"Rhyming and Stealing" -- Biting and Homage in Rap
In the outset of hip-hop culture, there were very few rules. If you wanted to try a new dance move, or play a Monkees record in the middle of a wild party, or get on the mic and tell a dirty joke you heard on a Red Foxx record -- pretty much everything was permitted.
But there was one unbreakable commandment -- thou shalt not bite. Outright copying of someone’s art -- a tag, a rhyme, whatever -- was totally verboten. The primary reason that the Sugarhill Gang was considered corny by people in the know when “Rapper’s Delight” came out was that many of the rhymes on it were stolen from other artists. Big Bank Hank didn’t even bother to change the name in his verse -- that’s how little he cared.
Hank’s opening words were, to anyone who had followed the burgeoning uptown scene, an announcement that his verse was written by his former friend Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers -- Caz had long been using “Casanova Fly” as an alternate name.
As the music grew throughout the 1980s, biting remained the third rail of rap. MC Shan warned Cool J about the perils of being a “Beat Biter.” Ced Gee set himself apart from biters on “Ego Trippin’.” (“Igniting, causing friction with nuclear alarms/Separates competing biters from me, the scientist”). And so on. To accuse an artist of using someone else’s style or lyrics was the biggest insult possible, and “biters” were a common enemy of rappers everywhere, up there with “suckers” or “you.”
By 2008, though, the prohibition against using someone else’s lyrics had receded so far into the background that megastar Lil Wayne could openly violate it on his song “Dr. Carter.” He quotes a Kanye West lyric (“You can get through anything if Magic made it”), and then defends the borrowing:
And that was called recycling
Or re-reciting something
Cause you just like it so you say it just like it
Some say it's biting but I say it's enlightening
Where and how did the charge of “biting” lose its sting? To fully answer that question, we have to take a look at hip-hop’s sense of itself and its own history.
Early hip-hop records were, the occasional political joint aside, largely party jams. (See Brother D and the Collective Effort’s 1980 song “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?” for the exception that proves the rule.) The records were long -- interminably so, to many modern ears -- because they were party routines put directly on wax, often in one take!
As time went on and the genre continued to create stars, several dynamics began to coalesce. Rap began to expand its reach, for one. People outside of New York -- even outside of the United States! -- began to listen. In addition, the people who had been kids during hip-hop’s early days of the mid-1970s grew up and began to make music themselves. As is the case with young artists everywhere, some of their work drew on their childhood experiences. This often melded with a desire to let rap’s growing audience know where the music began, and to pay tribute to artists and community members who had helped create the genre.
Thus was born the song-as-history-lesson. The best-known early examples of this genre are a matched pair of jams from 1987 -- “Going Way Back” by Just-Ice and “South Bronx” by Boogie Down Productions. Both songs, not coincidentally, bear the handiwork of KRS-One -- rapping and co-production in the latter case, and co-producing in the first.
Ice was born in Brooklyn, but his grandparents lived in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx, and he was there frequently as a kid, DJing and rhyming as early as 1973. KRS, of course, was BX through-and-through. The two emcees, who met at a club and briefly shared a homeless shelter, had shared memories and experiences, and made their songs for overlapping, if slightly different reasons.
Just-Ice wanted, he said, to show new rap fans what he called “the foundation of hip-hop.”
A lot of cats in 1986 didn’t know what was going on way back, all they knew about was the records that were being played at that particular time. So I had to let mother f------ know where all that s--- was coming from.
As for KRS, he was defending his beloved home borough from the claim made by his rival MC Shan that rap had started in Queens. (Shan has long denied he was actually claiming this at the time, but, regardless, KRS chose to interpret it this way.) The best way to do that was to drop serious knowledge about the history of the Bronx and the music and culture it spawned -- while, naturally, taking shots at Shan.
“Going Way Back” announces its mission after a short introduction. “Going way way back to the early days/Of ‘75 and the Black Spades.” From there, it proceeds through a whirlwind of references to sound systems, crews, schools (IS 131 and PS 123 are mentioned in particular), and people. “The Bronx was the first -- I know, I was there,” he rhymed, and with such depth of detail, rap fans had no choice but to believe him.
“South Bronx” was a companion piece of sorts, mentioning a whole other set of locations, gangs, and DJs. It is the better-known of the two because of its Shan disses -- KRS even delivers the first verse in a mockery of the other rapper’s style. But both songs mark a turning point where hip-hop began to become aware of and attempt to curate its own history.
The two songs, though, were primarily concerned with a pre-recording era. As rap matured and the amount of music on wax grew, the music’s curatorial impulse grew to include rap records and lyrics, and not just people and locations.
