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No Country for Old (Rap) Men: Billy Joel—closet b-boy?

Robbie explores the unlikely influence of The Piano Man on a number of rap classics

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When I think of Billy Joel, the first things that spring to mind are ‘Uptown Girl,’ his string of car accidents while drunk in the early ’00s and… rap. Despite his reputation for soft rock, ballads, and his infamous ‘doo-wop period’, it seems that The Piano Man has been intrinsically connected to hip-hop since the park jam era.

‘Stiletto,’ taken from his 1978 LP 52 Street, was quickly adopted as popular breakbeat to rap over, and would later form the musical foundation for Kool G Rap’s seminal tale of the come up, ‘Road To The Riches,’ Nas’s subsequent tribute ‘Disciple‘, and the original 12″ version of De La Soul’s ‘Plug Tunin’‘. Even more significant was the interpolation of Joel’s ‘It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me’ as part of the most stinging section of Boogie Down Production’s ‘The Bridge Is Over,‘ which saw KRS-One adopting Billy’s attempt to respond to critics calling his music soft into a death blow to Marley Marl, Shan, Shante and Mr. Magic during the Bridge Wars.

Meanwhile, even saccharine love songs such as ‘Just The Way You Are’ have found themselves looped for Pete Rock skits and incorporated into the first Brand Nubian single, while Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg replayed ‘The Stranger‘ on ‘Tha Shiznit’ and fellow LA resident Xzibit chose to simply loop it instead for ‘The Foundation,’ his 1996 ode to fatherhood. Mr. Joel also prevailed during the ‘chipmunk soul’ era, as the Diplomats flipped 1978’s ‘Movin’ Out’ for ‘You Oughta Know’, ‘Uptown Girl’ for JR Writer’s track of the same name and ‘Leave a Tender Moment Alone’ on Wiz Khalifa’s ‘Keep The Conversation’ back in 2006. Not to mention Tragedy rode the riff from ‘Piano Man’ for ‘Shalom A Leck’ from his second LP, Jay-Z utilised ‘Honesty’ for soundtrack cut ‘Marcy To Hollywood,’ and Action Bronson flipped ‘Zanzibar’ into ‘Brand New Car’ for his Mr. Wonderful album.

Digging a little deeper reveals that Billy Joel’s first band, The Hassles, were responsible for the sublime ‘Four O’Clock In The Morning’ from their 1969 LP, Hour of the Wolf, which later served as the basis for both The Beatnuts ‘We Came Here’ and KMD’s ‘Subroc’s Mission’. Who knew that Billy could get that funky? Unfortunately, not every example of dipping into Joel’s musical fountain has produced great results. Mac Miller’s take on ‘Vienna’ is hot garbage, Yelawolf fails to make the most of the aforementioned ‘Movin’ Out’ on ‘Everything I Love The Most’, and the less said about Drake, Lil’ Wayne and Bun B’s ‘Uptown,’ the better.

What’s the appeal? The fact that Billy has shifted over 150 million albums over the course of his long career obviously played a big part, as does rap’s love of catchy piano riffs and sped-up vocals. But we also shouldn’t forget that Joel was born in the Boogie Down Bronx, spent much of the ’80s dating supermodels (including Elle Macpherson and Christie Brinkley, who he later married) and liked getting high and drunk way too much, so he was basically the blueprint for everything Puff Daddy did a decade afterwards. The good news is that he isn’t releasing new music anymore, so there is zero chance of him featuring on a Kanye West single or twinkling the ivories on a Swizz Beatz vanity project anytime soon.

Keep up with Robbie’s weekly ‘No Country for Old (Rap) Men’ here.

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