Why aren't there any Rap covers by Rap artists?
July 16, 2007 3:00 PM   Subscribe

Why aren't there any Rap covers by Rap artists?

This question was semi-inspired by the covers post the other day, but it's something that I've had on my mind for awhile. (Please note that I'm not talking about covers of Rap songs by non-Rap artists like Johnathan Coulton's "Baby got back", The Gourds' "Gin and Juice", etc.)

I find it fascinating that I can't come up with a single example of a Hip-Hop/Rap artist flat out covering another Hip-Hop/Rap artist's song. What is it about Rap that makes it run counter to pretty much every other genre of popular music?

What's stopping 50 Cent or Kanye West from ripping up "White Lines" or "Fight the power" and just making it their own?
posted by ssmith to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You mean like Def Squad's cover of Rapper's Delight?
posted by grouse at 3:08 PM on July 16, 2007

Someone - Snoop, perhaps? - covered Slick Rick's "La Di Da Di." Cypress Hill also reworked the Beastie's "Paul Revere" into a new track, the name of which I forget now. I used to wonder about this same question. It seems it's much more common to drop a sample from another hip-hop track, and/or quote a rhyme, than to actually cover a song. I suspect it has to do with the importance placed on "originality" in ones MC skills. There's nothing worse than "biting rhymes" in the hip-hop world; cutting a track that is nothing *but* someone else's rhymes is probably not thought of too highly.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 3:09 PM on July 16, 2007

It's not that there aren't ANY (see: Def Squad revamping "Rappers' Delight" [Youtube]), it's just that if you're going to cover a song that relied heavily on samples, how many palms are going to have to be greased in the interest of royalties along the way?

Kidding, kinda...

The mixtape culture has always had rappers doing their thing over classic/famous beats, but I realize that's not quite the same thing. I might offer that the importance of the verses as an extension of the the MC's artistry/persona/swagger in the hip-hop culture might put cover versions in danger of looking like copycatting and derivative more so than in other genres.

That's my best answer at least. Interested to hear what others think.

(On preview - dammit grouse...)
posted by peacecorn at 3:10 PM on July 16, 2007

On Mos Def and Kweli's Blackstar album they do their own version of Slick Rick's Childrens story.
posted by subtle_squid at 3:12 PM on July 16, 2007

Off the top of my head, I'd say:

(1) While there are few direct covers, there is a ton of lyrical quoting of phrases and even entire verses.

(2) Similarly, plenty of hip hop songs directly sample lyrical and musical bits from other hip hop songs.

(3) Much of hip hop is built around beats and samples rather than melody lines or chord progressions, so its more difficult to rework the musical component. Producers/DJs are more likely simply to remix something with completely different backing tracks than try to "cover" it.

(4) A greater degree of emphasis is placed on the rapper's lyrical originality than in rock music, so it makes less sense to just repeat someone else's words. Reinterpretation of lines and phrases is common, but not whole tracks.

(5) Finally, there is a different aesthetic at work here, which is more forgiving of quotation and sampling (within reasonable bounds) - thus making it possibly to pay homage to or rework other artists' stuff without doing a complete cover version.
posted by googly at 3:15 PM on July 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Pharoahe Monch covers P.E's 'Welcome to the Terrordome' on his recent album 'Desire'
posted by gnutron at 3:16 PM on July 16, 2007

Snoop Dogg covered Biz Markie's 'The Vapors,' (I think he covered 'Ladi Dadi,' too), and there's an entire album, In Tha Beginning... There Was Rap, of '90s artists covering old-school classics.

