With the tragic, untimely passing of the Sugarhill Gang’s Big Bank Hank last week, as per standard Hip Hop practices, it’s only a matter of time before several emcees pay homage and show their respect for the fallen pioneer by way of lyrics on verses and possibly entire tracks. Rap music is no stranger to tribute tracks, as anytime a prominent Hip Hop figure passes away he/she is memorialized in song. As Naughty By Nature’s Treach states in the middle of their 2Pac tribute, ‘Mourn You Til I Join You’, “you ain’t got to worry about how long I’m gonna mourn you. I’m gonna keep your name in the streets.” This quote captures the essence of the Hip Hop tribute track, to keep the fallen soldier’s name, memory, and of course music alive, not only for those familiar with said artist today, but to introduce future listeners to these artists as well. With that in mind, today we’re going to explore Hip Hop tribute tracks. Some you’ll surely recognize, others you may not. As there have been dozens made over the years, the playlist below is by no means exhaustive, but rather a subset of tribute tracks that stand out to us here at JP Lime Productions. So get ready to reminisce and pour out a little liquor for our fallen greats because their memories will indeed live on forever.
First up on our playlist, a myriad of tracks made in the memory of the late, great Notorious B.I.G. While it’s not uncommon for multiple artists to pay homage to a deceased emcee, whether that’s in the form of a few lines on a verse or an entire track, it’s hard to think of anyone in Hip Hop who has had more tributes in his name than Biggie. This should come as no surprise as Biggie was about to take the world by storm in 1997 with his second studio album, ‘Life After Death’ ready to be released before he was tragically taken from us, a murder still unsolved to this day. There are two “what could’ve been” careers in Hip Hop that resonate most with me, the second which I’ll tackle later, but Biggie’s is the most prominent. Many of the other emcees on this list had much longer runs before they passed away. Biggie was literally about to run Rap as its undisputed king and then he was fatally gunned down, leaving us all to wonder how far he could’ve taken his career, as well as the industry as a whole. The sheer number of tributes he’s gotten since he passed reflect this. Many call him the greatest of all time, and it’s hard to dispute that, but one thing’s for sure: based on how many artists go out of their way to memorialize Christopher Wallace, he is surely the most beloved figure in Hip Hop history. We’ll always love Big Poppa.
I’ll Be Missing You – Puff Daddy featuring Faith Evans
In Memoriam Lyric: “Even though you’re gone, we still a team. Through your family, I’ll fulfill your dream.”
Perhaps the most well-known and commercially successful of all tribute tracks, our choice lyric from Puffy conveys that genuine sentiment many of us feel when a loved one passes: spiritually, you will never leave my side, and in the physical, I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure your family realizes the goals and desires you had while on Earth. Still a touching track to this day.
Letter To Big – Jadakiss
In Memoriam Lyric: “People in power is queer. I could go on for a year ’bout how it would be if you were still here. The game got cheaper. Rappers is more commercially successful now, but the heart’s a lot weaker.”
While we don’t condone the use of the word “queer” to signify “corny” or “lame” (let’s leave all the sexual preference shade in the past, Hip Hop Nation!), our choice lyric stands out to us because amidst his expressions of missing Biggie, Jadakiss makes what to us is a very valid point about the state of Rap music. With 2009 being the track’s release date, Jadakiss, in a line full of resignation and angst alludes to how much Hip Hop has changed since Biggie’s heyday, with big money corporations, label executive, and radio types (“people in power”) having dumbed down Rap to the point where the “game got cheaper.” That Hip Hop as an industry has traded in its heart for commercial success clearly bothers Jadakiss, and given that he knew the Notorious B.I.G. well, we can surmise he mentions this because he knows it would bother Biggie just as much.
We’ll Always Love Big Poppa – The Lox
In Memoriam Lyric: “Right now, you and Pac in harmony, probably hugging. While everybody from Brooklyn to West coast is bugging.” — Sheek Louch
Our choice lyric from LOX member Sheek Louch is powerful because it directly addresses the mid-90s East Coast vs. West Coast “beef” that many in Hip Hop Nation, whether with merit or not, attribute to the deaths of both Biggie and 2Pac. The story of the two former friends turned foes is well-known, so we won’t rehash it here. Whereas the lyric theorizes that 2Pac and Biggie made amends in the afterlife and goes on to express the ridiculousness of those from both coasts that still hold on to the pettiness of that unfortunate time in Hip Hop, it’s hard not to imagine both men growing older, wiser, and taking the lead in ending the bi-coastal feud themselves had they lived beyond their mid-20s. That said however, the vivid picture Sheek paints about 2Pac and Biggie hugging it out in Hip Hop Heaven is indeed a powerful one, albeit very sad.
Life Changes – Wu-Tang Clan (Ol’ Dirty Bastard tribute)
In Memoriam Lyric: “And I share the blame, cuz you was calling for help, kid. Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve, had the time, I was selfish. I carry on your struggle, each day it really hurts me. I really miss you Russell, hope you forgive me Dirty.” — Inspectah Deck
While Raekwon offers ‘Ason Jones‘, a very thorough and heartfelt tribute to his fallen Wu-Tang brother, we’re going with ‘Life Changes’ because most of the group share their thoughts on the one and only ODB. Our choice lyric rings loudly because of its brutal honesty. When a loved one passes, it’s natural for us to wonder if we somehow could’ve done something to prevent the tragedy. In Deck’s case, he tackles these feelings head on, admitting that he recognized ODB’s cries for help but opted to largely ignore them. After expressing regret, Deck goes on to say that he carries on ODB’s “struggle” and can only hope that Ol’ Dirty’s spirit forgives him for having acted so selfishly. These are extremely powerful sentiments expressed by Inspectah Deck, and it was very brave of him to go there. Salute.
