The Madison hip-hop crew recently released "Limits," their second full-length in a year.
Madison hip-hop outfit 3rd Dimension rarely makes a track that feels dominated by any one voice or personality—a tricky ethos for a group with five members, several of whom also produce. On most songs, at least two or three of the group’s MCs—Reeks, Spaz, Probz, Half Breed, and ocassionally main producer Burn$ampson—trade relatively short verses, spotlighting not the individuals but instead the contrast and compliment of their differing cadences and vocal tones. On top of that, since 3rd Dimension's first few mixtapes, they’ve tended to keep condensing and tightening things, squeezing that group dynamic into shorter songs, more restrained production, and pared-down track listings—Things Have Changed, released last November, has eight tracks, and the new Limits has nine.
In fact, the title of Limits came from an acronym 3rd’s members have adopted as a sort of group mantra: “Less Is More In Time.” The album is almost entirely in-house affair, featuring just two guest vocals (Ted Park on “Do It Again” and Supa Bwe on “Sip Slow (Bullshit)”) and just one beat from an outside producer (DDBeatz on “Intentions”). Burn$ampson produced 6 of the album’s tracks, and Spaz and Reeks contributed a track each. The production has a lot more headroom than on previous 3rd releases, thanks in part to some added reverb on a lot of the vocal parts, but also to restraint: On most of the Burn$ampson-produced tracks, there’s a few sparingly applied drum samples, a crawling bass part, and one or two atmospheric synth phrases, while the group supplies on a melodic but concise vocal hook.
On highlights like “Other Niggas,” Limits keeps the focus on the MCs' back-and-forth, while giving the album as a whole a sparse and moody feel. Even tracks with brighter elements, like the glittery synth pads of “Stain,” end up feeling like pensive slow-burners. Go back just a couple years, to 3rd Dimension’s 2014 mixtape Merch, and there’s a lot more youthful exuberance mixed in with the darker moments.
Which isn’t to say that Limits is a brooding trudge, but it tends to flow from one austere moment to the next. And the more varied the rapping within a track, the better it works: The high point is probably “Superficial,” where the group gives us everything from slow, husky-voiced flows to quickly twisting ones laced with chopped-up rhythm and internal rhyme. On the other hand, that group dynamic gets subverted a bit on "Sip Slow (Bullshit),” which has the MCs all iterating on one vocal hook, and rather beating it to death except when with Supa Bwe’s guest vocals break it up a bit. But give 3rd’s rappers a little space to be themselves and play off one another, and they’ll generally use it well.
3rd Dimension has been playing live a lot more frequently over the past year, and their next show is on October 14 at Pangea X-Pression Fest at The Sett in Union South. Ahead of the show, all five members sat down to discuss Limits and how the group’s collaborative approach has developed over time.
Tone Madison: How'd you develop the group dynamic that comes with having five MCs in a group together? When you first started, did you do a lot of collaborative writing to sort that out?
Reeks: To be honest, the process kind of is still continuing to develop. We don't have any kind of set thing that we do to figure out orders or songs or anything like that. It's kind of just how things are going in that moment will determine the direction that we're gonna go. As far as the process, it really just started with us hanging out and just being friends in school. We were writing raps and recording them on—what was that program that we had?
Probz: Um, Acid.
Reeks: Yeah, Acid. And we just kind of grew, went from that to GarageBand to Pro Tools and just kind of listened. Two people might be in the room, five people might be in the room, one person, and we just started the foundation and built it up together from there.
Probz: It can come together in any type of way. We've done songs where all five of us were in the room when we wrote something, we've done songs where one person starts it and then everybody else just has their input.
Tone Madison: Does that make for a lot of condensing and cutting down as you're trying to get to the final product?
Reeks: Yeah, it does. But it also kind of helps, too, just because when we realized there were five perspectives that needed to be coming through, we started kind of working together to give everybody a chance to have their moment, but at the same time not stretching things out too long. Some people might sit out a song just for the sake of having a standard song that's not doing too much.
