The idea of a supergroup is simple: a few popular artists get together, make some music, realize they like each other, and if they can combine their audiences, $$$. We see it happen all the time in rock ‘n’ roll, but the dynamic of a rock band can make it difficult for rock supergroups to succeed as anything other than a cash grab. But hip-hop is a different story.
Posse cuts, in which a handful of rappers — often with some sort of crew affiliation — jump on the same beat, competing with and driving each other, often make for the best records and illest verses. When they gel to the point where they (and their fans) want to collaborate further, the supergroup is born. And often those groups end up equaling more than the sum of their parts.
The supergroup is still going strong; we can’t wait for new music from the newly formed WOKE, a collaboration between Flying Lotus, Shabazz Palaces and Thundercat. But to give the latest hip-hop collaborations a little context, let’s take a look back at some of the illest hip-hop supergroups of all time. For the purposes of this list, we avoided loosely based collectives like Hieroglyphics, Dungeon Family, Native Tongues, Soulquarians, Juice Crew, OFWGKTA, and the Diplomats, defining “supergroup” as a group comprised of rappers that had solo careers (at least one LP) before joining forces like Voltron to create something bigger, badder, weirder, or more marketable. They also had to release at least one album. There’s likely an East Coast bias, because let’s be real: “If I got to choose a coast, I got to choose the East/ I live out there, so don’t go there.” And don’t even get me started on CRU or the Hot Boys. Be sure to tell us who we missed in the comments.
Madvillain – MF Doom & Madlib
This collaboration between the enigmatic MC MF Doom and producer Madlib was pronounced a classic almost as soon as it was released; while it did moderately well commercially, you’d be hard pressed to find a critic who didn’t fawn over it. We chose the above clip for “All Caps” because of the fun cartoon comic video, but “America’s Most Blunted” is the most-referenced track on Madvillainy, the duo’s one and only LP. The thirst is so real that we tend to flip out for even a one-off collaboration, like the latest single from MED, Blu & Madlib, which features Doom.
Made at the height of Nas’ early commercial success, The Firm debuted on “Affirmative Action” from Nas’ second LP, 1996’s It Was Written. Nas, AZ, and Foxy Brown added up-and-coming Queensbridge rapper Nature to the crew for this Dr. Dre-produced album, which featured the classic “Phone Tap.” The album featured plenty of dope cuts (the Noreaga-featuring “I’m Leaving” is a favorite), but they admittedly peaked in ’96.
This group might just take the prize for the biggest collection of underachieving MCs. Ras Kass, Canibus, Killah Priest, and Kurupt all had their chances to shine individually, but never broke through to the mainstream. Ras Kass always had issues picking beats, Killah Priest never got out of the shadow of the Wu-Tang, and Kurupt flailed without his Dogg Pound producing partner Daz. Canibus may have made the illest diss track of all time, but failed to turn it into a career. But their talent is undeniable; rapper’s rappers, they had bars for days, if not much else. Their 2003 album The Horsemen Project was not widely released, but they made appearances on each other’s records, like “This Shit Right Here,” from Ras Kass’ solo album A.D.I.D.A.S.
Watch The Throne
Were you dead in 2011? A coma? Because that’s the only way you would have been able to avoid Jay-Z & Kanye West’s collaborative project, called Watch The Throne. Massive in size, scope and ambition, the record isn’t either of the artists’ best work, but “Niggas in Paris” was one of — if not the — biggest songs in the world at the time. When they saw how bonkers the crowd got during that song at their shows, they started playing it over, and over, and over again.
Birthed on the 2008 Joe Budden mixtape Halfway House , Slaughterhouse coalesced after the palpable “stuck in the 90s” crowd thirsted for their throwback street sound. Budden, Joell Ortiz, Kxng Crooked, and Royce Da 5’9″ stick to mostly street rap tropes, but they are all expert practitioners of the craft, and the standard boom-bap beats serve as the perfect foil to their aggressive braggadocio. Rap music for tough guys that read books.
Method Man & Redman
Meth and Red have been collaborating for years, on albums, guest features, and even feature films. But this early example is probably our favorite; a single from 1996’s Muddy Waters , the Blues Brothers-inspired video hints at their motion-picture aspirations. But the beat is straight filthy, a grimey head-bopper that was a staple of mid-90s hip-hop radio. They’d achieve more mainstream success with later hits like “Da Rockwilder,” but this gem remains our favorite.
Run The Jewels
We’ve gone long on El-P & Killer Mike’s explosive collaboration here before, so we’ll keep it short and sweet: Run The Jewels are undoubtedly the best hip-hop duo in the game right now. They released a for-charity remix album made entirely with cat noises, because they smoke too much weed, DGAF, and have fans that will consume literally anything they make with a voracious appetite. El-P has always been a neurotic tinkerer in the studio, marinating for years on his solo projects — Killer Mike’s jolly nature and casual genius on the mic seems to have loosened him up a bit, and they’re both making what might just be the best music of their respective careers.
