Rebirth of the Hip-Hop Duo
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the musical power of some of hip-hop’s most memorable acts comes in pairs.
By Keith Murphy
On their indispensable self-titled 1984 album, Run-D.M.C. gave birth to the hip-hop duo. “The good news is that there is a crew / Not 5, not 4, not 3, just 2,” announced the tandem team of Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels on the track “Jam Master Jay.” The roaring statement — which gave top billing to the group’s showstopping DJ, the late Jason Mizell — was very direct in its we-got-next messaging.
Up until then, hip-hop groups had usually comprised five (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five), four (Funky 4 + 1) or three (Treacherous Three, Sugarhill Gang) emcees. But Run and D were creating an entirely new template: a lyrical tag team that rhymed solo and in unison, and at moments would effortlessly finish off each other’s lines like synergetic jazz instrumentalists.
One common theme keeps us coming back to the idea of two rappers, symbiotically locked in on each other …
“I think people miss that interaction … the chemistry groups like Run-D.M.C. had on record and onstage,” explains Atlanta emcee Killer Mike, who says that the golden age of the hip-hop duo inspired him to join forces with Brooklyn spitter/producer El-P to form Run the Jewels in 2013. After peaking and waning, the hip-hop duo format has recently enjoyed a comeback, sparked by Jay Z and Kanye West’s 2011 chart-topping collaboration Watch the Throne and followed by Run the Jewels’ own bombastic statement. What better time to review some diverse, stellar moments in hip-hop duo history?
In the mid-1980s, the pioneering Salt-N-Pepa proved that women could more than trade off rewind-worthy lines. By 1988, Long Island’s EPMD took the baton, ushering in a more stripped-down style that achieved the same kind of purity punk innovators the Ramones had injected back into rock ’n’ roll. Kid ’N Play delivered a more comedic take, becoming PG-rated Hollywood darlings headlining their own House Party movie franchise.
Duos from the South had their own take in the early ’90s. Memphis players 8Ball & MJG along with Houston tandem UGK demonstrated a more laid-back, soulful approach, a style that would have a dramatic influence on two Georgia high school running buddies, André Benjamin and Antwan Patton — better known to the world as Outkast.
G’d up West Coast representatives the Dogg Pound were propelled by the volatile yin-and-yang mix of Kurupt’s lyrical flourishes and Daz Dillinger’s shit talk. On the East Coast, Staten Island’s Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon and Ghostface Killah produced artful, cinematic street poetics. Then there’s arguably the best live act of the ’90s era, Redman and Method Man, who carried the hip-hop duo into the new millennium with an energy that defied their weed-head image. But if you ask Killer Mike, there is one common theme that keeps us all coming back to the idea of two rappers, symbiotically locked in on each other.
“When I was young, I thought that Erick [Sermon] and Parrish [Smith] were friends,” he says. “That was a part of what endeared me to EPMD. I knew that Big Boi and André were friends — that’s what endeared me to Outkast.” He believes the cult following that Run the Jewels enjoys comes from the same source: feeling like you’re listening in on two friends finishing each other’s thoughts, with eloquence, style and swagger.
- Keith MurphyContact Keith Murphy