Music and Literature: Books That Inspired Rap and Hip-Hop
We’ve already covered the major connections between books and music—but that list is not limited to the world of rock. Literature plays just as big a role in the hip-hop hits of your adolescence, continuing on into today’s rhymes. For instance, did you know that Mike G’s song “King” makes over 30 Stephen King references? Though the list goes on, here are 10 of our favorite rap and hip-hop songs with a bookish muse. (You can also, as Busta Rhymes would say, nod your motherf---in’ head along to our Spotify playlist.)
“In Distress,” A$AP Rocky
Veronica Roth’s Divergent takes place in a future dystopian Chicago where children are separated into factions based on their skills. A$AP Rocky’s song “In Distress”, written for the soundtrack of the film adaptation, describes the instability of a society that is so dependant on segregation. Referring to those children who don’t fit into one faction, A$AP pins himself as a Divergent, “I’m something out this world/nothing like the rest.” This makes us even more excited for the rest of the Divergent soundtrack, which features other artists like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper.
“Dumb It Down,” Lupe Fiasco
“I’m brainless, which means I’m headless. Like Ichabod Crane is...” Of course, in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane never loses his head. In “Dumb It Down,” however, Lupe was just looking to evoke the iconic imagery of the headless horseman.
On the whole, the song has a literary message: Lupe addresses the people who tell him his lyrics are too smart and the words are too big. He refuses to dumb down his lyrics to gain fame and fortune; he will not try to appeal to the Everyman. What he wants to do is bring up the Everyman and encourage him to want more. Instead of bragging about his cars and street cred, Lupe discusses more intelligent things.
“Animal in Man,” Dead Prez
Through a straight retelling of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Dead Prez lays the classic story bare, setting the scene with lines like “Under the leadership of Hannibal, the fattest pig in the pack.” But rather than just use the story, Dead Prez embodies the book’s spirit. Their chorus “This is the animal in man, this is the animal in you” reveals how fine the line between man and beast is.
“King,” Mike G
Mike G loves Stephen King. You can hear it in every line of his song “King,” each carrying a King title or reference. Lines like “Wait til the sun goes down and have a showdown out in Salem’s Lot / Still workin’ the Night Shift, I am the Doorway” and “Welcome to my Creep Show / Stay out my Secret Garden, I got a Wolf named Cujo”—it’s amazing how Mike G makes it work. While he does “aspire to think like [Stephen King] does,” he really made the song to test the people who pretend to know King when they actually don’t.
“Do 4 Love,” 2Pac
Walter Scott’s poem Marmion mourns a love gone wrong: Lord Marmion tries to take the woman he wants away from her fiancé through dishonest means, and it doesn’t end well. Tupac’s song “Do 4 Love” also tells the story of a love that gets ruined through lying. To draw a connection between the two tragic loves, Tupac raps, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when we conspire to conceive,” paraphrasing one of the poem’s most famous lines.
“Willie Burke Sherwood,” Killer Mike
Growing up wasn’t easy for Killer Mike, in a rough neighborhood and not being naturally tough like the other boys. To get through it, he took a page out of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, which tells the story of a group of boys stranded on an island. In his song “Willie Burke Sherwood,” he draws comparisons between the streets and the island on which the boys are stranded. He knew that to survive on the streets he needed to be less like Simon and Piggy, who are killed for not being violent and wild, and more like the primal Jack. Not easy for a guy “addicted to literature.”
“Feeling Special,” Mykki Blanco
Even in the free spirit world of music it can be difficult to be different. No one knows that better than transgender rapper Mykki Blanco. Refusing to be defined by being trans, she puts herself out there with extreme confidence. She wants to take you on the ride with her. In “Feeling Special,” she is the White Rabbit from Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, enticing you to “follow me down that rabbit hole” into Wonderland.
“Thieves in the Night,” Black Star
“I asked him why we follow the law of the bluest eye…” Toni Morrison wrote her novel The Bluest Eye to demonstrate a problematic part of African American culture she thought was missing from literature: Growing up, she observed that black women thought they were ugly if they didn’t look white. The book inspired Black Star, a rap duo made up of Mos Def and Talib Kweli, to write the song “Thieves in the Night.” When Kweli read The Bluest Eye in high school, he was moved by it. He writes in the album’s liner notes that it "struck me as one of the truest critiques of our society, and I read that in high school when I was 15 years old. I think it is especially true in the world of hip-hop, because we get blinded by these illusions."
“Ol’ Evil Eye,” Insane Clown Posse
The kings of horror-rap take on king of horror Edgar Allan Poe in their song “Ol’ Evil Eye.” Giving writing credit to Poe for the lyrics, the group does an interpretation of his story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a particularly gruesome murder tale. Instead of living in the house of the old man with the evil eye, however, ICP knocks on his door to sell him cookies. In the end, they murder the old man: “His eye will trouble me no longer / His eye will trouble me no longer."
“100% Dundee,” The Roots
Aside from calling their album Things Fall Apart, The Roots continue to make reference to Chinua Achebe’s novel on colonialism with “100% Dundee.” In the song, they compare themselves to the author in an impressive rhyme: “Plus the Black Thought em-cey, professional-lay / Push pen to paper like Chinua Achebe.”
“100$ Bill,” Jay-Z
Written for the Great Gatsby movie adaptation soundtrack, Jay-Z’s “100$ Bill” has Jay Gatsby written all over it. He’s got the lavish lifestyle and partying down in the first line when he raps, “Benjamin Franklins filled, fold it just for the thrill / Go numb until I can’t feel, or might pop this pill.” With the 1920s references and the dialogue from the film, it isn’t hard to see the inspiration.
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