Published Mon, May 9, 2022 at 2:00 PM EDT
Lyricism is an emcee's most effective—and most affecting—creative tool. Hip-Hop doesn't need to adhere to anyone's pre-existing ideas of what constitutes "musicianship," the art of emceeing is as technical and as demanding a skill as mastering the accordion or learning the harmonica. But there are those who still believe that being able to play an instrument is evidence of "real musicianship." To that end, rappers and Hip-Hop producers are as musically-driven as anyone; don't let the samplers and drum machines make you ignore all of the live keys on those Death Row hits or how bouncy Kay Gee's Naughty By Nature basslines have always been. And it ain't just the producers, folks.
Just to make sure you know, here are 10 Times Legendary Rappers Picked Up Instruments and played on their iconic tracks.
WYCLEF'S GUITAR ON "GONE TIL NOVEMBER"
Clef's musicality was evident all over the Fugees' hit 1996 album The Score, but it was really on his solo debut that he got to fully indulge his creativity and show you his entire stylistic repertoire. And it was on this acoustic hit that the rapper/producer/songwriter really expanded his reach, by providing fans with a somber classic that crossed genre-lines. The song is guided by Clef's deft acoustic guitar, and it evokes both his Haitian background and his singer-songwriter bonafides.
DADDY-O'S GUITAR AND PRINCE PAUL'S KEYS ON STETSASONIC'S "FAYE"
Stetsasonic is famously the rap game's first full-on Hip-Hop band, and on this reggae-inflected track from their debut album On Fire, Daddy-O and Co. get to blend genres, and showcase their instrumental skills a little bit while they're at it. "Faye" is mostly beatbox-driven, but suddenly drops into a rocksteady riddim midway through the song, with Daddy-O providing some plucky rhythm guitar, and Prince Paul grooving with an island swing on the keys.
RAKIM'S DRUMMING ON ERIC B. & RAKIM'S "JUICE (KNOW THE LEDGE)"
On this theme song from the gritty 1992 urban drama, Rakim got to flex his already-legendary lyrical chops on what has become one of the most beloved and revered tracks from Eric B. & Rakim. What a lot of fans may not have known at the time that the pulsating drumbeat that propels the song was provided by none other than Rakim Allah himself. The R also produced the song on his own. "I made the track and put a regular boom bap drum sample on it," he explained to HalftimeOnline. "And then, I got on the drums and hit the (more drum sounds). That’s a special joint right there."
MCA'S FUZZ BASS ON BEASTIE BOYS' "GRATITUDE"
After their second album Paul's Boutique bombed commercially (it should be noted, en route to earning uber-classic status over the years), the Beasties decided to change their approach yet again for their third album. Ad-Rock, Mike D and MCA went back to their punk roots (sort of) and picked up instruments again. Except instead of snot-nosed teens banging away aimlessly, they actually took their playing seriously. The resulting album was their 1992 classic Check Your Head, and this anthem of an alt-rock single, which features some monster fuzz bass from Adam Yauch.
SHOCK G'S ORGAN SOLO ON DIGITAL UNDERGROUND'S "SAME SONG"
One of the most musically gifted individuals in the rap game, the keyboard skills of Gregory Jacobs hid in plain sight for years. On so many Digital Underground classics, Shock G laid down a memorable piano solo ("Doowhutchyalike" is a no-brainer, too), but it's his standout swing on the organ from this hit that's probably his most iconic. "Same Song" is an all-time great song for a lot of reasons, but the organ solo Shock plays is an undeniable highlight—of both the song, and the batshit-crazy movie it provided the soundtrack for, 1991's Nothing But Trouble.
ANDRE 3000'S GUITAR PLAYING ON OUTKAST'S "PROTOTYPE"
Andre Benjamin's ongoing evolution from southernplayalistic... young emcee to The Love Below was fascinating, to say the least. By the time OutKast dropped their critically-lauded double album in 2003, Three Stacks had cultivated a reputation for outside-the-box fashion, a unique brand of southern whimsy, and being one of the sickest rhymers to ever pick up a pen. But on this blissful hit single, Dre got to show everyone that he's also an expressive and melodic guitarist. Those elegant guitar lines carry this ethereal look at falling in love.
FLAVOR FLAV'S PIANO PLAYING ON PUBLIC ENEMY'S "I DON'T WANNA BE CALLED YO NIGA"
Those who know, know that Flavor Flav is a musical force within Public Enemy. Behind the gigantic clock and goofy persona, there's actually something of a musical savant; Flav can reportedly play 15 instruments. The most famous hypeman of all-time is known to play piano, bass, guitar, drums, etc. And on this standout from P.E.'s Apocalypse 91..., Flav got to highlight some of his love for boogie-woogie style piano. The subject matter is pointed: as Flav and Public Enemy rail against the casual overuse of the word "nigga."
Q-TIP'S KEYS ON "DANCE ON GLASS"
After the 1998 breakup of A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip forged his own path as a solo artist. Of course, that initally meant the chart-busting success of hits like "Vivrant Thing" and "Breathe and Stop," but as he began work on his second solo album, Kamal: The Abstract, Q-Tip sought to expand his repertoire as a musician. His love of sampling was undercut by a house fire that cost him so much of his record collection; so Tip began studying musical theory. The enriched musicianship shows up again on his third album, 2007's The Renaissance, and on this underrated album, Q-Tip shows off his talents as a self-contained artist: particularly with the gorgeous keys providing the musical bedrock.
SCARFACE'S GUITAR PLAYING ON GETO BOYS' "GETO BOYS & GIRLS"
Brad Jordan grew up a rock fan; the future Geto Boy loved funk and rock guitar players and was a huge fan of KISS. His cousin is Johnny Nash, and Scarface is another musician in Hip-Hop who has hid in blind sight. His chugging wah-wah guitar can be as evocative as a sticky Stax track from 1969, as best evidenced on this dope-as-fuck album cut from Geto Boys 1996 masterwork Resurrection. On the Mike Dean-produced "Geto Boys & Girls," Face's guitar is the soul of the song, a wordless hook that sounds like sinister Texas nights.
LAURYN HILL'S GUITAR PLAYING ON "SUPERSTAR"
On 2002s Unplugged 2.0, L-Boogie famously performed accompanying herself with an acoustic guitar. But even on her uber-popular debut solo album, Lauryn was showcasing her simple acoustic beauty. Of course, this particular is adorned with chimes, strings and glockenspiels, but its Lauryn's elegant acoustics that guide the song. In the Jim Morrison-referencing lyrics, Lauryn is getting some things off her chest; at the time, it was rumored to be a barb at everyone from Puff Daddy to her former Fugee bandmate Wyclef.