Candle in the Wind: On Elton John’s Relationship With Hip-Hop

Alex Swhear explores the mutual fascination between rap music and Sir Elton.
By    June 18, 2019

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If Alex Swhear has a daughter, guess what he’s gonna call her, he’s gonna name her Bonnie.

Last September, Elton John launched the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It featured an ambitious, career-spanning setlist encompassing nearly every major hit of his decades-long career. But one particular moment garnered headlines: Elton’s tribute to Mac Miller. He dedicated “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” to the late rapper, who had passed away just a day earlier, a poignant and unexpected tribute in his home state.

Though unexpected, it wasn’t entirely out of character for Elton – one of the few artists from the “classic rock” era who has shown genuine reverence and interest in hip-hop. Through public statements, live performances, cleared samples, and artistic collaborations, Elton has been willing to play a fascinating sort of gatekeeper role – lending credibility to the genre with listeners disinclined to embrace it, and introducing himself to a new generation of fans in the process.

Elton’s embrace of hip-hop, of course, came long after Aerosmith and Run-DMC joined forces for “Walk This Way”, and there are plenty of other examples of artists who bridged the same gap (REM and KRS-One; Anthrax and Public Enemy; Paul McCartney and Kanye West and Rihanna). But Elton is unique in that his support for hip-hop has been vocal and sustained. He has praised artists both legendary and up-and-coming; he’s so game he even appeared on a Logic mixtape. Plenty of artists have opportunistically tried to wring money and attention out of rap, but John’s interest feels genuine.

Right now, Elton John is in full legacy mode, in the midst of a years-long farewell tour, on the brink of releasing a memoir, and fresh off executive-producing Rocketman, a musical biopic about his life and career starring Taron Egerton. His flirtations with hip-hop are a mere footnote in a long, prolific career in the public eye, but they offer a fascinating look at a legacy artist willing to extend his reach beyond his comfort zone at a time when he doesn’t need to.

“Bennie and the Jets”
Cover performances and samples

“Bennie and the Jets” is the ultimate Rorschach test of Elton John fandom. Detractors view it as an avatar of his excesses – garish, unfocused, and goofy to a fault. His fans, though, see a glimmering, singular showcase of everything that makes him great: virtuosic piano work; playful humor; colorful imagery; gleefully over-the-top falsetto vocals. Either despite or because of this,  “Bennie” is one of Elton’s most beloved songs, hitting #1 on the Billboard charts and amassing over 122 million streams on Spotify.

It is perhaps this ubiquity that makes “Bennie” an unexpected hip-hop mainstay. Frank Ocean sampled it for Channel Orange’s “Super Rich Kids”, as did Mary J. Blige for “Deep Inside”. Most memorably, a sample of “Bennie and the Jets” appears on A Tribe Called Quest’s brilliant final album, 2016’s We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. Tribe’s “Solid Wall of Sound” (which also features Jack White and Busta Rhymes) avoids a simple lift and shift of the song’s iconic, strutting intro, instead leaning on an isolated line from the first verse – and Elton even contributed some new material, a brief outro.

Most notable are a pair of hip-hop-adjacent covers that offer wildly varying takes on “Bennie”. The first is Biz Markie’s live rendition, originally included as a flexi disc with the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal magazine in 1995 and later on their The Sounds of Silence anthology. Is it a good cover? It’s important that I tell you up front that it isn’t, at least not in the way you would generally define a “good cover”. Biz’s performance pushes his trademark tunelessness to uncomfortable extremes, likely alienating everyone who isn’t already in on the joke. But as performance art, it’s sort of brilliant. His take is less American Idol reverence than sloppy, bourbon-soaked 3am karaoke – an approach that adds a welcome layer of fun to a song already winking at its own absurdity.

Another notable interpretation comes from Miguel and Wale, who recorded a cover for the 2014 reissue of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Miguel’s take is predictably psychedelic, adherent to the original but skewing spacier, a bit more distorted and bass-forward. It stumbles when Wale arrives, clumsily bemoaning struggles with groupies and label politics. You can feel him laboring to fit in but the result is simply awkward, reminiscent to a rapper straining to remain wholesome during a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards appearance. For what it’s worth, Elton himself approved: “Miguel’s done a fantastic job,” he told Rolling Stone. “It really makes the best of what the song is all about.”

