Hip-Hop Hooray: Tributes in Rhyme

The Beat Konducta, Vol. 5-6: A Tribute To...
Stone's Throw

Is anybody paying attention to the beef between 50 Cent and Rick Ross? I’ve been following it from a distance, largely because, quite frankly, I’m always curious to see how far these public feuds will actually go. I’m doing it “from a distance” because it involves two artists who don’t usually hold my attention. Even if I was heavily invested in the participants, the drill would be the same: one rapper drops a line in a record or offers a comment in an interview about another rapper, the second rapper counters with a song dissing the first rapper, the first rapper counters the second rapper’s counter on YouTube, the second rapper responds on his MySpace page, and on and on. While the diss records from rap beefs generally provide a creative and competitive spark, the attention we give them can overshadow the attention we give to more “positive” offerings.

So, instead of rap beef, let’s talk about rap tributes. How do rappers honor hip-hop icons, leaders, comrades, and foot soldiers?


The easiest way to give another rapper props? Namedropping. Sometimes, all it takes is a clever comparison, as when Erick Sermon of EPMD rhymed, in “Chill”, “I’m massive dope, funky, who’s deffer? / Yo, when I express myself like Salt ‘N Pepa.” Get it? Salt ‘N Pepa had a song called “Express Yourself”. As far as namedropping goes, the Game is well known, and well criticized, for his habit of dropping the names of his favorites into his rhymes. One day, I’m going to set aside enough time to tally the number of namedrops on his albums.

If you twist my arm, you can get me to admit that namedropping can be an annoying habit. But, even after the arm-twisting, I’m going to insist that the technique, annoying as it might be, fits within the concept of rap songs as extensions of the historical and storytelling traditions through which important names and dates are passed along from person to person and from generation to generation.

From this standpoint, namedropping keeps rappers lyrically and stylistically connected to one another. On Below the Heavens — the much-acclaimed debut produced by Exile — California rapper Blu quipped in his verse from “The Narrow Path” that he was playing the song “Escapism” by Pete Rock. There is, of course, the obvious meaning that he digs that song and was actually listening to it. And, yes, of course, Blu might also be mentioning “Escapism” (or “Escape” as the song was titled on the cover of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s The Main Ingredient) to underscore Below the Heavens‘s overall motif of needing to escape from life’s dilemmas and troubles. But there’s also the possibility that, however unintentional, Blu’s reference helped to connect the duo of Blu & Exile to the duo of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth. I wouldn’t disagree too much with drawing parallels between the two pairs. To hear the same technique used with similar effect by an older artist, check out Q-Tip deftly namedropping a roster of hip-hop colleagues on 2008’s “Life Is Better”.

There used to be a time when rap albums featured whole songs devoted to shouting out friends and comrades. Back in the early ’90s, Ice Cube spent three whole minutes to say “what up” in “I Gotta Say What Up!!!”, shouting out everyone from Afrika Bambaataa and the “trigger-happy muthafuckin'” Geto Boys to Humpty Hump, “’cause he makin’ more than Donald Trump”.

LL Cool J handled things a little differently in 1993, weaving the names of hip-hop artists and song titles into a moderately coherent narrative called “Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings”. With lines like, “Rub you down with warm iced tea [Ice-T] / Make you feel Brand Nubian instantly”, I’m not sure I fully understand what the song’s about. At least I get all of the rap references. Incidentally, LL Cool J played this name game earlier on Mama Said Knock You Out‘s “Milky Cereal”. There, he constructed his narrative from the names of breakfast cereals. It starts off with a female named “Frosted Flake”, who “loved to bowl”, taking him to a club named “Cheerio”. And that’s just the first verse!

Covers and Remakes

All right. So, let’s say you’re a rapper and you want to do more to honor the revered members of your profession than drop their names in your verses. You’d like to remake one of your favorite hip-hop tunes. You always liked Big Daddy Kane, so you consider tinkering with the arrangement of one of his classics, maybe “Young, Gifted & Black” or “Smooth Operator”. Not a bad idea, but this sort of thing gets kind of tricky (and I’m not just saying that because Run-D.M.C. said it).