The generation that grew up on the music of KRS and his contemporaries wanted to pay tribute to their forebearers in the same way their idols had done. So instead of shouting out long-outdated park jams, they shared the important artifacts of their youth -- that is, the lyrics they loved so much. The music had expanded well past the Bronx by then, so the geographic landmarks of KRS and Just-Ice were nowhere to be found. Instead, the focus was on the records -- the one thing that fans from California, New York, and everywhere in between had in common.
By the time the mid-1990s rolled around, it was common for artists to quote and interpolate the songs of their childhood -- the so-called “Golden Age” of the mid 80s through early 90s. Tupac’s verse on 1997’s “Got My Mind Made Up” turned Run-DMC’s 1983 classic “Two years ago, a friend of mine/Asked me to say some MC rhymes” into “Two years ago, a friend of mine/Told me Alize and Cristal blows your mind.”
Countless examples abound from this era -- Biggie remaking Schoolly D’s 1985 “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” as his 1997 “B.I.G. Interlude”; Snoop Dogg putting a 1993 spin on 1985’s “La Di Da Di” by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick; Mos Def’s 1999 “Love” quoting extensively from Eric B. and Rakim’s 1987 “I Know You Got Soul”; and too many others to name.
With so many quotations being done out of love and tribute, the prohibition on ever saying someone else’s rhyme came into question. After all, paying tribute to the past was a well-established impulse in the culture by then. Quoting an emcee you admired seemed to be a natural way of doing that. Ultimately, this seemed to win over most doubters, and rap music began to become the web of inter-textual references that it is today.
Old tensions occasionally flare up, however. In the midst of Jay Z and Cam’ron’s mid-aughts feud, Cam released a seven-minute audio montage of Jay’s borrowings from other artists like Biggie, Rakim, Snoop, Nas, and Kane. He meant it to be a knockout blow, but the idea of quoting as homage, rather than because you were out of ideas, was so well-established by that point that the impact was muted. Jay had even addressed the idea in rhyme. “I’m not a biter, I’m a writer for myself and others,” he rapped in 2003’s “What More Can I Say.” “I say a Big verse, I’m only bigging up by brother.”
In fact, mentions of the words “bite,” “biting,” and “biter” have fallen by 50% in rap since 1988. See the graph below:
This shift, as with so many things in rap, is both indicative of and influenced by shifts in the larger culture. By the mid-1990s, for example, postmodern authors like David Foster Wallace and Mark Leyner were taking these same ideas of inter-textuality and pastiche and applying them to literature. Remember that one of Foster’s very earliest works was the 1990 book Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present.
In film, paying homage to other works had a long-running history. From the French New Wave’s take on gangster flicks to Star Wars’ updating of 1930s science fiction serials to Quentin Tarantino’s wholesale lifting of plot points and dialogue from a good chunk of cinema history throughout all his work, acknowledging and paying open tribute to past achievements in your art form was an idea that the public was quite comfortable with. It’s no wonder then that this became so deeply ingrained in hip-hop -- a music that was, lest we forget, musically created by stitching together parts of other peoples’ creations.
Interestingly, though, the concept of a biter is still somewhat of a boogeyman in rap, even today. While quoting the occasional lyric from the past may be okay, the taking of someone else’s style or ideas without attribution (implied or otherwise) is still an evil.
This is what makes Wayne’s claim that “some say it’s biting, but I say it’s enlightening” so brazen. He quotes not just any lyric, but a RECENT one. And he doesn’t excuse it. It’s not a tribute to West (though he does say in the song that Kanye “is one of the brightest”), nor there for any particular thematic reason. He just says someone else’s lyric because he likes it. This is so far from the culture’s prohibition on biting that Weezy acknowledges in the lyric that most people will see it as biting. And for whatever combination of reasons -- faith in his own abilities, disregard for what he views as outdated norms, too much lean, whatever -- he simply doesn’t care. For one of the genre’s largest stars to simply disregard a norm was a watershed moment.
In fact, much of the same hostility directed at Jay Z for his homages came Wayne’s way as well. There was even a similar audio collage of his borrowings created. The difference -- perhaps befitting a generational change (Jay was born in ‘69, Wayne in ‘82) was that Jay’s borrowings were mostly from rappers either deceased (Biggie, Big L, Pac) or long past their prime (Kane, Slick Rick), with occasional nods to contemporaries he respected, and notably never from any artists who debuted after he began his career in the mid-90s.
