Rap Camp: Hip-hop Artists Are Recording in Groups Again

Source Dale Edwin Murray for OZY

Why you should care

Because good things happen when artists record together.

If one’s company, two’s a crowd, and three’s a party, what do you call a room full of talent, resources and endless creativity? 

Rap camp. 

At the top of the year, Dreamville’s fearless leader, founder and top act, J. Cole, announced that his label was working on the third installment of its compilation series, Revenge of the Dreamers III. Except this time, he was inviting every artist he’s ever wanted to work with. 

In Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory fashion, Cole issued out social invites reading: “Your presence and participation is requested for the recording sessions for the upcoming compilation album,” thus giving life to what was the Dreamers sessions. 

This particular camp of rappers went on to produce one of the most successful projects of the year. But they were onto something much larger than themselves: the rediscovery of the magic that is recording in large groups. A growing number of artists are returning hip-hop to its collaborative roots that the genre had forgotten, thanks to technology that made it easier for musicians to work individually and then stitch their work together artificially.

Ask executive vice president and head of A&R of Def Jam Steven Victor and he’ll tell you that his team of newly signed artists began their camps of collaborations for their compilation album, Undisputed, last year, way before Cole. They released their album in March 2019. 

Similarly, Pivot Gang, an up-and-coming rap group out of Chicago, flew to Los Angeles and locked themselves in the studio for eight days, emerging with yet another critically acclaimed rap album, You Can’t Sit With Us, in April.

Grammy Award–winning jazz pianist Robert Glasper recruited his circle of talented friends to all come and jam out for a couple of days, producing his latest effort, Fuck Your Feelings, which was released in October. 

Although they seem planned and awfully new — especially the complementary documentaries they seem to come with — collaborations in hip-hop date as far back to big posse cuts as well as compilation mixtapes from pioneers like Kool Dj Red Alert, Bobbito Garcia and Stretch Armstrong.

However, the accessibility, affordability and the sheer convenience that advancements in music technology have provided ended the “camp” aspect in music.

From the DJ Khaleds and DJ Dramas of the world to rap crews like A$AP Mob in New York, Tyler’s Odd Future and even Quality Control in Atlanta — collaborations and compilation albums in recent years haven’t focused on everyone being in the room at the same time.

The return to group recordings can “be effective to help bring light to other artists that otherwise wouldn’t get that kind of light,” Jeff Burroughs, senior vice president of marketing at Def Jam, tells us. “As long as we’ve been able to use technology to help record records, we’re gonna use smart technology.” Burroughs thinks the new trend is “something that will be around.”

There’s a realness that cuts across these records, and they want the audience to feel it.

But apart from the exposure for lesser-known artists, when everyone is together in the same room working, you also eliminate the possibility of mistakes and confusion.

Bianca “BeMyFiasco” Rodriguez, a recording artist and Sprite ambassador, tells us just how much easier it is when all parties are in the same room. “You just pray that it ends up the way it’s supposed to be” when you have to send it via Dropbox or email, she says.  

It’s not by chance that Cole, Def Jam, Pivot Gang, Glasper and others are all trying to re-create for their audiences the experience of collaboratively working on their records. There’s a realness that cuts across these records, and they want the audience to feel it.   

“I think it’s a response to what has been going on,” says Alex Lavoie of LANDR, an online mixing, mastering and creating tool site for artists. “What [is] coming out of LA from the Top 40 is so polished, it’s almost like there’s no human touch to it. It’s been [given the] once-over and touched by so much technology. There’s something lost about that when you have a lot of production elements to it. You lose that raw feeling, and I think that’s important.” 

And he couldn’t be more right. Look at any of the several documentaries these rap collaboratives dropped this year and see how the artists respond to each other, and it’s clear something special is happening. Furthermore, when you hear the records, what you feel is undeniable.

What does that mean for the rest of hip-hop going forward?

Well, according to Top Dawg Entertainment — the label of Kendrick Lamar and his highly respected crew — we can be expecting a lot more of it.

Keep listening.

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