The Fine Line Between Biting and Paying Homage

By Molly O'Mera

Hip-hop values originality over any other quality; as a rapper, you are nothing if you are not yourself.

The antithesis to originality is the act of biting. In the documentary The Art of 16 Bars, RZA describes biting as “the only real crime we had in hip-hop.”

In its nascent state, hip-hop was only a small community of rappers in New York. That made it easy to spot a biter and call him or her out. Today, as hip-hop has grown into a massive artistic movement with all kinds of sub-genres and regional styles, it has become infinitely harder to identify a biter, and the act of biting has become much less taboo. Many rappers can even get away with biting by calling it “paying tribute,” but the two are very different. Snoop Dogg addressed the distinction when we spoke to him last year:

"When I came out as a rapper, everyone had their own style. If you sounded like someone else, that word was called biting. You biting my style, you biting my shit. If you paying tribute, like I did with 'La Di Da Di' with Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh—I paid n***as who I grew up loving. I’m gonna redo your song, get you paid all over again, and let everybody know it’s your shit, and put a twist on it for the new kids who don’t even know it exist. That’s a different way of showing love as opposed to everyone rapping the same style."

Paying tribute is a tasteful way to show love and respect for your influences, often through a reference or repurposing of a line or beat. Biting, on the other hand, implies deceit—it’s a sneaky way to get away with stealing someone else’s artistic identity. As listeners, it’s our responsibility to discern one from the other. As a rapper, you have to be careful—the integrity of your career and your respect as an artist is at stake.

Here are 10 aspects of contemporary hip-hop culture where the fine line between paying homage often gets crossed.


2. Lyrics

Reciting another artist’s lyrics verbatim is the most direct way to show love to your mentors. From Drake rapping Ma$e’s “Who’s hot, who’s not” verse in “Worst Behavior” to J. Cole citing 50 Cent’s “I love you like a fat kid loves cake” line in “Sparks Will Fly,” the references are everywhere. But they can go over listeners' heads if the source material isn't made clear.

It’s a very fine line for an artist to walk, and a lot of people might criticize the decision. Lots of artists can successfully get away with taking old lines from hip-hop archives, slightly rewording them, and passing it off as “paying tribute” to their fanbase. The more well known the line is, the more likely people will believe that an artist is genuinely trying to pay tribute rather than surreptitiously trying to bite. If you want to pay tribute to Eazy-E, for example, you’d be better off with, “Cruisin down the street in my 6-4” than any other line.

However, if you happen to have some kind of personal relationship with the artist you're referencing, there's a certain level of protection. A good example: Jay Z opening "A Dream" with, “It was all a dream.” Biggie was his mentor, the two were personally close, and the original line is so famous that it has basically become ubiquitous in popular culture and the hip-hop vernacular—no casual fan is going to hear that opening line and not immediately associate it with Biggie. As a general rule, the less well known the line and the less obvious the origin, the more likely a rapper is trying to pass it off as their own without credit.


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4. Narrative

Rappers have long used their medium as a way to tell vivid and complex tales. One of the first examples was Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” which was reworked by Mos Def and Talib Kweli in their song by the same name, using a metaphor (ironically) about biting in hip-hop.

Common wrote one of the most well-known extended metaphors with the classic “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” in which a girl represents his relationship with hip-hop. The track has inspired plenty of spin-offs, like MF DOOM's “The M.I.C.” and Kanye West’s “Homecoming.”

Those two songs don't just retell the same story—rather, they use the story’s structure as an outline and rework the inner content, finding originality within a tribute to the songs and stories that inspired them. Kanye’s girl in "Homecoming" is a metaphor for Chicago, while DOOM's "M.I.C." emphasizes the art of performance in rap.

Being inspired by others to tell your own story is an important part of the genre's continuing growth and evolution, but if you're simply regurgitating what has come before, stop.


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6. Beat Selection

There's nothing wrong with spitting over someone else's beat, especially if you're coming up and can't afford to pay a producer. (That said, if you learn to produce yourself or link up with like minded producers you have a much better shot at impressing listeners with a fully original package.)

Jacking another rapper's beat and spitting over it has long been a popular approach on mixtapes, with Lil Wayne, at the height of his mixtape run, consistently spitting over the month's hottest track and outshining the original artist. In that scenario, the listener usually knows the original track, and as such it's fun to compare different takes on the same beat.

When it's the case of a bigger artist taking a smaller artist's beat and not paying credit, the situation gets murky. And when the bigger artist draws inspiration but then finds a way to get around paying any credit at all, as was the case with Drake on "Hotline Bling," don't be surprised when people start to take issue.


