Saturday, August 01, 2015

A brief history of the featured rapper in pop music

In all seriousness, I've been waiting for someone to write this article for about fifteen years.  I had assumed that the trend had its roots in hip-hop and had later spread to pop music in general. However, Molanphy's analysis shows that it was more likely that pop hitmakers wanted to hybridize the then-popular styles of R&B and dance, while siphoning off hip-hop's cred in the process.  Early 90's producers racked up the hits and helped rap become more palatable to mainstream listeners, and in the long run everybody won.

At some point in the early to mid 90's, the guest spot went from a rare occurrence (and one that often required a careful reading of the liner notes to uncover) to a requirement, particularly in hip-hop.  I've heard that attributed to LL Cool J ("Mr Smith" was his turn away from rap and towards R&B and was full of guest spots), or the massive success of "Gangstas Paradise" by Coolio featuring L.V., or any one of a handful of other candidates.  Featured raps were prevalent in the G-Funk scene -- Snoop Dogg's career was famously jumpstarted by his verses on "Ain't Nothin But a G Thang" -- but the scene was too insular, with the same crew guesting on each others records, in the spirit of Molanphy's claims, their influence didn't cross genre lines, that is, unless you want to claim an indirect influence when Dr. Dre branched out and worked with other artists (e.g. Blackstreet).  Molanphy does a great job of tracing out the history of the trend, finding clear answers to all the "hows" but the "whys" are still lacking.  Did musicians suddenly become more democratic?  When Mick Jagger or John Lennon would sing background vocals for their friends, they hardly needed the publicity.  Was the "featured" spot looked upon as a way to break a new artist in a relatively low pressure setting?  In other words, the lead artists' name value would have to carry the record, but the featured artist could still break through if the record was a success.  That might have been the case twenty years ago, but you could argue that the pressure is now shared equally because featured spots are now so prevalent.

Chaka Khan's "I Feel For You" comes across as the unsung hero of the piece.  Melle Mel didn't get a "featuring" credit, but his rap is the most iconic and most imitated part of the song.  Previous collaborations blended backing vocals into an existing song, or gave the songwriter/producer a featured space to put their stamp on a record that was theirs to begin with.  The rap on "I Feel For You" brought a completely new element to a Chaka Khan song, and even overshadowed her while paradoxically cementing the song as a hit (as well as Chaka's big comeback).  The song was written and recorded by Prince, and covered in previous years by other acts, but it's Chaka Khan and Melle Mel's version that everyone remembers.  As with other songs that were covered multiple times but eventually owned by one particular artist (Aretha Franklin's "Respect" is a more well-known example), this version had a certain it factor that the others didn't.

Unsurprisingly, Eurodance gets somewhat overlooked in the article, as is usually the case with modern day critical reappraisals of 90's music.  Dozens of Eurodance records featured verses by unsung rappers who never received their proper credit, or vocal hooks by singers who were replaced by models in the videos.  Molanphy discusses C+C Music Factory and Marky Mark's "Good Vibrations", but there are countless other examples that are waiting to be thoroughly unpacked in an article like this.  It's a difficult task mainly because of the maze of labels/remixes/re-recordings involved.  The labels wouldn't bother to clear samples, the song would be re-released with new vocalists who also weren't properly credited (and were dis-invited to the video shoots and occasional live performances).

I could swear that there was a version of Snap!'s "The Power" credited to Snap featuring Chill Rob G, but I can't find any evidence of that now.  The original version featured his rap over the same backing track that was on the megahit version.  "Featured" is too strong a word -- Snap!'s svengali producers lifted the rap word for word from one of his songs -- and later rerecorded it with new verses (keeping only the "it's getting kinda hectic" line) and a different rapper (who also never got the proper credit), in order to avoid getting sued into tiny bits.  The new version was an even bigger smash, and a transcontinental one at that.  I thought that eventually something was worked out and the Chill Rob G version was rereleased as a type of remix to go along with the more famous version, but I seem to have been wrong about that.  Technotronic's "Pump Up the Jam" was credited to Technotronic featuring Felly and was a huge smash, which would appear to predate all of Molanphy's early 90's  examples.  But of course all the vocals were by Ya Kid K and Felly was only the model they put in the video.  It's also not like they were hiding Ya Kid K completely, like C+C Music Factory did with Martha Wash.  She was duly credited on other singles.  To make things more confusing, the album track "Move This" was featured in a Revlon ad campaign for years (this may have only been in Canada and not worldwide), and if you were alive between 1992 and 1995 you will remember being bombarded by it constantly.  It was remixed from the three year old album version, rereleased to capitalize on its newfound popularity, and retroactively credited to Technotronic featuring Ya Kid K.  Why the sudden change?  Why did the song "feature" a singer who was already a regular collaborator for Technotronic?  I'm not sure.

If you've read this far and still not clicked on Molanphy's article, do it now.  His pop chart analyses are consistently some of the best music writing around.

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