“Some people tell me I’m a genius… that I’m forcing white America to listen to the problems of black America, that I’m tricking them into listening to the song by putting it to this sweet music. Honestly, I really didn’t think about it that much.”
That’s Dynamite Hack frontman Mark Morris, discussing his band’s cover of Eazy-E’s “Boyz-N-The-Hood,” released 20 years ago this month. The cover, an acoustic pop-rock take on the late-’80s gangsta rap classic, has been called a lot of things in its lifespan — notably, one of the 50 worst songs of the 2000s by The Village Voice — but rarely has it been called “genius.” Perhaps a better descriptor, at least at the time of the song’s release, would be “novel.” In 2000, setting Eazy’s streetwise day-in-the-life tales to “sweet music,” as Morris called it, was intriguing enough to rocket the song to #12 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart and make its irony-driven video a mainstay on MTV. The past 20 years, however, have shown just how banal acoustic rap covers can be.
Peruse the rest of Dynamite Hack’s breakout album, Superfast, and you won’t find any other nods to hip-hop. Watch more of their music videos or live performances and you won’t see the sweater-vest-clad preps they play in the “Boyz In The Hood” clip. This was an act that lasted just over three minutes — a well-informed one, considering the band’s fondness for both N.W.A and golf culture spoofs (“dynamite hack” is one of many nicknames Bill Murray’s Carl Spackler gives his weed in Caddyshack) — but otherwise, it was a complete departure from their norm. Outside of their biggest hit, the Austin-based four-piece play punk-tinged alternative rock, easily slotted alongside Blink-182, the Offspring, Harvey Danger, or almost anyone else in the sea of late-’90s, early-’00s radio rockers. “Boyz” distanced them from the pack.
The flukey hit has an origin story to match: “I had this guitar riff that was probably going to end up being a very stupid, shallow love song,” Morris said in the same interview quoted above. “Every lyric was, ‘Oh, I love you,’ and it just wasn’t working. So instead of singing crappy lyrics, I started singing ‘Boyz-N-The-Hood.’ Chad [Robinson, the group’s bassist] came in the room and was like ‘Oh, that’s awesome. That’s so funny. You gotta leave it like that!'”
“Boyz” was released as Superfast’s lead single. One Caddyshack-inspired video later, it became the band’s commercial high-water mark.
Technically, Dynamite Hack’s take on Eazy-E wasn’t the first acoustic cover of a hip-hop song, if such a thing can even be determined. As other devotees of ’90s gangsta rap, alternative music, and/or raunchy campfire singalongs may or may not remember, alt-country band the Gourds (coincidentally also from Austin, Texas) recorded a twangy version of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin And Juice” in 1996. According to a 2000 writeup in The Austin Chronicle, the song was a massive hit on Napster, though it was often mistakenly credited to Phish.
D-Hack weren’t even the first rock band to cover “Boyz-N-The-Hood.” The Red Hot Chili Peppers made a very abridged, decidedly non-acoustic version a live staple during their 1989-90 tour. But Dynamite Hack’s cover has qualities that its predecessors lack: parodic sensibilities, unabashed usage of racial slurs, comic juxtaposition of soft instrumentation and explicit lyrics. These factors would go on to define the “genre,” inasmuch as you can even call it a genre, of acoustic rap covers.
The Gourds chose to cover the most universal, relatable song on Snoop Dogg’s debut album, Doggystyle, and did so earnestly. “Gin And Juice” is a party song — a raunchy and slightly sexist one, to be sure — but lyrically, it’s not too far off from country music bacchanals like Joe Nichols’ “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,” Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee,” or pretty much anything by Wheeler Walker Jr. And while the Chili Peppers picked the same Eazy-E song as Dynamite Hack, their version skews more “loving homage” than “outright parody.” There’s nothing in either earlier cover that’s quite as infuriating as Mark Morris dropping the n-word less than 30 seconds in, or singing, “So I grabbed the stupid bitch by her nappy-ass weave,” whether or not he believed he was “forcing white America to listen to the problems of black America.” (Despite multiple attempts, Morris could not be reached for comment.) But remember: This was the turn of the millennium, and shock value was popular music’s surest get-rich-quick scheme. That’s why “Boyz In The Hood” stuck, and why its paint-by-numbers formula would be endlessly replicated over the next two decades.
If you liked Dynamite Hack’s radio hit but wanted something even more audacious, the mid-2000s were a great time to be alive. In 2005, singer-songwriter Ben Folds debuted his cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” as a B-side (later included as a bonus track on his second solo album), and it quickly became a live staple. Similarly to Dynamite Hack, Folds outfitted the misogynistic West Coast rap staple with moody, gentle instrumentation, further fleshing out his cover with an ornate arrangement.
Existing videos of Folds performing “Bitches” live are a treasure trove of questionable behavior, from his (white) drummer eagerly dropping the n-word a handful of times during his verse, to an audience member gleefully yelling “So true!” after Folds first sings the title, to the self-satisfied monologues that always introduce the song. (Sample: “I took a heartfelt melody and I spent it on this song. And the reason I did was because I thought it was interesting to do. It’s interesting to sing it in a little, tiny-ass white voice.”) Following some incidents — read: fans booing him and Folds saying he’d “almost been beaten up a couple of times over this” — Folds promised to stop playing the song live as far back as Bonnaroo 2008. By Setlist.fm’s count, though, it’s still his most-covered song to date, and has been performed live as recently as 2017.
