Forget everything else, it’s all about the music
Ever since it began, Hip Hop has sampled songs to create new beats. Be it a few looped seconds or a reworked chorus, there’s no denying that samples are the life blood of the genre.
This process of sampling that has fascinated me for years now; I love the inventiveness with which the most brilliant instances of surprising songs can be used to create something entirely new. And how, with a little musical archeology, one can peel back the layers of a track and discover a whole wealth of musical genres and songs. Just like studying Shakespeare’s private book collection, by studying the samples used in Hip Hop we can gain a greater understanding of the art. Thanks to musical services like Spotify, it’s never been so easy to experience that back catalogue of music.
Herein lies the crux, the reason I write this article. Through Spotify I began creating a playlist of the samples I love, samples that shaped a generation. As the list grew, so did my appreciation for Hip Hop producers – their influences so wide and varied. Some of them obvious, like Notorious by Duran Duran. Some of them less so, Parce Que Tu Croise by Charles Aznavour, from What’s the Difference (Dr Dre) is definitely a front runner for the “Most Obscure” award. However, as the list developed, I noticed the outstanding development of a precocious young producer. One whom, over the past 10 years, has grown into the most prolific sampler in the business. I give you the Defendant – Mr West.
Now I’ll be honest, I love Kanye’s work. However, there are a lot out there who see him as an overinflated ego who’s never far away from controversy – I should point out that I started work on this article before his now infamous, and fascinating, “Twitter Steam of Consciousness” – Yes he’s made mistakes, yes he can be outspoken, but when he says sorry, he means it. Forget all that – the man is an artist (what great artist doesn’t court controversy?) – judge him on his art not his latest tweet.
Thing is, whilst sampling may be a practice deeply rooted in Hip Hop culture, it doesn’t happen in every song. Sit Kanye down with the right equipment (the Roland TR-808 perhaps?) and he’ll create something beautiful out of thin air. Knowing this, and knowing how often he chooses to sample, should tell us something about the man. Here we have someone who, in his own rights, can create greatness, but instead, is humble enough to give precedence to the work of others.
To sample is to pay homage. The mindset is not – how can I improve this song? It’s – this song has something special about it, something so special that it can enhance my work in a way I never could. Kanye has repeatedly shown respect to so many different artists over the years, always careful in the way he handles their work. With some he’ll take that glimmer of genius, a piano riff, a haunting vocal, and let it shine. Others, he’ll construct an entire vocal and beat around, so as to allow the original to take centre stage. Consider this, Diamonds from Sierra Leone is merely the room, with the perfect lighting conditions, in which to display Shirley Bassey’s masterpiece. By using Diamonds are Forever, Kanye celebrates a song he respects. Showing it to the public in a way they’ve never heard before, one that’s relevant to a whole new generation.
Kanye West respects music. We should respect him for that.
Back in 2008, when Jay-Z headlined Glastonbury, I wrote a piece for my website about his legendary performance. A part of that article dealt with the same issues as this. Therefore, it’s only appropriate that I quote, or sample, myself:
Hip Hop lives off samples of great and obscure music in equal measures. Nowhere else in the music world will you see an artist so willing to mix and play with every musical genre, from blues to dance to rock. Hip Hop values every form, it doesn’t discriminate.
Sampling stokes the fire of the classic and keeps the forgotten flames of perfection burning. Kanye just happens to be the best at following that creed.
So here, for you, I present the In Defence of Kanye West playlist. It highlights a few of the more well known Kanye samples and a few of my favorites, it’s by no means comprehensive and of course some songs aren’t available through the service. Notable absentees being the King Crimson song 21st Century Schizoid Man, which can be heard on Kanye’s latest single POWER and the beautiful Kissing in the Rain, from Great Expectations (1998) as composed by Scotland’s very own Patrick Doyle and sampled on RoboCop (808s & Heartbreak.) For those of you without Spotify, I’ve included a track listing below.
Natalie Cole – Someone That I Used To Love (Heard ‘em Say and Wake up Mr West)
Ray Charles – I’ve Got A Woman – Single/LP Version (Gold Digger)
Chaka Khan – Through The Fire (Through the Wire)
Daft Punk – Harder Better Faster Stronger (Stronger)
Shirley Bassey – Diamonds Are Forever (Diamonds from Sierra Leone)
Curtis Mayfield – Move On Up (Touch the Sky)
Lauryn Hill – Mystery Of Iniquity (All Falls Down)
Otis Redding – It’s Too Late (Gone)
Elton John – Someone Saved My Life Tonight (Good Morning)
Steely Dan – Kid Charlemagne (Champion)
Max Romeo – I Chase The Devil (Lucifer, Jay-Z)
M.I.A. – Paper Planes (Swagga Like Us, T.I. ft Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and Kanye West)
The Staple Singers – Let’s Do It Again (Number One, John Legend)
Jackson 5 – I Want You Back (Izzo, Jay-Z)
Bobby Bland – Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City (Heart of the City, Jay-Z)
The Main Ingredient – Let Me Prove My Love To You (You Don’t Know My Name, Alicia Keys)
Jerry Butler – No Money Down (Dreams, The Game)
Aretha Franklin – Call Me (Selfish, Slum Village)
Alphaville – Forever Young (Young Forever, Jay-Z ft Mr Hudson)
Rotary Connection – Love Has Fallen On Me (Drivin’ me Wild, Common ft Lily Allen)
Kanye’s latest single, POWER, is out now