It's possible that rap has fewer cover songs, proportionately, than other kinds of music (though you'd probably want to do some kind of statistical analysis to make sure), and, if that is indeed the case, here are a couple (very hypothetical) possible explanations: first, rap music's emphasis on lyrics, lyricists and authenticity discourages covers. Or maybe rap fans are more fickle and less interested in rehashing old songs. Or maybe hip-hop culture doesn't value the straight-up homage as much as it does the ability to, y'know, take something and flip it (e.g. DJing or sampling). Alternately, maybe rap music doesn't have as large a canon, or as long a history, as a lot of other kinds of music, and there just isn't as much source material. Of all those possible reasons, I think the last one is the most likely, and the one with the most explanatory power--after all, rap artists have indicated, repeatedly, their willingness to perform covers of non-rap songs (Biz Mark's interpretations of 'Alone Again Naturally' and 'It's Spring Again,' among others; Stetsasonic's version of Dyke and the Blazers 'Sally,' the Fat Boys' Chubby Checker rip, virtually everything Puffy's ever recorded, etc.).
posted by box at 3:21 PM on July 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

In oral culture the text isn't taken to be an indivisible entity the way that it is in a literary culture, and sampling in rap has allowed a further fracturing of reference (closer to "quoting" in jazz than covering standards).

Aside from that, reread Googly.
posted by klangklangston at 3:23 PM on July 16, 2007

Oh, there's also the fact that rap has evolved in an era when recorded music was plentiful. It's not hard to find the original Rapper's Delight or what have you, which was a motivation for, say, the millions of bands who did Louie Louie in the garage rock explosion.
posted by klangklangston at 3:26 PM on July 16, 2007

A bunch of artists have covered Black Steel - Tricky comes to mind.
posted by Artw at 3:39 PM on July 16, 2007

Great question and I am looking forward to reading some of the answers.

Japanese film director Takashi Miike once said:

I didn't become a director because there are things that I want to express. Instead, I am looking for things to express.

In my opinion, the opposite is true for the best hip-hop MC's: they have ideas, thoughts, and feelings that they must express. Hip-hop grew out of a class/race of American people with little chance to express themselves in mass culture: young urban black men mired in poverty.

Style and originality is a huge part of hip-hop culture and goes back to the early days of "battles" between breakdancers, graffers, MC's, and DJ's. There is no reason to do it if it has already been done.

Of course, the rise of hip-hop as an economic force to be reckoned with has led to a whole lot of repetition... This what I call rap and is the commercialized side of hip-hop (think Ludacris, Master P, Puff Daddy, 69 Boys/Quad City DJs, et al). Many commercialized rappers cover themselves and, in effect, record the same song over and over.

I am sure there are better and more eloquent answers to your question, but I think I may have pointed towards one of the reasons there are very few covers in hip-hop....

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Another great hip-hop cover:

Mos Def blazes through the Madvillain (Madlib + MF Doom) track Rainbows during the soundcheck for a recent show...
posted by cinemafiend at 3:49 PM on July 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

You often hear rappers accusing other rappers of "biting" rhymes in diss records and mixtapes. I've always assumed that they avoid covers as they'd be seen as less of an homage than in rock. In other words pulling off an ironic interpretation of a Kelly Clarkson hit isn't the same as biting a verse from the latest Killer Mike mixtape.

In the case of existing covers of old NWA, Public Enemy, Sugar Hill Gang, Biz Markie, etc. they're almost always on compilation tributes, or updates of songs that are still mostly relevant today.
posted by togdon at 3:50 PM on July 16, 2007

I remember an album put out in the late 90s which consisted entirely of cover versions by contemporary rappers of classic cuts, but for the life of me I can't hit upon the magic google search to find it.
posted by Kattullus at 3:51 PM on July 16, 2007

Rap/hip hop artists sample music, they don't cover it.
posted by saturnine at 4:05 PM on July 16, 2007

Another note on covering/sampling/biting in the hip-hop world...note what happened when Jay-Z sampled Nas on his track "Dead Presidents II" (actually a sample from Q-Tip's remix of Nas' track). Nas appeared to take offense ("You show off, I count dough off when you sample my voice" from "Stillmatic Freestyle"), to which Jay-Z responded in "Takeover" - "So yeah, I sampled your voice; you was usin' it wrong/You made it a hot line; I made it a hot song." (Yeah, I had to check Wikipedia for some of the particulars, so take that for what it's worth.) Anyway, in a genre where samples can cause feuds, it's probably not worth it to rip a whole song, unless you're a) already well established (Snoop, for example) and b) covering an indisputable "classic" (like Slick Rick or Sugarhill Gang) so as to be absolutely clear that you're doing "tribute," and not trying to cash in on someone else's success (which was the issue in the Jay-Z/Nas beef).
posted by Banky_Edwards at 4:29 PM on July 16, 2007

googly and klangklangston are on point.

