A New Theory Of The Entourage (Part I)
How did the shallowest version of a collective identity become a music industry standard?
Perhaps a product of touring entertainers, dating back to the earliest circuses and medicine shows, the entourage is a fleet of jugglers passing contraband and music of the spheres back and forth beneath a cloak or low flung carnival tent, it’s one of the organizing principles of the entertainment industry today, and specifically of men in that industry whose character and deeds would not withstand the vulnerability of solitude, of eyes and scrutiny on them alone. The group becomes its own entity, inseparable and separate from the coherence of each individual member, like a bastard mafia always ready to perform its ethic of collective anonymity. To understand the workings of this side of the industry we have to dismantle its entourages, its arbitrary and deliberate packs and pacts of accomplices and accompanists, blurred by a shared interest in presenting with unassailable bravado, in lockstep—militarized hiding behind the wall and will of the ensemble. The entourage carries secrets like phantoms vacillating between the two worlds that wall separates, and an agenda and set of dances and maneuvers built on what it invented itself to conceal. And the entourage is hostile to investigation, it resents those who call it by its name and reveal its susceptibility to disambiguation. One by one its members stand alone and blow over, but together they make the kind of line up wherein no suspect is wholly recognized or convicted. The entourage as a structure stands accused of instigating disguises, and is sensitive about it, and its hypersensitivity to critique implicates the entire industry, which is built on the corpse of a fairy tale about social relations between artists and entertainers that aren’t transactional.
Let me speak of one hip hop entourage I know well. When I met Otis (Madlib) he was signed to Stones Throw Records, and his entourage was its label owner and some of his homies from Oxnard. His manager Egon worked for the label and when he quit, Otis left with him and his entourage became Egon, a bunch of uppity wine moguls, and some of his homies from Oxnard. Here’s where I came in, upsetter, attempted entourage dispeller, warning of Egon’s self-serving dilettantism and watching as everyone in this artist’s life pulled him along with them toward their obsessions, taking advantage of his need for some kind of spokesman, his quietness, his duplicity, and his ability to become beholden to anyone who would navigate the bureaucracy for him. Egon manned O’s entourage and turned him toward uppity wine mogul activities and buying up the distressed assets of elder musicians (their records) to resell or sample and maximize profits. While this was underway, I was not above this merging of obsessions, and shared esoteric poetry and critical theory with Otis in hopes he might leave the whole industry and enology for a while and come hang out with me and George Lewis at Columbia University, where I was a graduate student when we met.
One time he suggested I manage him, half-serious. I was enamored but smart enough to know I have my own work to do. One time he suggested we make a ten part jazz poetry album but I was upset about something having to do with one of the entourages and avoided the topic. At every turn I blamed his entourage for stifling him rather than letting myself think that that’s the way he liked it, that the elements of industry surrounding him reflected him. He had lost people, J Dilla, I’d never seen him in an entourage with an artistic soul mate, besides maybe in our private understanding of one another’s creative drives. At South by Southwest circa 2010, Freddie Gibbs’ manager Lambo suggested a collaboration and Otis’s entourage expanded to include them.
Twelve years and a lot of expensive wine and records later, Egon was shunned, his sycophantic behavior exiled but not before it had infected someone I wanted to love who had enabled it for all those years. Egon was promptly and energetically replaced in O’s entourage, by Talib Kweli, a rapper whose reputation needed rehabilitating after a social media scandal wherein he was accused of harassing and impersonating black women online. Calling out other men, like Egon, helped deflect attention from himself, and a close association with a producer ensured he would still have a steady supply of beats whether or not he overcame any of those accusations. Mostly, the web of controversy brings just enough chaos to make every detail vague and irrelevant in the face of the overall air of scandal and intrigue.
One entourage ceded to another. The new entourage sometimes includes Dave Chappelle, Mos Def, etcetera. And with each public appearance it becomes a little more like a tribunal of pledges, a fraternity and microcosm of the industry in its ability to mingle showmanship and shame until they negate one another. This nomadic becoming I’ve observed through the years of loving one man, has felt more like watching a dream fray and unravel into a nightmare and then, beside yourself, saying yes to the nightmare in hopes it helps you recall the dream, which was a blurred portrait of a series of entourages you didn’t want to discover, but were forced to witness and dismantle. It’s been like watching the shrouding and demeaning of a personality I wanted to see as sacred by a set of procedures and rituals aimed at its dilution and fragmentation. I had to face that the entourage was not an imposed condition, but one invited and needed, a desired shroud of self from self using a group identity until the self has changed to vibrate in harmony with the group and cannot be extracted or retrieved or remapped to a former authenticity. The entourage is a weaponization of the consent to not be a single being.
