There are covers of rap songs – usually made into a new style or genre of music or flipped into something a bit different than the original. The point is, you don’t find actual rappers covering the songs of other rappers; a departure from the rest of the musical world.
There are few cover songs in rap because these musicians have always gone by a “No Biting Allowed” rule to try and uphold originality and respect within the genre. Though there are exceptions to this rule, the point is to always respect other artists, have your unique flow & lyrics. Be inspired, don’t steal.
This may seem odd for people who don’t understand it. Why? Because in jazz music musicians play standards, which are written by other performers. You can be ridiculed if you’re a jazz performer and don’t know some of the basic standards. In classical music musicians and entire orchestras are expected to play the works of composers.
We all know that in most other popular genres (rock, pop, country…etc) musicians cover other musicians all the time. It’s seen as a sign of respect, an homage to the original. I’ve even published articles about covers. However, rap is very different, and I plan on explaining why.
What is The Rule?
“No Biting Allowed” is an often unspoken rule that came from the original hip-hop artists in the late 80s and 90s that has for many rappers continued to be part of their code even today. This rule has kept covering rap songs from being a popular practice. Rappers at the beginning of mainstreaming the genre made a conscious effort not to sound alike. Originality is valued over all other qualities in rap. And if you take from another rapper’s style, lyrics, or music – that is considered “biting”.
Adam Neely says that he found one article from years before he made his video Rap Cover Songs Don’t Exist (and here’s why) in 2020 about the subject. It was in The Village Voice and it explained the “No Biting Allowed” Rule of hip-hop. Even homaging other artists by tossing out small lines of their lyrics can be seen as disrespectful.
Each artist brings their flow, samples to songs for scratch, and finding chords and beats, and lyrics based on their outlook. If this happened all of the time, every hip-hop artist would be “keepin’ it real” as the catchphrase goes. It means to stay true to one’s self; to resist the temptation to be fake. Not acting like someone else or using their art and pretending it’s your own. You can’t do that if you’re using someone else’s lyrics. You rap your own experience.
This is about practiced skill, not just born talent. The work and effort behind it and the courage to get out there and pop off your rap are part of it. So, taking from someone else by doing a cover is considered stealing; taking an easy path. Anyone who does this will be looked down upon and called out for it.
So, to be relevant in this genre, which is founded on the standard of “realness” one should refine their sound, perfect what works for them, choose flows that were influential in their region, and create lyrics (freestyle or not) from their life or at least from a lifestyle and culture that they can relate to. Promoting a cover doesn’t work well in this ecosystem.
The only way the cover of a rap song has ever been accepted by the community and fans has been if some of the lyrics are adapted to personalize the track to reflect the cover artist’s story and personality while also giving credit for the rest of the song to the original artist. I share some examples of this further in the article.
Why is The Rule important?
Old school rappers and hip-hop artists see their creation as their art. They worked to get the right audio inspiration and samples, they worked to scratch or remix it just the way they wanted it. And someone asking for that sample is disrespectful in their eyes. Someone copying their music will be seen as biting. They feel if a musician doesn’t work at finding the right beats and the right lyrics, they aren’t going to have a unique sound. They also aren’t putting their own lives or emotions into it. They’re not “keepin’ it real”.
Although respect for originality, the idea of “keepin’ it real”, and staying fresh were the goals, they weren’t the only point to the “No Biting Allowed” rule. For people in the rough places, cyphering, freestyling, and rap was a means to money and a way out. As SYNTH GOD puts it:
“I’ve witnessed jaws getting tapped over this offense and even someone getting stabbed. It was that serious because for some of us the music was our way out of the streets we came from, so if you bit off another artist, DJ, or producer it was like stealing food out their baby’s mouths. In my native New York, the repercussions for biting often meant violence, and that fear of aggressive conflict in its way inspired creativity because no one sounded like back then which benefited the music greatly. Now the corporations own the culture and a bunch of circus clowns are all sounding the same and looking the same making the same depressing songs.”
Another reason “No Biting Allowed” was so important can be felt when you listen to modern rap and hip-hop. We’ve come to a point where a lot of this music, once unique to each artist, sounds the same. There is no artistry in recycling someone else’s beats and flow. The sound being created is no longer unique and the music is no longer adapting; it’s stagnant. One of the cornerstones of old hip-hop is originality, and a lot of older artists will point out how ironic it is that over time this is the very thing that hip-hop and rap have lost – thanks to no longer adhering to this one rule.
