If someone asked you who the most important rapper is, two months in to 2014, who do you picture?
Drake? Kendrick Lamar? Maybe even Young Thug?
Or, perhaps, Quavo? (Verse 2.)
If you said Quavo, you were correct.* No rapper in the current moment has a more emulated flow. The Migos, really, are the 2014 Das EFX, only the sewer's been replaced by the bando. (No, seriously—Das EFX even spit in triplets, just like the Migos.) Quavo isn't even considered the best rapper in the group—that honor typically goes to Offset, who has more dexterous raps. But part of the reason Quavo has become so influential is because his rapping isn't overly concerned with the intricacies of lyricism. Instead, he's imprinted a very specific rhythmic pattern on hip-hop's psyche. By finding a flow that stood apart and emphasizing it, he shifted the way rappers rap.
No single rap artist has so completely popularized a single, distinct flow. Even Lil Reese's "Us"—copped by everyone from Drake to Future to, um, Austin Mahone—didn't have quite this reach. When it comes to the way rap sounds right now, Quavo's impact is impossible to deny. That distinctive triplet pattern, first popularized on their smash hit "Versace," is the sound of 2014.
Widely referred to as the "Migos Flow," although it's Quavo's hook, that style has popped up at every level of the industry, from superstars to the mid-tier to bubbling struggle rappers. A sampling of the notable artists who've swiped that dactyl meter: Drake's "The Language." Drake's "We Made It." Kanye West on Rick Ross' "Sanctified" (1:25). Roscoe Dash (1:00). Young Jeezy (1:30). Meek Mill (throughout). Future (:30, and throughout). Future, again (:43). J. Cole (:55). King Louie and Lil Herb (:55 and throughout). It's also popping up in the DatPiff storm of up-and-comers, like—just an example—newcomer Dreezy. And even R&B stars—from the sounds of this (:28), Usher's new song will be flipping a Migos flow.
And, of course, the Migos have continued to use it as well.
This isn't new; from Das EFX to Jay Z, from Gucci to Reese, flows will sometimes take on a life of their own. But this fad seems especially prevalent.
As almost any hip-hop head will argue with you, Quavo did not invent this flow. In actuality, very few flows are "invented"—flows are just traditional patterns, rhythms passed on down through the generations. And their origins are ancient, predating hip-hop itself. That said, certain artists' ability to incorporate them into hip-hop, to popularize them, to contextualize them for a modern audience—that's a core part of what it is to be a good rapper. Anyone can write some raps to a predetermined template. It takes an innovator to come up with a new way to say them.
As almost any hip-hop head will argue with you, though, Quavo did not invent this flow. In actuality, very few flows are "invented"—flows are just traditional patterns, rhythms passed on down through the generations.
And sometimes, it takes someone completely different to popularize them.
In fact, you could easily argue that this was exactly why credit goes to Quavo and not, say, Gucci Mane.
Online noise—message board commentary, Twitter, blog comments, et al—suggests that the Migos flow originated with Gucci. And the Migos' definitely have a musical debt to Gucci, in both delivery and their overall sound.
But after spending a few hours skimming through classic Gucci mixtapes, from No Pad, No Pencil through Burrrprint, trying isolate the flow's origins, I was unable to find an example. (It is entirely possible he did use the flow during that period; Gucci released A LOT of music then, and seemed to cycle through every imaginable flow. Part of the greatness of his work in that era was the sense that he was running around lifting up stones, just to discover forgotten flows underneath.)
I did, however, unearth a later example of the "Migos flow" in Gucci's work—"Guwop" with Trinidad James, which originally came out in late 2012, predates "Versace" by several months. (Skip to :48.)
If this was where Quavo's idea to use the flow came from—and it's entirely possible—it was still Quavo who made it into an undeniable hook—"You made it a hot line," as the saying goes. Gucci popularized a massive number of flows, many of which have been picked up by rappers for several years now. Quavo, by contrast, popularized one—and that singular focus allowed his flow to become even more dominant.
If this was where Quavo's idea to use the flow came from—and it's entirely possible—it was still Quavo who made it into an undeniable hook—"You made it a hot line," as the saying goes.
