In this week’s magazine we’re celebrating four decades of hip-hop with features including an interview with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, who reveals the story behind their ‘Walk This Way’ collaboration with Run-D.M.C. It’s one of the greatest – and earliest – hip-hop crossover tracks, but this kind of hybrid hasn’t always been so easy. Here are eight of the most famous, for better or worse, from Chuck D going thrash metal to Mel B anointing Missy Elliott. With regret, space constraints mean we’ll have to save Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat for another day.
“This is as heavy as anything we’ve ever done – I think this is going to blow people’s minds,” said Anthrax’s Scott Ian as he and Public Enemy’s Chuck D prepared to release their hepped-up reworking of PE’s ‘Bring The Noise’ in 1991. Anthrax and Public Enemy – what the hell do they have in common? “Rawness!” Chuck told NME, and it’s true there’s nothing refined about the newer version, a cattle prod up the arse of the original. There was always righteous ire, noise and bedlam but thrash-metallers Anthrax turned the screw.
Sometimes the fit makes a bit more sense, particularly when you’ve got a couple of artists on a collision course. Like Snoop schmoozing his way from G-Funk to somewhere sexed-up but more commercial, and Justin Timberlake kicking the dust over the last of his boyband roots and – with the help of the Neptunes – going for the unlikely mantle of coolest bro on the block. They met vaguely in the middle, their strange amalgam coming up with the sort of record Michael Jackson should’ve been making if he wasn’t so busy howling into the void.
Who can forget Elton John’s Dido impression at the 2001 Grammys, or his cynical exhumation of 2Pac in 2005 for UK No.1 single ‘Ghetto Gospel’? Sure, we’ve all tried to but something won’t let us. Yet there must be people out there who’ve decided nothing’s more likely to improve 21st century (or whenever 2Pac actually recorded his bit) hip-hop than Elton honking away at his piano in a neon kitchen lino suit. One day we’ll understand.
The other great hip-hop mystery of our age is why Kanye West loves Mr Hudson so much. The middling UK funkateer seems an odd choice for West’s patronage, but then again Kanye enjoys a bizarre notion. Like when he decided Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon was the new Lionel Richie. Still, the Mr Hudson thing worked. Even though Kanye’s autotuned beyond humanity’s reach, ‘Supernova’ is simply a great pop song, and their ensuing collaboration – ‘Paranoid’ on Kanye’s own ‘808s And Heartbreaks’ – is the same but faster, just like all good follow-ups should be.
It all started in the 90s when rappers started namechecking Phil Collins, then matters really came to a head with ‘Urban Renewal’, an album-long 2001 R&B/hip-hop tribute to the squat Genesis frontman, including covers by Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Lil’ Kim. Basically, hip-hop had a thing for MOR – and now they all love Coldplay. Chris Martin sang on Kanye’s ‘Homecoming’, then Jay Z brought some burly cool to Coldplay’s ‘Lost’ (adding a “+” too), and the extra bite doesn’t even sound incongruous. You might as well get used to it anyway.
Busta wasn’t so comical back in 1998, and Ozzy wasn’t so well-off, pre-Osbournes, so this wouldn’t have seemed quite so showbiz. It’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster, with a Black Sabbath sample overshadowed by Ozzy repurposing the lyrics, but in spirit Sabbath’s gonzo doom-rock was never that far away from apocalyptic hip-hop. ‘Yeezus’ would’ve sounded even better with a few more war pigs and witches at black masses.
More Chuck D infiltrating the leading alt-rock bands of the 80s/90s. “[Public Enemy] were aware of us,” Thurston Moore told City Limits back in 1990. “I think they were kind of curious about us… Chuck was around, Kim asked him if he’d come in, do the song, say those lines – and he elaborated on it a bit, and grooved along… He’s a really important person. We were honoured, really.” Implausible formations can come up with the goods, but it helps if you’re the coolest people in music. Speaking of which, um…
Not the Jackson Five classic – nor the Bananarama classic, come to that – Mel B and Missy’s ‘I Want You Back’ still went and trumped them both, going to No.1 in 1998 while Spicemania was still pretty tasty. Missy though, she was a new proposition. Sure, we’d had ‘Beep Me 911’ and ‘The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)’, but this was her first flirtation with the chart’s vertiginous heights and it’s way better than it should have been, with Scary Spice sounding for a few minutes like a viable post-band urban breakout star. So who do we thank for Missy Elliott – Timbaland or Mel B? This changes everything.