Originality used to be the goal of the hip-hop artist. DJ Scratch explains that much better than I ever could in this video from 247HHEXCL – “We Have Accepted Biting, and Biting Was Not Allowed in Hip-Hop”
DJ Scratch brings up a really good bunch of points about the generational differences in producing a rap or hip-hop album today versus in the 80s,90s, and 2000s. Asking a producer for their sample sources has caused a divide in the hip-hop community between the older and younger generations. Many younger rappers and music producers (the kind that simply produces their music and not the kind that manages musicians) don’t mind sharing their sample sources, or they draw their sources from large shared pools and software bins all from the same era.
Most no longer go to old vinyl or seek out music from different sources than what is convenient. This means that the music that is made from these sources often sounds the same. Finding your music, usually from other eras, can inspire musicians. By recycling the same sound samples or mass distributed samples rather than creating their own, artists lose inspiration.
Why Would Covering Rap and Hip-Hop Can Be Problematic?
Some performers disrespect other performers by copying them. There’s a fine line between paying tribute to a song/artist and ripping them off. A lot of fingers have been pointing at the artist known as Logic, lately. He’s even joked about his music before, naming his album after Quentin Tarintino, a movie producer, and director that openly copies methodology from older movies.
Cardi B, for instance, has publicly said people can dis her all they want, she’ll take all of the people’s favorite rappers “… and all their favorite flows and I’mma bite at that bitch.” The point is, either newer artists often don’t know the intricacies of this rule or they don’t care.
Worse than disrespect is the homage that is tone-deaf to what rappers do and who they are. There are tons of white performers trying to cover rap songs on YouTube. They may see it as an homage or a send-up, performed from a place of love for the original, but there is an important addition to the songs when you see them performed. Adam Neely points out, every cover of a rap song performed by white artists on YouTube that he saw, included the performer using an acoustic guitar.
Why is this important? Because not only can this be considered cultural appropriation, but the performer is actually “hiding” behind the guitar. Performing notes is far less daunting than performing rap freestyle. So seeing this kind of performance can be nauseating for rappers or fans of the genre.
He states it clearly –
“You have white artists taking black musicians’ music and then sanitizing it through irony for a white audience. But even more than that, it’s just not that risky to be using somebody else’s lyrics and an acoustic guitar and a general sense of irony as a shield to prevent yourself from feeling too vulnerable in front of your audience. That seems to g against the entire ethos of keepin’ it real.”
Even instrumental covers of rap songs, though they are creative and interesting to listen to, they take away from the vulnerability the actual rap artist shows and the strength they muster when performing using their voice and their lyrics.
Pride also plays a role here. Even the most famous rappers shy away from covering another rapper’s work for fear that the hit will drop and it’ll blow up simply because it contained someone else’s music. The only way around this is through the remix, wherein the cover becomes a type of competition. The cover artist uses the instrumental portions of another artist’s songs and then tries to outperform the original with their lyrics and breaks.
What Are Some Exceptions to The Rule?
A lot of famous, well-respected hip-hop artists have gotten away with biting. Even though it used to be looked down upon, and will still be called out at the time, it’s been there and continues to be there in hip-hop music. And as Kanye West has pointed out, “I think it’s all in how you bite.”
The paying homage aspect of rap is diverted towards the beats rapped upon rather than the lyrics. Taking lyrics from another artist’s song is straight-up plagiarism and will immediately be called out. Even if an artist has the right to do a cover, this can be seen as disrespectful if the covering artist hasn’t had a similar background or reason for using the lyrics. But, if an artist wants to pay homage they’ll usually rap over the existing beat as opposed to using the original lyrics. Directly quoting a well-known set of chords or a melody that is intended to be noticed is a direct homage.
Even using a regional “flow” from another place in your music used to be an issue and can still annoy artists. It can still be considered biting. However, very famous or infamous musicians have done so and gotten away with it. New York’s Notorious B.I.G. – Biggie Smalls used Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-n-Harmony Double Time Flow on Notorious Thugs in 1997. As a whole, flows are out there to be emulated and always have been. There’s even a resurgence of off-beat rapping that first emerged in the 90s. These days people hear flows being sampled by multiple artists, but they don’t go after those artists for it near as much as once happened.
