Skip to content

The History of the Posse Cut in 5 Songs

The Juice Crew, one of the posse cut's first and finest.

Last week, Danny Brown dropped a gem he’d been chiseling away at for some time: “Really Doe,” a new song from his forthcoming LP, Atrocity Exhibition. The song features guest appearances from Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar, and Earl Sweatshirt, an all-star cast of lyrics-first MCs spitting verses back-to-back with barely a hook to speak of. It’s an instant-classic “posse cut,” a song format that producers like Marley Marl and Puff Daddy would use in hip-hop’s Golden and Silver Ages to showcase the varying talents within a rap crew. It’s since evolved into something a little more loose—sometimes all it takes is a few rappers willing to go toe-to-toe over the same beat.

The qualifications are unwritten but certainly codified: A posse cut typically features four or more MCs rapping over a beat with plenty of negative space (leaving room for creative lyrical embellishment), and a short or non-existent hook. It’s a platform to showcase lyrical talent, and the knowledge that your verse is going to be right up against your peer’s is strong motivation to bring your best. The competitive dynamics of the posse cut have fueled many classic verses, but as hip-hop and the music industry at large has evolved, so has the nature and purpose of the form. What follows is a brief look at the history of the posse cut, through the lens of five classic examples.


The Blueprint: “The Symphony” — Marley Marl ft. Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Craig G, Masta Ace (1988)

As its most accomplished former resident MC, Nas gets much of the attention around Queensbridge Houses’ contribution to hip-hop. But Queensbridge already had a rich history by the time he came on the scene, with Marley Marl’s Juice Crew boasting some of the biggest names of hip-hop’s Golden Age. Back in 1988, when the producer released “The Symphony,” Masta Ace, Craig G, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane were still baby rappers—only Kane had an album out. The song was the final track recorded for In Control Vol. I, the Cold Chillin’ Records compilation album intended to be a showcase for Juice Crew members and Marley Marl affiliates such as Heavy D.

With its simple construction—a piano sample from Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” looped over a boom-bap drum beat, with no hook—it was the perfect platform for each of the four rappers to flex their skills. With a static beat providing an even playing field, posse cuts become indirect battle records. They’re not usually going at each other specifically (though there are exceptions), instead competing to write the illest verse, the dopest bar. And while the competition may have been friendly, the politics here were real.

To hear Masta Ace tell it, those politics were what got him on the song in the first place. MC Shan—who inadvertently started the beef heard round the world with “The Bridge,” the B-side to his LL Cool J-diss “Beat Biter”—was supposed to be featured on the track, along with Kane, Craig, and Kool G Rap. But Ace says Shan felt like he was too big a star to be messing around with the “new jacks,” so he opted out. And in the studio, none of the three remaining rappers were too eager to be the first to drop their verse, so Marley Marl nudged Masta Ace into the booth to warm it up. “I don’t think the plan was to even keep my verse,” Ace told DNice TV. “I think he really just wanted me to get these guys off they chairs and get them in the booth.” His verse was solid enough that the producer kept it on the track, though he shortened it for the video and radio edit.

The song was an instant classic, cementing Queensbridge and the Juice Crew’s place in the annals of hip-hop history. Most arguments over who had the dopest verse fall between Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane, but Kane takes the cake with this couplet, later sampled by the Beastie Boys: “And battlin’ me is hazardous to your health/So put a quarter in your ass, cause ya played yourself.” But regardless of who “won,” the song helped launch the careers of both rappers. G Rap would go on to release two of the first “Mafioso Rap” records with DJ Polo—the classics Road to the Riches and Wanted: Dead or Alive—and Kane would soon become known as one of the most influential and innovative lyricists of all time. (Meanwhile, MC Shan’s star slowly faded; so much for being too big for the track.) Craig G shined brightest as a battle rapper, and would later write lyrics for rap scenes in 8 Mile and Get Rich or Die Tryin’.

