Rappers Rappin’ about Rappers: The Art of the Tribute

Posted on March 10, 2010 by


Ever since Horace first called out his man Virgil in the propempticon Odes 1.3, the proverbial “shout out” to contemporaries has been a thematic staple amongst the artistically gifted.

Authors Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson often posited both themselves and their colleagues as main characters in their novels or short-stories. Bob Dylan has recorded not one, but two songs about Woody Guthrie: Song to Woody and Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie. Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is perhaps best known for her enigmatic self-portraits, which establish her own persona as a central theme in her work. Ray LaMontagne wrote that weird song about Meg White a few years ago, and it seems that everyone and their mother wants to write songs about Barack Obama.

So the shout out is nothing new. But nowhere has it been employed so consistently — and to such dramatic effect — as in hip-hop. Whether intended as love, insult, or tribute, the hip-hop catalog is filled with both overt and obscure references to real-life artists, often with rappers naming names. Tupac and Bad Boy Records are beefing? Pac can release Hit ‘Em Up, and directly diss Puff, Biggie, and the rest of their crew. The Fresh Prince loved the stylings of his DJ? He can lay down The Magnificent Jazzy-Jeff and pay immediate tribute to his producer. Jay-Z thinks he’s the greatest and wants everyone to know it? No problem – he can employ a creative variation of his name and honor himself with the ever-catchy Izzo. In fact, most casual hip-hop fans would be hard-pressed to name a mainstream artist who hasn’t written a verse with another artist’s name in it. Think about it.

So why hip-hop is so susceptible to lyrical shout-outs while other musical genres employ it infrequently at best? I have a few theories:

1) Hip-hop music is a rhythm-driven genre (as opposed to melody-driven genres like rock, R&B, or country). The beats and percussion figure more prominently than –say — the guitar or violin.  This is important in that melodies are musically linear; rhythms are individual beats in time. Melodies are continuous and directional; a melody starts here and ends over there, and the in-between is fluid. In contrast, a rhythm is typically a few beats played on a loop, giving a simple, staccato quality to a song. With rhythm, there’s no beginning and end, no segmentation, and no directional quality. A melodic song is defined by its melody, and so the sound and direction of lyrics is usually dictated by the sound and direction of the melody. Meanwhile, a rhythmic song allows for variability, manipulation, and change in any accompanying lyrics, mainly because rhythm isn’t musically strong enough to carry a song. While singers follow the melody with their lyrics, rappers essentially create the melody with their lyrics. Unlike singers, rappers and their lyrics aren’t beholden to a musical blueprint.

Because of the musical vagueness of rhythm-driven songs, hip-hop lyrics can be innovative, multi-directional, and independent of the rhythm. This allows for broader and more variable lyrical content than could be employed in a melody-driven song. The point I’m getting at is that it’s easier for a rapper to throw a random (sometimes un-rhymable) name in a verse over a rhythm than it would be for a singer to do over a melody. You can speed up or slow down raps regardless of the beat, so you can throw more or less words (names) into a rhyme than you could in a song’s verse. Eminem can incorporate Christina Aguilera’s name into his rhymes more seamlessly than a singer could in a verse; it’s a simple matter of manipulation.

2) Flexibility is an inherent element of the art of rapping. The variability and creativity that rapping (as opposed to singing) allows its lyricists again make it easier to incorporate actual names. The linguistic features of rap (internal rhyme, off-beat rhyme, multi-syllabic rhyme, flow variation,  and cadence, to name a few) mean that hip-hop lyrics don’t have to follow a set meter or adhere to a simple rhyme structure. It’s how Nas rhymes “Big” (Notorious B.I.G.) with “live” or “Russell Simmons” with “attention” in Ether; he utilizes the flexibility of rapping.

3) Rapping affords itself to specificity. Caught in the limbo somewhere between speaking and singing, rapping is a lyrical genre unto itself. It’s more rhythmic than speaking, but it isn’t as melodic as singing (see Point #1). As such, rappers’ lyrics can be astoundingly close to speaking, and so be much more specific and personal. Sung lyrics tend to deal with airy, thematic topics like love, freedom, and crying tears on a guitar. Rapped lyrics, however, call out specific neighborhoods, describe specific childhoods, and — yes — refer to specific people. This is both a stylistic and cultural feature; the beats, rapping, and hip-hop culture all contribute to the tendency of rap lyrics to be more detailed and precise. As a result, Eminem can go into crazy detail about Mariah Carey on his diss track The Warning.

4) Rappers just like calling out their own. It’s true: be it beef or be it love, hip-hoppers have always had a tendency to name people on their tracks. It could be a remnant of the MC’s original role as a hype-man for the DJ , or it could just be that the strong African-American tradition of community was incorporated into a musical genre created by African-Americans. Either way, it’s a long-standing tradition in hip-hop for rappers to name their cohorts, regardless of whether its a trash or a tribute.

Personally, I like the hip-hop tendency to call people out. Especially when it’s clever. The tribute tracks tap into my nostaligia, the beef tracks provide me with some entertaining drama, and the straight shout-outs just illuminate interesting industry connections that I may not have known about.

And really, Rappers, it’s a much better way to convey how you feel about a fellow artist than, say, something like this:

Come on, DMX. Have some self-respect.