Whether it was Big Daddy Kane spitting fire over Marley Marl’s game-changing drum-machine magic, Guru and Premier setting the benchmark for consistency with one classic Gang Starr album after another, or Missy Elliott’s boundary-pushing work with Timbaland, the one-emcee-and-one-producer unit has served Hip Hop well over the years, throwing up a stack of classic material in the process.
But the accepted practice of rappers sticking largely with just one producer per album gradually fell out of favour as the ‘90s progressed. As marquee names such as Nas, Biggie and Jay scored critical and commercial success on the back of albums that boasted a multitude of beat-makers, almost every other emcee pretty much followed suit.
It’d be silly to suggest multiple-producer albums don’t work – in fact they’re pretty much the accepted norm in rap today. Yet there’s a case to be made that they have often clouded the focus and identity of albums. Peep the credits of almost any rap LP since about 1997 and you’ll find a platoon of producers drafted in by the rapper (or, possibly, the label) to cover as many bases and check off as many boxes as possible: the underground street heater, the crossover radio jam, the club banger, the Neptunes and/or Timbaland spot, the southern collab’, the west coast joint, and so on. With so many producers and guest appearances in one place, albums soon begin to resemble compilations.
Yet the past few years have seen the ‘one-plus-one’ MC/producer line-up re-emerge on a number of one-off standalone projects. 2014 has possibly been the most impressive run yet, with Run The Jewels 2, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Pinata and the Bishop Nehru/MF Doom NehruvianDOOM combo all blowing up. But it’s not simply a case of rapper A stepping into the booth while producer B gets behind the boards with guest appearances kept to a minimum, these albums have thrown up some genuine curveball – as well as classic – collaborations.
Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)
MF Doom and Madlib were already major players on rap’s independent circuit in their own right before they joined forces as Madvillain in 2004. Doom had re-emerged towards the tail end of the 90s (following the collapse of his deal with Elektra as part of KMD) and dropped the classic Operation: Doomsday album on revered underground label Fondle ‘Em. At the same time, Madlib had built a steady buzz with his LA-based crew Lootpack, before issuing the excellent The Unseen under his Quasimoto alter-ego in 2000. By the end of ’03 the awesome Champion Sound – ‘Lib’s full-length collaboration album with the late, great J Dilla under the crew name JayLib – was already blowing up. But it was Doom and Madlib getting together for the Madvillainy joint that really sent their respective stock in the game stratospheric. The album pulled in critical acclaim and commercial success from far beyond purely Hip Hop parameters.
Madlib’s hectic, almost slapdash arrangements – comprising warped jazz loops and woozy samples layered over fractured drum beats – were a sharp contrast to the 80s-slow-jams-meets-classic-Hip Hop-breaks recipe Doom had cooked up on his solo material. But Madlib’s music formed the perfect sonic backdrop for Doom’s raps, allowing the man born Daniel Dumile to explore the metal-faced villain’s pysche further, and play around with the various aliases he’d developed over the years. The political overtones of Strange Ways recalled his time as Zev Love X in those heady early 90s KMD days, while the superb “Fancy Clown” (probably the greatest “er, it’s complicated” relationship rap since Main Source’s “Looking At The Front Door”) recounts the story of a cheating ex-girlfriend from the perspective of Doom alter-ego Viktor Vaughn: “There’s been a place for you in my heart since we first met/A teenage love that didn’t feel no hurt yet/My boys warned me you was poison like BBD first cassette/And still I put my chips on the worst bet.”.In an amusing twist, it’s MF Doom who’s the other fella in this love triangle, with a heartbroken Vaughn ready to “pound his tin crown face in”.
The album kicked off successful streaks for both participants, and would set the benchmark for the flurry of one-emcee/one-producer projects that would emerge in the next few years.
Prodigy & The Alchemist – Return Of The Mac (2007)
Although Alchemist and Prodigy had been long-term collaborators before Return Of The Mac, it was on their 2007 full-length joint that the pair sounded at their freshest and most focused. The album, which had begun life as a mere mixtape project, built on the early chemistry displayed on songs such as the banging “Keep It Thoro,” from P’s solo debut HNIC, and “Win Or Lose” – a killer cut from Mobb Deep’s underrated 2004 album Amerikaz Nightmare.
Alchemist went back to the lab and hauled out a stack of Blaxploitation-era gems, injecting Prodigy’s QB dun raps with a soulful ‘70s cinematic swagger that almost turned the whole set into a quasi-concept album. Think Rotten Apple rap music using the grim 1970s New York street corners – as depicted in Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and Mean Streets – as its sole reference point.
As comebacks go, Return Of The Mac was up there with the best of them. For P, the album was very much an exercise in regaining focus and rebuilding his rep after Mobb Deep’s disappointing run on the G-Unit label a year or two earlier. He sounded awesome over the Alchemist’s beats, and while complaints that the subject matter is merely a rehash of the same trife life rhymes are possibly valid, there are still neat touches throughout.
