That’s A Rap: The Obligatory (But Disposable) Rent-A-Rapper Break

You've gotta hand it to 'em.

You’ve gotta hand it to ’em.

You may try to hide from it, but it’s all over the radio. Rap music. The golden age of it may be long gone, but it won’t go away. So, how did the art of spitting a rhyme go from legendary to lackluster? One major reason in today’s music is the mainstream radio rule of the obligatory rent-a-rapper break. You’re listening to a harmless pop song, and then you hear some gruff voice out of nowhere take over, and then it’s back to the original song. Looking for street cred? Rent a rapper. Breaking America? Rent a rapper. Even if your song is perfection, it’s not going to be a hit unless you have a rapper. Why did it have to come to this predictable pattern? Let’s take a look back at how it developed.

The first rap break in a mainstream song was done by Debbie Harry in 1981’s “Rapture” by her group Blondie, toasting about men from Mars and eating cars, etc. As R&B music became more commonly accepted at radio in the mid-80’s, rap breaks appeared again on records like Chaka Khan‘s “I Feel For You”, featuring Grandmaster Melli Mel. By 1986, a movement began in which rappers interpolated other records into their own while they would freestyle over the beat. Run-D.M.C. and Aersomith scored a top-5 hit out of 1986’s “Walk This Way”, and rap trio the Fat Boys managed two top-20 hits, 1987’s “Wipe Out” (chorus by the Beach Boys, what an odd pairing) and 1988’s “The Twist”, featuring the original singer, Chubby Checker. This is when the disposable rap began, at least on the CHR format.

In 1990, two songs went to #1 that included rap breaks, but neither were issued with a rap-free edit. In February, Paula Abdul‘s “Opposites Attract” hit the top with a remixed version featuring two raps credited to the animated MC Skat Kat (vocals by Romany Malco and Derrick Stevens). Then, in July, Hawaiian-born balladeer Glenn Medeiros managed to push an uptempo number to #1, “She Ain’t Worth It”, featuring a rap by Bobby Brown. The latter example seems like a more obvious case of the record label really wanting a hit, but Brown was hot at the time, so, the song took off. Other songs that year that had an optional break for radio include “Alright” by Janet Jackson (added rap by Heavy D) and “Groove Is In The Heart” by Deee-Lite (album version featured a rap by Q-Tip.)

By 1992, the Jacksons struck again. “Jam” by Michael and “The Best Things In Life Are Free” by Janet and Luther Vandross were generally heard with their added rappers on them; Heavy D for the former and Bell Biv Devoe for the latter. (“Best” did have a rap-free edit, however.) With the fall of the CHR format beginning around this time, guest rappers also began to fall out of fashion as mainstream radio turned to alternative rock to balance out the airwaves.

For the last half of the decade, rap breaks came and went, but most remixed singles were heard in their original album versions at CHR. The driving force behind these was superstar Mariah Carey, known more for ballads than R&B material. By 1995, that was changed with the release of “Fantasy”, released with a new version featuring rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard. It went to #1. The following year, “Always Be My Baby” got a remix on behalf of producer Jermaine Dupri, which included rapper Da Brat, hitting #2. The results were more mixed for 1999’s “Heartbreaker”, where the album version featured Jay-Z (an edit without him was issued.) A separate remix also featured Da Brat and Missy Elliott. Though it hit #1 on the Hot 100, it missed the top 20 at CHR radio, continuing a downward spiral for the singer at the format.

Other than Carey, songs like 1996’s “No Diggity” by BLACKstreet featuring Dr. Dre and 1998’s “No, No, No (Part 2)” by Destiny’s Child featuring Wyclef Jean became minor CHR crossovers, but much bigger hits on the Hot 100. The only rock band to experiment with the concept during this time period and succeed was Sugar Ray, who featured reggae singer/rapper Super Fly on their 1997 #1 hit, “Fly”. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that something seemed to click between rap and the teen audience.

It took a boy band out of Canada to reignite the disposable rap for popular radio. “Faded”, the debut hit for trio soulDecision, featured an optional rap break by rapper Thrust. It climbed to #6 on pop radio in October, signaling a new era in boy bandemonium: the rap remix. The Backstreet Boys did it with “The Call”, remixed by The Neptunes in 2001. It didn’t exactly help the song. However, a remix of *NSYNC‘s “Girlfriend” with a rap by Nelly did go top 5 in 2002. By that summer, boy bands were largely off the airwaves save for a few acts, both groups and members gone solo. For example, Justin Timberlake‘s first solo single, “Like I Love You”, which featured a rap break by The Clipse, went top 5 in late 2002.

Once the boy bands got going, the females followed. In 2001, pop group Dream had their second single, “This Is Me”, remixed with added raps by P. Diddy and Kain. The collaborative #1 remake of “Lady Marmalade” with singers Christina Aguilera, Mya and Pink featured a rap break from Lil’ Kim, who was often edited out. Aguilera would use rapper Redman on her 2002 single “Dirrty”. Competitor Britney Spears added Pharell to a remix of her 2002 single, “Boys”. Both were low charters, though the Spears record did worse. One of the more important figures of this era was Jennifer Lopez, who scored two #1 singles in a row with remixes featuring rapper Ja Rule that were played over the album version: 2001’s “I’m Real” and 2002’s “Ain’t It Funny”. Lopez’s next three releases to the format all included rappers. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Other artists to add raps during this period included Joe, Lenny Kravitz and No Doubt, who had two singles: 2002’s “Hey Baby”, featuring Bounty Killer and “Underneath It All”, featuring Lady Saw.