“Stan” – Eminem (2001)
Live performance at the Grammys

There’s a telling scene in 8 Mile where Eminem’s character B-Rabbit comes to the defense of a gay co-worker whose sexual orientation has been mocked by another co-worker (played by Xzibit) in a freestyle battle. Initially uninvolved, Em chimes in with a rebuttal: “Okay folks, enough with the gay jokes,” only to insult Xzibit as “gay” a mere four words later – and then later on, a “homo” and a “faggot”. B-Rabbit is treated as a hero (winning the favor of his love interest, along with the gay co-worker he defended), but more importantly, Eminem’s intent was communicated in big, bold letters: My homophobic language is fine as long as it isn’t directed at an actual homosexual.

If the logic sounds questionable, it absolutely is – and Em, at the age of 46, has all but doubled down on it. It’s an argument he has been making for more or less his entire career, and he never made it more loudly than with his “Stan” performance with Elton John at the 2001 Grammys – an embrace that took place amid protests from GLAAD over Em’s perceived homophobia.

In retrospect, it’s too on the nose, too transparent in its tokenism, like a Twitter troll who points out how many black friends they have immediately before saying an objectively racist thing. But symbolically, Elton John’s endorsement carried real weight. At this time, Em was making moves – including his Aerosmith sample on The Eminem Show and his Heart sample on Encore – to become the only rapper your suburban dad likes, a hip-hop artist widely respected within the genre who could also appeal to a generation raised on classic rock radio. But that admiration for the genre hadn’t yet been reciprocated. Elton’s presence was multi-pronged, softening the blow of homophobia charges and lending Eminem further legitimacy at a time when his popularity was still spiked with a healthy dose of uneasiness.

It’s also just a damn good performance. Even if their partnership didn’t yield anything else musically (despite years of rumors), Em and Elton ultimately forged a genuine friendship. They had a wide-ranging discussion in 2017 for Interview, and Elton has reportedly help Eminem work through his drug addiction (having wrestled with addiction himself).

“Ghetto Gospel” – 2Pac (2004)
Song from Loyal to the Game, sampling “Indian Sunset”

Most of the posthumous 2Pac albums have been ill-advised, but Loyal To the Game feels particularly ghoulish. Game is assembled from the scraps of unfinished 2Pac songs by Eminem, the album’s executive producer (along with Afeni Shakur). There are admirable moments, but largely this is cold and mechanical, an off-putting Weekend At Bernie’s-level exercise whose sole purpose (aside from generating extra money) appears to be bolstering Em’s credibility as a producer. You remember the Michael Jackson hook on Drake’s Scorpion; now imagine if that “feature” had been a repurposed “Billie Jean” hook to rebut Pusha T’s accusations from “The Story of Adidon”. Now you’re getting a feel for just how ghastly and self-serving this whole thing was.

Em did stumble into a few inspired moments, however, chief among them being the Elton John-sampling lead single “Ghetto Gospel”. Em samples “Indian Sunset” from 1971’s Madman Across the Water. “Indian Sunset” is an intriguing selection – it’s something of a protest song, nearly seven minutes long, and one of Madman’s unheralded gems. Elton himself has pinpointed it as a personal favorite and, despite being relatively unknown, has included it in his recent setlists (which have otherwise been a greatest hits checklist).

Elton’s appearance here lends the song a gravitas you could imagine Pac admiring, with the sample (“And peace to this young warrior, without the sound of guns”) nodding at the malevolent side of 2Pac, the peacemaker and activist, that has played an outsized role in mythologizing him. It’s not an equivalent to “Candle In the Wind”, exactly, but it’s stirring and crowd-pleasing in all the right ways. Loyal To the Game as a whole is probably a moment best forgotten; there is nothing on Black Mirror as darkly dystopian as 2Pac’s voice being manipulated to shout out Obie Trice from beyond the grave. But “Ghetto Gospel” is a case study in what a good posthumous track can look like, and it is all the better for John’s involvement.

