Rich Gang’s ‘Tha Tour Part 1’ Heralded Hip-Hop’s FutureOctober 27, 2019
Five years ago this week, Atlanta rappers Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan joined forces for their first and only official full-length project together, under the mentorship of New Orleans rap mogul Birdman. Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1, which was released on September 29, 2014, now feels like something of a blip in Thug and Quan’s career; despite the grand ambitions that surrounded this would-be supergroup, it received no retail release, and its download numbers on mixtape sites trail behind those of Thug’s Slime Season series. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t one of the most influential mixtapes of the decade. In addition to introducing and solidifying Thug and Quan as some of hip-hop’s most exciting new players, its irreverent, melodic take on trap music made it the standard-bearer for what rap would sound like for the next five years.
Back in the early 2010s, Thug and Quan were just two of the many Atlantans mentored by Gucci Mane, who had become something of the Berry Gordy of trap music, giving everyone from Waka Flocka Flame and Future, to Nicki Minaj, a leg up early in their careers. By the end of 2013, Gucci had begun a three-year prison stint, but Thug and Quan were still picking up momentum. After they released their first Hot 100 hits—“Stoner” and “Type of Way,” respectively—Birdman swooped in, and the three collaborated on “Lifestyle,” an enormous summer hit that peaked at No. 16 on the pop charts.
Rich Gang existed before Thug and Quan became a part of it. In 2013, with the mixtape Rich Gang: All Stars, Birdman’s powerhouse label Cash Money Records had introduced the name in the context of an amorphous Birdman-led supergroup bringing together the label’s stars. A self-titled Rich Gang retail album featuring a DJ Khaled-style compilation of YMCMB’s entire roster at the time (including Limp Bizkit) soon followed, spinning off a mediocre, forgettable radio hit in “Tapout.” With “Lifestyle,” Cash Money was re-establishing Rich Gang as a vehicle for the Atlanta duo. And though the label seemed to be see Tha Tour as a way to promote its new wave of artists, everything about the circumstances surrounding its release was chaotic and confusing, including the Rich Gang brand itself.
“Lifestyle” was one of the biggest standalone singles of the era, but it didn’t actually appear on Tha Tour or any retail album. And despite DJ Swamp Izzo’s proclamations on the opening track that “the dates are locked in” and “October 31st is the start,” the concert tour the mixtape was named for never materialized. One of the seven videos Cash Money released got a live BET premiere on 106 & Park, although it was the commercially questionable choice of “Milk Marie.” But “Tell Em (Lies)”—the song that most closely resembled “Lifestyle” and featured Thug’s memorable refrain, “I’ma pull up, eat on that pussy, and dip”—was the only song from Tha Tour that charted, peaking at No. 43 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart in the spring of 2015. The mixtape became an artifact of an incomplete promo cycle, an appetizer for an entrée that never arrived: Ultimately, neither Thug or Quan released any albums on the label, as solo artists or as a group.
However flawed its rollout was, though, Tha Tour is a musical miracle, a 20-song mixtape with virtually no skips. Where event collaboration albums like Watch The Throne simply brought together two established MCs, Tha Tour represented something else: Two newer artists hitting their respective peaks in tandem. Other than perhaps Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y, nobody did more than Thug and Quan to open mixtape heads to the possibility that collaboration projects could be an outlet for the best work from both artists, not simply a fun side project. And the brotherly bond between them is so evident that it almost feels beside the point to view them competitively: They sound as in tune with each other as Jadakiss and Styles P, or André 3000 and Big Boi.
In those more innocent pre-Desiigner times, critics had initially dismissed Quan as a Future soundalike. But he established himself as his own man with his own flow on Tha Tour, giving incredible performances on “Freestyle” and “Milk Marie” and managing not to cede the spotlight to the more eccentric and attention-grabbing Thug, whose elastic vocal style, although clearly heavily indebted to Lil Wayne’s influence at one point, was quickly becoming something unique and widely imitated in its own right. With quips like “She said it’s my time like Flavor,” Thug demonstrated an ear for subtly compressed punchlines; he didn’t need to follow up his sideways reference to the giant clocks worn by Public Enemy star Flavor Flav with an unnecessary explanation, as other MCs might. The mixtape also served as a coming-out party for the two most important producers in Thug’s career, with five amazing beats from “Lifestyle” producer London On Da Track and the first major production credit from Wheezy.
Birdman is largely a stoic kingpin sidekick on Tha Tour, much as he’d been on Big Tymers albums and Like Father, Like Son with Lil Wayne. But “Flava” features the best verse he’d delivered since “What Happened To That Boy,” whether or not, like many Birdman verses, it was ghostwritten. And though he only raps a handful of times on the tape, his is the only voice that appears on every track, mostly in the form of mixtape drops of him saying the words “rich gang” (triumphantly, his voice rising in pitch) and “rich girl” (his voice lowering in pitch, as if to communicate some combination of tenderness, lust, and solidarity with financially empowered women everywhere.) Typically, he reserves the latter for a particularly romantic line, such as Quan’s “Baby I’m a hot dog / You can be the relish.”