The listener is hurled straight into the mix with the heart-stopping title track, which is built around an urgent bass-plus-horn loop of Gene Page’s Blacula Blaxploitation score and decorated with a barrage of Tupac vocal samples and snippets of gunfire. The fact that the duo’s creative spark was still present some six years later on 2013’s superb Albert Einstein EP confirmed this album was no fluke.
Freeway & Jake One – The Stimulus Package (2010)
With his raspy, excitable flow, an impressive stock of killer punch-lines, Just Blaze on the boards and the financial backing of Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella empire, Freeway couldn’t fail to blow up in the early 2000s – dropping a steady flow of great singles (“Roc The Mic” with Beanie Sigel from 2001, “Line ‘Em Up” (2002) and 2003s “What We Do”) as well as albums (Philadelphia Freeway from 2003, and the even-better follow-up, 2007s excellent Free At Last).
The blazing Jake One-produced “It’s Over” – which boasted a turbo-charged beat built around a sample of David Porter’s “I’m Afraid The Masquerade Is Over” – was Free At Last’s standout cut. It demonstrated the collective strength of Philly Freezer and Seattle beat-maker Jake, who’d been building a rep by producing and remixing for a diverse bunch of artists including Evidence, MF Doom and the G-Unit squadron.
Despite a few setbacks (his departure from the Roc and an ultimately fruitless subsequent deal with Cash Money Records) Freeway kept things moving throughout the years and The Stimulus Package – his full-length tag-team effort with Jake One that dropped on the Rhymesayers label in early 2010 – remains his best work. Musically, the album knocks from start to finish; Jake One’s beats bumping hard while Free charts his illustrious hustling career on gems such as “Money” and “Follow My Moves.”
Action Bronson & Tommy Mas – Dr Lecter (2011)
Although he’s since released higher-profile full-length collaborations with various producers (Well Done with Statik Selektah, Saaab Stories with Harry Fraud, and Rare Chandeliers with Alchemist), Action Bronson’s debut album Dr Lecter – produced entirely by Tommy Mas – arguably saw him hit his highest heights. (2012’s Blue Chips, probably Bronsolinio’s most rounded and complete work, is disqualified from this list on account of producers Party Supplies being a duo.)
Running over a 15-course menu, Dr Lecter finds the flame-bearded gourmet chef-turned-rapper laying down a number of what would in time become familiar Bronson motifs: sports and pop-culture salutes (“Larry Csonka”), obscure old school professional wrestling salutes (“Barry Horowitz”) and high-end culinary references everywhere!
Backed by Tommy Mas’s vintage east coast boom-bap, the kid from Flushing, Queens could clearly rhyme his ass off, proudly displaying his varied influences – Kool G. Rap, Cam’ron, a certain Wu-Tang Clan emcee, among others – on his sleeve. But as he would later insist on the Party Supplies-produced “Ron Simmons” (yet another old school pro wrestling reference): “Don’t ever say my fucking music sound like Ghost’ shit.”
Killer Mike & El-P – R.A.P. Music (2012)
Before Killer Mike and El-P’s two Run The Jewels projects snatched the mainstream up by its ears, grabbing stacks of column inches and glowing reviews in the process, it was on Killer Mike’s 2012 album R.A.P. Music, produced entirely by the one-time Company Flow man, that the revered Atlanta-to-BKLYN connect first forged their high-octane chemistry.
As the independent Hip Hop movement of the mid-to-late ‘90s began to splinter and fade, El-P’s work – and that of his Def Jux label – had been met with indifference during the immediate post-Co Flow, post-Rawkus years. R.A.P. Music and El-P’s own Cancer 4 Cure, released within a few months of each other, were two of 2012’s strongest albums and sparked a critical rehabilitation for El-P in the minds of many.
With Mike’s masterful blend of humorous brag-raps and politically-charged polemics backed up by El-P’s head-splitting, battering-ram beats, some saw this album as a 21st century upgrade of Ice Cube’s Bomb Squad-backed classic AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. “Don’t Die” zeroed in on crooked cops and, along with recent tracks like Vince Staples’ “Hands Up,” it forms part of a new generation of anti-police anthems – picking up the baton left by NWA’s “Fuck The Police.”
Angry, noisy and original (just when the hell did you last hear a rap song constructed around Ronald Reagan’s guilt confession over the Iran-Contra scandal?), this was the jump-off for one of the most formidable partnerships in rap today. As Mike would later declare: “A producer gave me a beat, said it’s the beat of the year / I said, ‘El-P didn’t do it, so get the fuck outta here.”