Doing covers and remakes of songs isn’t the norm in hip-hop. While I’ve counted about 20 covers (at least!) of Rihanna’s hit song “Umbrella”, covers and remakes of hip-hop songs aren’t as plentiful. A couple of popular and, mostly, successful renditions are Snoop redoing Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di” as well as Biz Markie’s “Vapors”, and Def Squad (Redman, Erick Sermon, Keith Murray) remaking the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”. You’ll find, on the lesser known, but arguably more powerful side: UGK’s revamping of Marly Marl’s “The Symphony” in “Next Up”, Pharoahe Monch’s inspired take on Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome”, and Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s clever rewording of Slick Rick’s “A Children’s Story”. Rappers from “underground” circles have gotten into the act too, with Superiority Complex’s version of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Butter” and Blu’s completely renovated version of EPMD’s “You Gots to Chill” on his “C.R.A.C. Knuckles” project The Piece Talks with Ta’Raach.

Perhaps the best example of the remake-as-tribute paradigm is J. Period’s mixtape The Best of Q-Tip. Instead of piecing together original songs that exemplify Q-Tip’s emcee prowess during and after his days with A Tribe Called Quest, J. Period’s mix blends remakes of Q-Tip and Tribe songs performed by other artists. De La Soul does a remix of “Excursions” and Blu handles a remix of “Jazz (We Got)”, but the moment that’ll have you emailing your friends with a link to this mixtape is the remix of “Youthful Expression”. On that track, Talib Kweli goes into an absolute zone over Questlove’s live percussion. Who knows where it would rank on a year-end list of “hot verses”, but Kweli set a high standard with this one.

So why aren’t there more covers and remakes? Simply put, covers and remakes, by definition, aren’t “original” and that fact is a liability in a genre of hit makers who pride themselves on “keepin’ it real”. Despite the borrowing and sampling in hip-hop tunes, there’s a general consensus among hip-hop heads that you (the emcee) should be writing your own verses. Ghostwriting does happen (what, you thought Diddy wrote those rhymes?), but hip-hoppers expect it to be the exception, not the rule. In all of my above-cited covers and remakes, you’ll notice how the new versions either (1) customize the original lyrics to fit the new rapper’s character and environment, or (2) add new lyrics to the original. It’s rare that a “new” version of a rap song will simply repeat the original lyrics verbatim.

Here’s the bottom line: nobody really wants to hear a Cyrano de Bergerac routine, wherein someone like Rakim or KRS-One is the true author but the words are coming out of another rapper’s mouth. Sometimes, if enough time has elapsed, we don’t even want to hear the original rapper doing his or her own song, let alone another person. In addition to “keepin’ it real”, rappers tend to develop a distinct ethos through their albums and across their discographies. Their rhymes, opinions, and adventures give the audience a sense of knowing, the feeling that we understand the rapper’s world when we listen to the music. That connection is broken when a song is redone by a different vocalist. It’s out of context.

What’s next? An album of hip-hop remakes? That’s okay for pure tribute compilations, like a collection of artists redoing songs by N.W.A. or rap songs being reworked into different genres, but it won’t do for standalone rap projects. Or worse, we’ll be watching Paula, Randy, Simon, and Fourth Judge (Kara) critique an Idol contestant’s audition of LL Cool J’s “I Need Love”. Randy would say, “What? Yo, dawg, yo, that was just all right for me.” Paula would say, “I liked it. And you look great tonight.” Kara would say, “Ooooh, I’m sorry. You’re not quite right for this, but I still think you’re relevant.” And Simon would say, “I don’t mean this rudely, but LL Cool J’s mama should knock you out.”

