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Saturday, December 03, 2022

Hip-hop cover songs need something special to stand out

Last week, Mos Def released a series of videos via FACT Magazine of him covering various MF Doom songs. With each successive video, a hooded figure revealed more and more of his face until the final video, when he finally unmasks himself as the Grammy-nominated emcee. The mask imagery is a clear homage to MF Doom’s iconic mask that few have seen him without. More of a tribute than a proper cover, Mos Def rapped several of MF Doom’s songs, using the same lyrics and the original beats.

There was something uncanny about the performances. For brief moments, Mos Def’s voice would almost perfectly mimic MF Doom’s original vocals, making the covers sound hybrid, with the two rapper’s voices crossfading back and forth. There’s no doubt that this is a heartwarming tribute to one of the most iconic underground emcee’s around, but is it the right kind of tribute? Is there enough artistic value here that it would be possible to make hip-hop covers feasible on a larger scale?

There’s already a plethora of options available for artists who want to pay homage to the greats. There’s remixes, reworks, bootlegs and every other word you’ve seen after song titles on SoundCloud. iLoveMakonnen only found out the morning after Drake’s “Tuesday” verse dropped that his song had been remixed (there’s an amazing video of his first reaction on Youube). Maybe I’m being too picky, but it seems lazy to swap out vocals on a track when there are so many other options to pay respects to a song. MF Doom’s raspy and lackadaisical flow is completely absent from Mos Def’s cover. So if the beats are the same and the lyrics are the same and the voice is slightly worse, what does that make the cover?

Not good. One of the most important aspects of a hip-hop songs is the vocals. A good emcee custom-develops their tone for every individual song. Replacing those vocals threatens the integrity of the song. Rock covers are a tad different because each instrument lends its own separate interpretation of the song. Beats are static, and so are lyrics, which create two huge barriers for creativity.

If Mos Def had a live band playing the beats with him, that would have been something to write home about. Chance The Rapper made handy work of the Arthur theme song with his band The Social Experiment and I think there would be a similar effect here. Live instrumentation in hip-hop is critically underrated and could open the door for so many possibilities. Copy-and-pasting a beat in comparison just seems sloppy.

My dream scenario would be this: A video of a crowded concert where the camera pans from the fans to Mos Def himself. After rapping over DJ’d beats all concert, he makes a simple up gesture with his hand. The Roots rise up from the floor of the stage, with Questlove waving his hand like the British queen does. They then proceed to burst into a full-band cover of “All Caps” while the audience tries to pick up the burnt remains of their faces that just melted off. Now that is the cover MF Doom deserves.

Overall, it was a nice gesture for Mos Def to show respect to MF Doom with these videos. But for a true homage, it would have been nice to put some more effort into truly capturing the atmosphere of the song. MF Doom is one of a kind and it’s going to take a one of a kind cover to do any of his songs justice.

How do you think MC Doom should have covered the song? What is your favorite hip-hop cover? Let Jake know at jakey.witz@gmail.com.

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