The same can be said for many other rap artists that gained critical acclaim (and sales) for their prominent rap clans, posses, crews, and clicks. Many artists within these collectives have their assumed or identified roles, similar to a professional sports team. Many emcees, like Ghostface, initially begin their image showcasing their character as the enforcer, or the glue that holds the crew’s mission together via their rhyme skills. Or they perhaps compensate for their widely perceived lack thereof by exhibiting character in their voice and delivery. Yet there comes a time that it’s either a hit or miss for when one wants to show the listening public what their capabilities are for their own sound, ethos, and mission to maintain the loyal fan base of their crew, along with their own. This is what I like to dub as a rapper’s “Ironman” moment that springs a rapper from playing the background to a breakout star. One commonality for these artists together is their artistic growth, and how they manage to increase their fan bases yet maintain their artistic integrity with their core fans since their emergence. You can say this blog entry is opinionated, but the fame of these artists in the following list is undeniable. Here are five rap stars who emerged as least-to-beast of their revered rap crews and labels. Peep the examination of what it took for them to reach their unexpected stardom, and how they still rep their crews to this day:
1. Lil Wayne (Cash Money/YMCMB)
In the early 2000s, whoever within the rap world witnessed the emergence of Dwayne Carter as a top-seller for Cash Money Records, let alone the music business as a whole, deserves to be called a complete liar. The indie movement was beginning to become en vogue in the East and West Coasts, and rap purists from outside of New Orleans had yet to embrace the New Orleans’s signature “bounce” sound and raps about “bling-bling.” Many puristsimmediately dismissed ending rap verses with “HA!” as if they could not hear themselves in their headphones like that hilarious Dave Chappelle Show skit. But this is a matter of truth, and not mere opinion. Lil Wayne and his cohort’s style did set the course of the mainstream rap sound and aesthetic for the following 10 years through today. The most sought-after artist in the Hot Boy$ initially were Juvenile and B.G., and Lil Wayne was a then-teen rap novelty for his group. But directly after mainstream success, the group disbanded in 2003 due to many members leaving Cash Money records from contract disputes with Cash Money Records. By default, Lil Wayne became a solo artist and had to put in some serious work to keep the Cash Money label relevant in the marketplace. Lil Wayne collaborated not only with other prominent Southern rap and R&B artists, but also hit the East Coast-oriented mixtape circuit rhyming on the remix to Ghostface’s classic “Run” from his Pretty Toney album (2004), and released a few volumes of mixtapes with proud Harlem native Juelz Santana titled I Cant Feel My Face. This set the stage for his breakout moment releasing his magnum opus, The Carter III, for fans including President Barack Obama to embrace him as a household name. His live performances in New York City in the late 2000s showed that he was not just a Southern rapper, but a true MC that cares about lyrics, gaining much respect from ultra-lyrical heavyweights like Jay-Z, Chino XL, Bun B, Game, and too many others to be named. Lil Wayne gained enough success to rebuild and rebrand the Cash Money Millionaires clique and label to combine with his own Young Money imprint to create the YMCMB for their aspiration to become billionaires in the rap game with his roster consisting of artists like Nicki Minaj, Drake, Tyga, PJ Morton, Mack Maine, Jae Millz, Cory Gunz & more. Y.M. even helped re-invigorate veteran Busta Rhymes’s career to become pop superstars. Needless to say, Weezy has no worries.
