was a homeless, aspiring singer with a guitar. After an impromptu performance outside a London studio, he is now on five out of 18 tracks on A$AP’s A.L.L.A. He was a resource that Rocky didn’t know existed, a chance meeting one night brought him an important voice he needed. Their relationship was so genuine, he’s now Rocky’s actual roommate.

Remember when Soulja Boy declared on wax that he was going to pass it to Arab? It signified that he would be up next but it never happened. We remember Lil Jon but what about The East Side Boyz? T.I was able to make Young Dro a household name, for a moment, but what happened to the rest of the PSC? Back then it was the ringtone era, the era of the solo artist, at most the solo artist with their posse behind them. It’s interesting to live in a time where Mac Miller opens up his home as a studio and it becomes a place where artist migrate; Ab-Soul’s These Days and Vince Staple’s Stolen Youth were both recorded there, Alex Wiley, Earl Sweatshirt, and Future have all recorded at Mac’s house. It was another variation of Rap Camp but with a lot of drugs. Tyler The Creator went outside his Odd Future group and got jazz musicians like Roy Ayers and Leon Ware to add beauty to his audio madness. It’s starting to feel like we are witnessing something similar to The Native Tongues or the Soulquarians movements. This is indeed becoming the age of the squad, a squad renaissance, a squadaissance if you will.

It’s not just famous rappers, every ambitious new rapper I come across seems to have a clique that all contributes to the art in some form. Mass collaboration is the wave. They recorded together, they perform together, there’s no one who just carries the weed, everyone has a purpose. I use to think of rap as being an art form that could only be created by a single person. The same with producing, that the one given credit did all the work. In some cases, that’s exactly how it happens, but the tides are shifting. To truly bring out the best of your artistry it takes being around other people, trading ideas, being open to assistance, it can change your entire outlook. Before I came to DJBooth, I didn’t know what it meant to be a writer working with a team. I came up with all my articles, wrote every word, and believed it was the only way. 

Working with Nathan, Lucas, Z, and Brendan has changed my entire perspective. There are benefits to having conference calls strictly to exchange, tweak, and perfect ideas. We might talk for an hour trying to get the perfect perspective before writing a single word. I’ve watched as Nathan edited an article, seeing how he could alter a sentence to articulate a point in a way that I meant to but didn’t succeed at. One man might get all the credit but it’s definitely a group effort on many occasions. We only want to release the best possible content for our readers, egos be damned, the same way artists only want to release the best music for their listeners. In the words of future President Juaquin James Malphurs, “SQUUUUUUUUUUAAAAAAAAD”

By Yoh, aka Yohquin Malphurs, aka @Yoh31

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