Tone Madison: Because most of you guys have known each other and made music together since childhood, did you find that your personal styles developed sort of in contrast to one another's?
Probz: Yeah. I like the saying "Iron sharpens iron." As one person got better, we all would get better in turn. Jacques has only been rapping for a couple of years. In comparison, Reeks and I, and Spaz, we've been rapping together for probably 10 years now. So [Half Breed] had a fast learning curve, but he's extremely good now. I think that he got better based on being around us all the time and just putting in work—
Reeks: Which in turn started making everybody better.
Tone Madison: On the new album, was there anything in particular that you were trying to figure out about the sound of the group, or about yourselves individually as writers?
Spaz: I mean, we knew we wanted this album to kind of define our sound, but at the same time we had about 30 songs and we just picked the best nine, that we thought would best fit our sound.
Reeks: We definitely wanted it to be our most cohesive body of work, and so we tried really hard to pick songs that sonically blended well with each other. We wanted to go for one certain type of overall type of experience, and I think we did a pretty good job of that.
Tone Madison: The production on each track feels pretty subdued—the beats are very pared-down and don't have a lot of layers to them. Was that deliberate?
Probz: The majority of the tape was produced by Burn, and I think that's kind of his style. We came together a while ago, but Burn was just getting started when we came together, so his production, the way he makes beats, kind of grew with us in a way. When he leaves it with just three or four layers on there, he's making it that way deliberately so that you can hear us when we have something to say.
Reeks: And it also just came from the evolution of his production. Actually in the beginning, he was experimenting with different sounds, but it's always been him who sonically lays the foundation. A lot the times Burn has ideas for songs, too. About 60 percent of the songs, they just came together on their own, but the other 40, he has the foundation, like "Yo, we should do something like this," and it kind of just grows from there.
Half Breed: I think we also picked these kinds of tracks because the acronym for Limits is "less is more in time.”
Tone Madison: So how does that idea translate from a production perspective?
Burn$ampson: I don't want to take anything away from anybody else in the group, so I do as much as I can to make it sound good, and at the same time leave enough space for everybody to do what they do.
Tone Madison: Who are some producers who you think have done that well?
Burn$ampson: I would say definitely Kanye. I would say J. Cole is a super underrated producer. He does a really good job of making each of his beats tailored to what the song is about. At the same time, I like some of the newer stuff, like Metro Boomin'.
Tone Madison: It is ever hard to realize this less-is-more idea when there is a whole group of whole people in the room on everything?
Reeks: No, because we decided together that less is more. We sat back and talked about it after we'd drop a tape. We talked about, "OK, this song did this many plays, this song did more plays, what did people like more about this one?" We all have people we listen to on our own—"I played it for somebody, and they liked this." The general consensus was maybe the songs were a bit too long, so we started pushing ourselves, and as a by-product it made us better as artists, because we learned how to say more with less.
Tone Madison: It seems like making that work as a group requires everyone to be pretty blunt with their feedback. Do you think you guys are good about being open with each other about when you think something works or doesn't work?
Probz: The fact that we're all friends first is very important, because there are disagreements all the time. In order for you to not take it personal or feel like somebody is, you know, discrediting your art or the things that you do, you have to realize that this person is telling you this stuff because he honestly feels that this will make our group better. That's something that I personally had to learn. I'm the type of person that kind of sits back and I avoid conflict a lot, but then I had to realize that if I ever wanted to get my point across, then I had to speak up. Otherwise, you've got five guys—if you don't say anything, you will get overpowered, and what you want to say may not be taken into consideration.
Everybody has been like, "I don't like this" or "you're doing too much of this" or "you gotta rewrite this." I mean, I think it's definitely good for you—you'll be like, "Oh, shit. Alright." It still hurts your pride, but you're like, "Cool, I'm finna go back and rewrite, or do whatever, try to go harder," and just make the best song you can.