2. Sean Price (Boot Camp Clik/Duck Down)
The man formerly known as Ruck, or Tawl Sean, was the emcee that “flowed fluidly” as he introduced himself to the world to start off the posse cut “Cession At The Doghillee” from Smif N Wessun’s classic 1995 debut album Dah Shinin. He was the “other” half of crew’s bully duo Heltah Skeltah, complimenting the rugged, gruff vocal stylings and witty lyrics of Da Rockness Monstah. They were the fearsome Twin Towers of the BCC, similar to the makeup of the late 80s Georgetown frontcourt Mourning and Mutumbo (yes, I’m dating my age here), and Sean Price was the latter since Rock figuratively had more offensive skills on the mic at the time on record. Ruck But with a crew compilation album in 1997 that flopped, and with the rise of Southern rap in the late 1990s into the new millennium, Duck Down Records found themselves up against the wall. Ruck, his crew, and label head Dru Ha claimed to have to take a step back to reimage and rid themselves of their former alias as the “Dreds and the Fros,” and Sean Price came out as the Phoenix embracing a new title as “The Brokest Rapper Alive” on his indie classic Monkey Bars. The honesty about his lifestyle resonated with rap fans, and his rhyme skills with beats that were derivative of the crew’s 1990s Beatminerz ‘s hardcore Timberland boot-stomping sounds of the crews Brooklyn residence. Since he cut off his dreds, Sean Price has been earned the love of rap critics for his flow that have even eclipsed his Duck Down label mates with sharp wit, harsh threats in the vein of gangsta rap, extensive pop cultural savvy, and slapstick humor in his lyrics and videos. As he stated on the first Heltah Skeltah album, he’s not just Sean anymore. He is “Sean P,” who brought the BCC back from the pitch black obscurity to revisit the greatness of their 1990s heyday, and with credibility to help build a diversified roster to strengthen the independent Duck Down Records label.
3. Cee- Lo (Goodie Mob/Dungeon family)
He has gone from the image of an ambassador for hip hop hobos with crooked and gapped teeth during the mid-1990s, to the self-dubbed “Loberace” set to perform a residency singing in Las Vegas like Dean Martin who could pass for an Invisalign model. Cee-Lo’s voice was the most notable out of the rap quartet Goodie Mob that used to sing Southern Baptist church hymnals for song choruses. Yet, Cee-Lo was always capable to switch to a lightning quick rhyme delivery and drawl that sounded like a Southern black grandfather who shops at a local Piggly Wiggly grocery store. The Goodie Mob really did not have a front man, but Cee-Lo was the go-to-guy for the choruses of their most famous hits like “Black Ice,” “Soul Food,” “Get Rich To This,” and “Cell Therapy.” For many years, the Dungeon Family’s flagship artists were Outkast. But since embarking on a solo career after a long hiatus of the Goodie Mob, there is much that Cee-Lo needed to prove on his own. With a wardrobe similar to a crewmember on the show “The Love Boat” and the Prince of Zamuda combined, Cee-Lo drove people “crazy” in 2006 as he found his stride with Danjer Mouse after forming the alt-pop duo Gnarls Barkley. Since then, this man has sang his way the Superbowl, waking up America to his Christmas carols on the Today Show, and had even found time to reform his group Goodie Mob for a world tour this year. Let’s be real, he really did not have to do that. But as a true man of humility in understanding his roots and giving what many diehard rap fans want, he wants to revert back to eating “fried chicken, macaroni & cheese with collard greens” to show fans that his crew is still good, and did not die young mainly over bullshit.
4. MURS (Living Legends)
If you don't know the history of MURS’s crew, underground hip hop's equivalent to The Grateful Dead is the California-based Living Legends crew. It started with the duo The Mystik Journeyman, Sunspot Jonz and PSC in the 1994 in the Bay Area. Another notable emcee who also hailed from the Bay Area named The Grouch linked up with this duo. They all moved down to Los Angeles, a hotbed for underground hip hop stars, after meeting up with a trio of emcees in 1996 who called themselves the 3 Melancholy Gypsies. The group consisted of a producer/MC tongue-twisting rapper named Eligh, a respected songwriter named Scarub, and MURS from the Mid-City section of town. Each member had their own role and character for fans to latch onto for a certain sound. During the crew’s formative years, MURS was not regarded by LL crew fans as their guy who exceeded his bandmates in songwriting ability. Yet MURS was a battle rapper that had much gusto with his freestyle abilities, and eschewed prototypical gangsta rap styles that his native city was most famous for. He dropped a series of mixtapes from 1997 to 2001 that helped him gain a small following in the LA underground scene. As a former SoCal dwelling backpacker myself during the late 1990s and early 2000s during the rise of the Living Legend’s popularity, and according to many in the LA underground hip hop scene during that time, MURS was not particularly lauded as someone that listeners had turned the volume up on their stereo or rewound their tape when you heard his verses compared to his cohorts. Soon after he joined former Company Flow frontman El-P's New York-based Def Jux label in 2002, he gained much national attention in the indie rap circuit beyond his hometown of Los Angeles. Then he dropped his first solo album, The End Is The Beginning, which showcase how advanced his songwriting abilities became. As the 2000s decade wore on, he worked tirelessly to get recognition. The albums that took MURS over the top was the MURS & 9th Wonder series in 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2010, and 2012. He also collaborated with underground rap favorite Slug of Atmosphere to releases the Felt trilogy of albums during the 2000s. Each concept album had a focus that made people identify him as an ambassador for hip hop away from radio-friendly pop rap. His live performances, and other solo efforts such as MURS For President released on Warner Bros. made other major labels take note for a growing audience, and MURS steamrolled that with his creation of the respectable Paid Dues Festival tours for hip hop artists of all rap subgenres to showcase their talent. Similar to the indie hip hop movement of the late 1990s, underground hip hop fans once again have a chance to feel well represented he rise of artists like Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Odd Future, and Danny Brown. And they each have MURS to thank for that. He has proven that he is now more than just "almost famous" when he makes TV appearances, and still working goddamn hard making underground raw shit.