Things slowed down with CHR radio in crisis again, though some singers like Beyoncé and Ciara continually delivered hits with featured rappers between 2003 and 2006. The former scored #1 singles with 2003’s “Baby Boy”, featuring Sean Paul and 2006’s “Check On It”, featuring Slimm Thugg. The latter took “1, 2 Step”, featuring Missy Elliott, to the top in 2005. Lopez’s overuse of the technique proved to be her downfall in 2005; both singles from Rebirth underperformed. Teen singers got in on the action as well to mixed results. JoJo‘s 2004 single, “Baby It’s You”, added a rap by Bow Wow and went top ten. Jesse McCartney‘s 2005 single, “She’s No You”, awkwardly remixed with Fabolous, barely went top 30. Frankie J, The Pussycat Dolls and Usher also saw big hits during this period that included guest raps. Some bands, like Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray, desperately tried to get another hit by featuring rappers at this time, but both flopped. Something tells me you don’t remember 2003’s “You Are My Number One” (with Ranking Roger) and “Mr. Bartender (It’s So Easy)” (with ProHoeZak), respectively.

Rap breaks began to pick up again in mid-2006 just because so many were suddenly going to #1, thanks in part to the second coming of Timbaland. From May until October, four songs dominated that all had a featured rapper/production artist: “Hips Don’t Lie”, by Shakira featuring Wyclef Jean, “Promiscuous”, by Nelly Furtado featuring Timbaland, “Buttons”, by The Pussycat Dolls featuring Snoop Dogg and “SexyBack”, by Justin Timberlake featuring Timbaland. Timberlake would also hit #1 later in the year with “My Love”, featuring T.I., for four weeks. This continued in 2007 with hit singles by Fergie and Rihanna. In fact, the former artist’s ballad, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, was reissued in a very unnecessary remix with reggae and rap artist Sean Kingston, which pretty much set the standard for most of the cash-in remixes going forward. This means we’re getting to the point where everybody needed a rap break to get airplay.

By 2008, not only were R&B singers like Ray J and Usher using the trick, but pop acts like Natasha Bedingfield (“Love Like This” with Kingston) and yes, even the Jonas Brothers, were including rappers on songs. Remember “Burnin’ Up”? Well, this continued in force, and then the labels decided that in order for us to suffer more, they would be exporting their already successful British singers into the United States with specially crafted “We need an American rapper on this” remixes. Thus, Jay Sean‘s 2009 single “Down” went to #1 with Lil Wayne tacked on, and Taio Cruz went to #1 in 2010 with “Break Your Heart” featuring Ludacris.

As for the American acts, don’t think they weren’t left out of this. Katy Perry went to #1 several weeks after that with “California Gurls”, featuring a rap by Snoop Dogg, and Usher took “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love” to #2 with a rap by Pitbull. Perry’s label noticeably issued digital remixes of many of her songs with added guest rappers in an attempt to secure a record amount of consecutive #1 singles for her. “E.T.”, “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”, and “The One That Got Away” featured Kanye West, Missy Elliott and B.o.B., respectively. The former two went to #1; the last stalled at #3.

Now, Enrique Iglesias, still living off the royalties of “Hero” and his mole, heard these songs one day and I’m sure went “Oye! There’s my comeback hit!” Thus, it was that “I Like It”, featuring Pitbull and “Tonight” with another phoned-in rap by Ludacris both became big hits in 2010 and 2011. (All of Iglesias’s singles since those two have featured rappers, one other with Pitbull.) For some reason, this inspired Justin Bieber to call up his grandfather Luda and ask him for a rap and you could just see the dollar signs shining in his eyes, so Ludacris again was featured on Bieber’s 2011 hit, “Baby”.

Now, every good comeback deserves another one, so the formerly washed-up Jennifer Lopez, then a judge on American Idol, returned with 2011’s “On The Floor” with a familiar face, Pitbull. Three of her next four singles featured rappers, the biggest one being 2012’s “Dance Again”, again with Pitbull. Last year, pop/rock bands began to try again with rapped portions. Maroon 5‘s “Payphone”, with a break by Wiz Khalifa, went to #1. Additionally, “I Like It Like That”, by Hot Chelle Rae and featuring the New Boyz, made the top 20.

So, you’re probably wondering where we are at this point with current singles that utilize a guest rapper. Here’s everything in the current CHR top 50:
#04: Justin Bieber featuring Nicki Minaj“Beauty And A Beat” (no rap-free edit)
#12: Alicia Keys (featuring Nicki Minaj) – “Girl On Fire” (album version without rap)
#22: The Script featuring will.i.am“Hall Of Fame” (international edit without will.i.am)
#23: Justin Timberlake featuring Jay-Z“Suit & Tie” (rap-free edit issued)
#29: Olly Murs featuring Flo Rida“Troublemaker” (international edit without Flo Rida)
#46: Skylar Grey featuring Eminem“C’mon Let Me Ride” (no rap-free edit)

Additionally, one song just below the top 50 features Flo Rida on it: “Say You’re Just A Friend” by Austin Mahone. No rap-free edit is available on that one… yet.

So, as you can see, as much as we may desire them to get off the radio, the overexposed guest rapper who already a dozen hits on his or her own isn’t leaving anytime soon. The concept will always be floated around as a way to get a hit, even if it means selling out for the sake of it. Although it may go out of style for a few years, it always seems to come back around and picks up momentum in no time with the same names on every song. I usually prefer a rap-free version of a song, but that’s just me and my more pop/rock-driven tastes. If you have an opinion on this or if I missed any big examples, let me know in the comments or on Twitter: @AdamFSoybel.

1 Comment

Filed under Charts/Trade Papers, Music News, Playlists, Retro

One response to “That’s A Rap: The Obligatory (But Disposable) Rent-A-Rapper Break

  1. Great post, it was so informative. I love reading your blog, I always look forward to reading your posts.

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