Also in 2005 came erstwhile Veruca Salt member Nina Gordon’s take on N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton,” which, like Dynamite Hack and Ben Folds’ covers, does not censor its several racial slurs. The most intriguing pattern here, other than weepy melodies and winking white songwriters, is the prevalence of a very specific strain of LA gangsta rap. “Boyz-N-The-Hood” is by Eazy-E, a member of the group (N.W.A) that did “Straight Outta Compton” and launched the career of Dr. Dre, who did “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” which featured Dre protégé Snoop Dogg, who did “Gin And Juice.” The lack of imagination when picking rap songs to cover is staggering here. It’s true, the first wave of LA gangster rap was unprecedented in its vulgarity and aggression — all the better to contrast with delicate acoustic strumming — but by 2000, when these covers started rolling in, you had Too Short, Three 6 Mafia, Lil Kim, and even Eminem, all of whom had raunch and shock factors that would surely satisfy the white audiences clamoring to sing sweet melodies about ripping out weaves. Obviously originality isn’t the main thing on trial here, but c’mon.
At the onset of the 2010s, acoustic rap covers grew from one-off curios to an entire cottage industry of their own. Bolstered by a new generation of singer-songwriters — see Taylor Swift doing Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” or Ed Sheeran’s medleys of crowd-pleasing rap hits — and some key media syncs (a Gossip Girl threesome soundtracked by a breathy cover of T.I.’s “Whatever You Like”) — the form blew up on YouTube. In the same way that remixes of popular songs can garner SoundCloud DJs higher playcounts than usual, acoustic covers rack up numbers that your average aspiring singer-songwriter simply doesn’t get on their original compositions.
The most illustrative example of this is Niykee Heaton, a singer/guitarist who began posting music on YouTube in 2012. Her earliest originals hover between 50k and 100k views (mind you, this is years after she “blew up”), and then you start to see covers of songs like Future’s “Turn On The Lights,” Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” and the Weeknd’s version of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” get into the upper hundred-thousands. Those are all melodic pop songs by black artists, but not necessarily hip-hop; it’d take Heaton diving headfirst into the latter for her to break a million views. To date, her most-viewed covers are all of rap songs, among them Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa” (4.2 million), Drake and Lil Wayne’s “The Motto” (2.3 million), Juicy J’s “Bands A Make Her Dance” (1.3 million).
Heaton’s early career illuminates what’s inherently problematic about white artists strumming their way through rap hits, regardless of their intentions. Seeing a preppy golfer, or a bookish pianist, or a bleach-blonde white teenager drop n-words, gun talk, or regional black slang creates racialized cognitive dissonance that’s different than, say, Heaton covering Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” What’s more, that contrast, that sense of giggling voyeurism, seems to be the common-denominator catalyst for the success of acoustic rap covers. The more shocking, the more juxtapositional, the more attractive for fans of the form.
“She’s talking about guns and drugs, but it’s something she knows nothing about or even cares about,” said Jamal Olori, a writer for FX’s Atlanta, of Heaton’s “Love Sosa” cover in a 2018 interview with Vulture. “We’ve had a running joke for years about popular songs that were initially trap and extremely gutta, and they get really mainstream. Then you get people who have no reference for those songs doing covers.” Olori was discussing “Sportin’ Waves,” an episode of the show that contains the single best existing sendup of the acoustic rap cover as a concept. To offer a very brief summary, a rapper named Paper Boi blows up with a self-titled hit (“It’s about selling cocaine,” said Olori), and is then shocked when his white weed dealer shows him a video of his girlfriend (also white) covering the song. “Oh yeah, she’s gangster, bro,” the dealer tells Paper Boi.
Heaton eventually ditched her acoustic guitar, filmed a big-budget video with Migos, and then faced a firestorm of cultural appropriation allegations, ranging from skin-darkening (or “blackfishing”) to false claims about her South African heritage. Comparatively, standalone parodies like Dynamite Hack’s “Boyz In The Hood” or Folds’ “Bitches Ain’t Shit” feel less culturally damaging, despite being relics from a time when white men still felt comfortable publicly saying the n-word. The earliest acoustic rap covers weren’t springboards for careers entirely based on their success, they were just shitty jokes.
Fortunately, the form seems to have reached its peak in the mid-to-late 2010s, just before it was skewered on Atlanta. Ben Folds stopped playing “Bitches” live, Niykee Heaton’s star has faded, Sheeran has upgraded(?) from acoustic rap parodies to hip-hop songs of his own, and most notably, Dynamite Hack have never even attempted anything like “Boyz” again. A younger generation of whiny, white rappers and singers has emerged, acoustic guitars in tow, but they’re more interested in stealthily adopting bits and pieces of hip-hop culture than lampooning it or offering their takes on, say, the Migos songs they grew up on. This could just be a lull, but after two decades of incrementally more toxic and prevalent acoustic rap covers, we might finally be in the clear.