Prince’s Greatest Hip-Hop Moments
After having been originally dismissive of hip-hop, Prince eventually came to see what made it so vital. We're counting down our 19 favorite times when Prince worked with or was inspired by rappers.
His first foray into the genre was with a diss track, "Dead On It" from The Black Album, which remained in the vaults for seven years, until Warner Bros. put it out in 1994. "I got a silly rapper talking silly shit instead / And the only good rapper is one that's dead ... on it." Later, he added that "the rapper's problem usually stem from being tone deaf / Pack the house then try to sing / There won't be no one left."
With the arrival of the New Power Generation in 1991, his Royal Badness began incorporating raps into his music, courtesy of the band's newly hired MC, Tony M. “Well, first I never said I didn’t like rap," Prince said at the time. "I just said that the only good rappers were the ones who were ’dead on it’ — the ones who knew what they were talking about. I didn’t used to like all that braggadocio stuff. ’I’m bad, I’m this. I’m that.'"
But those early excursions into hip-hop felt tentative and couldn't match the innovative wave of music coming from acts like Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Dr. Dre and others. It seemed at the time like the man who had revolutionized (pun intended) pop and R&B with seismic releases like 1999, Purple Rain and Sign O' the Times didn't fully understand the latest sounds and production techniques.
But the Roots' Questlove, a man whose authority on all things hip-hop is unquestioned, believes that Prince is the embodiment of hip-hop. "When he was giving interviews on the regular to Cynthia Horner in Right On! magazine, he was telling tall tales left and right," he wrote in Rolling Stone. "That was hip-hop. He built a crew, a posse, around his look and his sense of style. That was hip-hop. ... He had parents up in arms over the content of his songs to the point where they had to invent the Parental Advisory warning. Hip-hop, hip-hop, hip-hop."
Quest backed up his claim by writing about the 40 ways in which Prince was hip-hop in an Instagram caption.
Moreover, Prince's influence within the the hip-hop community is clear, and many of the genre's greatest performers and producers have sung his praises. Though notoriously stingy with his endorsement of other musicians, Prince worked with hip-hop artists on a number of occasions, from tapping them to appear on his records, to joining them onstage for impromptu performances. When Entertainment Weekly asked him in 2015 who his favorite artists of the moment were, he listed Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Erykah Badu and Rita Ora among his favorites.
Take a trip down memory lane to see 19 times where Prince embraced hip-hop.
Among the short list of rap artists Prince allowed to share the stage with him, Kanye West provided one of the most memorable guest spots. The Purple One and the Louis Vuitton Don crossed paths in 2011 during the Way Out West Festival, with Kanye West joining Prince onstage and tackling hype man duties during an epic jam session.
In October 2014, Prince gave Kendrick Lamar the ultimate respect by letting the rapper join him for a performance of “What’s My Name,” with Lamar adding an impromptu verse at the end. Prince, who was a big fan of Lamar's 2015 Rapsody collaboration “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” intended to collaborate with the Compton native, but passed away before the two were able to seize the opportunity.
In 2010, Prince declared "the Internet's completely over," adding, "I don't see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won't pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can't get it." Perhaps this explains why he kept the music of which he had control off streaming services until he found common ground with Jay-Z. In 2015, the Purple One aligned himself with Hov for the launch of the latter's Tidal music streaming service, making all of his music available to stream for monthly subscribers. But after Prince's death, his advisor, L. Londell McMillan, signed deals with other services. Jay-Z wrote about his anger in "Caught Their Eyes." "I sat down with Prince, eye to eye / He told me his wishes before he died / Now, Londell McMillan, he must be color blind / They only see green from them purple eyes," he said. Later, he added, "This guy had 'Slave' on his face / You think he wanted the masters with his masters? / You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house / I'm surprised you ain't auction off the casket."
Jay-Z's "'03 Bonnie & Clyde" was a highlight of his 2002 album The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse. Though the track is built on a beat sampled from 2Pac's "Me and My Girlfriend," there is a moment in the middle of the song, in which Beyonce sings a bit of Prince's 1987 gender-bending single, "If I Was Your Girlfriend." Prince is credited as a co-writer of the final song, along with Tupac Shakur, Kanye West (who produced the song) and Jay-Z, among others.
Questlove is known for rocking parties around the world with awesome DJ sets, but the Roots' drummer recalls an instance in which his selection of grooves drew a less-than-stellar reception from Prince. Quest had just put some Fela Kuti into his mix when Prince sent over an assistant with a DVD of the animated film Finding Nemo, and a request that the film be played instead of the music. Yes, Prince relieved one of the most respected DJs of today of his duties, a move that only the man who created Purple Rain could pull off.