“All of the Lights” – Kanye West (2010)
Song from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; guest appearance

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is all about redemption. Not necessarily thematically; on that front, it’s uglier and more complicated. But redemption is the role the album plays in the story of Kanye West – pulling his career back from the brink. Post-Taylor Swiftgate, public perception of Kanye dramatically bottomed out (a nadir eventually surpassed when he switched to blonde hair, Both Sides-ed slavery, and bear-hugged white nationalists, of course). Every moment of the record is a calculated attempt to reverse that, an admitted “backhanded apology”.

“All of the Lights” is the album’s boldface centerpiece, its Pet Sounds-style, Dewey-Cox-wants-50,000-didgeridoos moonshot. It isn’t the album’s best song, nor is it its most successful (“Runaway” peaked at #12 on the Billboard charts, to “All of the Lights”’ #18), but it’s certainly its biggest; considering the sheer number of contributors, it’s a quiet miracle that the song doesn’t crumble under its own weight. The liner notes credit additional vocals from Rihanna, The-Dream, Kid Cudi, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Charlie Wilson, Tony Williams, Drake, Fergie, Elly Jackson, Ryan Leslie, Alvin Fields, and Ken Lewis. And Elton John.

All of the Lights is novel in that it doesn’t treat Elton John as the main attraction, despite the prestige and attention that come with his presence. He’s merely seasoning, no more crucial than Kanye or Rihanna or even Fergie. And yet the song’s climax, where he sort-of duets with Alicia Keys, is one of the album’s hardest-hitting moments, a dazzling grand finale that benches Kanye in favor of his collaborators. This is the only song in recorded history to treat Elton John like he’s Ty Dolla Sign, and it’s all the better for it.

“High” – Young Thug (2018)
Song from On the Rvn (EP), sampling “Rocket Man” (credited as a feature)

A Young Thug-Elton John collaboration felt imminent for years. Elton has been singing his praises for a while, even drawing parallels to John Lennon. And it isn’t a stretch to understand the appeal. Thug is a playful, fearless provocateur at heart, funny and over-the-top in presentation but utterly serious about his craft; arguably, no one else in hip-hop comes closer to capturing the spirit of Elton John. And on last year’s On the Rvn EP, their pairing finally happened (sort of). The EP’s closing song, “High”, samples “Rocket Man”, arguably Elton’s biggest commercial triumph.

It is a bold move, borrowing a song as iconic as “Rocket Man”. But rather than settle for the easy copy-and-paste job that adopts the song’s chorus as its own (an approach the song’s producer, Stelios Phili, originally attempted), “High” takes a somber clip from the song’s first verse and warps it into an eerie, faraway spectral howl for Thug to dance around.

As obvious as “Rocket Man” sounds as a sample choice, Stelios Phili and Thug give this song its own unique identity independent of its source material. It somehow stays very true to the spirit of its origins while also being unmistakably Young Thug. I had always hoped Elton and Thug’s long-gestating bromance would yield entirely new material, but it’s ultimately difficult to imagine something as perfectly in-synch with both artists’ strengths as this.

Elton records with Future (2019)

Rocketman uses Elton John’s rehab stint as its framing device, opening with his arrival there and allowing him to tell his story more or less chronologically, highlighting all the things along the way that brought him to bottoming out. It’s not a particularly original idea, but importantly, it zeroes in on the excesses that made Elton such a flawed figure. Even as it explains the root of Elton’s issues, though, it never lets him off the hook; Egerton and director Dexter Fletcher allow him to be entirely human. When Elton finds out he’s been cheated on and jumps into a pool, drugged up and suicidal, there’s empathy for his pain, but you find yourself equally frustrated that he consistently defaults to flawed, self-destructive decisions.

Enter Future, hip-hop’s reigning prince of flawed, self-destructive decisions. There aren’t any known instances of Future hurling himself into a swimming pool after a breakup, but “Throw Away” feels nearly as stark. Future has made a career of airing out his relationship problems and drug dependency in uncomfortable ways. Watching Rocketman, the parallels are clear. So naturally, the recent announcement that Future and Elton John had spent time in the studio together was greeted with excitement. There’s still no word on when their collaboration will see the light of day (perhaps on HNDRXX 2?) or what it will sound like (I like to think something like “Honky Cat”), but it’s unlikely to be boring.

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