For women who are honest witnesses, the entourage can be traumatizing. It burns through our every tender offering with crass refusal to acknowledge it as such, it uses us as props and gimmicks in a vast narrative about the pleasure of dissipation in the service of group identity. It sanctions as much corruption as it does so-called collaboration. It debases to uplift. By the time I’m finished deconstructing it, I’m indifferent, and a different person. I want to abandon it to its pact. I'm a little ashamed I ever tried to parse any entourage for any redeeming integrity, and forced to keep looking beneath— beneath everything visible and tangible, for where its spell took hold. I wake up stealing my own soul back from that fevered reverie in which I might have romanticized a scene bent on my erasure or amnesia, or hushed scream.
The entourage as I’ve witnessed it, is relatively new as an archetype, it’s an archetype of a group or cast in a drama where most archetypes only cover individuals, one at a time. In this case a group of entertainers and their alter-egos is its own being. I’m uppity too, in my disavowal of the group’s faux unity. I don’t think Miles Davis, my truest muse, or John Coltrane, the god force of black music, or Duke Ellington, the disarming elegance that turns the stage gold, or Prince, the immaculate force who turns it royal purple, would follow any group, even his own, that far along an already-carved path. Sun Ra had an entourage, but it was more like a collective, or some even judge, a cult. That’s different, that was in the spirit of worship of a joyful noise. The new entourage, the one I’m glaring at, is much more self-obsessed and seems to be about men trying to make one another look good, unconditionally, so that a new group identity is formed that cannot be breached by the flaws of any one member. It’s the apparatus its members use to undermine anything that might question their authority. It’s the hubris that makes the tragedy spin back around into farce and lasso and loop between the two faces of theater eternally. Is it farce? Is it fierce? Will the first be the last? Will the circle be so broken?
To assure you it’s transactional so you don’t get too attached and sentimental, the entourage turns you into a spectacle of social capital. Musicians with an entourage become a mutually objectified superego banded together to cultivate fanaticism for themselves as a unit. They want to be seen as eternally relevant, and amplified by an ensemble of collaborators and strays always huddled as if around unsettled kindling. I disdain these entourages. Their abject shallowness swallows music and digests it as cackle. They remind me of high school cafeterias, in real life and in the cinematic imagination, where many acquired proximity to their so-called friends out of anxious desperation to not show up alone. I love the one who shows up alone on purpose, not wanting his energy conflated with a trend or group, representing only himself, not covering for other men or covering up the men within. Members of an entourage often share transgressions, regressions, and preoccupations. They come together to absolve one another and spiral into co-dependent tribalism.
The one who walks alone with nowhere to hide, and survives the entourage and escapes the performance like a Moses figure stuttering into the oblivion of a miracle where the music sounds clearer because the crowd has been muted by distance, or shipwrecked, after hesitating to bend the water to its will— I observe the men in an entourage together in their shared isolation and my disdain turns toward lament for a system that incentivizes bonding with people who will use you because we are used to being used and tapped like inanimate resources, and because we are used to men who have avoided taking accountability for the emotional turmoil they cause in their personal lives, by finding refuge in proliferation, in a group that doesn’t care who you hurt outside of it, even if who you hurt is the version of yourself you had to suppress to join it. The entourage is its own worst enemy. It’s an endless funeral procession for the personalities that existed before of it, and the retribution that pursues it and evades it. It makes those men almost untraceable, intractable, easy to distract and extract from and run. I wanted to save this man from becoming the entourage’s pawn or mime, with the kind of feminine power that is mine, that makes men men. It turned me, for a time, into his pawn or mime, a thankless, timeless easy-to-abuse muse position. The entourage is a ruins.
If you find yourself gawking at a group like this as it hypes itself, mesmerized as an initiate, you might be at the beginning of long confounding silence, with its own laugh track interruption and a tightrope sprawled out through forbidden territory there, where you wobble between love and disdain. The danger of a life spent between tours and entourages is that you might turn on yourselves a little more with each new exposure to an audience. The only way out is to leap into the spotlight’s shadow and give it a name and a history as rich as the broken mythologizing of the group. Some men come together to turn you out or turn tricks or turn into one another, falling apart to come together. Women are less prone to entourages because we are among their motives, and we do not like to be obscured. Our transparency is part of our currency and capacity to love beyond ultimatums. My mind wanders to Thelonious Monk, high on the jazz standard dose of amphetamines and break dancing down tenth avenue to the rhythm of why am I in it— escaping any encourage that pursued him with the illusion of madness and by being completely himself in every instant and instinct, my soul’s dream redeemed. I find his preemptive breaking with the tradition that consumes and undermines so many romantic. My entourage of haunts and I dance with him, down the avenue, past the stage, toward the sweet missing black note of self-realization.