(5) Finally, there is a different aesthetic at work here, which is more forgiving of quotation and sampling (within reasonable bounds) - thus making it possibly to pay homage to or rework other artists' stuff without doing a complete cover version.

This is part of what I love about hip-hop - once you start paying attention to lyrics (and sounds), the whole genre becomes one of overlapping and layered phrases, beats, and ideas.

In response to your question, maybe it's not that (ahem) 50 Cent and Kanye West (among others, thank goodness) aren't making previous songs "their own," but rather that they're doing it in a way that is unique to the genre. Most people who aren't familiar with it seem to think that hip-hop is in-your-face and obvious. However, to my mind it's actually more subtle, in many ways, than other kinds of music. There's a lot going on there, if you take the time to go beyond the surface.

Spend some time listening carefully to hip-hop, read through some lyrics (my favorite site), and you might come away with a better sense of how there's an internal conversation within hip-hop music that has been taking place for decades.
posted by splendid animal at 4:35 PM on July 16, 2007

Interesting responses.

And yeah, I was trying to get a little provocative with saying ALL when I knew perfectly well that it was going to take someone less than 10 minutes to come up with an example.

I guess what resonates with me so far are the two ideas of sampling and battles. Since rap grew out of a style of mixing different elements together into a new whole - maybe pulling in or referencing another song in a few lines is all you really need. You can make your own statement about that song without having to redo the whole thing.

And the me versus you aspect of rap battles makes a ton of sense. For sure, there are some "battles of the bands" in rock, but it's not really as much a part of the DNA.
posted by ssmith at 4:54 PM on July 16, 2007

In hip-hop, the performance, performer and lyrics are inextricably linked. Rappers create an identity by writing lyrics and performing them. They develop their own distinctive styles/flows/etc, which belong specifically to them. Performing others' lyrics is frowned upon (see Diddy, P), even if those lyrics were written specifically for the artist performing them.

Rappers do sometimes use snippets of other rappers' language, but it's an allusion, rather than a cover. If it isn't clearly an allusion or tribute, it's biting, and can get you in big trouble. Jay-Z has been known to toe this line between tribute and biting with lines from Biggie, for example.

In rock, the lyrics are mostly there so that the singer doesn't just have to doo-doo-doo the melody. In hip-hop, they are the song.

The beat, in contrast, is sort of a complimentary element, at least as far as the rapper is concerned. So while originality and not biting is very important, you will see rappers rapping on other people's beats, producers flipping the same sample in different ways, etc.

That said: yes, there have been some covers (Snoop also did a cover/reworking of Paid in Full), but they are universally conceived as "tributes."

Long story short: rap lyrics are a personal expression, and skill at crafting them is the primary definition of a good rapper. If you don't write your own lyrics, you're not a rapper.
posted by YoungAmerican at 5:27 PM on July 16, 2007

This has been touched on, but I think it's about the fact that hip-hop/rap is already a thoroughly post-modern endeavor -- borrowing and explicit quotation of what has come before is a fundamental part of the thing. This is distinct from rock, in which individuality is valued above all. Hence, the rock cover -- doing your own individual interpretation of a rock predecessor. But in rap, it's all about a certain savvy knowledge of the past, and the ability to reference it. One doesn't need to do an explicit cover, but you do need to assimilate, quote, and build on. I reckon that's why you don't hear so many flat-out rap covers. It's coming from a different cultural/aesthetic place, one in which quotation (and yes, sampling) is a basic building block.
posted by TonyRobots at 6:49 PM on July 16, 2007

check the latest lil wayne album da drought 3 if you don't think there's hip hop covers. its free online
posted by alkupe at 7:03 PM on July 16, 2007

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