Samples have always been the backbone of hip-hop. The very first raps were performed over beat breaks, which were looped and extended to provide B-boys a platform for their gymnastic dance routines and rappers their bombastic bars. However, despite hip-hop’s preference for calling back to the past, making history as modern as a freshly-released single, the genre has oddly few examples of another tool for paying homage to the forebears and icons of days past.
Last week, M1 and Stic.man of revered revolutionary rap duo Dead Prez revealed that the late, great Los Angeles legend Nipsey Hussle reached out to them prior to his death for permission to remake their seminal 2000 debut album Let’s Get Free — but the idea was never executed, as Nipsey passed away before he was able to begin work on the project in earnest. Besides this one high-profile example, there aren’t very many other albums by current rappers that seek to recreate the classic works that have inspired and influenced them. So, why doesn’t hip-hop have many cover albums?
Part of the answer may stem from rap music’s status as a young genre. Just 30 years ago, the culture as a whole was still fighting for its legitimacy, dismissed as a passing fad. However, that didn’t seem to stop musicians in other disciplines from nearly constantly covering each others’ songs to the point that there is widespread debate about the “best” versions of hits like “Respect,” originated by Otis Redding and made classic by Aretha Franklin; “Proud Mary,” a Creedance Clearwater Revival turned rocking revue by Ike and Tina Turner; and “Strange Fruit,” the defiant ode to Black resistance in the face of monstrous treatment sung by Billie Holiday and further popularized by Nina Simone.
Rock artists have also had a long history of reinterpreting classics for new generations. Consider Dirty Projectors’ Rise Above. In 2007, bandleader David Longstreth set out to replay Black Flag’s 1981 album Damaged from memory despite not hearing in for 15 years prior. If that sounds ambitious, Beck’s 2009 project Record Club would seem downright obsessive, as the genre-hopping multi-instrumentalist sought to cover whole albums in just one day each with a fluid collective of musicians. These included Leonard Cohen’s Songs Of Leonard Cohen, The Velvet Underground’s The Velvet Underground & Nico, and INXS’s Kick.
The form is a staple of other genres, such as rock and soul, but seems foreign to hip-hop, despite the fact that hip-hop now has enough history behind it to have several generations of “old-school” music, as many a millennial has been dumbstruck to learn in recent years. Where a 35-year-old today may have cited NWA, Public Enemy, or Run-DMC as “old-school” based on their high school experiences, a 15-year-old today looks at that 35-year-old’s high school faves like Jay-Z, Ludacris, or Nelly, and sees only a pack of old fogeys — Public Enemy may as well have been recorded on Fred Flintstone’s Dictabird.
Further complicating hip-hop’s relationship to cover projects is its reliance on samples and insistence on originality. Biting lyrics is a no-no of the highest order in hip-hop, and while sampling is the foundation of the art form, rarely are songs recreated or reinterpreted — and sometimes, choosing a sacrosanct record to recreate is seen as blasphemous. Just look at the reaction to DJ Khaled’s Outkast sample on his 2019 song “Just Us.” Borrowing the melody of “Ms. Jackson” didn’t work out any better for him than J. Cole’s similar homage — borrowing the loop from “Da Art Of Storytelling, Part 1” on “Land Of The Snakes — did for the North Carolina MC.
However, there is one example of a hip-hop cover album that was both well-received and tastefully done. In 2011, former Slum Village member Elzhi set out to pay tribute to one of his favorite MCs, Nas, by recreating Nas’s revered debut album Illmatic with a live band. The resulting mixtape, cleverly titled Elmatic, saw Elzhi putting his own unique twists on both Nas’s rhymes and the ’90s masterclass beats; Elzhi deftly re-worded some of the more iconic lyrical sequences, keeping the familiar diction and cadences, channeling them to flip Nas’s autobiographical tales into narratives of his own Detroit upbringing. The band embellished on the Ahmad Jamal, Gap Band, and Michael Jackson samples, bringing their musicality to the fore, where previously the drum tracks were the centerpieces of the album.
Elmatic‘s success only highlights how intriguing the idea of hip-hop cover albums truly is. Rap music, despite its reputation as a youth genre with little use for its elder statesmen, has always held a deep reverence for the history, breadth, and depth of Black music. Puffy can sample Diana Ross for a celebratory posthumous Notorious BIG single and Three 6 Mafia can turn a 30-year-old Willie Hutch soundtrack cut into an international players’ anthem, thoroughly disproving the trope that hip-hop doesn’t respect its elders. Rappers and producers simply choose to reinterpret what has already been done. If that’s not the essence of a cover, nothing is.
Nipsey Hussle and Elzhi both understood this, and both were willing to take the plunge, risking the disapproval of hardcore hip-hop heads to salute their musical forebears. That’s to be applauded — and imitated. Hip-hop now has a rich history of its own, just waiting to be mined, paid homage to, and translated into new terms for younger ears that may not be familiar with it, but are certainly much more receptive than they are given credit for. Whether it’s a New York boom-bap standard, a West Coast G-funk essential, or a Dirty South crunk classic, it’s time for hip-hop to begin giving its older albums some fresh looks.
Nipsey Hussle is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.