There was a time when hip-hop was all about collaboration. Late 1970s successes like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and the Sugarhill Gang gave way to new school groups like Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy. But the Outkasts, Fugees, and Wu Tang Clans of the early '90s only led to a decades-long run of hip-hop dominated largely by solo acts. For the occasional Macklemore & Ryan Lewis or Run the Jewels that succeeds as a partnership, there are dozens and dozens of solo rappers out there trying to murder each other on guest verses.
The Minneapolis-based rap collective Doomtree isn't a throwback act—their beats are fiercely contemporary, and the five rappers who collaborate with the crew's two DJs are ferocious wordsmiths with forward-thinking rhymes—but the idea of hip-hop as a collaborative enterprise is very much alive in the group's work.
The latest Doomtree album, All Hands, was released in late January, and the group's SXSW appearances marked the culmination of two months of touring. Speaking to four of the MCs in the group—P.O.S, Dessa, Sims, and Cecil Otter—in the lobby of the Hilton a few hours before their showcase on the festival's Thursday night confirms that there's not a lot of pretense with the Doomtree rappers, which might be part of what makes them good collaborators. P.O.S raps derisively about how "rappers pretend like their labels advance them money still," and on the album's first single, "Final Boss," Dessa drops a line about how the group can "make a fortune in small bills," which isn't the sort of thing that rappers who are terribly concerned with their own egos talk about.
Overcoming ego—as a rapper, or in any other creative endeavor—is a challenge. But in a medium where one of the most famous verses of the past two years featured one of the world's most successful rappers vowing that his approach to creativity involves "trying to murder" his contemporaries, looking to make great music collaboratively, rather than competitively, is downright radical.
"I don't think we used to be like that," P.O.S admits of the group's facility for collaboration. "On our first record [2008's Doomtree], it's like three and a half hours long, because everybody needed the exact same amount of solo songs and verses. Everything was very diplomatic like that. This one is a lot more about, 'This song is cool, and it's good, and I'm not on there—it doesn't really need me.' I think we've just learned to kind of trust each other, which has made it more fun."
Most of the rappers in Doomtree have been in situations where they've viewed recording as a competition, and they acknowledge that can be healthy. "When you meet a rapper and decide to make some work together, there's going to be some tension there, like, 'I want to be at least as good as this dude,'" P.O.S says. "I want to impress the world. I don't know who this guy's fans are, but I want to go get that dude's fans." But while the members of Doomtree have solo careers and solo records, when they're making a record like All Hands, the point isn't to steal each other's fans, it's to make the best Doomtree record.
"We're a band," Sims says. "There's no killing anyone else here."
Doomtree is a group with five rappers and two full-time producers, Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger, though P.O.S and Cecil Otter each produced tracks on All Hands as well. And when it's time to put together a record, it starts with the beats. "We start all the production together," Cecil Otter explains. He and P.O.S meet up with the other producers to work on beats together, assembling about 50 potential tracks. Then the entire crew rents a cabin somewhere out in the Minnesota wilderness to work on the record away from distractions.
"We end up driving a few hours from home, out of cell-phone service, like a cloistered jury or something," Dessa says. "Lots of snacks, lots of booze, and we spend a few days there to come up with the ideas." The crew plays through the beats to see what sticks with the rappers, waiting for inspiration to strike. When it does, they'll stop and let whoever has come up with an idea run with it.
"It's a really exciting moment, when one person—or even more than one person—has an idea, and all of a sudden it's like, 'Give me 10 minutes with this,'" Sims says. "And then you kind of do your own thing, and then in 10 minutes there's a fresh idea that gives everyone else a pathway into the beat."
Dessa describes the process as "rap Tinder," where everyone puts on headphones and sorts the beats into piles of songs they can (or can't) see themselves on, then compares notes. And one rapper's passion for a song can bring something new out of it for another.
"When I first heard the beat to what's now called 'Cabin Killer' on the record, I couldn't find a way in. I didn't see myself on that at all, and I passed, like, 'Cool, you guys do it, that'll be fun,'" Dessa says. "But when I heard Mike [Mictlan] rap on it, I was like, 'Oh, that's how a person would attack this beat. Those are the patterns, those are the cadences, that's the kind of flow that'll work.' That made me want to try my hand in it, too."
In the cabin, the process isn't so much "whose idea wins" as "whose idea was first and good." The members of Doomtree wait for inspiration to strike, but they don't do much waiting beyond that—the second good idea might be better, but there's not a lot of time when you're on a small budget and a small label, with five rappers in the room, to debate them endlessly.
"It's about the process of 'Let's get this done,'" P.O.S says. "It's work."
One of the advantages to working collaboratively is that with so many voices in the room—especially when they belong to people who are as comfortable working and creating together as the Doomtree rappers are—good ideas tend to naturally get elevated.
"Writing on a Doomtree record is so much more fun for me because it's an exercise in interpretation. When I make a solo record, it sucks," P.O.S laughs. "I love making the beats, until I don't. I love writing, until I don't. Whatever it is, it's a stressful and really hard process, whereas making a record with Doomtree, you get to hang out with your friends. We all used to live in the same house, over and over again, we'd be all up in each other's shit. Making a record together for me feels really good because A, we're hanging out, and B, I don't have to stress. If I don't have an idea, somebody else does. If I don't absolutely murder this verse, somebody else is. As long as I get what I'm trying to get in there, I'm going to feel good about it."
Pressure can make for great art, but it can also confine creative impulses. Loosening that up can take ideas in unexpected directions—and that's something that comes out for Doomtree in the cabin, too.
"I don't have to have a verse, or I can make my verse a little bridge. It's freeing in a way," Sims says. "I find it really fun—it allows me to be more playful and take more risks, because if they don't work, I don't care."
Ultimately, for the rappers in Doomtree, collaboration is freedom. "It's a lonely, maddening feeling to not be able to write your way out of your own song, and sometimes the ideas of other people that you would never have been able to generate with a hundred years in your bedroom really help," Dessa says.
It's not that the rappers in Doomtree don't have a killer instinct or a passion to be great—but when a rock band is working on an album, the bassist isn't trying to show up the guitar player. When artists can pick up someone else's idea and run with it, they're able to create something better than they would have independently.
So what's it like to be in the cabin and hear a beat that you know exactly how to run with?
"For me, that's like the best moment," P.O.S says. "I got this beat from Lazerbeak in my batch, and I knew there was something I liked about it, but I couldn't get anything to happen with it. Then I ended up taking all of the drums off of it, and I immediately connected with it, and just pounded out my favorite song on the record in about 25 minutes."
Trusting yourself, and your collaborators, to know how to run with a creative instinct is a gift that comes with the freedom that this sort of process brings. And it's something that is easiest to find when you're not looking over your shoulder, or trying to hoard all of the elements you think you need to be great.
"Sometimes the best beat doesn't make the best song," Sims says. "I'll get the best beat and then feel like, 'Okay, I have to absolutely kill this one,' then I maybe overthink the process. For me, the beat that just catches me at the moment makes the best song. 'Final Boss' was the one for me on All Hands where I immediately sat down and started writing, and it just felt great. I felt great about the whole thing."