Post-“Symphony,” Masta Ace eschewed the gangsta direction that hip-hop was heading in, which likely affected his commercial success. But his contribution to the culture was cemented, with his fearlessness helping to codify the form: These days, the opening slot in a posse cut is a place of honor, often given to new artists that show promise. It’s also a point of pride to lace your vocals first, as Danny Brown explained in a recent interview with NPR: In the many months it took to secure verses from Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt, Brown claims he never once changed his.

Other examples in this vein: A Tribe Called Quest — “Scenario,” Jay Rock — “Vice City,” Puff Daddy — “It’s All About The Benjamins,” Dr. Dre — “Some L.A. Niggaz,” Main Source — “Live at the BBQ”


 Rising to the Occasion: “Triumph” — Wu-Tang Clan:  (1997)

The Wu-Tang Clan isn’t your typical posse. In fact, when they signed with Loud Records in 1993, members negotiated the freedom to sign individual deals as solo artists with whichever label they pleased, redefining what a posse could even be. They roll deep, and when they get every member on a single track, their diversity of styles and influences comes into stunning view. The dynamic in the early days was fueled by competitive fire, purposefully stoked by the RZA’s evil genius. Wu-Tang members had to fight with each other just to get on Wu-Tang records, so one can imagine the stakes when it came time to record a track like “Triumph.”

Such songs are rare—it’s hard to make a radio edit of a track with eight rappers—but always memorable. One could argue that “Protect Ya Neck is the definitive Wu-Tang posse cut, and though it certainly is the first, it doesn’t feature Masta Killa or Cappadonna. Wu-Tang Forever’s “Triumph,” on the other hand, lives up to its namesake because of the incredible verses it inspired from less popular Wu members. With its multi-syllabic verbal gymnastics, enjambed sentences, and complex rhyme schemes, Inspectah Deck’s opening verse set the bar extremely high. Yet despite his technical brilliance, he doesn’t outshine the rest of the crew, who hone in on the qualities that make them unique. Method Man keeps it light and goofy (“This court adjourned for the bad seed from bad sperm/Herb got my wig fried like a bad perm”); the RZA lays down a barely intelligible yet highly intelligent verse in a robot reverb voice that would later evolve into his alter ego B.O.B.B.Y. Digital; Raekwon and Ghostface, with their complementary cadences, serve up the 1-2 punch they do so well to close out the track; and Ol’ Dirty Bastard is peppered throughout, doing his crazy guy talking to himself on the street routine.

Every member rises to the occasion on “Triumph” (yes, even U-God, whose verse is uncharacteristically passable), but the most impressive performance on the track might just belong to one of the Wu’s least visible members, Masta Killa. He wasn’t even a rapper when Wu-Tang formed, so he looked to the GZA—the Clan’s most cerebral member and gifted lyricist—as a mentor. On “Triumph,” GZA’s verse is the shortest non-ODB contribution by far, serving mostly to set up a Yoda-esque monotone treatise from Masta Killa that betrays its own complexity and layered metaphor. Just look at the last six bars of his verse:

Light is provided through sparks of energy
From the mind that travels in rhyme form
Giving sight to the blind
The dumb are mostly intrigued by the drum
Death only one can save self from
This relentless attack of the track spares none

It’s quite possibly the most concise poetic explanation of hip-hop music ever recorded. Using words that evoke the electrical signals in the brain that comprise human thought, he draws a path from his mind to yours, boasting of the power of his words to give sight to the blind, while acknowledging that his message will not reach everyone—some people just want to dance. Masta Killa appeared on several Wu-Tang group and solo albums, but never had much ambition outside the Wu, so his solo career never really took off. But at the Clan’s peak, when the most eyeballs were trained on Shaolin, he rose to the occasion.