In 1987, "Dead on It," a song that surfaced from Prince's The Black Album project, saw him sharing his thoughts on the state of rap and its worth as a genre. More diss track than homage, "Dead On It" may not have been complimentary, but showed that Prince was fully capable of holding it down on the rap tip if need be.
Scoring a guest feature from Prince on your album was a rare feat for a rapper, but one that Common achieved when Prince manned the guitar and keyboards on the Electric Circus track "Star * 69 (PS With Love)." Produced by Questlove, James Poyser and J Dilla, and featuring Bilal on the vocals, "Star * 69 (PS With Love)" may fly under the radar when Prince's hip-hop moments come to mind, but those in the know rank it as one of his most memorable.
Talib Kweli, whose wife, DJ Eque, introduced him to Prince, once shared a story of how the icon showed up to a club he was attending in L.A., told the DJ to cut off the music, kicked out all of the men and proceeded to read from the Bible. While there is no footage of the occurrence, other accounts of Prince being a devout Jehovah's Witness, as well as his unconventional requests and tendencies in the midst of a party, makes Kweli's experience wholly believable.
In 2008, Prince joined rapper/producer Q-Tip onstage during a show in Las Vegas. While the A Tribe Called Quest frontman performed his 1999 solo hit "Vivrant Thing," Prince came up onto the stage, picked up a guitar and began to play. Q-Tip is a great live performer, and having one of the ultimate showmen join him for a song made the moment a celebratory one.
In 1995, Prince led off his 17th studio album, The Gold Experience, with the raunchy "P Control." Originally titled "Pussy Control," the song is one of Prince's strongest stabs at channeling the flow and cadence of a rapper, but it would be one of the last instances in which he would rhyme on an album himself.
The strident, noble funk of Public Enemy's 1990 jam "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" is built atop a thick wall of sound that includes a repeating guitar lick mixed just under the vocal. The guitar part is a sample of Prince's closing solo in "Let's Go Crazy," played backwards.
Although he was known for being extremely protective of his brand, likeness and image, Prince made a rare exception when he gave Missy Elliott his blessing to cast a Prince lookalike in the music video for her song "Work It." In the wake of their meeting, Elliot and Prince struck up a friendship which lasted until the Prince's death. According to Missy, Prince once gifted her with a batch of his unreleased music, but she reportedly lost track of the recordings, leading many to wonder whether those particular songs will ever surface for our listening pleasure.
Another song from Prince's 2001 remix album, Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic, that captured the singer in a hip-hop state of mind was "Undisputed (The Moneyapolis Mix)," which included a guest spot from Public Enemy frontman Chuck D. Prince would later invite Chuck D to a concert at Rod Laver Arena, in Melbourne, Australia, and bring him onstage to spit a few bars for the crowd.
In 1989, Warner Bros. tapped Prince to deliver an entire album companion to the film Batman, a record that eventually topped the Billboard 200 albums chart for six consecutive weeks. The first single from the album, "Batdance," was a smash hit, but many fans don't know that Prince had worked on a remix of the song with rapper Big Daddy Kane. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. didn't like it and chose not to release it, pulling the plug on a monster collaboration. Fortunately, audio of the "Batdance" remix has since been unearthed and is a worthy addition to Prince's catalog of duets.
As rap began to become an increasing cultural force in the late '80s and early '90s, Prince decided to join in, bringing Anthony Mosley, better known as Tony M., into the New Power Generation. Tony M. would be featured on nearly half of Prince's 1991 album, Diamonds and Pearls, and would also appear on the 1992 The Love Symbol album, after which Prince handled all rap chores.
Do you recognize the keyboard lick that comes in on the second verse of MC Hammer's hit, "Pray?" You should. It's a sample of "When Doves Cry."
Prince was a Doug E. Fresh fan and, for a time, they shared the same legal representation. So it was nothing for Prince to invite Fresh onto the stage at a Prince and the NPG show in Atlanta around the time of the Emancipation album. Fresh rocked the crowd so hard that Prince called a meeting after the show, sat his band down and took a vote on whether to ask the rapper to join the NPG. Fresh didn't believe him at first, but when convinced of the seriousness of Prince's offer, said, "I'm always a part of some new power; let's do it." While Fresh never did officially join the NPG, he would share a stage with Prince many times in the ensuing years.
In late 1999, Prince released Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, his 23rd studio album, which featured "Hot Wit U," a duet with Eve, who was riding high on the success of her debut album at the time. Two years later, he released a remix version of the album, Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic, which included a second appearance from Eve on the "Adam & Eve Remix" of "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold."
Prior to his passing, Prince joined forces with singer Rita Ora for a rap record, another instance in which the Minneapolis native showed his affinity for hip-hop. Titled "Ain't About 2 Stop," the HITnRUN: Phase One track was described by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as “a rare rap song on which the music was as aggressive and menacing as the rapping.”