This entry is almost cheating; while Mos Def & Talib Kweli each had releases prior to their breakout Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Blackstar, they each came into their own after this historic collaboration. “Definition,” the album’s lead single, features one of the illest lines we’ve ever heard:
“Still sipping wishing well water imported from Pluto/ Three hundred and sixty milliliters for all of the believers/ In miles or kilometers, most cats cannot precede us/ In the jungle with the leaders, we the lions, you the cheetahs.”
The record also served as the mainstream’s introduction to Rawkus records, the Murdoch-family-backed (yes, those Murdochs) indie hip-hop label that dominated backpacker rap in the late 90s.
Prince Paul, Poetic, Frukwan, and RZA formed this dark, off-kilter quartet in 1992, and in the process, mainstreamed the subgenre known as “horrorcore.” More kitsch than fearsome, they nevertheless defined their aesthetic clearly. Paul and RZA’s spooky production would influence later Wu-Tang records like Liquid Swords, and groups like Flatlinerz and Insane Clown Posse would take visual and sonic cues from the genre (though they would point to the Geto Boys as inspiration). Even more contemporary acts like Hopsin owe some credit to the group.
The Alchemist is one of the most gifted producers working in hip-hop today, so any group he joins can immediately be likely be referred to as a supergroup. This collaborative project with the rapper Oh No is a recent noteworthy highlight to his career; our favorite selection from their prolific five-year run is the wild, drug-fueled Vodka & Ayahuasca. Check the Cops-inspired video with a cameo from Action Bronson and a mean Eric B. & Rakim sample.
Back at the height of his Gangsta-era influence, before he started making ads for Coors Light and acting in cornball family comedies, Ice Cube made videos with thirsty devotees kissing the ring. Westside Connection (Cube, Mack 10, and WC) was Cube’s version of putting the homies on, making its first appearance on the Mack 10 track “Westside Slaughterhouse.” Bow Down, their debut LP, rode its eponymous lead single to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and sold more than a million copies, back when that was still a thing.
Sometimes we wonder what the audition process was like for the next project from DJ Premier after Gangstarr was no more; he was one of the most sought-after producers in New York’s 90s hip-hop scene (despite his Houston, Texas roots), and literally any MC would have been blessed to work with Preemo so closely. Royce Da 5’9″ ended up with the winning ticket, and holds his own on their debut self-titled LP against guest appearances from the likes of Jay Electronica, Common, Mac Miller, and Killer Mike. Preemo is still the king of the live sample/scratch beat construction, and while computers have made his savant-level skills a little obsolete, it’s still a thing of beauty to see him on the decks or behind the sampler. Throwback music, for sure, but from the original: accept no imitations.
Felt is the longtime collaborative project between the L.A. rapper Murs and the Minneapolis-based Atmosphere’s Slug. Murs was an early signee of Definitive Jux, El-P’s underground hip-hop label, and has been working with Slug since 2000. Their three studio albums are ludicrously named after beautiful actresses: 2002’s Felt: A Tribute to Christina Ricci , 2005’s Felt, Vol. 2: A Tribute to Lisa Bonet , and 2009’s Felt 3: A Tribute to Rosie Perez . “Early Mornin’ Tony” is a highlight; check the comic-al video above for a taste of Felt’s vibes.
One of the first clues to the mainstream that Adult Swim was one of the more progressive publishers of music in operation, this collaboration between an ascendant Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells’ Brian Burton) & the aforementioned MF Doom is a quirky pastiche of backpacker beats and comic interludes. Just a year removed from Danger Mouse’s breakout Jay-Z/Beatles remix album, The Grey Album , it was an early clue that Adult Swim executive Jason Demarco had his finger on the pulse of hip-hop’s underground (for more contemporary evidence, look no farther than the stellar Adult Swim Singles series). And for the cartoon fetishists, there’s even guest appearances from Adult Swim characters.
The Def Squad might just be one of the most underrated collection of hip-hop artists ever assembled. Erick Sermon (he of EPMD), Redman (the greatest rapper from New Jersey of all time), and Keith Murray (the court jester) assembled to create this group, named after their label Def Jam at the peak of the convergence of it’s commercial success and critical acclaim. Erick Sermon helped usher the boom-bap crowd into more accessible, danceable tunes, while Keith and Red traded bars and jokes so effortlessly it calls into question who was having more fun, us or them. Check the definitive work, “Full Cooperation,” which recreates scenes from comedy classics (48 Hours, The Nutty Professor) set to one of the illest beats ever put to wax.