Curren$y & Harry Fraud – Cigarette Boats EP (2012)
Curren$y dropped the Cigarette Boats EP just weeks after his fourth studio album The Stoned Immaculate in the summer of 2012, and a few months ahead of his Priest Andretti mixtape. That constant flow of new material is testament to the New Orleans veteran’s famous work ethic, which itself is all the more impressive given the amount of weed that he professes to.
Yet you’d probably be forgiven if this one passed you by. At a brief five tracks long, it surfaced with relatively little fanfare, which was surprising given New York beat-smith Harry Fraud’s producer du jour status at that point. But don’t get it twisted: Cigarette Boats’ running time may be slender, but the heavyweight material packed here represents some of Curren$y’s and Harry Fraud’s finest work to date.
Throughout the EP, the hyper-capitalism of Curren$y’s rhymes mirrored Harry Fraud’s immaculate, pastel-shaded Miami Vice-theme-music production perfectly. From Jay-Z’s “Rap Game/Crack Game” to Cormega’s “Rap’s A Hustle,” rappers have been drawing comparisons between the street pharmaceutical economy and the music industry for years. But while those NY hard-rock tales carried the grimy midnight chill of a Brooklyn or Queens street corner, Curren$y’s own addition to the rap game/crack game canon, “Sixty-Seven Turbo Jet” (on which he declares: “Fruits of my labour / The grind major, player / Investigators agitated / But this is legal paper that we makin’ / Sure it’s dope being sold and yeah we the ones selling / Audio keys – the price go down if you cop heavy….”) was driven by Harry Fraud’s hazy Biscayne Bay sunset soundtrack.
Boldy James & The Alchemist – My 1st Chemistry Set (2013)
These days it can often seem like every rapper is desperate to tell their coke-slinging stories, with iTunes charts and mixtape playlists caught up in an avalanche of the white stuff. But only the best in the business can take a step back and provide a broader perspective on the trap life. Clipse frequently expressed guilt and regret in their rhymes (No Malice taking it a step further on his – admittedly patchy – Hear Ye Him set, with the coke-game regret providing the basis for his born-again Christian confessions.)
Boldy James took a different approach on My 1st Chemistry Set. Here, his rhyme book served almost as a sociological study of the drug hustle. As he stated plainly on “Give Me A Reason”: “After the first time, it’s pretty much a piece of cake / So if you ain’t ‘bout this life you prolly can’t relate / If you were silver spoon-fed back in ’88 / I had to eat with my hands out of paper plates.” Such vivid rhymes gave added context to his academically disinclined confession on
“Consideration” (“As I multiply and divide, add and minus/I never paid attention in class except for math and science”) and, ultimately, an extra sense of menace.
Musically, Alchemist ups the intensity of his trademark 80s TV cop show soundtracks several notches, and the pounding production serves as a nice counterbalance to Boldy’s laidback, monotone flow. The feeling that you could get nonchalantly splattered all over the sidewalk at any moment never sounded so dope.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Pinata (2014)
Following several single-album collaborations with cutting-edge Hip Hop favourites such as Dilla and Doom and Detroit rap mainstay Guilty Simpson, Madlib’s hook-up with Freddie Gibbs marked something of a departure for the renowned west coast producer. Gangsta Gibbs (a native of Gary, Indiana now resident in LA) specialises in the sort of hard-boiled, roughcast reality rap that put his adopted west coast locale on Hip Hop’s map, though it’s not usually linked with Madlib’s avant-garde production style despite the geographical proximity.
But after dropping three superb singles together – “Thuggin,” “Shame” and “Deeper” (all of which are included on Pinata) – those early raised eyebrows quickly turned to raised expectations. And the full-length effort didn’t disappoint, hitting listeners with banger after banger.
Though it’s been described as gangsta rap for the new millennium, the album excels by essentially delivering on an altogether more basic level: it’s just vivid, captivating stories of street life pressed up on four sides of wax. As a concept, “Harold’s” – an ode to Gibbs’ local chicken spot from back in the day – may on paper sound like a throwaway idea more suited to a skit, but Gibbs’ humour and storytelling prowess, backed by Madlib’s irresistible soul loop, make it one of the album’s highlights. Meanwhile, the pain and regret displayed on “Deeper” propels the song way beyond your typical humdrum babymama-drama lament.
Then there’s “Broken,” the outstanding duet with Scarface, on which Gibbs recalls his early poverty, his experiences as a street soldier and his relationship with his police officer father. With lyrics such as “A young nigga that’s been thuggin’ since the old days / Promise I done seen everything but old age / Pray my demons never catch up from my old ways / Keep the heat ‘cause I was going through a cold phase…”, Gibbs’ deeply personal perspectives – coupled with the presence of Scarface – are reminiscent of the Houston legend’s 1993 epic “Now I Feel Ya.”