Wayne’s quotes are much more of a hodge-podge. Having grown up in an era when quoting other rappers was the norm, Weezy takes from all sides. His earliest borrowings are from Pac and Biggie, but from there it’s a free-for-all. Veterans like Jadakiss and Jay Z, regionally famous contemporary Lil Boosie, groupmate Juvenile, even Aaliyah’s and Musiq Soulchild’s r&b stylings -- everything is fair game. Rhymes, catchphrases, whole verses -- it all becomes a part of Wayne’s output.
This was too much for many hip-hop fans, who reacted far more vehemently to Wayne’s quotations than to Jay’s. It seems that slowly a new consensus is starting to emerge from the ashes of the prohibition on biting. Paying homage to well-respected rappers, dead or alive, is now well within the mainstream. This serves as the modern version of the song-as-history-lesson -- a way of telling your listeners who your influences were, and in turn who they should be listening to if they want to discover more about hip-hop. But anything outside of that scope is still subject to being thought of as biting -- taking from contemporaries or little-known local artists and using lyrics from singers rather than rappers being the two major categories of offenses.
So Wayne’s borrowing, by today’s standards, is pretty extreme. But it was done by a big star on an album that sold millions, and thus the kids who grow up with Tha Carter III will find those lines a little harder to draw than the generation before.
Another by now well-established practice is quoting from...yourself. It is a relatively recent development for rappers to have careers long enough to make this a feasible option. But now that decade-plus long careers are becoming more and more common, artists looking back on their own work is happening at a ever-quickening clip.
Eminem, an artist who has been extremely judicious with quoting other rappers (Rakim and Slick Rick being the two notable exceptions), created, in his 2000 song “Stan” about an obsessive fan, a character who quotes and re-enacts scenes from songs on Em’s previous album. In the same year, Dr. Dre shouts out his 1988 classic “Fuck tha Police” on “Forgot About Dre.” Rakim took his hot opening line from 1987’s “I Know You Got Soul” and turned it into a hot song a decade later with “It’s Been A Long Time.”
Self-referentiality in pop music is hardly new, of course. The Beatles were famously saying, “I told you ‘bout Strawberry Fields/You know, the place where nothing is real” back in 1968. But that was more the druggy exception, rather than the myth-making rule, unlike what is quickly becoming the case with rap.
Whether it’s a way of making old fans feel comfortable, reminding haters of your accomplishments, or furthering your own narrative, self-quotation and reference is expanding rapidly, and seems unlikely to slow down anytime soon.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? WHAT’S IT ALL FOR?
As a listener, what does this mean to you? For one thing, hip-hop will forever be a expanding art form. The more you listen, the more you will hear the references that are embedded everywhere.
The majority of quotations by 90s artists are from Golden Age pioneers. A familiarity with at least the highlights of the work of Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, MC Lyte, Slick Rick, KRS-ONE, and their major contemporaries will help you catch much of the following decade-plus of references.
As mentioned above, rappers of the 90s were at first quoted mostly as a post-mortem tribute. Thus, familiarity with Biggie and Pac is essential. With Pac, mostly his best-known work is quoted. With Big, however, anything is fair game (especially when it comes to Jay Z’s use of his lyrics). Guest verses, freestyles, whatever -- it can come from anywhere.
After that, it became more or less open season. Just keep in mind what a given artist may have been listening to in his or her teen years for clues. Drake, for example, is heavy with the late 90s quotes (“Back That Azz Up” and the like), which makes sense for someone born in 1986. Black Thought (born 1971), by contrast, is much more likely to quote mid-80s KRS or drop into a flawless Big Daddy Kane or Kool G. Rap impression (as he does on “Boom!”)
But keep in mind that, despite all this, it is still not cool to be a biter, in any aspect of hip-hop -- rhymes, beats, style, even artwork. The Wu-Tang’s Raekwon and Ghostface Killah famously dissed Biggie on their “Shark Niggas (Biters)” for copying Nas’ Illmatic album cover for his Ready To Die (to be fair, a totally legit criticism). In addition to Shan, Craig G (going at Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor) and MC Lyte (at Antoinette) levelled devastating charges of being a “beat biter.” And, despite growing consensus, even Jay Z is not safe from attacks for using Biggie’s lyrics. In his early-aughts battle with Nas, one of the most effective disses of the whole back-and-forth was Nas saying, “How many of Biggie’s rhymes is gonna come out your fat lips?”
Much like any study of history informs you that societies are in a constant state of flux, so goes hip-hop and its attitude towards quoting other peoples’ work. No longer prohibited, not yet fully accepted, the practice is in the middle of a push-and-pull between the drive to do something never done before and the dawning realization that, as noted quoting criticizer Nas once pointed out, “No idea’s original.”
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