An Attempt to Differentiate Between Biting and Influence in Hip Hop Music:
The line between biters, and influenced artists is a thin one, that is mostly dependent on a given song’s content.
There are legendary artists like Rakim, and Biggie, whose influence almost necessitated biting – because the elements they brought to the table could only push the culture forward. Once an artist revolutionizes a form in some way, the difference between biters and influenced artists comes down to whether or not a given artist mistakes form with function.
The best MCs develop new techniques, as a way to express experiences that current methods are unsuccessfully expressing. A good example is Lauryn Hill. Her iconic album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, combined elements of rapping and singing. When Ms. Hill wanted to express the intricacies of her emotion, she used singing to do that because she knew that would be the best way to sonically connect her audience – to her personal emotion.
On the flip side, Ms. Hill would use rapping to express more concrete and thematic elements, to portray things that could be explained and parsed through. There are a lot of crossovers in the album, due to the fact that different moments within each song, would call for either of the two forms (rapping or singing), to correctly express what she wanted an audience to process. She would use the form as a way to express specific functions.
The difference is easier to explain when you split rapping and singing; but when it really comes down to the different flows in Hip-Hop, things become muddled. However, I think the same principles apply.
Rakim wanted to rap in a way that would better express his thoughts, so (in understated, basic terms) he started rapping in a way that interconnected every line – through multi-syllabic rhyme patterns, and internal rhyming. This was a way to audibly express the transient nature of his train of thought, in a way that didn’t seem forced or limited.
This was a revolutionary approach to rap itself, and most rappers tried to apply it to their own music. I imagine that those who bit Rakim, were people who tried to copy everything about him – from the way he rapped, to what he rapped about – because they did not understand that what made his style effective. Rakim was using a certain method as a way to express his thoughts. He was using a new form to serve a function.
The biters could only see the form.
The artists who were influenced by Rakim, on the other hand, recognized that his form served a certain function, and instead of directly copying him, they used the form as a way to express their own unique thoughts and feelings.
Nas, Jay-Z, Biggie, The Wu-Tang Clan, etc., all took the form and added their own personal touches to it to serve their own specific functions.
There was a lot of borrowing, as the Hip-Hop culture developed and changed, (which Nas made clear in Last Real Nigga Alive), but what separated the best artists from the pile of would-be’s, were those who had clear goals in mind, and were searching for certain methods to express them.
When a great artist would utilize a certain flow or style used by another artist, it was the quality of their content that determined ultimately whether it would be taken by the people as biting or as influence.
For example; Eminem’s Columbine sequence in “I’m Back”, which utilized a rhyme/line pattern from Rakim’s “My Melody”.
Listen Here: I’m Back – Eminem
Though Eminem essentially copied the way Rakim rapped, the actual content of Eminem’s sequence was completely different from Rakim’s song, which made it a homage instead of a bite.
Listen Here: My Melody -Eric B. & Rakim
It is also obvious that it was only a small part of the song; whereas if Eminem had just replaced every word that Rakim used in “My Melody” and rapped it in Rakim’s cadence, it would’ve been considered biting, because Eminem would have been mistaking the form for function. Even if Eminem’s ideas were different, it would still be clear that he was copying Rakim.
That’s where it gets into subjective, emotional content. Artists who add their own personal touches, quirks, attitudes, and interests to established forms; help create a sense of separation from the artists that preceded them.
As an audience, we can pick up on those things, and notice when they’re being copied. Many times it’s subconscious. We will just recognize that something is being taken, and misused. Other times, we recognize when a songs messages are harmful or negative in some way, or uninteresting and simple in comparison to more accomplished artists.
The deeper you go in, the harder it is to clear up the differentiation. However, we uncontrollably pick up on it in those small, subtle ways.
Ultimately, I think it really comes down to which artists are using pre-existing forms, to serve unique functions – that are informed by interesting and new content – and those who are blatantly copying content, because they mistakenly believe that that’s how you gain success.
An example of modern-day biting would be Logic’s verses (3 through 5) on the song “Under Pressure”.
Read Lyrics & Annotations on Rap Genius here:
The song is a meditative account, that uses 1 verse each – to describe the viewpoint of a man and a woman (Logic’s sister and father); and then Logic himself – responding to the both of them.
In the song, Logic uses the same flow, as well as the same concept, that Kendrick Lamar used in his song “Sing About Me”, which itself, is a meditative account that uses 1 verse each to describe the viewpoints of both a man and a woman that Kendrick knew in Compton, followed by a verse about Kendrick himself responding to the both of them.
Read Lyrics & Annotations on Rap Genius here:
Kendrick uses an affectless, but fast flow to give off a sense of the guarded emotion that’s expressed by his character’s, as a way to deal with the pain that haunts them. The quickness of Kendrick’s flow utilizes a stream-of-consciousness technique, that makes the rambling of his characters seem authentic.
Logic utilizes almost the exact same flow and technique, to express the pain and guilt that haunts his sister and father. Logic used Kendrick’s form to fit his function instead of coming up with his own form to tell the story he wants to tell.
Additionally, Logic’s song uses a similar concept as Kendrick’s, which adds to the song’s unoriginality. By taking a form and copy-pasting it to try and fit his function, Logic bit Kendrick’s song.
To be clear, this elaboration is true across all art forms and genres of music. A good comparison would be close-up shots in movies. When D.W. Griffith (who was, unfortunately, an incredibly influential racist) first utilized the close-up shot, it was done to connect an audience to a character in a direct way, to easily identify that character’s emotional state in a way; that would be harder to do with a shot that framed the actors whole body.
The “biters” were the film-makers who just started shooting the majority of their movies using close-up shots, thinking that the mere existence of a bunch of close-ups would give their movies the same response that Griffith’s had. But any movie that consists of almost all close-ups would be awkward and exhausting to watch. The people who were influenced by the movie that first used the close-up, however, recognized that it was a way to connect an audience to a character’s emotional state, and learned to wait until moments of emotional vulnerability to cut to a close-up.
All of this ties into the difference between rapping and rap music.
Tupac wasn’t the best rapper (technically), BUT, he was one of the best MCs/hip hop artists ever, because his communicative abilities were second-to-none. When Pac used a flow, rhyme pattern, or cadence; it was in service of a specific emotion, theme, or point that he was trying to make.
Imagine if Tupac had used Kendrick’s rapid-fire cadence, or Snoop Dogg’s smooth, cool-guy flow on the legendary song “Dear Mama”.
The excitement of Kendrick’s flow would have contrasted with the themes of the song, and the nostalgic tone of the production, while Snoop Dogg’s relaxed flow would have given off an affectless vibe, it would have sounded like Tupac didn’t care about getting his message across.
But because Tupac was one of the best artists to ever rap, he recognized that a measured flow, combined with a voice that was audibly emotional, would be the best delivery to portray the emotional content that embodies the song.
There are plenty of rappers who are technically “better” than Tupac, as far as lyricism and wordplay, but their technical abilities do not serve a purpose beyond an exhibition of raw skill, which doesn’t have the same emotional potency as music informed by thematic content.
Biters take a form they like and run with it. Artists search for forms that evoke the emotions and experiences they are trying to embrace.
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