Gang­ing up for gangsta rap

Straight Outta Comp­ton shows hip hop was once mainly a group ef­fort, writes Steve Knop­per

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

In O’Shea Jack­son’s teenage dreams of hip-hop star­dom, he was never alone. When he wrote rhymes at Taft High School, a 90-minute bus ride from his home in Comp­ton, Cal­i­for­nia, he imag­ined him­self in Run-DMC, EPMD or Public En­emy.

“I knew if I ever started re­ally rap­ping, then I would want a crew around,” says Jack­son, bet­ter known as Ice Cube, the ac­tor who first be­came fa­mous as a mem­ber of the hip-hop group NWA. “My favourite artists were in groups.”

NWA, the west coast gangsta-rap pioneers who are the sub­ject of the new biopic Straight Outta Comp­ton, took off at a time when hip-hop solo stars, with ex­cep­tions such as LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane and Ice-T, were scarce. The group’s chem­istry and ca­ma­raderie were im­por­tant.

“Ev­ery­body would kind of have a lit­tle cor­ner in the stu­dio,” re­calls DJ Yella of NWA. “We did songs so fast. It only took us six weeks for the first al­bum. We clicked like a ma­chine.”

It wasn’t un­til 1989, when Ice Cube quit for a solo ca­reer, that he fully un­der­stood the sig­nif­i­cance of the col­lec­tive men­tal­ity.

“I missed the group, mainly on stage,” he says. “I had to fig­ure out how to gen­er­ate that same energy by my­self, and it’s more work. You can’t have an off night.”

Over 25 years, though, the hip-hop group has be­come an en­dan­gered species, al­most as rare as break­danc­ing. Ev­ery rap­per who topped Bill­board’s R&B/hip-hop al­bum chart last year was a solo star; the only hip-hop groups that made this year’s top 20 air­play chart in the same cat­e­gory were Rae Srem­murd (a duo) and Rich Gang.

Straight Outta Comp­ton points to one rea­son why: more than half the movie is about NWA’s an­gry and some­times vi­o­lent break-up, sug­gest­ing even the great­est hip-hop groups could be too volatile to stay to­gether long.

Groups were dom­i­nant in the genre’s early days, be­gin­ning with Grand­mas­ter Flash and the Fu­ri­ous Five, but when hip hop be­came hugely prof­itable in the early 90s, they be­gan to break apart.

“It’s more money in the solo play,” Ice Cube says. “The roy­al­ties don’t go up for how many mem­bers you have in the group.”

An im­por­tant ex­cep­tion was the Wu-Tang Clan, which emerged in 1993 with nine em­cees. Wu-Tang had the fore­sight to engi­neer solo spinoffs for all of its mem­bers, from RZA to Ghost­face Kil­lah, but when­ever it went on the road as a col­lec­tive, trav­el­ling lo­gis­tics be­came un­wieldy.

“There are a lot of mov­ing parts to a tour: round­ing up pass­ports and pass­port photos ... as­sur­ing there’s no pork in the cater­ing ... round­ing ev­ery­one up again to get back to the venue for the show,” says Sophia Chang, a for­mer Is­land Records ex­ec­u­tive.

By about 15 years ago, the back-up “crew” model had re­placed more demo­cratic, NWAstyle groups, for the most part, from 50 Cent’s G-Unit to Nelly’s St Lu­natics. Not long af­ter that, crews evolved into “fea­tures”, with guest stars mak­ing ap­pear­ances on oth­ers’ sin­gles, a trend that con­tin­ues to­day on al­most ev­ery hip-hop hit.

The fea­ture ap­proach is cost-ef­fec­tive in this age of dwin­dling record­ing prof­its. Rather than pay­ing stu­dio ex­penses for a group or crew, artists and pro­duc­ers can sim­ply ex­change verses and beats online.

Many from the old-school hip-hop world ar­gue the lim­ited per­spec­tive of a solo star makes the mu­sic more nar­row and self-cen­tered. Scar­face wrote most of the Geto Boys’ 1991 clas­sic Mind Play­ing Tricks on Me, but ceded one lyric to Wil­lie D and al­ter­nated verses with his band­mates. Back then, the Geto Boys wrote in­di­vid­u­ally, then came to­gether to record.

“It’s a lot of cre­ative juices flow­ing in the stu­dio,” says Scar­face, who re­cently can­celled a tour with the re­united group and is fo­cus­ing on his solo al­bum Deeply Rooted. “All I had to do was write my part and I was done. It made life eas­ier then.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.