It seems like an eon ago now, considering how much has changed. But barely two years have passed since the night in February 2010 when hip-hop rookies Pill and Freddie Gibbs headlined alongside another artist on the rise, Yelawolf, at the East Atlanta neighborhood bar 529. The onstage camaraderie between Pill and Gibbs was undeniable as they treated the crowd to their trio of collaborations, "Womb 2 the Tomb," "Run Up to Me" and the DJ Burn One-produced "Do Wrong." While they held sway over the intimate crowd, it was obvious that both MCs had the talent necessary for bigger stages and stardom. But for the time being, all three were stuck in a virtual bubble.
The digital chitlin' circuit, better known as the blogosphere, has boosted the profile of many an MC in recent years. But the glass ceiling of said sphere has also blocked some from gaining the widespread exposure available via commercial radio and cable. Nowadays, breaking through to the next level requires a major co-sign from an established artist. That's how Drake went from relative unknown to franchise player for Lil Wayne's Young Money Camp. Likewise, G.O.O.D. Music signee Big Sean was a nobody until Kanye West recruited him. Now Sean's Hype Williams-directed video "Marvin & Chardonnay" airs daily on BET.
Two months after that 529 show in 2010, Yelawolf got his shot at the mainstream when he signed to Eminem's Shady imprint. A year later, Pill and Gibbs finally got their individual stamps of approval, with Pill joining Rick Ross's Maybach Music outfit last February and Gibbs forming a partnership with Young Jeezy's CTE imprint two months later.
Since then, both Pill's and Gibbs' visibility has increased exponentially, but the former collaborators — scheduled to perform on separate A3C Hip Hop Festival stages this year — haven't been spotted around each other at all lately. Their shared chemistry once fueled demand for a joint project from the duo. But when the collabos ceased, the lingering silence left some fans wondering whether the two had inherited the much-hyped beef between their respective co-signers — and assumed rivals — Ross and Jeezy. Whether the splinter is purely business or personal, it seems par for the course in today's high-speed rap game where yesterday's allies can unintentionally become tomorrow's adversaries.
Of course, Gibbs' recent song "187 Proof" doesn't do much to dispel the rumors. On the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League-produced track, he launches veiled missives at artists on Ross's Maybach Music roster, taking care to exclude Pill.
"I don't even think I was taking any real shots," Gibbs says regarding the song. "One thing Jeezy don't got is a puppet. I don't have a personal problem with Pill at all. Just like I said in the song, he knows what's up."
Pill has heard the track, but he hasn't paid it "too much attention," he says. "I don't have much to say about it and I don't think he has much to say about me, either. I'm not getting involved in anything that don't concern me. Same thing with Ross, if he got something going on with somebody, he'll tell me. I don't get into other people shit until they come directly at me."
Even without proper backing, Gibbs and Pill were both attracting critical attention two years ago. Both appeared on the cover of XXL's 2010 Freshmen cover. They even did spot dates together in media hubs Los Angeles and New York, and at Austin's South by Southwest music festival.
But none of that compares to the amount of shine they've each received as franchise players.
"It was a no-brainer," says Atlanta native Pill, who met Ross at Castleberry Hill tattoo shop City of Ink during a video shoot for the Miami rapper's "Super High" remix, featuring Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y. "The exposure I'm getting from this situation is the exposure I needed that I wasn't getting at first. I'm getting more mainstream appeal now, so I didn't think twice about it."
Gibbs echoes Pill's sentiments: "I've definitely been able to move in certain circles that I wasn't able to before," the Gary, Ind., native says. "It's a lot more doors opening up for myself and my family."
The new situation earned Pill a guest appearance on BET's No. 1 rated "106 & Park" and a second XXL cover spread. Meanwhile, Gibbs has been able to tour with Jeezy and tap into a fan base that's used to getting its new music recommendations from the block rather than the blogs.
While both artists are intent on reaping the benefits of their respective business arrangements, neither seems interested in waging a rap beef, whether real or for entertainment's sake. But the likelihood of them working together in the near future still seems bleak.
"We in two different situations now where it prevents us from making music together," Pill says. "I get asked about that a lot and I'm sure he does, too. We made some classic songs together and everyone was expecting us to make a project together at some point, but lanes kinda got switched up. Ain't no love lost, though."
See full schedule of A3C Hip Hop Festival performances, panel discussions and demos at www.a3cfestival.com.