In 2016, a lot of your favorite rap collaborations are just sort of slapped together. Someone strolls into a studio, nods to his "partner" on the song, spits some rhymes, nods again, and leaves.
Or worse. Someone takes an .mp3 file and clicks a couple buttons on their Mac laptop. The second artist, who could be 3,000 miles away, takes a listen, adds a verse or a hook, and sends it back to the originator or passes it on to a third.
Something's missing from these kind of collaborations: actual collaboration. Time was, artists had to hang out, talk, float ideas, grind it out together to get the song they wanted.
That's why it's so cool to look at this old photo, circa 2000, of some legendary indie hip-hop artists jammed into a studio in St. Paul. Each guy's holding a pen and a notebook, scribbling, editing on the fly, writing rhymes within arm's reach of the collaborator next to him.
The photo, posted online yesterday by the Ohio-based rapper Blueprint, was taken in the basement studio of Eyedea (real name Micheal Larsen), the late St. Paul rapper who worked under the Rhymesayers label. It captures a short-lived all-star grouping that also featured Slug, of Atmosphere, Aesop Rock, and Illogic, another Ohioan.
It's a lot of creative rap talent in such a small, modest space. Just look at it.
Blueprint thought the photo might've been taken by Eyedea's mom, or maybe by the rapper Sage Francis, but later Kevin Beacham — aka DJ Nikoless, of Rhymesayers, and a host on 89.3 the Current — took credit for snapping the moment.
Blueprint shared the photo along with some fond, detailed memories of that moment. This was the first of two studios Eyedea — "a dope engineer even back then," Blueprint says — built, and this one relied more on sampling vinyl and producing synthetic sounds than his second space, which catered more to live instruments. One constant in both studios: the Miles Davis poster seen on that back wall.
"Miles Davis was always one of Eyedea's favorite artists," Blueprint remembers.
Beyond that, Blueprint is wistful for the days when working together with other artists meant ... well, working together.
This picture was taken in 2000—long before people were writing and saving rhymes on their cell phones—so everybody in this picture is writing with an actual pen and paper. In those days, collaborating on music was completely different; artists had to be in the same room to collaborate on a song. If you were writing a group song with five guys rapping, that usually meant that you wrote the song one piece at at time. You typically didn't show up with pre-written rhymes for records like that because you wanted the energy of the song to reflect everybody. That ensured that the song had continuity. And when everybody was on the same page, there was no feeling quite like it. That feeling of unison and energy was truly special. Nowadays, collaborating usually means using dropbox and e-mail; and sometimes the times the artists never even speak to each other. On one hand, it's great that technology has allowed us to create music with people who live hundreds or thousands of miles away, but sometimes I miss those days of hanging out with the people you collaborate with.
The members of this would-be supergroup, which called itself "The Orphanage," only spent a week together, and never dropped their solo or other collaborative projects to focus on this effort.
Eyedea died in 2010. All four other artists are still making records a decade and a half after the photo was taken.
"If you're reading this and have supported any of us for the past 16 years, thank you," Blueprint writes. "It means more than you know."
Though the Orphanage never lived up to the promise seen in this photo, a few songs were eventually released on Blueprint albums, and, as you'd expect, they're pretty damn good. Here's a couple.