Madlib, whose fifth and sixth installments of his Beat Konducta series honors the music of J. Dilla (Photo by Chris Woodcock)

General and Specific Tributes

When a remake won’t cut it, rappers can get the job done with their own lyrics. A single song will do, and it need not be focused on any particular individual. This is the song for the “homies” (or the “homegirls” in songs like Heavy D’s “Sister Sister” and LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl”) whether alive (Tupac’s “If My Homie Calls”), incarcerated (T.I.’s “You Ain’t Missin’ Nothing”), or deceased (Ice Cube’s “Dead Homiez”). The storytelling remains key in these songs to set the scene, build emotion, and deliver a message, but specific names aren’t as important. In fact, in a song like “Dead Homiez”, Ice Cube seems to deliberately omit the names of his deceased homeboys, perhaps to underscore how victims of violence can be turned into statistics and transformed into proverbial wakeup calls for the living, all the while being buried, literally and figuratively, in relative anonymity.

Our inability to attach names to Ice Cube’s deceased friends makes his grief all the more personal and palpable. It also challenges us to care about the tragedies of murder and violent crime without the usual proxy of wrapping it all in a human face. Can we care about the loss of human life as a general proposition or do we only get concerned when we know something about a specifically named victim? Tupac Shakur, rapping with his side project Thug Life, tackled the issue in much the same way on “Pour Out a Little Liquor”.

Conversely, rappers will sometimes dedicate a song to a specific individual, a technique that invites us into the grief to either educate us or allow us to share in the sentiment. The most obvious are the tributes to Troy “Trouble T-Roy” Dixon (Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.))”, Tupac (Naughty by Nature’s “Mourn You Til I Join You”) and the Notorious B.I.G. (Sean “Puffy” Combs, with Faith Evans & 112, performing “I’ll Be Missing You” over that Police sample). In “Tha Crossroads”, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony directed their multi-syllabic sing-songy rhymes to Eazy-E, friends, and loved ones.

Sometimes, rapping directly to the icon or loved one is preferable to rapping about them in third person. On “We Will Survive”, Nas shared his thoughts about Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. in the form of direct conversations with them. He doesn’t say, “Dear Biggie” or “Dear Tupac”, but there’s an epistolary quality to his rhymes, much like Jadakiss’s excellent “Letter to B.I.G.” on the Notorious soundtrack.

For the artist who’s saluting a fallen comrade, there’s a delicate balance between what’s personal and what’s professional, between making a song that speaks to grief and loss versus a song that’s actually good. I imagine it can be precarious terrain to navigate. For instance, I always took Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” as purely for dedication purposes, a song created in the midst of sadness, to honor the Notorious B.I.G., not necessarily to make a great song. Because, well, it wasn’t a great song. The Notorious B.I.G.’s own heartfelt “Miss U” and Dr. Dre’s tribute to his brother (“The Message”) are much better works, and more satisfying.

One of my favorite rap tributes is by Massachusetts rapper Reks, from his Grey Hairs LP. On “All in One (5 Mics)”, Reks and Lil Fame of M.O.P. show their love for Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G., Big L, and Big Punisher. The catch is in the delivery, since the verses are performed in the style and cadence of the legend being honored. That’s a risky approach, something that could easily come off as unflattering or gimmicky, but this song did it with style and made it fun. Likewise, Madlib’s fifth and sixth installments of his Beat Konducta series, consisting of music in honor of J. Dilla, operate comfortably in the Dilla style and tradition without falling prey to mimicry. No doubt, Madlib had to come up with something solid to outdo Robert Glasper’s jazz tribute to Dilla on his “J Dillalude” track.

Of course, the subject of a tribute need not be someone who has passed away. In this regard, Nas’s “U.B.R. (Unauthorized Biography of Rakim)” is instructive. I’d actually be interested in seeing more songs like this, though not necessarily structured as biographies, and despite the fact that hip-hop’s “I’m the best” mentality automatically limits the number of living tributes that will be made. It’s kind of like Coca-Cola making a commercial about how good Pepsi is.

Cover art for Puff Daddy and Faith Evans’ “I’ll Be Missing You” single (partial)

Greatest Hits and Posthumous Material

Why not just release a “Greatest Hits” collection? Good idea. The only problem is figuring out which songs should make the cut. You know, the “best” of an artist might not be the same thing as a “hit record” by the artist. But putting together a “greatest hits” might be the safest way to go. It honors the artist and introduces the uninitiated to the artist’s discography.

