Three's Company

Run-D.M.C. Photographed in New York (1988) | ImageDirect

Run-D.M.C. Photographed in New York (1988) | ImageDirect

Rap is thought to be a solitary medium. No bands, no backup singers, no accompanist, just a lone figure in the booth spitting into a mic. This genre is also the only one in which it is still considered uncouth to use outside songwriters. It is no surprise that this medium is particularly devoid of multi person acts. Unlike the boy bands of pop, hardcore rock, and classical ensembles, rap groups have become few and far between within the hip hop industry. How did the genre that originally started as one of duos and groups comprised of an emcee, DJ, and hype man such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5, Cypress Hill, and Run DMC become so isolated? Long gone are the days of rap quartets and even sextets. We seem to have done away with the more recent innovation of dynasty-esque crews such as Ruff Ryders, Young Money, and Dipset as well. Standout groups such as Goodie Mob and Outkast were able to breakthrough into stardom but for every N.W.A. or Beastie Boys there are a multitude of Tupacs, Hovs, Biggies, and Drakes. Did rap artists learn to minimize drama with only one man behind the mic or did the lyrics just flow easier with one mind in the mix? Whatever the case may be, as time has gone on the rap game has effectively set a capacity limit.

As the trios and groups of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s broke off to form one man shows and become bonafide stars, it is easy to see why up-and-coming artists might shy away from the group mentality. Rap battles, verses, remixes, and cyphers, wherein one’s freestyle or rap skills are put to the test, still, for many, prove the skill of each individual lyricist. Many rap enthusiasts and purists see these as the one true test of a rapper’s skill, once again demonstrating the importance of the solo act in the genre.

N.W.A (1989) | Photoshot

N.W.A (1989) | Photoshot

Rap groups have also been heavily associated with gangs–a perception that might have contributed to their demise. In the case of the infamous East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry, the targeted violence of rappers and their teams led to the large scale conflation between rap music and gang violence. Additionally, with the roots of this genre being in the Black community, rap has historically served to bring attention to issues such as drugs, violence, and police brutality that plague Black populations disproportionately and leave lasting impressions on the lived experiences of rappers. Larger audiences fail to recognize these nuances, and rap groups (whether or not members exhibit violent behavior) have become indistinguishable from “violent thugs”. For many, the only thing more intimidating than a Black man is a group of Black men. Perhaps it is much easier to navigate these industry spaces alone.

Outside influences from industry professionals may have also played a role in the disappearance of the rap group. As seen through their biopic, Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A. is a good example of the prejudice that rap groups faced in corporate settings. The members were routinely discriminated against and pitted against each other by their white colleagues until the group eventually fell apart. When rap was more so about spreading a message and making change in the 80’s and 90’s it was easier to shy away from corporate settings and thrive in an underground environment. But, as the new century brought in promises of mainstream success for rappers, it seems as though they began to conform to more media friendly images. Furthermore, when the checks start rolling in it can be hard to share with five other members. As rap grows in popularity it seems as though the spotlight is shrinking and that most rappers are fine with just that.

As rap sheds its niche status and begins to dominate the mainstream, focus on the technicality of rap and the lyrical talents of the individual rapper have faded, opening up opportunities to broaden the scope of the genre. The 2010’s have also seen changes in the mainstream images surrounding black men, and perhaps it has become safer to perform as an ensemble. Groups such as Migos and ASAP Mob are dominating the conversation while new and innovative projects, such as the hip hop “boy band” Brockhampton, are beginning to gain traction as well. . Brockhampton hit the scene fairly recently as a self-described boy band made up members of different race, origin, and sexuality. From photographers to producers to rappers, the group sees itself as a collective, and the future of rap. While they may be on to something, the group seems to be experiencing the same problems as many groups before them. In 2018, the group faced a scandal wherein one of its integral members was accused of domestic abuse. The entire group was affected by the acts of one member, an issue seen time and time again yet easily avoided by being a solo act. Only time will tell whether Brockhampton can come back on the scene stronger as a collective, but right now it seems as though their power is not in numbers. Perhaps as rap enters this new era of mainstream airplay and household recognition, the world will see a full resurgence in the rap group as it once was, or maybe, three really is company.