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Since the explosive arrival of MTV in 1981, music videos have played a central role in defining countless musical careers. Not only do they offer an imaginative representation of the meaning lurking behind a song, they also give artists the opportunity to express themselves in an entirely new medium (supported by a crew of directors, stage hands, gaffers, and on-screen talent who bring the vision to life). Cars have proven to be a big part of that expression, serving as a visual cue to flex luxurious lifestyles, pointing to niche cultures that build up around automobiles, or simply as a way of indulging a passion for vintage vehicles. More than just a prop, cars communicate knowledge, wealth, geography, and heritage, and they do so nowhere more forcefully than in hip-hop. If you drive a vintage Chevy Impala, you’re likely tied to the West Coast low-rider scene, while if you’ve customized a 1990 Lincoln Town Car with “swangas,” you’re definitely from Houston.

In the timeline that follows, we ride the intersection between auto and audiovisual; celebrating the artists whose aesthetic embrace of car culture took them off the lot into the annals of pop culture and hip-hop history.

Eric B. & Rakim, “I Ain’t No Joke” (1987) Car: Mercedes-Benz 190E Widebody

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The German car maker Mercedes-Benz is an icon in hip-hop and a brand that has made a visible stamp on the culture. No Benz defines 1980s New York hip-hop quite like the 190E. The car is bulky and imposing, with aggressive widebody custom kits that chime with the hyper-masculine ideals and aesthetics that underpinned hip-hop style at the time. Rakim, of Eric B. & Rakim, can lay claim to catalyzing the automobile’s stylistic development in hip-hop with his personal mayonnaise-colored 190E as featured in the 1987 music video for “I Ain’t No Joke.” In 2017, Nas bought his own version, explaining that the Benz “personified everything it meant to be rich...in car, culture, style, life, and spirit.”

Prince, “Sexy M.F.” (1992) Car: 1991 BMW 850i E31

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You might think of “Little Red Corvette” when you imagine Prince and cars, but the singer’s real showstopper was the custom-built, Dakar Yellow BMW in his song “Sexy M.F.” Unpretentious yet supremely elegant, the 850 was one of the most subtle super-GTs, with a remarkable V12 engine. The German whip featured front and center in the video, with the flip-up headlights and custom paint job reflecting Prince’s eccentric personality. Almost three decades later, Drake and Future paid homage to this iconic Prince visual in the “Way 2 Sexy” music video, which featured a similar BMW 8 E31.

Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, “Let Me Ride” (1993) Car: 1964 Chevrolet Impala

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Few cars are more synonymous with West Coast hip-hop style than the 1964 Chevrolet Impala. While these custom lowriders were regular features in music videos by rappers like Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg, they are born from Southern California’s Chicano culture. “Let Me Ride,” along with Eazy-E’s “Real Muthaphuckkin G’s” and Ice-T’s “G-Style,” demonstrate how the “six-four,” in particular the modified version with extravagant paint jobs and hydraulic kits, became a staple of hip-hop music videos in 1993 and rode its evolution into the future.

Jamiroquai, “Cosmic Girl” (1996) Cars: 1987 Ferrari F40, 1994 Ferrari F355 Berlinetta, 1994 Lamborghini Diablo SE30

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When it comes to luxury sports cars, nothing screams ’90s nostalgia quite like a Lamborghini Diablo. The limited-edition supercar, released in 1993, is the epitome of Italian cool. Perhaps that’s why it became a grail for British singer and supercar collector Jay Kay of Jamiroquai, who purchased one of his own during this era. Fans of the group will remember the supercar racing down a mountain with Jay Kay at the wheel in the video for the band’s 1996 hit “Cosmic Girl.” It’s said that two of the sports cars were used in the video, as one was written off in an accident during filming.