A related idea is the movie soundtrack, something hip-hoppers didn’t have much experience with until Tupac: Resurrection (the documentary using brilliantly edited real audio from Tupac) and Notorious (the 2009 biopic about the Notorious B.I.G.). These releases play the dual role of gathering material from various stages in the artist’s life while also being a companion to the film that gave rise to the “soundtrack” in the first place.

Between the two, Notorious strikes me as the oddest, as it seems intent on mixing together a variety of motives. It has songs with “notorious” in the title (“Notorious Thugs”, “Notorious B.I.G.”), songs that represent B.I.G.’s enormous talent and potential, three unreleased demos (wow!), and songs by others in B.I.G.’s honor (Jadakiss’s “Letter to B.I.G.”). Considering the importance of the East Coast/West Coast beef, and the beef’s prominence in the film, B.I.G.’s own “What’s Beef” is a natural addition to the set. Likewise, Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard” doesn’t exactly fit the tribute vibe, but it holds a comfortable spot as a soundtrack vehicle.

Notorious also has songs that seem unconnected to either tribute status or soundtrack duty, like “The World Is Filled…”, and then it omits songs that probably shouldn’t have been overlooked, like “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems”. And then there’s “One More Chance/The Legacy Remix”, where the Notorious B.I.G. and his son are corralled into a Natalie-and-Nat-King-Cole type of duet. I think these family member duets are better as private keepsakes, maybe as fun little knickknacks people share with each other at family reunions rather than items for public consumption. In the case of B.I.G. and his son especially, the explicit lyrical content of “One More Chance”, including B.I.G.’s talk about his sexual prowess, makes their duet really creepy, not to mention — yeah, I’ll go ahead and say it — inappropriate and bizarre.

Perhaps the best way to pay homage to hip-hoppers is to let them speak in their own words. Posthumous albums by Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. present classic examples. These releases are often criticized as predatory ventures designed to reap the benefits from the legacies of bona fide hip-hop icons. Nevertheless, posthumous material can still add meaning and value to an artist’s career, provided that the project is handled the right way.

What exactly is “the right way”? That’s hard to say. It might be easier to identify where these projects go astray. For one thing, posthumous releases can suffer from overproduction. Maybe the original beat sounds “dated” or maybe the original track got leaked and circulated through bootlegs. When it’s time for an official release, the inclination is to update the production to add a fresh sound to it. But this can translate into a track that sounds too busy in the background, taking attention away from the person we wanted to hear as the main attraction. Some of the posthumous Tupac releases seem to fall into this category.

Another problem is the tendency to pair the deceased honoree with guest vocalists. Sometimes, this approach becomes viable when the original track is unfinished. A couple of loose verses can, therefore, be expanded into full “songs” with the help of guest appearances. Although these collaborations are meant to either update a song, pay tribute to the artist, or both, the results can be less than stellar. Instead of rapping with Tupac, for instance, the guests start rapping about him, relegating the deceased artist to a memory on his or her own track. And then there’s always that strange family-member-duet thing I harped on earlier.

That’s not to say that collaborations and guest vocals can’t be done well. Mixtape compilations seem to have this sort of thing down to a science, and there are quite a few of them in the Notorious B.I.G.’s honor. For instance, Mick Boogie’s Unbelievable mixtape works some serious magic with the Notorious B.I.G.’s vocals, pairing him up with the likes of Jay-Z, Nas, and even Gravy, the rapper who starred as B.I.G. in Notorious. In fact, B.I.G.’s vocals on Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”, even though we’ve heard them elsewhere, actually make the song better.

Similarly, DJ Soul’s Assorted Donuts did an excellent job of pairing emcees with beats from J. Dilla’s Donuts and other sources. And, better than the Busta Rhymes-helmed Dilla-gence mixtape, Termanology impressively rips through a set of Dilla’s beats on his mixtape If Heaven Was a Mile Away: A Tribute to J. Dilla. Termanology’s effort, in particular, demonstrates how honoring hip-hop legends expresses an overall love for the culture, and unites artists, beatmakers, and audience in celebration and gratitude.