The under-acknowledged significance of the year 1985 in the hip-hop world rightfully deserves a spot on people’s rap radars. Run DMC was killing the game in unprecedented ways, and J. Cole was born that year, making him decide on “1985” as the title for his recent sonic finger-wag at today’s new wave of rappers. And although the release of LL Cool J’s debut album is a contender for 1985’s most important hip-hop event, there’s one cultural beacon that also happened on July 3rd of that year: the release of the first Back To The Future film, which inadvertently sparked one of the most fun and long-lasting trends in hip-hop.
There was a period in hip-hop history where rappers wanted to trade in their Air Force 1’s for a pair of Air Mags, and the way rappers were referencing the absurdly fly, Aventador-like DeLorean time machine left and right would fool anyone into thinking it was the newest Rolls Royce model every rapper couldn’t wait to cruise down the highway in (or just take an Instagram picture with).
Director Robert Zemeckis’ film was so refreshingly innovative and just plain unbelievably swaggy for an ‘80s production that it is still being referenced 33 years later. Between the collective obsession rappers have with spitting bars about how their skill set makes them “ahead of their time,” and the movie’s gift of timeless clever references, one does not have to search far and wide for an explanation about why hip-hop loves mentioning the Back To The Future series. Reflecting on the sheer number of BTTF references in hip-hop, it’s proven that the movie bestowed a time capsule of artifacts upon us that will live on no matter how many times they are mentioned. Here is a breakdown of hip-hop’s relationship with the iconic 1985 sci-fi film in honor of its 33rd anniversary.
One of the earliest significant Back To The Future references dates back to 2002 when hip-hop giant, JAY-Z, foreshadowed his reign in the game on The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse (which coincidentally released around his 33rd birthday). On the album’s second track, “Hovi Baby,” he raps, “I’m so far ahead of my time, I’m ‘bout to start another life/ Look behind you, I’m ’bout to pass you twice/ Back to the future, gotta slow up for the present.” Judging by Jigga’s decade-spanning career, this assertion of a futuristic pen game ultimately didn’t turn out to be an empty claim.
Since then, the amount of Back To The Future references within hip-hop have been multitudinous, but to no one’s surprise because the film was so culturally noteworthy. Some references were slicker than others, while others unabashedly named their tracks after the film, such as A$AP Rocky with “Back To The Future,” D’Angelo (who has not one, but two Back To The Future tracks on his album Black Messiah), and Wale, who was inspired by the film and dedicated an entire Back To The Feature joint project with 9th Wonder in 2009 to it.
In 2011, Ludacris dropped a mixtape titled 1.21 Gigawatts (Back To The First Time), which is a reference to the exact measurement of power needed by Doc Brown to activate the DeLorean.
In 2012, Rockie Fresh also drew inspiration from the DeLorean, but referenced the exact speed calculated by Doc, which was 88 MPH, that was required to travel to the future. He named his mixtape Driving 88 and, of course, included the car on the cover.
Kanye West, in particular, has been extremely open about his love for the trendsetting film, as his incorporation of Back To The Future elements into his music far surpasses solely name-dropping McFly once or twice. The cover art for Kanye’s third studio album, Graduation, is an homage to taking the leap of faith into the real world beyond the barricades of self-doubt. On the Takashi Murakami-designed cover, the infamous teddy bear and the signature Kanye West shutter shades became staples associated with this particular ‘Ye era, but an often overlooked detail is the fly pair of shoes the bear is sporting: the Air Mags from Back To The Future 2. These self-lacing kicks became one of the most sought-after shoes in the mid-2000s, hitting a price point of $12,500 for a single pair. An original Air Mag (not the pair, only one shoe) worn by Marty McFly himself in the movie, was recently sold for a hefty price tag of $92,100 earlier this month after 220 placed bids.
Right from Graduation’s intro, “Good Morning,” Kanye West raps, “Good morning, look at the valedictorian/ Scared of the future while I hop in the DeLorean,” yet another blatant nod to the film. Kanye even makes sure to slip in a BTTF reference on his guest appearances on other people’s tracks, such as his verse on Fabolous’ “Like This” and Rihanna’s “Diamonds (Remix).”
While many may attribute Kanye’s fascination with the film to his similarities with Marty, he also possesses an extremely Doc Brown-like quality—a frenetic nature that prompts him to bounce outrageous ideas around that have the people around him in initial disbelief, but his out-of-the-box propositions often came into fruition as ingenious works of art that were far ahead of their time, such as 808s And Heartbreak. Furthermore, as the recent series of G.O.O.D. Music releases display, Kanye is notoriously known for making a whole lot of last-minute decisions that will either make or break the anticipated outcome, similar to how Doc Brown’s sudden assertions dictated whether or not someone would just stay stuck 30 years in the past forever.
There were moments some references took on a more serious tone, such as when Nas rapped about longing to go back to a time when his people ruled the world. On “Land of Promise” with Damian Marley, he raps, “Imagine a contraption that could take us back when/ The world was run by black men, back to the future.” But for the most part, the Back To The Future bars were used for flexing purposes, such as when Pusha-T rapped in “Don’t F**k With Me”: “Dreams money can buy, three racks just spent on my Marty McFly’s/ Now I’m back to the future, my career deja-vu you when you muthaf**kers thought I would hardly survive.” Then, there’s Hoodie Allen, who concocted a hybrid bar with references to two different films in the same line on his track, “Movie.” “My life like Benjamin Button, let’s go back to the future,” he rapped. Other OG rappers who also participated in the everlasting trend of BTTF bars are Lil Wayne (“Typa Way Freestyle”), Eminem (“Sway In The Morning Freestyle”), Mac Dre (“Not My Job”) and The Game (“The Documentary 2”).
In retrospect, the Back To The Future saga delivered an impact beyond the ridiculously cool sneakers and extravagantly futuristic cars that rappers can cook up a rhyme scheme with. Most importantly, it relays a resonating message that can be applied to life in general, but pertains to hip-hop perfectly: the past should be thoroughly appreciated and admired but left alone. Everything, every bar, beef, and collaboration, happened for a reason.