Exploring Aretha Franklin’s Undeniable Influence on Hip-Hop
Aretha Franklin's influence on popular music as a whole is undeniable and well-documented, but her considerable contributions to hip-hop specifically can be easy to overlook.
Of course, the simplest way to measure this impact is by listening to the hundreds of rap songs that sample her music. But Franklin also helped set standards for cultural and gender awareness, as well as activism, that continue to resonate across successive generations of artists.
The list of popular (and more often than not, socially aware) artists who have sampled the Queen of Soul's music includes Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Kanye West, Master P, A Tribe Called Quest, T.I., Slum Village, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, Whodini, Talib Kweli, Nas, Snoop, JAY-Z, OutKast, Lupe Fiasco, Dr. Dre, and Styles P.
One hip-hop group who have always paid special attention to the righteous power Franklin brought to her music is Public Enemy. Franklin's "Rock Steady" was sampled on several PE records, including "MiUzi Weighs a Ton," "Shut 'Em Down" and "Night of the Living Baseheads."
"[Public Enemy] also understood the history of black music," Chuck D explained in 2013. When it came to the '60s and '70s those black music artists were like aunts and uncles to us. ... I felt like Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin were family. They were getting played and cosigned by our people in your house... You had to have a respect for these records and for what they meant and where they came from."
In 1998, Franklin directly collaborated with one of the genre's hottest stars, as Lauryn Hill wrote the title track for her 37th studio album, A Rose Is Still a Rose. The album was Franklin's first gold album in 12 years, and earned her two Grammy nominations.
"It’s amazing to have Aretha singing words that you wrote," Hill told Rolling Stone. "You wanna hear something funny? When I recorded with her in Detroit, I went into the vocal booth after she came out, and it smelled like church, like paper fans with wooden sticks. I’m not kidding. Like it came out of her pores."
Beyond the music, Franklin's impact on American culture is significant. In the '60s, Franklin played a major role in creating the sound of the Civil Rights Movement. She was, as Biography noted, "an inspiring symbol of black equality," a sizable, influential voice at a time when African-Americans were looking for a way to raise their own voices in the public square. She performed in support of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., not just because he was a family friend, but because she was a "potent symbol of black advancement" (as PBS called her), lending her name and talent to his cause, the cause of all black Americans.
Certainly, hip-hop artists like Drake, Rihanna, the Game and Chris Brown, who have spoken out in frustration in the wake of police killings of unarmed African-Americans speak in the shadow of Civil Rights-era artists like Franklin. One might wonder how the younger ones can amplify their voices to reach as wide an audience as Franklin did.
She was also a fashion icon, dressing with taste and style from her earliest days as a performer. The disco era gave her an opportunity to show off her more flamboyant side (as seen on the covers of her Sparkle and La Diva albums), and she embraced the wild colors and angles of '80s couture with panache. In recent years, she dropped a great deal of weight, and her wardrobe choices (such as when she performed in honor of Carole King at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors) were distinguished and elegant.
Franklin's music also helped give voice to the feminist movement that took flight in the late '60s and throughout the '70s, paving the way for artists like Beyoncé, Joi, Erykah Badu and Rihanna to create power anthems celebrating femininity and female power for a new generations. "Respect," of course, was a demand for equality. Although originally written by Otis Redding and released in 1965, Franklin's 1967 version became one of her trademark songs, an inspiring catalyst for women everywhere to demand fair treatment. "Think," from 1968's Aretha Now, likewise told it like it was, and made it possible for other women to do the same. "Something He Can Feel," though written by Curtis Mayfield, was Franklin standing up for love, for her relationship, for fidelity, and she delivered the song with a rare power.
Becoming a voice for the voiceless is as hip-hop as it gets, and Franklin has embodied that spirit for decades.
Songs That Sample Aretha Franklin
Mos Def, "Ms. Fat Booty" (samples "One Step Ahead")
Kanye West, "School Spirit" (samples "Spirit in the Dark")
Outkast, "Jazzy Belle" (samples "Rock Steady")
Jay-Z, "In My Lifetime" (samples "Oh Baby")
Mobb Deep, "Drop a Gem on 'Em" (samples "You Are My Sunshine")
Aretha Franklin Year by Year: 1961-2017 Photos