Even if Gucci passed it on to Quavo, though, the flow didn't originate with him, either. Nor did Gucci bring it to Atlanta. The earliest example of the flow I could find in a cursory browse in ATL rap history was with Crime Mob, who brought a Memphis style to the "crunk" sound in the mid-'00s. Check out Diamond's verse on "Knuck If You Buck," from 2004 (2:24).
And Memphis points to the flow's earliest origins in hip-hop that I could find. The-Coli user "28 Gramz" identified the flow in the work of early Three 6 Mafia, specifically that of recently-deceased rapper Lord Infamous on the group's 1995 song "Sleep":
But what is it about this triplet flow that is so appealing?
The "Migos Flow" is made up of 1/8th note triplets. A "triplet" means that in the time typically given to two notes, an artist has fit three of equal length. This happens in music all the time; often in Southern rap, the hi-hats will move in three while the rapping is in standard 4/4 time. In this case, it's the reverse, which gives the feeling of moving forwards and standing still simultaneously, like spinners on a car. When most rappers are determined to make their flows seem effortless and slick, the Migos have intentionally made theirs choppier, faster, distinct.
The Migos flow, then, has a specific effect. Whereas most rappers in Atlanta rap with a sense of swing, leaning back on the beat—Gucci would do this, as would T.I., although "swing" has been pretty consistently "in" throughout hip-hop history—the "Migos Flow" is stiff, landing squarely on beat, without a hint of swing. It gives the impression that their verses are denser, more intricate—like a kind of parodic version of "rapper's rappers." It's almost the sonic equivalent of when Gucci would name songs after multisyllabic adjectives—"Wonderful," "Gorgeous," "Ridiculous," etc. Satirizing the notion of "proper" English, or in this case, "serious" square rapper flows.
If you're wondering if this makes the Migos a one-trick pony, the answer is a qualified "yes." If making great, influential art is about the complexity of your style, Migos would hardly qualify. But "complexity" is a pretty strict—not to mention outdated—standard for making good art. If you're looking for a rapper who experiments with a variety of flows, making each verse seem like an unpredictable journey, you're better off listening to Young Thug. The Migos' impact could be more temporal, barring a major reinvention. But it makes up for longevity with seismic impact. Making that stiff, Lord Infamous-style flow central to their sound is a big part of what's made Migos stand apart. And it wasn't their most dexterous, rapper's rapper lyricist who made it pop. It was Quavo, whose career has shifted the sound of 2014.
David Drake is a Staff Writer for Complex from Chicago who now lives in Brooklyn. He interviewed Mya this week, and tweets @somanyshrimp.
[ADDENDUM: This article sparked a discussion on twitter after it was originally published. Further examples of both recent and older uses of the "Migos Flow" were identified by this author and others. Craig Jenkins mentioned that it wasn't just Memphis, but Cleveland that served as a source of the flow in the 1990s; this can be heard in numerous parts of "Notorious Thugs," like the "Pick up my pen, in my hand," part of Bizzy Bone's verse (3:09). Andrew Noz observed that, more recently, Future used the flow on "I'm Trippin'" (1:56). That song features Juicy J, who has become one of hip-hop's most well known pop stars, and it's hard to imagine he hasn't used the flow at some point in the past few years as well, although I have yet to find an example. But it doesn't seem farfetched to suggest that the Migos likely "discovered" the flow through Future's Pluto.
When it comes to the Memphis-Atlanta connection, I suggested T-Rock as a likely artist to flip the "Migos Flow" early on, prior to Crime Mob. After all, he used a variety of flows and was signed to Memphis-based Hypnotized Minds. Winston Cook-Wilson identified a T-Rock song where he successfully used the Migos triplets entitled "No Remorse" (:36, :48, etc). Matt Cibula, meanwhile, reminded everyone of the earliest identified example of the "Migos triplets" to date, coming from none other than Chuck D himself (1:28).
Once you look closely, it becomes apparent how much that triplet flow has gone in and out of fashion, popping up throughout history. Major points, though, go to @goinradiodotcom, who identified an early version of the "Versace" hook as written by 50 Cent: "Benzino, Benzino, Benzino!"]
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