In an industry overrun with so-called tastemakers and curators, it can be difficult distinguishing the bullshitters from the bona fides. But if you’re going to trust anyone’s word, you can’t go wrong with Don Cannon and DJ Drama.
Cannon and Drama recently delivered a Red Bull Music Academy lecture in their adopted home of Atlanta. Throughout the hour-and-a-half discussion, the DJ duo discussed their history in the mixtape circuit, working with heavyweights like Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane, and their thoughts on what the future holds for hip-hop.
Cannon had a particularly clear-cut vision. According to him, supergroups are the “next level of hip-hop”:
"There’s gonna be some supergroups coming for those that can get along and not worry about competition. It just feels right for [Young] Thug and Travis Scott and Quavo to have a six-song mixtape. It just feels like that’s coming.
"You see 808 Mafia, Metro [Boomin], Sizzle do tons of beats together. Mike WiLL [collaborating] with Metro. These things are inevitable. I feel like that’s the new wave. I feel like people want to hear that. It’s not just one song on the radio, like the “Key to the Streets” where it’s Trouble, [YFN] Lucci and the Migos. I feel like people want a project.
"I was watching the other day the Def Jam tour with Jay Z, DMX and Ja Rule. It seemed like so much fun, man. I wish I was a part of that. It makes room for tour. I feel like that’s the next level of hip-hop, in my opinion."
Cannon also believes throwback-style mixtapes, where rappers freestyle over other people’s beats, would be an easy way to get around the red tape of collaborative albums:
"The first rapper, in my opinion, to do what 50 Cent did on a higher level with mixtapes would be a throwback in the mixtape world. To stop giving us original music and freestyle like Wayne does on ‘No Ceilings,’ but just in a better way.
"Maybe it’ll be A$AP Rocky teamed with Wayne and do ‘Best of Both Worlds’ mixtapes. J. Cole and Kendrick, but not only original music, just rapping on other people’s beats, because that’s something that I really miss.
"The technicality now is to the point where we might have to wait for Kendrick and J. Cole because there’s a lot of legal stuff going on. I’d rather they just take a bunch of beats and rap."
It’s an optimistic view that could produce plenty of exciting music (without us having to wait years for it!), but is it really the “next level of hip-hop”?
For starters, supergroups aren’t exactly a new phenomenon. Over the last two decades, hip-hop has had a strange fascination with all-star ensembles. In the ‘90s, there was The Firm, Westside Connection, and Gravediggaz. The ‘00s gave us Madvillain, 213 and Slaughterhouse. And since the turn of the decade, we’ve seen Random Axe, Gangrene and, of course, Watch The Throne.
However, for every Bow Down and Madvillainy, there’s a Murder Inc. and Child Rebel Soldier—ambitious supergroups that fail to deliver anything more than a posse cut or two. Getting two or more high profile artists to find time to record together, not to mention getting their labels (and for some, streaming companies) on the same page can be a logistical nightmare, especially if it means sacrificing their solo careers.
Having said that, the hip-hop supergroup seems to be flourishing more than ever in recent years. Royce Da 5’9” and DJ Premier kept the emcee-DJ tradition alive on PRhyme, Drake and Future tucked everybody’s summer in 2015 with What a Time to Be Alive, and El-P and Killer Mike are about to release their third album as Run The Jewels, aka the hardest rap duo around.
Meanwhile, there are joint projects supposedly in the works from Drake and Kanye West, Chance The Rapper and Kanye West, and Chance The Rapper and Childish Gambino. Don Cannon’s right: there’s an upswing in supergroups that will probably carry on for the next few years. A quickfire project from Young Thug, Travi$ Scott, and Quavo is totally plausible, too. It’ll bring together fanbases, open up touring and merch opportunities for the artists, and create a “holy shit!” moment for us fans. With that much talent in one room, you might as well give them a residency at Magic City.
Don Cannon is also right when he says “the legal stuff” could stifle Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole’s proposed album, but would we really want a freestyle mixtape instead? Those “Black Friday” remixes the pair dropped last year were cool, but the novelty might wear thin if the idea was turned into a full project. K. Dot and Cole would need at least a few original records to properly capitalize on the pent-up excitement that’s been building over the last four years. And then you’ll have the labels (including the notoriously stingy TDE) and streaming companies doing everything in their power to get a piece of the pie.
A freestyle mixtape is a nice idea, but I don’t see it happening.
In an industry that’s in short supply of high-selling superstars (just look at how few rap albums go Platinum these days), supergroups are increasingly important, both culturally and commercially. That’s not to say artists shouldn’t strive to stand on their own two feet, but we’ve seen the impact collaborative projects have. They can take new artists to that next level, breathe new life into the careers of older artists and, in many cases, make hip-hop history.
Collaboration carries culture forward. It’s what Don Cannon has done his entire career.
By Andy James, who is signing off playing the "Cannon" tag on repeat. Follow him on Twitter.
Art Credit: Zoe Rowe-McQueen