One extreme example of a famous rapper getting away with biting is “Lodi Dodi” by Snoop Dogg versus “LaDiDaDi” by Slick Rick. Snoop didn’t hide it, he just added a signature baseline instead of beatboxing and changed some of the lyrics to make it about himself. It was still seen as biting, and he took some dis from it. However, the way he did it helped show certain respect going from Snoop Dogg to Slick Rick.
It eventually was accepted. Kwame covered “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar in 2018, and the idea behind it and the feel of it was homage done in the style of a send-up. He has a band with brass behind him in that performance which is different from the original. However, these “accepted” exceptions are few and far between.
Busta Rhymes spoke on biting at the BURN conference in 2016. He accepts that some old-school rappers did cover each other or borrow from each other. But the difference between that and what is happening now is clear: making sure respect is given and credit is given for a sound that is being covered is key. It would still be considered biting to old-school rappers, but it’s acceptable when respect and credit are given. Newer rappers aren’t as inclined to give credit or even respect.
But it’s the old-school musicians’ responsibility to influence the next generation. Let them do things their way, but at the same time, remind them of why this is a practical rule, not just admonish them for a rule they didn’t make.
People from the same family as the original rapper are always given a pass when it comes to covering their relative’s original parts. In Poland, there was a very famous rapper called Magik, who committed suicide in 2000. His son (who is also a rapper) has covered Magik’s songs at concerts. In the United States, when O.D.B died, Wu-Tang had Y.D.B rap in his father’s place.
So the inherited lyrics seem to be allowed without being considered biting. As you can see, a rapper who raps the lyrics of other rappers in their own family may very well understand the original more. They are connected to the original and therefore are “keepin’ it real”. Whereas anyone else, especially if they have a different background or culture wouldn’t be as acceptable.
It’s becoming more acceptable to cover (in an homage and send-up style) rap songs from deceased artists. We’ve seen several artists cover Tupac and Biggie over the years. Most of these have been remixed more than actual covers, however, if you look on YouTube and other social media outlets, releasing covers of rap songs is becoming more and more frequent, especially if the rapper happens to have already passed away.
Though rap covers aren’t frequent in the United States, where hip-hop culture and rap were made, the rest of the world seems to have very little to say about it. Similar rules of hip-hop may apply: inspiration is fine, paying homage is fine, but do not steal and originality is always more acceptable.
In Poland, it’s a completely acceptable practice. Rappers’ songs are even recreated or re-imagined into songs performed by folk artists. The feel of Polish rap is nice and smooth, though. Check out Tymek – Language Ciała ft. Big Scythe (KLUBOWE) prod. C0PIK or this is Sobel performing “To ja” (It’s me) – produced by Deemz from DefJam Poland. Sounds great!
Japanese hip-hop is influenced by old-school artists, but they allow for covering rap songs. In Japan, people reinterpret rap lyrics from American rap songs into the Japanese language and culture. “Say So” was performed by Rainych – original performer: Doja Cat for instance. There are Japanese rappers out there, but they don’t mind covers so long as respect and credit are given. A lot of these songs show American influence by the weaving of some American English into the lyrics. Some of my faves – “Blessing” by Yayoi Daimon featuring G. Yamazawa and “Set Me Free” by Maria
In Greece, rappers generally have well-known lyrics but also freestyle portions of their songs in live performances. And if the rapper isn’t available for a show, the song simply omits that portion. I’m not sure if this is following that “No Biting Allowed” rule per se, or if this is just a way of showing respect to the absent member of a group.
In rap and hip-hop, finding your unique sound and style is more respected than any other path. Keepin’ it real and being original is where it’s at. That should never change.
So, is there room in the future for true rap covers – not from someone hiding behind an instrument or someone doing a remix, but an honest-to-goodness cover? Perhaps. Logic came close with his “reimagining” of Wu-Tang Forever featuring the Wu-Tang Clan. Not sure I consider this a true cover, since the original artists were there.
Everything is influenced by something that came before it. Music is included in that. Rules like “No Biting Allowed” are good for reminding artists that inspiration is sacred, but stealing and copying something is never going to be respected. Fans and rappers have to accept it when other people cover their work, but people covering also need to pay respect and give credit. That’s how the world gets more rap covers.