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Rebel Rebel: How David Bowie Influenced Hip-Hop Culture
Rebel Rebel: How David Bowie Influenced Hip-Hop Culture

Rebel Rebel: How David Bowie Influenced Hip-Hop Culture

Rebel Rebel: How David Bowie Influenced Hip-Hop Culture

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The iconic artist known to the world as David Bowie passed away this weekend. The erstwhile chameleon succumbed to cancer at age 69 but even though he is no longer among the world of the living, he will forever live in our hearts and minds. While he was alive, he influenced numerous fans, musicians, artists, performers and creatives in a wide variety of fields. One of those spaces in which David Bowie had as great an impact as any artist was/is rap music. Bowie’s early records were no doubt among ones that would be played by Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Pete "DJ" Jones on down to Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizard Theodore and Jazzy Jay.

As a youngster in the late '70s and the early '80s, it was a common occurrence to hear Bowie’s music either played on the radio or in the homes of friends and family I visited. By the time Bowie released “Let’s Dance” in 1983, he’d been a constant musical presence as opposed to some old rocker experiencing a resurgence.

As a young music fan, I was placed in a unique position; the youngest in a household where my siblings were eight and six years older than me. Upstairs, we had family friends whose sons were both DJs that were 11 and nine years older than I was. I’d often tag along behind my brother and sister when they went upstairs and I’d become privy to music that the average four-to-six year old would never encounter. Even though I was a fan of David Bowie’s music from being acquainted with it from an early age, I didn’t know what he meant to other kids and follow music fans outside my immediate circle until I got older myself rather than merely soaking up what other people said about Bowie’s back catalog and aping them to sound smart as a pre-teen.

My teenage years coincided with the end of the first Golden Era (1988-89), the transition years between them (1990-91) then the early stages of the second Golden Era (1992-94). As we all know, the first rap record to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1990 (Vanilla Ice - "Ice Ice Baby") sampled Queen’s collaboration with David Bowie but things went so much deeper than just sample sources. Bowie’s entire career and back catalog of albums was a better source to draw for creatives attempting to make timeless art in a youth culture and a fickle music industry that has sea changes every three to five years. But if you look at the songs David Bowie made that have been sampled in rap records as a gauge to determine his influence on the rap world at large? You are making a huge mistake akin to when Bruce Lee warned us about how if you focus on a finger pointing out to the Moon rather than the Moon itself you miss out on all that heavenly glory.

There is, of course, another way to measure Bowie's impact on hip-hop...

Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

The real lasting influence of David Bowie on musicians, MCs and creativity in rap was his fearlessness when it came to expression, his willingness to take chances and trust his gut, plus the fact he stayed ahead of the curve and constantly innovated rather than follow the herd. Much inspiration was drawn from David Bowie’s musical career, even if it isn’t plainly obvious or apparent by searching for his influence by what songs from his back catalog have been sampled by whom.

When De La Soul made a drastic change in both image/presentation and their sonic aesthetic between 1989’s 3 Feet High & Rising and 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead that was more of an indicator of David Bowie’s influence on rap music in my opinion than whether or not they sampled some song on “Young Americans” for the same project. Redman’s dark turn from 1992’s Whut? Thee Album to 1994’s Dare Iz A Darkside evokes the same feeling to me. Bowie would shed one iteration of himself and re-emerge with a brand new look, sound and more serious, darker tone to his next album. Considering how much the rap game had changed between 1992 and 1994, Redman had taken a gamble. Same thing could be said of Onyx between their debut Bacdafucup in 1993 which went Platinum versus 1995’s All We Got Iz Us which used a dystopian alternate future version of New York as its setting. I saw Bowie’s influence in that leap between two albums that you could never find inside the album credits searching for samples.

For the most part, David Bowie wasn’t the easiest artist to sample. When you scroll through pieces that recount Bowie songs used in rap recordings it will read a bunch of “Let’s Dance” or “Fame” or “Changes” flips rather than just speaking to emcees or producers alike about what David Bowie's career and music meant to them individually. When you look at any rap group or MC that made a stylistic or sonic leap of faith like Divine Styler did on his second LP Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light back in 1992 or when Common followed his gut creatively and went from 2000’s Like Water For Chocolate to 2002’s Electric Circus I see shades of when Bowie zigged when the world wanted him to zag. Just when you thought David Bowie might be through, he emerged again with something incredible. Just like when Common enlisted self-professed Bowie fan Kanye West’s help on 2005’s Be.

If you witness Kanye West’s fearlessness and his passion for expressing himself sans limitation or constraints and don’t draw any parallels to David Bowie who refused to be labeled, pigeonholed or narrowcasted in his career then quite frankly I don’t think you’ve been digging deep enough. It’s plain as day if you look at his progression from his first three album arc (College Dropout, Late Registration & Graduation) to his last one (808’s & Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy & Yeezus). The parallels are so uncanny in fact, that some have even seen signs of Yeezy's "coming" in Bowie LP artwork made before the baby Yeezus was even born.

Influence doesn’t always appear in album credits, but it does in one’s career. Rest in eternal peace, David Bowie.

Dart Adams is Boston-based creative who has written for theSTASHED, NPR and Producers I Know. You can follow his latest and greatest @Dart_Adams on Twitter.