On Monday moody New Jersey producer Clams Casino (aka Mike Volpe) and local rapper Vic Mensa teamed up to make a track in two days. Collaborative tracks are beyond commonplace in hip-hop, but this particular endeavor was framed in an uncommon light; it was streamed live on YouTube and presented by HP, which provided Volpe with the Split x2 detachable laptop he used to make the beats. Volpe and Mensa worked in a pristine white room (probably the very same space HP used to film Volpe working on a track in the above promo for the event) as a team of folks buzzed all around them, helping pull off a tightly choreographed event—or rather, an experience that was as precisely executed as a live stream of a multiday studio session can reasonably be. YouTube viewers typed in their comments and ideas about the track, constructive or otherwise, some of which were used to help shape the final song, "Egyptian Cotton." The official name of the event was "HP Presents: 2Days Beat," which refers to the time frame Volpe and Mensa had to finish their song.
"Nothing like this has ever been done," Mensa said at one point as I watched the pair tossing around ideas Monday afternoon. Yes and no. On the most basic level, the affair was a corporate-sponsored musical collaboration, which, along with getting a song placed in an advertisement, is one of the ways musicians can build a sustainable career. As I wrote last year in a cover story on the relationship between local streetwear brands and rappers, these kinds of partnerships can help introduce both parties to larger audiences. When it comes to big companies working with musicians, it also leads to the creation of some fascinating songs and albums that might not otherwise exist and helps get that music to reach new listeners. For example, last year Reebok funded Action Bronson and Party Supplies' wild and charmingly sloppy breakout mixtape, Blue Chips.
Some of my favorite tracks from this year came to light with some help from corporate backing I would've found strange, perhaps even repulsive, in years past. Some of the standouts have come from the Adidas Originals and Yours Truly "Songs From Scratch" video series, which pairs off producers with rappers or singers to create a one-off track while the folks behind Yours Truly document the process. "Songs From Scratch" tracks include a banger from Jeremih and Shlohmo in March, "Bo Peep (Do U Right);" and a devastating and ethereal cut from Chance the Rapper and Nosaj Thing, "Paranoia," which most Chance fans probably know as the second half of Acid Rap track "Pusha Man." A brand-new favorite of mine is "Gauchos" from noisy NYC rap group Ratking and Black Dice's Eric Copeland, which came out last week courtesy of Converse; I'm fond of both acts' aggressive tendencies, which are largely absent on "Gauchos," an alluring and accessible tune with a fluttering, harp-like sample and a bubbling beat.
What differentiates Volpe and Mensa's song is the method by which it was executed. Fans and curious YouTube viewers could watch the two make sausage on the fly and their comments could also be used to modify the track. It's the kind of experiment that succeeds by virtue of engaging with fans, or at least providing a forum for fans to feel like they're connecting with an artist or having a say in the track; throughout the block of time I watched Volpe and Mensa at work Monday afternoon I saw plenty of unhelpful comments ("i don't like where they're going with this song . . . sounds like some wack as sean kingston shit"), jabs at Mensa ("everyone > vic mensa"), and even some self-promotion ("follow me on twitter at @msalasmusic Im an up and coming musician myself."), and I imagine almost none of that ever made it to the artists themselves. Seemingly nameless people dressed in black took select handfuls of comments and wrote them on the walls in cartoonish faux graffiti, threw them onto blocky signs, or rendered them into incandescent light displays—that's what happened with Scott Barr, who provided a comment ("you both heavy hitters") that, for reasons I don't understand, was turned into a flashy light display for a forthcoming "Egyptian Cotton" music video.
"You both heavy hitters" is a particularly uninteresting comment that's also a piece of music video flair that's also an advertisement for HP. Barr's four words didn't even have to make it past the live stream's chat window in order for them to promote the computer company—anyone who typed in comments, constructive or not, helped spread the gospel of HP simply by participating in the conversation it created. HP's name was intertwined with every aspect of 2Days Beat, and though it's cool to think of having one's comments transform a song by a couple shit-hot musicians as you watch them work, the grossness of surrendering one's words to the brand overseeing the affair—which may then turn around and use those words in an ad for its laptop—was enough to deter me from joining in. HP, Volpe, Mensa, and everyone behind the scenes of 2Days Beat won by virtue of understanding what they were signing on for and pulling it off. I honestly wonder if the same could be said for those viewers whose names and comments were scrawled on the walls behind Volpe and Mensa.
Unlike every corporate-sponsored musical project that came before 2Days Beat, much of the appeal of the end product, "Egyptian Cotton," has to do with the creative process and how it was presented as an interactive experience for the fans. As HP says on the YouTube page for 2Days Beat, "This was all you." Whatever becomes of "Egyptian Cotton" it will be tied to its genesis, and because of that HP may have more of a grip on the song than any brand behind many great tracks that have come out before it; I don't think of Adidas when I listen to Chance rap about the horrors of gun violence on "Paranoia," but I'll likely think of 2Days Beat whenever I hear "Egyptian Cotton." I'll probably think of it fondly, since I couldn't turn away from watching the process for close to an hour Monday afternoon—2Days Beat was engrossing enough to keep me entertained for more than a few minutes*. But part of me will also recall the knee-jerk reaction I had when I first heard about 2Days Beat—that it's basically a two-day advertisement for HP that also happens to involve making a song from scratch.
It doesn't appear to matter whether or not the final version of the song is good. That doesn't factor into what HP is playing up with the good-bye tag for 2Days Beat: "You made music history." I certainly hope the track came out OK (I ended up missing the final part of the two-day experiment and didn't catch the end result), but at the very least at least Volpe and Mensa looked like they were having fun making it.
*I had no interest in wasting a moment of Monday, as it was my birthday, and 2Days Beat turned out to be an unexpectedly delightful way to celebrate turning 28.