The Birdman drops first surfaced on the 2013 Rich Gang album, but on Tha Tour, they take on a life of their own: There are 114 “rich gang” drops on the mixtape and 57 “rich girl” drops (I counted)—a perfect 2:1 ratio that almost seems intentional. “Milk Marie” is the only song with more “girl” drops than “gang” drops. “730” is the only song with no “girl” drops and the song with the most “gang” drops. Each drop is time-stretched to match the beat, the words usually landing squarely on a snare or kick drum.
In the year after Tha Tour‘s release, everything with Rich Gang got weird and complicated. Young Thug’s star continued to rise, but the confusion around whether he was signed to Atlantic Records, Cash Money, or Gucci Mane’s 1017 Brick Squad delayed the release of a solo album. When the smoke cleared, Birdman made multiple appearances on Thug’s 300 Entertainment/Atlantic debut, Barter 6. (The title was either a tribute or a taunt, or both, to Lil Wayne, whose Carter V had been delayed several times by Cash Money and who had sued the labed earlier in 2015.) A week after Barter 6 was released, Lil Wayne’s tour bus was shot up; the bus driver later filed a lawsuit against Young Thug, Birdman, Cash Money, and Young Money, claiming that the two rappers had been in contact with the alleged shooter.
The Thug and Quan tag-team continued racking up hits for a few months, appearing on singles by Travis Scott and DJ Drama. But soon, Thug and Quan’s relationship seemed to sour, under circumstances only vaguely hinted at in interviews. Quan announced a second Rich Gang mixtape in November 2014 with a December release date. It never came out, but so many unmastered songs were leaked from the sessions that fans compiled and circulated a bootleg Tha Tour Part 2 mixtape.
Over the last five years, most everyone involved in Tha Tour has gone onto greater success, including guests Jacquees, Peewee Longway, and the late Nipsey Hussle, who dropped a masterful verse on “Throw Your Hood Up.” London On Da Track and Wheezy, two producers who had never worked on a Thug mixtape before Tha Tour, are now almost as ubiquitous as he is.
Thug has experienced many victories and setbacks over the course of his career, but this year’s triumphant So Much Fun was his first number 1 solo album on the Billboard 200, cementing his status as one of his generation’s most beloved rappers. Rich Homie Quan has been less prominent than Thug since the Rich Gang breakup, although his double-platinum “Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh)” was for a few years the biggest solo track either of them had released. And while his influence is less ubiquitous than Thug’s, you can hear echoes of Quan’s bluesy melodic sensibility in more recent Atlanta hitmakers like YFN Lucci and Derez De’Shon, or even Lil Nas X.
Even though Birdman’s apparent dream of Tha Tour launching Cash Money’s next generation of stars didn’t exactly pan out, the tape established a blueprint for Southern rap in the second half of this decade. The ethereal instrumentals and crooned vocals of opener “Givenchy” point toward the the sing-song flows and quiet-storm production of recent pop rap hits like YK Osiris’s “Worth It.” The chemistry between Thug and Quan marked them as transitional figures in the evolution of Southern rap, splitting the difference between the darker Young Jeezy-dominated trap sound and the impish, playful, and even more feminine variant of trap proffered by SoundCloud stars like Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty.
Tha Tour also established a format that has become increasingly common over the past five years. In 2019, two of Thug’s most prominent protegés, Lil Baby and Gunna, released their own duo album, Drip Harder. In 2017, Young Thug even teamed up with Future for the hit collaboration album Super Slimey, though Thugger/Future never quite had the same chemistry as Thugger/Quan.
Last year, Gucci Mane publicly offered Thug and Quan a million dollars to reunite, but Thug declined. Birdman told Rap-Up in April 2018 that he was looking at a summer 2018 release date for a Birdman/Young Thug album that would be billed as Rich Gang 2, but it never materialized. Less than a week ago, though, Birdman uploaded a picture to Instagram of himself, Young Thug, and Jacquees, with hashtags suggesting that a new Rich Gang on the project was on the way from this trio.
Whether or not the 2014 iteration of Rich Gang ever gets back on the same page, Tha Tour will remain their masterpiece, a work that cemented a template of wild-eyed melodic trap that would influence a generation of Soundcloud rappers to come—and, as much Migos’ triplet flows or Waka Flocka Flame’s explosive ad libs ever did, the way they used their voices. At a time when stars like Wiz Khalifa and Drake are bringing their career-launching mixtapes to subscription streaming services for the first time, Tha Tour is the kind of mixtape that isn’t available by any other means than filesharing services or sites like DatPiff. But it’s still worth a listen.