A few months ago, my brother Adam was watching one of those music video stations (VH1 Soul, MTV Jams…I don't know) and I heard a familiar sound. The beat was dank, claustrophobic and ruminating. The emcee was spitting compounds. The record sounded like a joint I played in the mid-90s, in the winter; a joint I'd put on a mixed tape with Smif-n-Wessun and Jeru Da Damaja.
Then I looked up from my laptop and saw it was some little teenage dude wearing jeans that fit him (not four waist sizes bigger) and using an iPhone.
Wait, I thought. This joint is current? Woa.
Homeboy's name was Joey Bada$$. The video was for “Hardknock,” which featured another young kid who goes by CJ Fly. Moderate research informed me that Joey and CJ are crew. Their crew is Pro Era, short for Progressive Era. It's a collective out of Brooklyn. They're about a dozen deep with emcees, producers, artists, filmmakers, etc. They're all teens – like, attending high school teens – and they're all dope. Although they assuredly loathe the comparison, they are the New York City version of Southern California's Odd Future. Together, these two crews represent something nostalgic and wonderful in hip hop. They are not alone.
I grew up in an era of crews. Back then, we also called them posses and cliques. Wu-Tang was a posse/crew. Nine main emcees, including a legendary producer, and fleet full Wu offspring, representing the slums of Shaolin. And they all connected in probably less than three degrees of separation. To steal some verbiage from Raekwon – Wu’s occupation was crazy rhymin’.
The Juice Crew was a, duh, crew. It was more loosely connected than a crew like the Wu, but, as a collective, cats like Kool G Rap, Craig G, Big Daddy Kane and others had a few salient things in common — namely Marley Marl and spitting flames as violent as that oil derrick scene in There Will Be Blood. “The Symphony” remains, quite possibly, the illest posse cut of all time.
Not all of the Native Tongue members repped Linden Boulevard like Q-Tip and Phife, but they shared a common sound, aesthetic and vibe. This was clear when they’d come together to record “Buddy” or “Scenario.”
Crews were all over the place throughout the 80s and 90s. The Hit Squad, the Hieroglyphics, the Dungeon Family (OutKast and crew served as pioneers for what is now the epicenter of rap music). Chances are your favorite joint off Gangstarr’s Hard to Earn was “Speak Ya Clout.”
Somehow, somewhere, some way, hip hop crews grew stale and manufactured.
Recently, Rick Ross and his "crew" released another mixtape, Self Made Vol. 2. It's a fine album, much like Vol. 1., but the Maybach Music camp is not actually a crew. It’s merely a roster of mostly talented artists. Philly's Meek Mills and DC's Wale share no common bond with the Bronx's French Montana. All three MCs get busy on "Actin Up," which ends up sounding like a dope song with three guest verses. A gazillion rappers will agree that "these hoes be actin up and these n****s be lettin' 'em," but building a consensus around a hackneyed rap maxim doesn't make an authentic crew. Ross basically signed a bunch of artists he dug and made them rap together. That ish is synthetic, not organic.
We went from Boot Camp Clik to the effin G Unit. 50, Tony Yayo and Lloyd Banks makes sense, when you add odd members, like Young Buck and The Game, well, it ends up producing diss records that only live in smirked infamy.
How did we get there? Well, it's always fun (and lazy and only periodically accurate) to blame Puffy and Suge Knight for every pejorative shift in hip hop. But, in this case, Puff and Suge – ever the trailblazers – started the 21st Century phenomenon of the record label crew. Both Bad Boy (shoutout to G-Dep) and Death Row provided the blueprint for Rocafella, G Unit, Maybach Music, Yung Money, G.O.O.D. Music and all these other cobbled together collections of disparate artists – usually helmed by one money-making star fueled by label-head ambitions – that we incorrectly refer to as crews.
But these young cats are switching the steez back to what it once was. In an allhiphop.com forum thread about Pro Era, a commenter noted “the game is shifting to n****s bein part of the same crew, but not dropping group albums? kinda like a record label? so these n****s is record labels lookin for record labels?”
Well, yeah, but not really. Pro Era is organic. Odd Future is organic. The A$AP Mob is organic. These crews are made up of like minded creatives – that all share some preexisting direct or indirect friendship/kinship – coming together to make dope music and art, not to mention dictate the terms of their careers. It’s like they’ve taken the idea and integrity of the organic crews of the 80s and 90s and mixed it with some of Puff and Suge’s label crew savvy.
And you know what makes it all too schweet? A lot of the music they make is killin’. Just a few years ago, young new artists seemed intent on making sniffling, navel-gazing, victimized tripe they called emo-hop. Dudes listening to too much Dashboard Confessional and not enough Slum Village.
These new crews are putting out bangers. If Joey Bada$$’s 1999 EP isn’t the best hip hop effort of the first half of the year, it’s quite possible that it’s ScHoolboy Q’s Habits & Contradictions. Q reps the Black Hippy crew (which, it must be noted, got an assist from Top Dawg Entertainment). Last year, his brethren Kendrick Lamar dropped Section.80, possibly the dopest album of the year (every time the sun sets I feel compelled to bump “A.D.H.D.”). The Odd Future crew can out-spit spitters and out-N.E.R.D. Pharrell and Chad. The A$AP crew may not be as sonically nourishing as its peers, but its subversive quality is actually refreshing. Yes, you read that right.
Late in June, Joey and Pro Era made their official “debut” with a performance at SOBs here in New York City. A whole gang of young talent on the stage repping for each other. In another video, you can watch Pro Era, crew deep , as they eat at an Asian restaurant…and freestyle, of course. It’s a new look for an older aesthetic. I’m starting to dig this new era, this Progressive Era.