Other examples in this vein: Big L — “Da Graveyard,” Eminem — “Detroit vs. Everybody”


The Risk: “Watch For the Hook” — Cool Breeze ft. André 3000, Big Boi, Cee-Lo, Witchdoctor, Khujo, Big Gipp, T-Mo (1999)

Of course, while getting on the track with all your homies can certainly motivate you to do your best, there’s a high risk of embarrassment—what if your best turns out to be not very good? Such is the case with Cool Breeze, the Dungeon Family rapper that Rico Wade and Organized Noize tried to put on after the success of OutKast and Goodie Mob. With its brilliant flip of the hook on Merry Clayton’s “Southern Man,” “Watch For The Hook” had a dual purpose: To showcase the insane wealth of talent the Dungeon Family was fostering in Atlanta, as well as build off the momentum of a stellar year (1998) that saw the release of classic LPs Still Standing and Aquemini.

Interscope gave Cool Breeze’s debut LP East Point’s Greatest Hit the full major-label marketing push, filming a big-budget narrative video with a loose Reservoir Dogs theme. They pushed the single out across terrestrial radio and MTV, with truncated verses to help keep the runtime under four minutes. André 3000 only has six bars on “Watch For The Hook,” but opens the track like a shotgun blast (“Never has ev-ery member in one crew been so diverse/Tryin’ to outdo the last verse that I birthed, that is my curse/Your knight in rhyming armor sentimentally slay all Grand Dragons”); Cee-Lo and Khjuo try to outpace each other as they trade rapid-fire blows; and T-Mo breaks down the door, Kramer-style, with a barely decipherable verse that nonetheless reveals its complexity on a lyrics sheet (“College brethren these days done changed the recipe/Steady taxin’ creatively maximize with proper investments/Can’t be hesitant with them dead presidents”). T-Mo might have the best verse, but Witchdoctor, Big Gipp, Big Boi… each comes correct with unique verses, varying pitch, cadence, and flow. Right up until the end, the track is as a relentless verbal assault from the best the Dirty South—a term coined by Mr. Breeze himself—had to offer.

That is, until the final verse, from the man whose name is on the song. The big mistake here was the conceit that Cool Breeze was on the same level as the Dungeon Family. With a plodding pace, basic AABB rhyme scheme, and bland imagery, he manages to say the least with the most airtime. It’s almost as if he knows it, choosing to repeat the last four bars four times to close out the track. The song that was supposed to propel him to stardom using his friends’ rocket power instead served as the vehicle for his downfall. If you’ve never heard of Cool Breeze until now, this song is the reason. Perhaps it’s even why posse cuts are so rare these days—no one wants to take their leap so publicly. Just ask Craig Mack—he’s still wondering what happened to his career after Biggie showed him up on the B-side of his own hit single.

Other examples in this vein: Craig Mack — “Flava in Ya Ear (Remix),” Kanye West — “Mercy”


The Beef: “4, 3, 2, 1” remix — LL Cool J ft. Redman, Method Man, Canibus, DMX, Master P (1998)

While the posse cut originated as a platform for showcasing the talents of a single group, crew, or label, the “posse” took on a more loose association in the ’90s, with many forming for the sole purpose of creating all-star promotional vehicles. This often took the form of a remix, extending a hit’s life on the airwaves—but more importantly, creating some of the more memorable lineups in hip-hop history. But when rappers that aren’t that close get on the same track, that competitive fire that inspired so many classic verses can ignite tension between those with fragile egos.

One of the more famous cases is LL Cool J’s “4, 3, 2, 1,” the Beasties-sampling, Erick Sermon-produced hit from LL’s album Phenomenon. LL got some of the hottest rappers of the day on the track, from Meth and Red (veterans making a name for themselves as a dynamic blunt-smoking duo) to Canibus (a hungry young rapper from Jamaica, who idolized LL). When they met, Canibus told LL as much. He even referenced his desire to get a mic tattoo like LL’s in the original version of his verse, saying, “L, is that a mic on your arm?/Lemme borrow that,” as an intended homage to his hero. LL did not appreciate it, asking Canibus to change his verse. He did, but when LL recorded his own verse, he took shots at the rookie: “The symbol on my arm is off limits to challengers/You hold the rusty sword, I swing the Excalibur,” and “Now let’s get back to this mic on my arm/If it ever left my side, it’d transform into a time bomb/You don’t wanna borrow that, you wanna idolize/And you don’t wanna make me mad, nigga, you wanna socialize.”

