Within music, few artists are universally sacred. To some, Bob Dylan’s voice is intolerable, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is overwrought and Patti Smith’s Horses is pretentious caterwauling. But for every venerated act that’s enriched popular culture, no one has remained as monolithic as The Beatles. Ever since Decca infamously passed on them in 1962, The Fab Four experienced a well-documented rise to international superstardom that has never really ceased.
A harmonious marriage between songwriting acumen and marketability, we may have escaped the mass hysteria that propagated ’60s Beatlemania, but their legacy is viewed as largely beyond reproach. Cited as the year-zero for countless genres, this widespread canonization means that some new body-art has caused an uproar in recent weeks.
Debated on every platform from Twitter to Jake Paul’s podcast, Drake’s decision to commemorate smashing another chart record by implanting himself into the iconic Abbey Road scene mutated into a hot-button issue. Consequently, Drizzy – who freely admits to not knowing “what permanent is” – has been decried for emblazoning the fact that he has “more slaps than The Beatles” on his skin. Unacknowledged by Paul and Ringo, Drake’s apparent besmirching of their legacy is just the latest incident in the checkered and, sometimes, fractious relationship between hip-hop and the Fab Four.
Where musicologists normally hasten to trace a genre’s lineage back to the band, hip-hop’s well-established roots in the Bronx means that it’s normally omitted from this treatment and, in all likelihood, any similarities between the formless sound collage of Revolver’s landmark track “Tomorrow Never Knows” and hip-hop’s embryonic approach to sampling are a simple case of parallel thinking. That said, the widespread ubiquity of The Beatles’ music ensured that it was only a matter of time until music’s most enterprising community transfigured those hallowed records.
“We’ll take the wackest song, and make it better!” proclaimed KRS-ONE on Boogie Down Productions’ “Criminal Minded,” and whether through crate digging or simple cultural osmosis, their use of “Hey Jude” opened the floodgates for assimilating The Beatles into hip-hop. A veritable student of music, Rick Rubin was instrumental in bringing the prototypical sound of New York’s projects to the masses. Citing 1967’s The White Album as his favourite record, a 2003 interview with Rolling Stone revealed that the Def Jam co-founder directly applied The Beatles’ recipe for accessibility to the label’s early material:
“At the point we got involved in hip-hop, a song would be between six and nine minutes long, and it would be more like a Jamaican toasting record…. We picked up strong-songwriting from listening to the Beatles and applied it to this new form of music.”
Come 1989, Rubin’s fandom reached its logical conclusion on Beastie Boys’ “Sounds Of Science.” An inventive hodgepodge of “The End,” “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” and “Back in the USSR,” this invigorating track was the antidote to 2 Live Crew’s, ill-fated “Day Tripper”-aping “Fraternity Record” from February of that year. Then in 1990, the first shot would be fired across the bow after George Harrison took umbrage with the insurgent genre, stating “all this rap rubbish, it’s just computerized rot.” Fresh from sampling the group on “Who Stole the Soul?” Chuck D took this remark from their tertiary songwriter in stride:
“I would take it to heart if it was Lennon or McCartney, but being that it’s only George Harrison, I really don’t care… His talents are equivalent to a backup dancer.”
Despite this skirmish, Chuck has publicly lavished praise on The Fab Four just as George’s son Dhani became an honorary member of the Wu Tang Clan on 8 Diagrams’ “The Heart Gently Weeps.” Just as RZA claimed Dhani to be their “biggest fan in the world,” a slew of hip-hop’s more agile minds have continually gone back to The Beatles for inspiration. Capable of fashioning his own psychedelic tableaus, the late Mac Miller dipped into “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” for “Loud,” while The Roots, Naughty By Nature, and even MF DOOM have made liberal use of the band’s treasured works. Made clear for all to see on “White Ferrari” and “Siegfried,” the euphoric sheen of The Fab Four hangs heavy over Frank Ocean’s Blonde. Extracted from a May 2017 edition of his Beats1 show, the relatively stoic host declared that “I want to thank The Beatles for almost single-handedly getting me out of writer’s block.”
A measuring stick of success that plays into hip-hop/R&B’s inherently aspirational psyche, Ocean is one of many artists that has either sought refuge in or taken cues from the group’s fearlessness. Where Rick Ross wishes to be remembered “like John Lennon,” many creative firebrands use them as a benchmark for longevity and exploration. Inspired by their tendency to “go against the grain,” A$AP Rocky enlisted their eclecticism as a template for 2015’s At.Long.Last.A$AP and commended their ability to “do pop shit” then “left-field shit” within one cohesive project. On the subject of the avant-garde, Rocky’s sentiments are echoed by Death Grips’ Zach Hill – who would sample “Blue Jay Way” on “Double Helix” – during a 2012 interview with The Source:
“The way they did their shit and how they went about making their music through stages of development… We talk about The Beatles all the time, how we want to be The Beatles of Rap. I say that without arrogance, it’s just something to aspire to.”
Although “Reminder” saw Hov assert that “only The Beatles, nobody ahead of me,” the promotional gauntlet for 808s & Heartbreak left Kanye West in unfamiliarly capitulatory voice when discussing attempts to emulate their success:
“It is impossible to make an album better than the Beatles, unless you’ve got 30 years,” he informed MTV. “Beatles records — people have known them their whole lives … Hopefully five years from now, people still play ‘Love Lockdown.'” Awed by their accolades, little did Kanye know that he’d form a tenuous partnership with Paul McCartney in the not-too-distant future. Receptive to its prominence but reticent about its practices, Macca’s outlook on hip-hop was best encapsulated during a 2016 interview with Time. “I listen to it for, you could call it, education,” he said. “I went to see JAY-Z and Kanye when they toured. I’ve seen Drake live. It’s the music of now.”
Emanating from a place of intrigue rather than admiration, Paul’s liaisons with Kanye came in 2015 and yielded three tracks – “All Day,” “Only One,” and the Rihanna-aided guitar ballad “FourFiveSeconds.” Successful and artistically diverse, the experiment seemed rewarding for all parties. But as it turns out, Paul was suppressing some misgivings about how his melody for “All Day” had been contemporized:
“It’s a great record, sonically it’s brilliant, but quite a few people said, ‘You can’t be connected with this, there’s, like, 40 N-words.'”
Three years on from its release, his trepidation about the end product explained why he parried Kanye’s attempts to produce his 2018 record Egypt Station, as “I kind of knew what direction I wanted to go in. And I knew that would be very different from where Kanye would go with it.”
Denied access to a Tyga afterparty and erroneously identified as a Kanye protégé by some fans, McCartney and the hip-hop community have proven to be largely incongruent with each other. Even when the aging icon partook in Rae Srremurd’s mannequin challenge and proclaimed himself to “love those Black Beatles,” a faint sense of uneasiness persisted. Anchored by a desire to surpass everything that came before it, the disconnect between the two factions arises from the fact The Beatles embody music’s status quo, while hip-hop has always been abolitionist in nature. Although they can be an invaluable source of inspiration, there is comfort in knowing that today’s artists are free to draw from or discard The Beatles’ contributions to music whenever they see fit.