White boy from the ghetto wants to cover Tupac
January 10, 2014 4:04 PM   Subscribe

During my preteen and teen years, our family was impoverished. This was in the early to mid 90s. Throughout this time, I found solace in Tupac's music, which was both wholly understandable and mournfully, beautifully realistic. Now I'm a musician in my mid 30s. I want to cover some Tupac songs out of respect, as they were a big inspiration to me, but I don't want to offend anyone. As a white guy, can I do this inoffensively? If so, how? (For the uninitiated: his lyrical patter depends heavily on the n-word, which I am (and always have been) reluctant to use.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total)
Prrrrrrrrobably not.

A better option would be to write music about what him and his music meant to you.
posted by kavasa at 4:09 PM on January 10, 2014 [7 favorites]

As a white guy, can I do this inoffensively?

I can't really see it working, no.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 4:14 PM on January 10, 2014

You can choose a song without that particular word. Or a mash up of multiple songs taking parts that work.
posted by pyro979 at 4:22 PM on January 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Even white rappers like Eminem are reluctant to throw around the 'n-word'. I would select portions where it's not used or replace it with something else---such as the infamous 'beep' or 'radio edit' as other artists have used.
posted by stubbehtail at 4:27 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

At best, it's cultural appropriation. At worst it's bigotry. Crack open your thesaurus or whatever and find a new word.
posted by oceanjesse at 4:32 PM on January 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'd say that even modifying the songs to avoid that particular word carries some risk of offense, as you'd be altering the original work strictly to make it more acceptable for you, a white guy, to cover.

I think it's possible to do this with sincere and respectful motives, but there's no way to make sure the execution won't offend anyone.
posted by prize bull octorok at 4:35 PM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Does any of his poetry not use that particular word? You could try creating music and setting his poetry to it. Or maybe otherwise you can write music about him or what he meant to you, and just use samples of some of his songs in your music.
posted by jabes at 4:39 PM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

The people who hear your music aren't going to know your personal history/why this music speaks to you. It may be weird for you to think about yourself as a middle-class white person (I have the same problem), but that's likely how you read to the world. And a middle-class white person covering Tupac is going to leave a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths, and for good reason.
posted by duvatney at 4:53 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

The word, "brother," comes to mind.
posted by rhizome at 5:14 PM on January 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

Maybe an outright cover wouldn't work (but honestly who wants that when I can just listen to Tupac himself?) but giving Tupac a nod and dropping his lines into your own stuff could totally work. People who listen to him will recognize the reference.

And I disagree that his flow relies heavily on the "n-word"; some of his most famous songs don't even use it once - Me Against the World... Shed so many tears... Keep ya head up...
posted by pravit at 5:17 PM on January 10, 2014 [11 favorites]

I think it's totally possible. Just find creative ways around the n-word or cover songs that don't use it.

What kind of music do you make, or what kind of cover do you intend do? White dudes have been doing the acoustic jammyjam cover for a while and I can't really see that style translating Tupac very well. Conversely, hip-hop covers of other hip-hop songs seem very rare — I'm not sure why.

Do you want to record covers of the songs or just do them live? If you're a hip-hop artist I can definitely see a live cover working as homage.

* I can think of La Di Da Di (Snoop covering Slick Rick), Children's Story (Black Star also covering Slick Rick) and Rappers' Delight (Def Squad covering Sugarhill Gang). Others? Village Voice has some thoughts here.
posted by wemayfreeze at 5:26 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a white guy, can I do this inoffensively? If so, how? (For the uninitiated: his lyrical patter depends heavily on the n-word, which I am (and always have been) reluctant to use.)

Have you thought about sampling Tupac in a song of your own, instead of doing a cover wholesale? Since this is about Tupac's music's meaning to you, I personally would find that a more effective homage anyway. If you're looking for good ways to sample and to pull a lot of meaning from a sample, Eminem does an amazing job at that. Also, from what I understand, sampling is free use and legally kosher in general, but I'm not a lawyer or a musician so YMMV.

If you want to sample but there are legal issues in your attempts to do so, you might also consider pulling a move similar to Jay-Z's in "Holy Grail" and just sing a few of the lyrics here and there yourself (he did it with Nirvana).

If you do want to do a cover specifically: I don't think that you covering Tupac is inherently offensive or even something that would have been antithetical to Tupac's views. It's probably easier to keep the cover from veering into offensive territory if you keep it heartfelt and earnest rather than ironic, but that seems in keeping with a lot of Tupac's songs and especially in the kind of cover that you seem to be envisioning, so I don't think you're doomed before you start (though again, I think that including your own lyrics and making the song personal, ie using a Tupac song as a sample or foundation for your own song, will help on that front, too).

However, I do think that you saying the n-word would be offensive, even in the context of singing Tupac's lyrics. At best, I think that using it would distract/warp the homage you're trying to make to Tupac, and at worst it would be hurtful to your listeners and end up blowing up in your face (honestly, I don't think you want to have youtube videos of you saying the n-word, that's just a disaster waiting to happen). There are ways around using the n-word, though -- sometimes songs substitute another word, or leave a blank space during that beat, or substitute a sound. If you're looking for ideas of work-arounds you might try comparing the radio/"clean" lyrics of a given song with the album lyrics of the same song. You also don't have to sing the entire song, you can do your own rendition, and you might not need to or want to include all the stanzas -- if one set of lyrics is especially heavy on the n-word, you can just drop them from your cover.

In case it helps you, there is actually a whole album of covers of rap and hip hop songs by rock band that came out a few years ago, called "Take a Bite out of Rhyme." The breakout song was probably Dynamite Hack's cover of Eazy-E's "Boyz in da Hood." To me, a lot of the songs on that album at the very least straddle the line between offensive and not, and I'm not even sure where I personally come down in regards to "Boyz In Da Hood."
posted by rue72 at 7:59 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

1. Don't use the word. Don't even.
2. What would be more offensive than using that word would be doing shitty covers. Don't be shitty.
3. Do it live and that would be awesome.
4. Always include the history when you do the cover, like you did in this post.
5. Go for it.
6. Send me a link in memail if you want advice, review, or ideas.
posted by cashman at 11:28 AM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

You could always go for "hitta" instead. But it still might be kinda cringeworthy.
posted by cajalswoon at 1:08 PM on January 11, 2014

The best way I'd see it happening is doing a lyrical interpolation in one of your original songs. This happens in hip-hop a lot - a line is taken from a previous song as a nod to the previous user, or as a reinterpretation of a sentiment.

For example. let's say you took the hook line from "Me Against The World" as your chorus, making a new melody and new verses (as you don't have to stick to a rapping template anywhere). For people familiar with the song, it would be extremely obvious, but not doing a straight cover you don't run the risk of being quite so egregious and/or offensive.

Plus, whatever anybody says, sampling is generally not legally kosher, but taking lyrics is a different story; if you're being substantially transformative on the melody and singing it yourself it's extremely unlikely (as far as I know; IANAL) that you could be successfully persecuted for taking a bit of the lyrics, and impossible for taking the recording.
posted by solarion at 4:52 PM on January 11, 2014

Just substitute it for wizard and go for it!
posted by Tom-B at 5:10 AM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Definitely substitute another word, like brother or wizard or ninja or whatever, and definitely always include the history when you do it live. Probably don't record it. Definitely do consider the implications deeply and choose your songs carefully.
posted by woodvine at 10:20 AM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

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