Letter To Pun – Cuban Link (Big Pun tribute)
In Memoriam Lyric: “You shocked the world, twin, every time you rapped on a track. You had cats like ‘how this fat dude could flow like that? Is he black? Is he packing the mack in the back of the Ac?’ The only Spanish rapper to snatch up a platinum plaque. That’s a fact.”
In a thorough, heartfelt, and rapid-fire tribute for Big Pun that touches on everything from Pun’s family and friends, Fat Joe’s alleged shady backroom deals involving Pun’s royalty money, the disintegration from within of the original Terror Squad, and of course his love and admiration for his fallen friend and bandmate, our choice lyric from Cuban Link focuses on Pun’s lyrical prowess. Cuban asserts that Pun’s flow and delivery were so amazing that listeners wondered how an emcee his size, a Puerto Rican emcee no less, could rap so incredibly. He then quotes one of Pun’s most famous lines (“packing a mack in the back of the Ac”) and closes out the bar by reminding us that Pun was the first Hispanic solo rapper to achieve platinum status. In a few lines, Link reminds us all of just how fantastic an emcee Big Pun was and just how strong his legacy is. And all this, much like Biggie, despite only having released one full length studio album, with his second album released posthumously. Oh what could have been…
Guru Salute – Mike Bigga aka Killer Mike (Guru tribute)
In Memoriam Lyric: “You brought Hip Hop to the land of chitlins. The Boston Bean made a Hip Hop king. Your legacy was born when he partnered with Prim.”
Boston’s finest, Guru of Gang Starr, is memorialized in this freestyle cut over the Gang Starr classic, ‘Mass Appeal’. Our choice lyric from Killer Mike asserts that Guru and Gang Starr, a Northeast based group, were so influential that their music was felt down South, even back in the early 90s. We like this lyric a lot because Killer Mike mentions Boston as Guru’s home in the same sentence as his proclamation that Guru is nothing less than a Hip Hop king. Given that the Rap music industry has been dominated by New York, California, Atlanta, and Texas, with Florida, Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland also making noise throughout its history, it’s especially gratifying for those of us who represent both Boston and Hip Hop Nation to hear Guru receive the respect he deserves from fellow emcees. I’ve been to many Rap concerts and seen even more Rap performances where the usual deceased suspects, Biggie, Tupac, Eazy E, Jam Master Jay, and Big Pun get their Rest In Peace shout out, and deservedly so I might add. Sadly and inexplicably, Guru is all too often overlooked. This is nothing short of a travesty. So again, it’s nice to hear someone give Boston, and more importantly Guru, the recognition he deserves for being one of the nicest, most creative musical minds to bless a mic. Boston stand up!
Mourn You Til I Join You – Naughty By Nature (2Pac Tribute)
In Memoriam Lyric: “We was back and forth from borough to projects with force. Damn I wish they knew how much you loved New York.” — Treach
Our final tribute track is my all-time favorite, though admittedly with a heavy bias as Tupac Shakur is one of my two favorite emcees (Nas being the other). Treach has many memorable lyrics on this song, including the detailed account of his visiting Tupac at the hospital after the 1994 Quad Studios shooting where he even brings Tupac’s mother into the lyrics: “A little time ticked by, my whole night got rocked. My lady waking me up yelling ‘Treach, Pac got shot!’ Soon as I get there I find Afeni urging me. Please convince my baby, don’t leave after surgery. So I’m looking in her eyes while they’re walking me through. Thinking ‘Pac hard head, what the hell I’m a do?” As powerful as the image of Afeni Shakur pleading with Treach to convince a still freshly wounded Tupac not to check himself out of the hospital that likely saved his life, with Treach knowing damn well that Tupac was too stubborn to be persuaded, we chose our in memoriam lyric because of its historical implications.
As we mentioned earlier, whether with merit or not, many point to the East Coast vs. West Coast “beef” of the mid-90s to be the primary reason for the deaths of Biggie and Tupac. And truth be told, Tupac had a lot more to do with instigating that feud and adding gasoline to its fire. In short, Tupac believed Biggie knew of the plot to shoot him and was angry at him for not warning him or divulging any information after the fact. What actually happened, we may never know, but what we do know is that Tupac’s anger eventually led to and crested with himself as the flag bearer for the West Coast with Biggie as the de facto flag bearer for the East Coast in a feud that saw emcees and fans alike take sides, not just glorifying their own territory, but bad-mouthing (sometimes viciously) the other. Tupac, having dissed not only Biggie, but other New York based heavy hitters such as Jay-Z, Nas, the Fugees, and even LL Cool J, heavily fed into the “beef,” resulting in many at the time concluding that Tupac hated not only New York, but the entire East Coast. As such, our choice lyric resonates loudly because Treach, a New Jersey based artist who was very close to Tupac, asserts that Tupac did indeed love New York. To a true Tupac fan this isn’t shocking, as we know that he was not only born in New York, but as a teenager also assumed the name MC New York when he began honing his rap skills in Baltimore. To most however, this is a strong reminder that things aren’t always what they seem. RIP.