At his core, Bowie’s approach shared the same fundamental principle as hip-hop or really any good art: do what you want.
Heroes eventually die. Sometimes, you survive 69 earthly rotations. Sometimes, the heroism lasts just a day. David Bowie understood this, decades before the UFO picked up extraterrestrial Outkasts stranded in East Point. Before Lil Wayne listed his residence as the Red Planet, Ziggy Stardust jammed on Mars. If Kanye produced The Blueprint, Bowie built it wearing a bouffant. The Thin White Duke had swag when it was merely called “style.”
People like David Bowie aren’t supposed to die because there are no people like David Bowie. It’s more surprising that he existed in the first place—the Brixton-bred shape shifter who shared a numbly common name with a Monkee and staked his legend on intergalactic originality. Somewhere between Sun Ra’s first astral flights and George Clinton beaming into the Mothership, there was the man who fell to earth, operating simultaneously at the center of the pop culture universe and light years ahead—as mainstream as a Martian can get.
Bowie. The flamboyant futurist who survived enough stimulants to kill Rick James six times over. As versatile and irreplaceable as Miles Davis. As singular as a snowflake sculpted from cocaine. A class act that could make Caligula stammer. The pioneer of art-rock, glam rock, hair metal, punk, and everything that appeared in the Vice Guide to Hipster Music Genres. He turned a Goblin King into a bizarro Sex God in a Jim Henson movie. I’m sure there are people who don’t like David Bowie, but they only exist in comment sections. David Bowie was what’s cooler than being cool. Andre 3000 would tell you the same.
You can’t wholly eulogize Bowie. Part of his genius was his inscrutable slipperiness—the rock star as shadow emperor projecting orgiastic fantasies, writing odes to Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, and indulging in opulent drug binges.
He figured out how to make artifice seem authentic, the authentic seem absurd, the absurd seem oddly real. He (probably) fucked Mick Jagger and married Iman. You can interpret him almost any way you want. Somewhere, some DNC intern is currently scouring the lyrics to “I’m Afraid of Americans,” hoping to convert it into a pro-Hillary meme.
If you’re so inclined, you could convincingly argue that David Bowie might have influenced rap more than any rock star other than Prince. And if you don’t believe that he significantly affected Prince, I challenge you to an old school rules walk-off.
At his core, Bowie’s approach shared the same fundamental principle as hip-hop or really any good art: do what you want. There’s a reason he’s the guy who wrote “Rebel Rebel.”
The list of those who sampled him reads like a Hip-Hop Hall of Fame. Dilla nicked the drums for “Take Notice” from “Soul Love.” El-P swiped the same ones for “Innocent Leader.” Kanye dropped a distorted bellow from Bowie’s “Fame” on “The Takeover.” Public Enemy’s “Night of the Living Baseheads” deploys a chopped guitar squeal from “Fame.” Ice Cube used it for “Alive on Arrival.” A warped loop of “Fame” soundtracks EPMD’s “It Wasn’t Me, It was the Fame.” Dre jacked it for a song on his Aftermath compilation.
There’s a Suga Free song built off Bowie called “Allergic to the Bullshit.” Does Pomona’s most celebrated pimp owe something to Mars’ most venerable polyamorist? Contrast these photos and do the math. You can see or hear Bowie’s sound in Saul Williams, MC Lyte, Sage Francis, Max B, Toddy Tee, ODB, and MF Doom. But none remotely match the impact of the two biggest rap singles bearing his fingerprints.
Over a quarter century later, it’s still as easy to mock “Ice Ice Baby” as it was upon its release. Robert Van Winkle never did himself any favors, and it’s fallen so far out of favor that its request would even embarrass a wedding DJ. But it doesn’t change the fact that David Bowie (and Queen) essentially produced the first-ever number one rap song. And with the hindsight of history, it’s patently obvious that no one ever gave a fuck about Vanilla Ice—they just really loved David Bowie.
For millions of pre-adolescent hip-hop fans, “Ice Ice Baby” served as a gateway drug in the same way the Bow Wow later was for Vince Staples. And corniness aside, Vanilla Ice sounds like Mobb Deep next to Macklemore. Plus, it also established a formula soon mimicked by Puff Daddy: Match a popular 80s pop sample with moderately hard drums and watch the money pile up.
We could be here all day if we spent the proper amount of time memorializing the video for Puffy and Mase’s “Been Around the World.” The Bad Boy principals deserve plenty of credit. So do director Paul Hunter and the Bedouin sheiks who saved our heroes from near-certain death due to lack of champagne. But the truth is that David Bowie is as responsible as anyone. He deserves credit for being jiggy enough to clear the sample, but also for recruiting Nile Rodgers to produce the 1983 original. This was a only a few years after Rodgers’ “Good Times” became “Rapper’s Delight,” hip-hop’s first breakout hit.