Big Tymers, “#1 Stunna” (2000) Cars: 1995 Chevrolet Impala SS, 1997 Dodge Viper RT/10, 1998 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, 1999 Bentley Arnage, 1999 Cadillac Escalade, 1999 Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph, 2000 BMW X5 E53, 2000 Ford Excursion, 2000 Jaguar S-Type X200, 2000 Lamborghini Diablo VT Roadster, 2000 Lincoln LS, 2000 Mercedes-Benz CL, 2000 Plymouth Prowler, 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser, Hummer

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“N**** can’t out-stunt me when it come to these fuckin’ cars,” announces Birdman in the intro to Big Tymers’ “#1 Stunna.” And he isn’t wrong. One of rap’s most prolific millionaires, Birdman aka “Baby” set the standard for ballin’ — which, of course, includes luxury cars. During the late ’90s and early ’00s, few could match the fleet of whips Cash Money had at its disposal. Although the label was known for its exotic imports — the Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Rolls-Royces — the crew were also conscious of the need for a broad appeal, including entry-level wheels and mass market vehicles that spoke to a more relatable lifestyle in their music videos. “#1 Stunna” typifies the approach with affordable options like the Dodge Viper, Ford Excursion, and the Chrysler PT Cruiser.

Ludacris, “Act a Fool” (2003) Cars: 1991 Acura NSX, 1993 Toyota Supra MkIV, 1994 Mazda RX-7, 1997 Lamborghini Diablo VT Roadster, 1999 Nissan Skyline GT-R R34, 2000 Honda S2000, 2001 Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder 3G, 2002 Dodge Ram, 2002 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VII, 2003 Hummer H2

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When The Fast and the Furious first premiered all the way back in 2001, it helped popularize Japanese auto imports and lit a fire under the engine-tuning scene in the US. By the time the franchise’s second movie, 2 Fast 2 Furious, was released in 2003, fans were already hotly anticipating a new wave of custom builds. “Act a Fool,” Ludacris’ official single for the film, arrived with a video that featured all the JDM imports seen in the movie, including the 1999 Nissan Skyline GT-R R34, the 2000 Honda S2000, and the 2002 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VII.

Mike Jones, Slim Thug, and Paul Wall, “Still Tippin’” (2005) Cars: 1982 Buick Riviera, 1990 Lincoln Town Car, 1993 Cadillac Fleetwood, 1995 Chevrolet Impala SS, 2003 Cadillac Escalade ESV, 2003 Ford Expedition, 2005 Buick Park Avenue

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Today, DJ Screw’s chopped and screwed slow-motion beats are recognized worldwide, but in 2004, the Houston sound was exclusive to the region. When Mike Jones released “Still Tippin’,” he didn’t just introduce the world to a new sound but to a whole culture of gripping grain, sipping purp, and riding dirty. The video focused on H-Town’s love of “slabs,” a distinct style of car culture known for its candy paint, custom sound systems, and “swangas,” otherwise known as elbows: 30-spoke wire rims that protrude outward from the car. Hip-hop has played a crucial part in putting slabs on the map, with artists like Bun B, Chamillionaire, Z-Ro, Mike Jones, Slim Thug, and Paul Wall all representing the scene with their music and visuals.

JAY-Z, “Show Me What You Got” (2006) Cars: 2005 Ferrari F430 Spider, Pagani Zonda Roadster

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JAY-Z has a track record for big budget music videos, so when it came time to perform “Show Me What You Got,” he knew he had to take it to the next level. With Monte Carlo as a backdrop, director F. Gary Gray’s visuals took inspiration from the city’s motorsport racing history. Rather than F1 race cars, we got two of the era’s most elite sports cars: an ultra-rare Pagani Zonda Roadster and a Ferrari F430 Spider. Jigga fans might recall a similar set-up in the video for the 1998 classic “Money Ain’t a Thang” with Jermaine Dupri. But rather than using beautiful women as drivers, “Show Me What You Got” recruits professional IndyCar driver Danica Patrick and NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. to chauffeur the cars.

Gorillaz, “Stylo” (2010) Cars: 1968 Chevrolet El Camino, 1969 Chevrolet Camaro

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Proto-metaverse pop stars Gorillaz channeled pure American muscle car energy in the Dukes of Hazzard–inspired video for their 2010 hit “Stylo.” Filmed in Calico, California, the visual features animated band members Murdoc, 2-D, and Cyborg Noodle speeding along in a battered, old, bullet-ridden 1969 Chevrolet Camaro, chased by none other than Bruce Willis in a 1968 Chevrolet El Camino. To capture the high-octane chase, the production team hired a Mercedes-Benz SUV camera vehicle for filming the driving tracking shots, and trailer rigs for in-car camera scenes. It’s not just that cars came to complement the song — they inspired it. “Stylo” took its name from the first-generation 1969 Chevy Camaro featured in the video.

