Collaboration is one of the most important practices in any art form, but in music it is perhaps the most interesting, as it’s the medium in which we can most clearly see how the different artists’ approaches have coalesced. There are countless classic collaborations in music history, but often they are between artists who are friends or at least run in the same circles or work in the same genres. However, there are also many times when artists get ambitious and try to push their boundaries by inviting a seemingly incongruous musician into the studio to work alongside them. Here are some of the best examples of unlikely partnerships that turned out to be gold.
Run-D.M.C. & Aerosmith – ‘Walk This Way’
‘Walk This Way‘ has become such a standard radio and party song that we take it for granted now, but it cannot be overstated just how radical a collaboration this was in 1986. Reportedly Run-D.M.C. had no idea who Aerosmith were before producer Rick Rubin brought the rockers’ album 1975 album Toys In The Attic to the studio while they were working on Raising Hell. The hip-hop collective would get warmed up by freestyling over the tracks. Finding a particularly rich vein of form on the track ‘Walk This Way’, Rubin suggested Run-D.M.C. cover the song, which they weren’t crazy about. However, after some persuasion, Rubin managed to corral Steven Tyler and Joe Perry from Aerosmith into the studio with Run-D.M.C. to record the now-classic version of the song. And they must all be glad he did, as it resulted in arguably the biggest hit in all of their careers, bringing Run-D.M.C. their first mainstream success and Aerosmith back from the brink of obscurity.
Nick Cave & Kylie Minogue – ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’
Although they’re two of the most well-known Australian singers in history, the disparate styles of their two oeuvres meant that a collaboration between Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue would always be surprising. Perhaps it’s even more remarkable that Cave managed to entice Minogue to collaborate with him on a song about murder – far from the sweetness or sexiness of her mainstream work. Cave was inspired by the traditional song ‘Down In The Willow Garden’ about a man courting and subsequently murdering a woman. He wrote ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ as a dialogue between lovers, which quickly turns sinister. He had been wanting to write a song for Minogue for six years, but this was the first one he felt was right for her – and she felt the same way, responding the next day saying she wanted to do it. The haunting duet became Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ most successfully performing single ever – probably helped by Kylie’s star power, but also because of its undeniable beauty.
Christina Aguilera & Redman – ‘Dirrty‘
Coming into her fourth album Stripped, Christina Aguilera made it absolutely clear that she was no longer the lovable teen star of The Mickey Mouse Club and ‘Genie In A Bottle‘ fame. ‘Dirrty‘ was released as the lead single, a gritty, stomping, party-starting anthem where we find our heroin “sweatin’ till [her] clothes come off.” To further the demolition of her innocence she drafted legendary East Coast rapper Redman, whose flow is typically braggadocios, meshing his coarse style into the chart-pop surroundings. Christina clearly wanted to move on from the shackles of her previous image, and ‘Dirrty‘ absolutely tore them to shreds. She knew it, spitting out a derisive “uh, what?” at the end, anticipating the thousands of critics she would get for the song (and its unforgettably raunchy video) and staring them down fearlessly. It’s no wonder Redman agreed to work with such a fiery and irreverent personality, and together they created a milestone in 2000s pop music.
R.E.M. & Q-Tip – ‘The Outsiders’
When you’re a world-renowned band, over two decades into a storied career, you’ve got to start to think of ways to freshen up your sound. For R.E.M. one of the experiments for their thirteenth album Around The Sun was to invite legendary A Tribe Called Quest leader Q-Tip into the studio to rap on one of their songs. The resulting ‘The Outsiders’ is typically moody on R.E.M.’s part; Peter Buck’s guitar echoing behind Michael Stipe’s lyrical retreat into memories of an old friend, where he’s “scared of the storm” coming just around the corner. Then Q-Tip hops on the track and with his signature loquacious flow underscores Stipe’s words; “I know you see right through me, my luminescence fades /The dusk provides an antidote, I am not afraid.” While not as radical as some cross-genre collaborations, ‘The Outsiders’ is a subtly accomplished piece from these seasoned musicians.
