The roles of hip-hop are many. The culture has the ability to empower, teach, help and communicate messages to people. That said, while some songs can be abstract, conceptual or simple party records, many tracks are addressed to real people. Although diss tracks may address individuals, they are always designed to demean and degrade. However, few know the vast array of rap songs made to help, heal and pay tribute to real people.
Until the early-1980s, hip-hop was a genre of party records. Call and response, rapping about jewellery, girls and fun was the bread and butter of rap music. However, no one was using their lyrics as a way to talk about issues, relationships and friendships that were close to them. Since the release of ‘The Message,’ hip-hop has become emotionally raw and passionate, and many fantastic artists with few words tackle big issues.
All too often in modern-day hip-hop, lyrics are directed at an ambiguous anonymous character who the rapper hates and will do all sorts of things to. However, we rarely hear from-the-heart lyrics about people in their lives and do not see any signs of vulnerability. Some of the genre’s most revered legends were confident enough to show their softer side and sensitively talk about individuals. From 2pac to Ice Cube, sensitivity was never seen as a weakness.
In this article, we have compiled a list of the five most classic hip-hop songs of all time that reference real people. See our picks below.
Five classic hip-hop songs about real people:
5. ‘Duckworth’ – Kendrick Lamar
‘Duckworth’ featured on Lamar’s 2017 album, DAMN and has a real story behind it. Following the project’s Grammy win, the Compton musician spoke with Beats One DJ Zane Lowe about the song’s meaning. Speaking about the track Kendrick unveiled, it was about how TDE’s founder and CEO, Anthony Griffin, attempted to stick up and kill his father.
Elaborating further on the story, Lamar told the DJ, “About a year after I met Top Dawg. I met him when I was 16. My Pops came to the studio after I’d been locked in with him for a minute, and we got a relationship now, bring my Pops through. He heard I was dealing with Top Dawg, but my Pops personally don’t know him as Top Dawg. The industry knows him as Top Dawg… So when he walked in that room and he seen that Top Dawg was this guy, he flipped. Still, ’til this day, they laugh, and they laugh, and they trip out, and they tell the same story over and over to each other.”
4. ‘Ms Jackson’ – Outkast
Outkast’s 2000 album, Stankonia was a huge hit. It debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 and boasted several hits, one of which was ‘Ms Jackson.’ Comprised of Big Boi and Andre 3000, the dynamic duo wrote many amazing tracks. However, ‘Ms Jackson’ was written by Andre 3000 and is intrinsically linked to his lovelife. The loveletter won the duo a Grammy Award for ‘Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group’ but few know what it is about.
Andre 3000 is the father of Erykah Badu’s oldest child and only son, Seven. However, their relationship deteriorated over time, and they split up. Andre wrote ‘Ms Jackson’ to address the mother of Dallas vocalist. Following their son’s birth, the rapper felt that he had been cast as the deadbeat dad and wanted to reach out. In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the lyricist explained, “I probably would never come out and tell Erykah’s mom, ‘I’m sorry for what went down.’ But music gives you the chance to say what you want to say. And her mom loved it. She’s like, ‘Where’s my publishing check?'”
3. ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ – Puff Daddy ft. Faith Evans & 112
This Diddy-produced track was featured on his 1997 collaborative album, No Way Out. The most well-known song from the project is ‘I’ll Be Missing You’, which was released as a tribute song to Notorious B.I.G., who had been murdered that same year. The song is an interpolation of the 1983 track ‘Every Breath You Take’ by British rock band The Police.
Diddy was Biggie’s mentor and was the man who signed him after hearing his ‘Microphone Murderer’ freestyle. In a 2018 interview with the prestigious culture publication GQ, Diddy spoke on how Biggie’s 1997 murder still affects him to this day, unveiling, “I haven’t dealt with any of that yet. I try to get into it, but…that’s something that just hurts so bad. That’s a time that’s still suppressed.” The tribute track won a Grammy for ‘Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group’ and spent 11 weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
2. ‘Mockingbird’ – Eminem
‘Mockingbird’ appeared on Eminem’s 2004 album Encore and was a dedication to his daughter, Hailie Jade. Luis Resto produced the track, and is sombre in its tone. The single received mixed reviews, as many found it quite depressing, with some critics even going as far as to state that Mathers needed to quit writing lyrics about his daughter. However, Em’s daughter has always been at the forefront of his mind. She was even the cause of his feud with Machine Gun Kelly.
Speaking with MTV News in 2005, Eminem explained why he chose to write a song about his daughter, disclosing, “Hailie, whether she’s with me or not, she’s with me every day. She’s been my main source of drive and motivation. especially when she was first born! I didn’t have a career yet, I didn’t have money, I didn’t have a place to live. So she’s always been the driving force for me to stay busy, stay focused and has always been my number one reason for fear of failure. I Can’t fail!”
1. ‘Dear Mama’ – 2Pac
2Pac has a multitude of legendary and iconic songs. However, ‘Dear Mama’ may be one of his most impactful and well-known. Released in 1995, ‘Dear Mama’ was the lead single of 2Pac’s third album, Me Against the World. Recorded at Echo Sound Studios in LA, the epic song became the rapper’s (real name Tupac Shakur) first top ten on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number nine.
As insinuated by the track’s title, ‘Dear Mama,’ hears the musician pay tribute to his mother, Afeni Shakur. In a 1995 interview with MTV, the ‘California Love’ artist explained the process of making the track, unveiling, “It’s a love song to my mama! Master T gave me the beat, and I wrote it in the bathroom on the toilet on one of them early sit-down sessions, and it came out like tears, and right after I wrote it, I called my mum up and rapped it to her over the phone, and she was crying.”
The song was certified double-platinum and is often considered one of 2Pac’s greatest tracks of all time.