5. Fat Joe (DITC)
Back in the early to mid-1990s, there were a handful of overweight rappers that made their mark as respectable emcees in the rap game: Chubb Rock, The Notorious BIG, E-40, Eightball, and Fat Joe. Fat rappers just did not exactly turn the corner beyond the gimmickry of the Fat Boys’ fame of the mid-1980s. But in 1993, the Bronx heavyweight made his mark at the Harlem landmark Apollo Theater, courtesy of his close friend and rap legend Lord Finesse, setting the crowd in a frenzy chanting the chorus to his first single “Flow Joe” from his debut album Represent. Also, being co-signed by fellow legendary Bronx natives KRS-One and Diamond D certainly helped Joe earn his credibility in the rap game. The formation of the supergroup of rappers and producers, Diggin’ In The Crates (Showbiz & AG, Buckwild, Big L, Diamond D, Lord Finesse, OC, and Fat Joe) made fans of New York-based hip hop check for anything that these men released to the listening public. Fat Joe had the most street credibility amongst the crew, rhyming about how hustling drugs was the keys to success, and speaking of his rough upbringing on Trinity Avenue in the X. He stood behind the “keep it real” ethos and image for his second album, J.O.E. (Jealous One’s Envy). Memorably, his 1995 promo commercial for that album showcased Fat Joe with his friends shooting semi-automatic rifles into the air. Moving ahead to his third album, Don Cartegena (1998), Fat Joe had established his following and formed his own crew, Terror Squad, with his overweight “twin” Big Punisher quickly becoming the marquee star of the clique. After the brief rise and untimely death of Big Pun in 1999, Fat Joe admitted to having to step up and fill his superstar artist’s big shoes (excuse the double entendre, or “pun”) for Terror Squad. Fat Joe began winning the favor of R&B fans by collaborating Ja Rule and Ashanti from then-powerhouse label Murder Inc. for his breakout radio-friendly Grammy nominated single “What’s Luv (Got To Do With it?)” from his fourth album JOSE (Jealous One’s Still Envy) in 2001. Who would have thought that a rapper would be accepted as a Don Juan-type of rapper like LL Cool J? And his fame did not stop there. Fat Joe became a household name as he created a dance-craze that shot to #1 on the Billboard Top 100 singles chart by telling fans to “Lean Back” in 2005, and spitting hardcore lyrics on the track to not sound soft like most dance jingles tend to be. With a heavily publicized beef with rap juggernaut 50 Cent and his G-Unit, bringing DJ Khaled to stardom as a member of Terror Squad, and rhetorically asking fans “What the hell everybody mad at the South for?/Switch ya flow, switch it to Southpaw” in his second Grammy-nominated single featuring Lil Wayne “Make It Rain” in 2006, Fat Joe has become the most successful of the entire DITC crew. Most importantly, he mentioned that he would be “always open” to a DITC reunion album while declaring the crew never disassembled from any bad blood amongst its original surviving members. Fat Joe has stood the test of time, knowing that if it required him to drive down the Interstate 95 highway from his home borough, and willingness to return home to his musical roots, he still has the keys to success.