JAY-Z and Ye, “Otis” (2011) Car: Maybach 57

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As long-time collaborators, JAY-Z and Ye deepened their working relationship in 2011 with the release of their debut studio album, Watch the Throne. One of the standout visuals made to accompany the collaboration was the Spike Jonze–directed video for “Otis,” which featured a $400,000 Maybach being destroyed. Well, not exactly. The opening scene features mechanics going at the luxury vehicle with a blowtorch and reciprocating saw, transforming it into a Frankenstein muscle car ready for the hostile, desertified terrain in Mad Max. Whether you regard it as an act of performance art, or simply sophisticated ignorance, JAY and Ye clearly felt the visual appeal of the car would only be enhanced if the layers of elitism were, quite literally, stripped away.

Kavinsky, “ProtoVision” (2012) Cars: 1978 Ford Mustang II, 1989 Ferrari Testarossa

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The music video for Kavinsky’s 2012 single “ProtoVision” perfectly captures the track’s retro mania with the producer driving a throbbing red Ferrari Testarossa while a detective in a beige Ford Mustang II gives chase through an eerily quiet Downtown Los Angeles. The Testarossa, which is the artist’s personal car, played a larger part in his discography, having appeared in the video for his debut single, “Testarossa Autodrive,” as well as on the cover for his album OutRun.

M.I.A., “Bad Girls” (2012) Cars: 1965 Peugeot 404 Break, Alfa Romeo 156, BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class

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British rapper M.I.A. proved you don’t need luxury whips to make a statement, instead offering a fascinating look at the Saudi culture of “sidewall skiing.” Working together with director Romain Gavras, “Bad Girls” captures daredevil drivers performing the perilous balancing act of maneuvering with only their driver-side wheels. Filmed in Morocco, the video also championed theWomen2Drive movement, a campaign that advocated for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia. (​​The Saudi monarchy lifted the long-term ban on women driving in 2018.)

Frank Ocean, “Nikes” (2016) Cars: Many, including an Aston Martin DBR9, Audi R8 LMP, BMW M3 E30, McLaren F1, and McLaren F1 GTR

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It’s well known that Frank Ocean is a diehard petrolhead, but few realized the extent of his obsession until the video for “Nikes” dropped in 2016. Never before had the world witnessed a pop star dive so deep into car culture, with a particular affection for high-performance race cars steeped in motorsport history. According to the Frank Ocean–chronicling blog Blonded, the majority of the cars featured in the video, including two McLaren F1 GTRs (one of which is a “Longtail”), an Audi R8 LMP, and an Aston Martin DBR9, were sourced from racing driver Roald Goethe’s garage and had previously been raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Ye, “Follow God” (2019) Car: SHERP ATV

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When Ye moved into his $14 million ranch in Wyoming, it made sense that he would need an all-terrain vehicle to bounce around the 3,888-acre property. What fans weren’t expecting was a fleet of monstrous SHERP ATVs. ⁣Ye took the opportunity to show off the four-wheeler in the video for “Follow God,” where he carted around his father in the snow. The vehicle would later feature in Playboi Carti’s “M3tamorphosis” video with Kid Cudi, and more recently Ye took one through a McDonald’s drive-thru for the fast food chain’s Super Bowl commercial.

Tyler, the Creator, “LEMONHEAD” (2021) Cars: 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, BMW M3 E30, Fiat 131 Abarth Rally, Lancia Delta HF, McLaren 675LT, Rolls-Royce Cullinan

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Tyler, the Creator is well known for his love of cars, and his latest album, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, celebrates his impressive collection. Tyler included ’80s and ’90s Italian rally cars in the initial videos, like the candy floss pink Fiat 131 Abarth that debuted in the “SIDE STREET” teaser, and the Geneva Blue Lancia Delta HF Integrale, which showed up with vintage travel trunks strapped to the roof in the “WUSYANAME” video. But it’s in “LEMONHEAD” that we get to see the complete fleet, together with additions like his vintage Rolls-Royce Wraith and a newer Cullinan.

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