Once a hip-hop artist achieves any semblance of success, expect to hear about it from his friends. More than simply brag about their platinum-selling homie, though, chances are they'll rap with him on their own album.
Within the last two months, collections from the Nelly-backed St. Lunatics and the Eminem-featured D12 have stormed into record stores. The Lunatics' Free City debuted on the Billboard 200 albums chart at #3 on June 13, while D12 earned the #1 slot with Devils Night two weeks later.
Many other hip-hop acts have turned the same trick, piggybacking a new act on the strength of a star, and with the success of St. Lunatics and D12, the trend shows no sign of slowing. Eminem and Nelly maintain that they just happened to blow up before their crews; both have said in countless interviews they and their crews had an understanding that whoever made it big first would return and bring the entire band up.
"In general, posse albums tend to be a lot weaker than the star's album," said Serena Kim, Vibe magazine's music editor. "It's usually about a posse of semitalented people versus a supremely talented star."
Many fans agree with Kim's evaluation. "I've been down with Eminem since he was underground, but the D12 album is garbage because they're all trying to be smart-alecks like Eminem instead of busting their own styles," said Byron Stancil, a 25-year-old hip-hop fan in Massachusetts. "Proof and the rest had their own little talents, but they're just trying to be carbon copies of Eminem, and I don't think it works."
Regardless of the talent level of groups such as D12 and St. Lunatics, there's a definite business benefit to launching acts via established stars.
"It's smart from a sales perspective," said Masta Ace, former member of the Juice Crew, an artists' collective that also included Marley Marl, Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie, among others. In its prime, from the mid-'80s to the early '90s, the Juice Crew was one of the first hip-hop clans to create careers for each of its members.
"It's just that much easier to establish other artists when they can spin off of something that's already successful," Ace said. "It's a formula labels are chasing like crazy now. It's gotten to the point where labels won't sign an act unless they know who he's associated with. It has watered down the music."
It's sales that count in the end, however, and it's almost always easier to launch an act springboarding off of a Nelly (see "St. Lunatics' Ali Preps Solo Album") or an Eminem than it is to break an unknown act without an endorsement from an established rapper.
It "makes sense" to operate this way, according to Dave Weiner, senior vice president of urban music and distributed labels for JCOR Entertainment, whose roster includes 8Ball & MJG. "It's definitely a common way to launch careers. Pretty much everyone who's had gold or platinum success has done this. It makes sense to the people financing the project because it piggybacks on the marketing and promotion of their previous success."
And, said Vibe's Kim, "It helps to perpetuate the hype of the artist without the artist having to commit to a whole album. Plus, if the crew is on the star's label, the star makes money from royalties."
Music seems to be the only entertainment outlet in which friends regularly put friends in talent-driven positions. Michael Jordan's high-school buddy never suited up for the Chicago Bulls, and Michael J. Fox's childhood pal didn't trip "Back to the Future" with him.
But here is Nelly's crew repping St. Louis to the max, while Eminem's dirty dozen join him on his devils nights (see "Eminem's Crew Has Familiar Message: Don't Take Us Literally"). It's a practice Nas used to launch the Firm (a supergroup that included Foxy Brown, AZ and Nature) in 1997 and Busta Rhymes implemented to introduce his Flipmode Squad in 1998.
Some argue that, unlike in other media, these artists worked together to achieve success, with one of them achieving notoriety first.
"They all come up together," Weiner said. "I assume these guys were all in a crew in the independent-label world. You don't have that in basketball or television, which are monopolized by the majors. In the rap world, however, we've developed an independent opportunity for people to shine without the guidance, finance and help of the majors.
"The majors probably see that if Eminem and Nelly sell 8 or 9 million copies, they'll probably go platinum with a featured artist associated with one of those acts, and they can exploit that through the independent channel. If you're Michael Jordan's or Michael J. Fox's homeboy, there's no middle place to enter the industry."
Regardless of an artist's standing, quality material still has to be the end result.
"Hopefully, people take the time to make the project dope," said the producer Hi-Tek, whose musical friends and collaborators include Talib Kweli and Mos Def. "Nobody wants to go back to working for the post office or Taco Bell."
It's unlikely the St. Lunatics or D12 will be frying tacos any time soon. The Lunatics' Free City will be at #28 on next week's Billboard 200 albums chart, having sold 46,000 copies its 10th week in stores. While these sales are impressive, they don't have quite the commercial sparkle of Nelly's Country Grammar, which sold 38,000 copies the same week, after more than a year on the charts.
D12's Devils Night sold 372,000 copies its first week, far short of the 1.7 million sales rung up by Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP, but enough to easily top the albums chart. Two months later, it's still in the top 10, with sales of 90,000 copies last week.
Even if the D12 and St. Lunatics albums fail to generate as much excitement or sales as their mentors, rappers will certainly continue releasing offshoot projects. Dr. Dre, for one, has benefited from the success of his protégés, who range from Snoop Dogg to Eminem.
"There's more money in the rap game now, so it's more business-oriented," Hi-Tek said. "Everybody's trying to be an entrepreneur and take advantage of their whole situation while they can."
For an interview with St. Lunatics, check out "St. Lunatics: Crazy From The Heat."
For an interview with D12, check out "Slim Shady's Crew Stands Up."