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10. Acknowledging Influences

A creative and innovative artist shouldn’t hide their inspirations. Citing your influences is always good insurance in case someone accuses you of biting, but the mere act of crediting someone else’s work won’t be enough to protect a biter from any deserved vilification. There's a difference between duplication and reinvention, and it can be the difference between failure and success.

Tyler, the Creator fervently credited N.E.R.D. for their influence on Cherry Bomb. Pharrell even appeared on the album, and although you can definitely hear those moments, Tyler's own aggressive, rabid style shines through.

Bottom line: always pay homage to your inspirations. Worst case scenario, you're an overzealous fan, not a thief.


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12. Delivery

With something as ambiguous and fluid as a “delivery,” there’s nothing wrong with touching on previously established styles—it's almost inevitable. Still, a rapper’s cadence and flow is absolutely essential to their artistic identity, and, in many cases, serves as their claim to fame.

There are always going to be flows or phrases that listeners associate with a specific song or artist (Migos' "Versace versace versace" and triplet flow, for example), and there are always going to be imitators. Sure, Migos weren't the first rappers to spit in triplets (one time for Bone Thugs-n-Harmony), but they (re)popularized it for the 2010s, and the amount of rappers using the same flow in their wake shows just how influential they were.

There is a lot of imitation in hip-hop right now, and the result isn't always bad music, but remember, it's the true originals and innovators who will make their mark on history.


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14. Cover Art

15. Album or Song Title

This is a tricky one—most of the time, an identical song title is pretty commonplace. But there are also cases of very purposeful imitation—most notably, Young Thug wanted to name his studio debut Carter 6, as a tribute to his idol Lil Wayne. Wayne, however, was incensed at the idea, and Thug ended up changing the album's title to Barter 6.

But there's also the case of Detroit rapper Elzhi, who loves Nas' Illmatic enough that he made a track-by-track replication of the album—with his own verses—and called it Elmatic. "It's a tribute to one of the illest albums... that's ever touched hip-hop," Elzhi said. Nas never officially responded to the tribute, but Elzhi claims they approved.

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17. Sampling

Sampling will always be part of hip-hop. In some cases, it might be the best possible way to show respect for your mentors—you give them a cut of the profits, and introduce them to a whole new audience who might not be familiar with their work.

But it's not always that simple. The art of sampling has been absolutely integral to the creation and popularity of hip-hop music. Artists like MF DOOM might never have broken through without it, and it’s safe to assume that the funk records DJ Kool Herc mixed and manipulated at his legendary Bronx house party in 1973 were not legally licensed for sampling.

It takes 30 seconds to download a track from YouTube, import it to Logic, and start looping. Even though the art of sampling might not be totally acceptable from an ethical or legal standpoint, it is often a necessary evil for those creative enough to innovate through the repurposing of old sounds. Don’t stop messing with samples if you enjoy it, but be very careful releasing them publicly. Always give credit, and, if possible, get a license.


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19. Regional Styles

Whether you’re looking for lyrical rap in New York, grime in London, gangsta rap in Los Angeles, hyphy music in the Bay, drill in Chicago, or chopped and screwed in Houston, you can be sure that the sound of local hip-hop will change based on your location. This was especially true in the pre-internet days of mom-and-pop record stores, when local musicians became celebrities in their cities if they were lucky enough to get room on a display shelf.

Until recently, this power struggle was a tug-of-war between the East and West coasts (with a few exceptions, like when Wayne first put Holygrove on the map). Today, hip-hop is run from the South and Chicago, with artists like Future, Young Thug, and Chance the Rapper achieving great mainstream success with their unique sound.

While some might see it a betrayal to their city to try and imitate the sound of another region, it would be oxymoronic to limit an artist’s influences to their zip code, especially in the internet age. Drake has padded his career by finding the next hot sound and cosigning it (or co-opting, depending on who you ask) and A$AP Rocky's proudly Houston-influenced LiveLoveA$AP is one of the best debuts of the 2000s. The East vs. West feud is just nostalgia at this point, and internet rap has opened up new worlds of “regional” sounds that have nothing to do with geography.

If you listen to so much Houston/L.A./Bay area rap that your music begins to organically reflect those influences, that’s natural. There are plenty of artists, however, that imitate today's hottest rapper because of their fame—like the scores of rappers making Future knock-offs right now. Art should be a blended mixture of its influences, not a carbon copy of any one.

Related: 10 Rappers Redefining Their Hometown Sound


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21. Fashion

Rappers have been designing for as long as record labels have been trying to cash in on their success, but the results aren't always as high-quality as their music. For every Yeezy Season 3, there are plenty of Bushi Sports.

Like a rapper's delivery, fashion changes with whoever happens to be wearing the piece. Endless pages of celebrity tabloids ("Who Wore It Better!?") aside, when it comes to fashion, wearing the same fit should be a sign of solidarity—not competition.