Last week, the Detroit-based rapper and one-time J Dilla collaborator Elzhi released Elmatic. It’s the second time a rapper has re-written and re-made Nas’s hallowed Illmatic, with Fashawn attempting a similar feat last year. As a listening experience, Elmatic is less than convincing, leaving you continually pining for Nas’s original lyrics (which isn’t surprising, as they’ve been recited like holy hip-hop scriptures by rap fans since 1994). But beyond its artistic merits, Elmatic is more notable for being an addition to the tiny body of hip-hop songs covered by other rap artists.
Cover versions may abound in other genres, but hip-hop has a history of shying away from them. This may be due to the high importance of lyrical originality—as Masta Ace put it on the Juice Crew’s “The Symphony,” “There’s a sign at the door: ‘No Biting Allowed.’ ” Even homaging other artists through invoking short snippets of their lyrics is seen as grounds for a dis (Nas to Jay-Z: “How much of Biggie’s rhymes is gonna come out your fat lips?”). So while there’s an accepted tradition of freestyling over someone else’s beat on a mixtape, and the sub-strain of what are technically answer records like Salt-N-Pepa (as Super Nature) responding to Doug E Fresh & Slick Rick’s “The Show” with “The Show Stoppa,” whole-hearted rap covers remain the genre’s curio. Here then is a tribute to the brave souls who have dared reinvent the raps of others—with varying results.
Def Squad, “Rapper’s Delight”
Culled from 1997’s not-quite-revolutionary hip-hop covers album In Tha Beginning… There Was Rap (which also features the Wu tackling Run-DMC’s “Sucker MCs,” with Meth’s slow-flow fairing better than RZA’s mush-mouthed delivery), here Def Squad members Redman, Keith Murray and Erick Sermon go right back to the essence and run through the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (which itself adds a footnote to the rap covers canon, having appropriated lyrics from Grandmaster Caz in the first place). If you were wondering, Redman hogs the hot buttered breakfast toast while Erick Sermon is the one who gets to boast about his “super sperm.”
The Roots, “Men At Work”
Oh, the plight of The Legendary Roots Crew! Despite having over ten albums in the vault, the ?uestlove-headed group has now settled into a comfort zone of being best known for its ability to mimic the music of other rappers. As they run through Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s “Men At Work”—the song which reputedly first brought the group together after the core members discovered their mutual appreciation of it—they perform with a certain gusto, although the overall impression is still that their long-term future is as a hip-hop wedding band.
Cypress Hill, “Busted In The Hood”
A respectful skewing of the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere,” Muggs trades up the original’s stripped-to-the-bone beat for a dubby, lilting backdrop, while Sen Dog’s brief appearance casts him as a crooked cop named Sergeant Slacker. As B-Real unravels the song’s story, drugs—but, of course!—now largely take the place of the Beasties’ brews.
Atmosphere, “Millie Fell Off The Fire Escape”
A smart twist on the idea of how to handle a hip-hop cover, Slug and Ant add a second act to De La Soul’s harrowing “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa” and imagine the next moves of the troubled protagonist after she shoots her sexual abuser. Sticking to the same rhyme pattern Pos and Trugoy used on the original, Slug has Millie fleeing Macy’s, being pursued by a cop, and ultimately losing her grip on a fire escape and falling to her death. This time, it’s definitely over.
QB’s Finest, “Da Bridge 2001”
Rappers from the Queensbridge housing projects might be proud of their roots, but they never hesitate to bastardize the area’s hip-hop anthem, MC Shan’s Marley Marl-crafted “The Bridge.” The most extensive in a series of underwhelming covers crams (in diplomatic, alphabetical-MC-name order) Capone, Cormega, Millennium Thug, Mobb Deep, Nas, Nature, MC Shan and Tragedy Khadafi on to the track, all to aimless effect. Other taintings of the anthem include Mobb Deep’s “The Bridge ’94” and Marley Marl’s team-up with Tragedy Khadafi and Iman Thug for “The Bridge 2000.”
Pharoahe Monch, “Welcome To The Terrordome”
After critically lauded rapper Pharoahe Monch dressed up like some sort of Elvis figure and unsuccessfully tried to coin a “Hey Ya!” moment for himself with “Body Baby,” he resorted to the more stable ground of covering one of Public Enemy’s most ferocious blasts of vitriol. Monch’s attempt to relate the song’s sentiments to the War on Terror are admirable, and he does a passable job of replicating Chuck D’s booming vocals on the first verse, but he was never going to have a hope of matching the original song’s unbridled intensity. (More Enemy: Brit trip-hop icon and onetime Bjork beau Tricky’s take on “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos,” which sounds like the sort of thing you wish M.I.A. would record.)
Triple Cs feat. Rick Ross, “Pocket Full Of Stones”
Menace II Society endures as one of hip-hop’s most cogent film soundtracks. UGK’s contribution to the project, the low-slung, drug-hawking anthem “Pocket Full Of Stones,” was an obvious choice for Rick Ross’s Carol City Cartel to cover—although somewhere in translation Pimp C’s evocative, high-strung whine of a chorus turned into what seems like the sound of someone suffering digestive ills.
Mos Def & Talib Kweli, “Children’s Story”
You could argue that one-time independent rap darlings Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s debut collaborative project dallies with being the world’s first karaoke rap album; at times, it sounds like a collection of beats, samples, phrases and lyrics borrowed from other hip-hop songs. Here the Mighty Mos Def wears this idea of homage openly, commandeering Slick Rick’s cautionary tale as a way to throw jabs at hip-hop’s commercialist tendencies. In the type of smug move that has since become Mos’s calling card, the cad also allocates a self-righteous role for himself in the narrative.
Charisma is key to pulling off a rap cover song, and Snoop Dogg is one of the few rappers who matches lovable rap buffoon Biz’s strength of personality. For this slinky take on a tale of disingenuous types looking to hitch a ride off the success of others, Snoop has the Dogg Pound stepping into the shoes of Biz’s posse: Nate Dogg becomes TJ Swan, Daz stands in for Big Daddy Kane, and Warren G takes on Cool V’s role in the original’s lyrics. As a cover, it resonates stronger than the less convincing, g-funkified version of “La Di Da Di” included on Snoop’s debut album.
Necro, “I Need Drugs”
Long before some suit whispered in Tyler, The Creator’s ear that rapping about rape might just be a canny promotional tick, Brooklyn-based rapper and producer Necro was mastering the art of talking about taboos and making button-pushing hip-hop (sometimes over samples from The Zombies). One of Necro’s earlier claims to underground fame was flipping Uncle L’s much-mocked tribute to the ladies into a ditty about illicit substances. (Note: The figure on the cover of the single, Necro’s uncle Howie, has since passed away.)