Between LL and Canibus, it’s hard to say whose verse is better; LL’s is the most polished, but he also had time and opportunity to study Canibus’ verse and take potshots at him. Once the original version of Canibus’ verse surfaced and people knew who LL was talking about, the beef was on. Embarrassed publicly by his idol, Canibus snapped back, writing “2nd Round K.O.” one of the most scathing diss tracks in the history of the form. Over a sinister Wyclef beat with support from none other than Mike Tyson, he proceeds to surgically cut LL to pieces, specifically his tactic of dissing him on the same track after Canibus’ verse was already turned in: “You studied my rhymes/Then you laced your vocals after mine/That’s a bitch move.” LL saved some face later that year with “Ripper Strikes Back”—a reference to “Jack The Ripper,” his Kool Moe Dee diss from 1987—and would later thank Canibus for the inspiration on his self-aggrandizing album G.O.A.T.

Canibus’ deficiencies with beat selection would plague him for the rest of his career, but “2nd Round K.O.” remains one of the greatest diss songs ever recorded. And it all started from a posse cut.


The New School: “1 Train” — A$AP Rocky ft. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, Big KRIT (2013)

As entertaining as it can be to hear two gifted MCs excoriate each other on record, at some point in the early aughts, in the wake of the great East-West media war and Tupac and Biggie’s murders, rapper beef got played out. Hip-hop had fully permeated the mainstream, and everyone was making way too much money to risk losing their life over petty squabbles. As rap became pop, and lyrical dominance became merely optional to a successful rap career, competition became less fierce at the top. There became almost zero incentive for an established rapper to jump on a track with three other stars; even if they were your homies, why risk getting embarrassed?

By the next decade, as A$AP Rocky’s “1 Train” dropped in the first days of 2013, you could be forgiven for thinking the form had faded into obscurity. Sure, rappers still released posse cuts (even classic ones!), but rarely were they big singles from big artists, and a dogshit verse hardly affected an MC’s career (though the bar for what is considered a good verse had been lowered considerably). But “1 Train,” an early single from LongLiveA$AP, would come to define the new competitive paradigm in hip-hop. Featuring rappers from all over the country (Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem, Detroit, Alabama, Mississippi), the track doesn’t promote any one crew, city, or region. Instead, it collects a group of hungry MCs eager to test their skills against their peers: Kendrick Lamar works out some onomatopoeia and several different rhyme schemes; Joey Bada$$ straddles newfound fame and his hometown streets; and Action Bronson proves his hunger is more than figurative. But Danny Brown is the star of this show, spitting some of the foulest bars ever written (“Weed a different color like a hoodrat bra and panties/And my flow be overhead like pots and pans in pantries/Antsy cause I’m high like Michael Jackson penny loafers/Moonwalkin’ on the sun, barefoot, with shades on/Bitch pussy smell like a penguin/Wouldn’t hit that shit with my worst enemy’s penis”).

When Kendrick Lamar started calling out rappers by name on Big Sean’s “Control,” the very reason people started freaking out was because it was so rare—a popular rapper at the top of the game daring other rappers to compete with him lyrically. In reality, if he truly wanted to stoke the competitive fires of his peers, it was his only option. How many rappers have the chutzpah to go up against K dot on a posse cut? Even when his fellow Black Hippy MCs jump on the same track, there’s no real competition; K dot might inspire them to be better, but there isn’t really any question of who’s the best.

Danny Brown’s “Really Doe,” just like “1 Train,” is the exception that proves the rule. Sure, if you’re Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, or A$AP Rocky, you might run the risk of getting shown up. But when you can close out a verse with bars like “Well it's the left-handed shooter, Kyle Lowry the pump/I’m at your house like, ‘Why you got your couch on my Chucks?’” as Earl does on “Really Doe,” you can afford to be confident. Who knows, enough of these tracks, and maybe writing dope lyrics will become cool again.  

Other Examples: Big Sean — “Control,” Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire — “The Last Huzzah”