It’s 10 years today since 2Pac and Elton John went to #1 on the UK singles charts with the Eminem-produced Ghetto Gospel. Here’s a piece about trying to convince old talkback radio callers why some hip-hop can be just as good as any other genre. Ghetto Gospel was the example I gave:
I can acknowledge, the late night audience on Newstalk ZB is unlikely to be dominated by hip hop fans. That said, it still makes me laugh when I get talkback calls like Mike’s* where he mused that “rap was just missing the letter ‘c’ at the start.” Haven’t heard that before Mike!
Oblivious to the fact he needs new material, Mike then suggested rap and hip hop came about in the 80s because all good music stopped after 1979. As a result, an inferior genre was invented in this vacuum. Aside from missing the brilliance of many hip hop records, Mike’s thesis oddly ignores mammoth creative and critical 80s hit albums like Born In The USA, Thriller, Purple Rain, The Joshua Tree and Graceland.
Mike then dropped the bombshell that some hip hop songs aren’t even original. “Some of them are just rip-offs of old songs but none of the kids know it,” warned Mike, unperturbed by a list of white singers who sing nothing but cover songs and me asking what the difference was.
Never one to end a music discussion with, “Oh well, that’s your opinion and I respect that,” I used brief clips of the two songs below as just one example of how artistically meritorious hip hop can be (possibly the whitest possible way to say I really like a lot of hip hop). This isn’t ignoring the reality that Mai FM may not have ever played two good songs in a row, nor the increasingly pornographic nature of much hip hop. However, when you listen to these two songs: the 1971 original and the sampled modern day, 2005 hip hop hit, even if the genre isn’t your cup of tea, it’s simply not a matter of opinion whether a song like this is clever or not.
The song? Ghetto Gospel by the late 2Pac, featuring Elton John. So the story goes, Eminem – acting as a posthumous producer for 2Pac who’d been killed in 1996 – stumbled across the quite astounding early Elton John song Indian Sunset (from 1971). He’d already edited a version of Ghetto Gospel where he’d rearranged a few lines of 2Pac’s rapping, but somewhere along the way he decided it needed an additional chorus.
And this is where it gets seriously clever. Taking Elton’s six-minute epic of troubled historical Americana, Eminem copied, pasted and spliced no less than three different sections of one very long song into a punchy new chorus.
Say what you want about one of history’s most controversial rappers, but this is nothing short of genius.
The Indian Sunset cut and paste combined with a heartfelt 2Pac outtake almost 10 years after the star’s death, the song became a 21st century rarity: a hip hop song with no need for a warning label. With the kind of socially conscious lyrics that were once the genre’s hallmark, Ghetto Gospel rose all the way to the top of the UK, Irish, Czech and Australian charts while also making the top 5 in countries like Germany, Belgium, Austria and New Zealand. Oddly, the song missed the US top 40.
From the second verse, this is rap as passionate poetry:
Tell me do you see that old lady, ain’t it sad
Living out a bag, but she’s glad for the little things she has
And over there there’s a lady, crack got her crazy
Guess she’s given birth to a baby
I don’t trip and let it fade me, from outta’ the frying pan
We jump into another form of slavery
One of my favourite hip hop songs ever for the rhythm, the skill of the rap, the power of the lyrics (“Never forget that God hasn’t finished with me yet / I feel his hand on my brain / when I write rhymes I go blind and let the Lord do his thing,” is another great line) and the perfection of the sample, both Ghetto Gospel and Elton’s original Indian Sunset are below.
*Mike’s real name has been used to protect other people with different names.