It goes much deeper than a list of easily Googleable samples. Bowie’s artistic integrity, commitment to creative evolution, willingness to defy convention, and don’t-give-a-fuck fearlessness endeared him to hip-hop artists, those who identified with the feeling of being disenfranchised, and anyone who just liked good songs.
“I admired his fearlessness…his commitment to live out each idea fully…to become different things but never to sacrifice the significance of the output,” Open Mike Eagle said, when I asked about his appreciation. Eagle referenced Bowie on last year’s “Ziggy Starfish (Anti-Anxiety Raps).” “From folk to jazz to soul and disco, there was amazing songwriting in each form.”
When I interviewed Danny Brown a few years ago, the conversation drifted towards what inspired his aesthetic shift from braided Detroit D-Boy to asymmetrically coiffed Adderall Admiral. Immediately, Bowie’s metamorphosis into Ziggy Stardust came up.
“I was watching Bowie documentaries at the time and learned that his music didn’t start out immediately popular,” Brown said. “He had to get his show and look together and figure out the right crowd to promote his music too.”
You could pose the “Why Do You Like Bowie” question to ten artists and you’d get as many slightly different answers.
“It was his ever-changing concepts and music ideas… his fashion and style. His embracing of black culture and musicians used throughout,” Dam-Funk says when I ask. “It was his ‘don’t give a fuck what the status quo thinks’ attitude, and his ability to write about what was going on at the moment via the art prism.”
Unlike many of his peers who offered a patronizing-at-best tolerance of hip-hop and R&B, Bowie always had a progressive ear and aversion to bullshit. In the wake of his death, two clips went viral. The first was his 1983 rebuke of MTV for not highlighting enough black musicians. A decade later, Bowie astutely told Bryant Gumbel that, “the quality and significance of the social message has moved very much to the black and Hispanic market…where the new force of music is coming from…with a very strong social point…a means of discovery and a purpose."
So it makes perfect sense that he collaborated with Luther Vandross and Al B. Sure, or why he recruited Queen Latifah for “Fame ’90.” There’s this 2003 Complex interview with Mos Def where he talks about how much he loves “Respiration.” Bowie was obscenely wealthy, nearly 60 years old, and one of the most famous men on the planet, but he could still quote Blackstar lyrics. He might’ve made some sub-par albums, but he never fell off.
Most recently, Bowie invoked To Pimp A Butterfly as a chief inspiration on his hellhound jazz last album. Even at the end, his vision looked forward. After the news broke, Kendrick Lamar tweeted: “No lens could ever capture your point of view. What an honor, what a soul. David Bowie, Spirit of Gold. RIP.” Pharrell called him “a true innovator.” Big Boi posted the Aladdin Sane lightning bolt. And Lil B said, “David Bowie, I love you, thank you.”
It’s not hard to link the Based God’s willingness to breach hip-hop convention with Bowie’s puncturing of gender, sexual, and lyrical norms. Young Thug would probably wear women’s clothing regardless of whether or not Bowie ever wore glitter, but Bowie established a context. He offered liberation from conservative attitudes and allowed artists to realize that anything was possible as long as talent matched originality. He essentially helped invent the modern world.
Before he retired into the world of semi-pro acting, Andre 3000 felt like the rightful heir to Bowie (and Prince). During his peak run, Lil Wayne occupied the most drugged-out penthouse in Mars since Ziggy. But with his gift for reinvention and obsession with style, Kanye is probably the closest modern cognate. Both are “collectors of ideas,” synthesizing underground trends and applying an art school filter to pop technique. There’s a liberal arts college Musicology paper waiting to be written comparing 808s and Heartbreak and Yeezus to Station to Station and Low.
So it’s only right that Kanye paid final homage, writing that “David Bowie was one of my most important inspirations, so fearless, so creative, he gave us magic for a lifetime.”
Magic is probably the right word. Bowie’s supernatural imagination made him seem mythic. That’s why The Goblin King in Labyrinth was the specially designed codpiece that he was born to inhabit. He was never rightfully of this world but shaped it irrevocably. If you told me that he turned into an owl and flew off towards the moon, that would make much more sense than telling me that David Bowie is mortal. Nothing lasts forever, of course, but he’ll come as close as anyone.
Jeff Weiss doesn't think it's a coincidence that "bars" rhymes with "Mars." Follow him on Twitter.