The Flaming Lips & Ke$ha – ‘2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)’
Approaching their 30th anniversary as a band, The Flaming Lips, and in particular their leader Wayne Coyne, seemed to suddenly believe that collaborating with as many different people as possible would be a way to freshen up their brand. Their 2012 Record Store Day album The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends featured a whole host of guests from Erykah Badu to Tame Impala, but the most surprising guest was on the opening track: Ke$ha. Reportedly Coyne got in touch after Ke$ha had tweeted her fandom, and he headed to her house in Nashville to work on it. He wanted them to make a song that sounded like the end of the world while on acid, and she admitted she had never taken a hit – so ordered her assistant to go out and get her some immediately. Fortunately or unfortunately, Coyne put a halt on that, saying it wasn’t necessary because “the way she is, it’s as though she’s on acid already.” Judging from the resulting ‘2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)’ he’s absolutely right; Ke$ha lets her freak flag fly proudly as she joins the Oklahomans on a truly spaced-out and celebratory doomsday experience. It’s an unlikely pairing, but an undoubtedly auspicious one.
James Blake & RZA – ‘Take A Fall For Me’
Undoubtedly the most divisive track on James Blake’s Mercury Prize winning Overgrown, ‘Take A Fall For Me’ pairs the mild-mannered Brit with Wu-Tang legend RZA in a tale of desperation and woe. We already knew that Blake had a knack for teasing out misery through his emotive vocals, but the surprising element here is how RZA brings a quaver to his flow that matches the affecting atmosphere. Sure, there are some sketchy lines where RZA tries to British it up like “I wouldn’t change her smile for a million quid,” or “Candlelight dinners of fish and chips with vinegar,” but the muggy and moody production created by Blake somehow helps pull it off. In the end ‘Take A Fall For Me’ is an unlikely success, working as a heart-wrenching plea in which you can feel the magnetic desire for the object of their affections.
SISTAR & Giogio Moroder – ‘One More Day’
Having gone off the radar for a couple of decades, Italian disco production legend Giorgio Moroder’s career was revived after his collaboration with Daft Punk on 2013’s Random Access Memories. From there he has moved into myriad different circles, working with all sorts of people, but perhaps the most left-field pairing yet has come from his 2016 song with K-pop group SISTAR. ‘One More Day’ does exactly what you’d expect: it’s built upon pulsing and throbbing Moroder beats that give the track its kick, while the various members of the girl group come to the fore to deliver punchy verses before intertwining for the chorus. Regardless of the fact that the Korean lyrics will probably be unintelligible to a lot of people, the undeniable propulsion of the song and the huge English hook make ‘One More Day’ an absolute winner.
Thundercat, Michael McDonald & Kenny Loggins – ‘Show You The Way’
It would take someone with the curatorial nous of Thundercat to somehow make 80s cheese-pop legends Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins somehow sound cool again, and that’s exactly what he did on this year’s ‘Show You The Way’, a stand out cut from his third album Drunk. Thundercat’s subtly skittering beats and plodding bass meet McDonald’s swooning keys to create a sultry mood, in which Loggins’ falsetto delightfully dovetails with Thundercat’s own. Then, following a hushed introduction, Michael McDonald ejects his vociferous and unmistakable baritone, sounding as confident and compelling as ever. Together the threesome implore “let me show you the way,” and the mood is just so seductive that there’s no turning them down.
Kendrick Lamar & U2 – ‘XXX.’
When the tracklist for Kendrick Lamar’s hugely anticipated album DAMN. was revealed, the one thing that really stood out was that one of the very few features would come from U2. How would Bono fit into King Kenny’s full-throttle stylings? The resultant ‘XXX.’ is a fascinating piece of anti-America propaganda, in which Kendrick laments the school system’s tendency to exclude young black children, the problems with gun control, institutional racism, corrupt corporations, anti-immigration laws and more, before asking “is America honest or do we bask in sin?” Falling back from the intensity of his flow and the siren-wailing beat, Bono comes in, sounding like a classic sample dug out of some crate somewhere, soulfully looking at America in a more poetic but no less gritty a light: “It’s not a place /this country is to me a sound of drum and bass/ you close your eyes to look around.” That Kendrick managed to fit so many different issues and angles into this song, move through a series of different flows, and on top of that snag an absolutely classic feature from Bono, makes ‘XXX.’ an unquestionable instant classic.