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Free Samples: Kanye West and the Art of Sampling

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Hip-hop and sampling go together like peanut butter and jelly, like apple pie and ice cream, like police brutality and unarmed African Americans (case in point: remember the Dallas police officer who recently shot and killed unarmed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, the passenger of a car that was too far away for the officer to tell if there was any imminent threat?).

According to Amir Said, musician and author of The Art of Sampling, sampling is “one of the most innovative music processes to emerge in the late-twentieth century.” The technique consists of taking a portion (or sample) of a song and inserting it into a new production, creating an entirely different concept and sound. This is has been the foundation of the rap genre since its humble beginnings, allowing beat-makers to express themselves and expose the harsh realities that far too many young black Americans like Jordan Edwards experience everyday.

While some may discredit the practice as simply stealing, there is no doubt that sampling has left a profound impact on hip-hop and popular music as a whole. Perhaps Mark Ronson said it best in his TED Talk: “Sampling isn’t about hijacking nostalgia wholesale. It’s about inserting yourself into the narrative of a song while also pushing that story forward.”

In keeping with this spirit, CKUT’s latest project, Free Samples, will highlight a rap artist each week, dissecting a handful of their songs and what they sampled along with the history behind each track. kanye 2

It’s no secret that Kanye West loves a good sample. Throughout his career, Yeezy has transformed old gospel tunes into R-Rated club bangers, winning him a few Grammys along the way — 21 to be exact. This signature style, dubbed “chipmunk soul,” is characterized by sped-up soul samples and was first unleashed unto the world via his 2004 critically-acclaimed debut
album, The College Dropout.

Aretha Franklin became a star on the Atlantic record label after leaving Columbia.

“School Spirit” (2004)
Song Sampled: “Spirit in the Dark” by Aretha Franklin (1970)

If there’s one person who’s deserving of the title, “the Queen of Soul” it’s Aretha Franklin. But perhaps that moniker has gotten to her head over the years. The iconic singer gave Kanye permission to use the sample on the condition that the song didn’t contain any swearing. That’s why the track is censored even on the explicit version of the album. Ironically, Kanye shouts “motherfucker” in the very first line of the song, perhaps out of spite. Fun fact: the rapper later reused the line from this song, “I’mma get on this TV mama/I’mma, I’mma put shit down” on the track, “Good Life” featuring T-Pain (self-sampling?)

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Gold Digger” feat. Jamie Foxx (2006)
Song Sampled: “I Got a Woman” by Ray Charles (1954)

In a 2015 interview with Ellen DeGeneres, Jamie Foxx revealed that the song’s iconic hook was inspired by his Oscar-winning performance in the Ray Charles biopic, Ray. After the success of their previous collaboration, 2004’s “Slow Jamz,” Foxx was reportedly called up by West at 3 in the morning to work on a new track which did not feature any samples. But after improvising in the studio for only about an hour, Foxx came up with his best Charles impression, reversing the meaning of  “I Got a Woman” from “she gives me money when I’m in need/Yeah, she’s a kind of friend indeed/I got a woman, way over town/That’s good to me” to “she take my money when I’m need/Yeah, she’s a trifling friend indeed/Oh she’s a gold digger way over town/that digs on me.”


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“Stronger” (2007)
Song Sampled: “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” by Daft Punk (2001)

Arguably Kanye’s biggest hit, “Stronger” derives from a vocal sample of Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” which itself features a re-worked instrumental of “Cola Bottle Baby,” a 1979 song by funk keyboardist Edwin Birdsong (still with me? Good). The rapper reportedly mixed the song over 75 times due to his perfectionist approach and is apparently still dissatisfied with the final cut. Daft Punk on the other hand were very delighted with how West’s single turned out. As Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of the electronic music duo stated, “Our song had a good sound, but when [the radio DJ] put Kanye’s record on, the sound was really fat. It sounds really big.”

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“Power” (2010)
Song Sampled: “21st Century Schizoid Man” by King Crimson (1969), among others

2009 was a rough year for Kanye. His previous album, 808s & Heartbreaks left listeners divided, while his interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards will go down in history. (But, let’s be honest: Yeezy hit the nail on the head that night. Eight years later, there’s no question that “Single Ladies” is one of the greatest videos of all time). In an outtake from the 2012 documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap directed by rapper Ice-T, West explained that “Power” was a turning point in his songwriting:

“I didn’t write my raps down for my first four albums — like at all, I did it from the head straight to the booth. But on this last album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I wrote it. I really put myself in the zone that my life was dependent on the success of this album. With that being the case, I said, ‘You know what? No matter what anybody says about me, they won’t — I can write something that can make someone that hates me the most have to really respect or love the song.’ So even a song like ‘Power,’ I spent 5,000 hours writing it, and it’s really the psychology behind the lyrics; it’s not just blatantly, ‘I’ve got all the power’ — ‘No one man should have all that power.’ It’s worded it in a really sensitive way that opens it up for everyone. Even if I use first person and say ‘I, I, I,’ it’s always for everyone.”

The song quotes English prog-rock band King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” along with samples from “Afromerica” by French disco group Continent Number 6 and “It’s Your Thing” by American funk band Cold Grits.

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“Blood on the Leaves” (2013)
Song Sampled: “Strange Fruit” by Nina Simone (1965)

Only Kanye could say the line “hurry up with my damn croissants” with a straight face. On his 2013 album, Yeezus, the rapper is at his most controversial, literally claiming that he is a god. With politically-charged tracks like “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves,” Kanye did not hold back. However, despite sampling a song about the lynchings of African Americans in the early-twentieth century, “Blood on the Leaves” is not about race. According to the track’s producer Hudson Mohawke, Kanye wanted to sample “Strange Fruit” for a long time but couldn’t find the right song to utilize in. Said Mohawke, “Obviously, ‘Strange Fruit’ carries so much political weight, and ‘Blood on the Leaves’ is more about past relationships, but you can draw some parallels between the two. There’s not an overtly political message in the final lyrics, but in some ways that would’ve been too easy.”

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Father Stretch My Hands” (2016)
Song Sampled: “Father I Stretch My Hands” by Pastor T. L. Barrett (1976) and “Panda” by Desiigner (2016)

Once again, only Kanye could write a gospel song with such explicit content. Situated right after the epic “Ultralight Beam” on The Life of Pablo, “Father Stretch My Hands” is part love song, part soulful dance number that transitions into an entirely different track about drug-dealing and stealing cars. “Pt. 2″ skyrocketed 18-year-old Brooklyn rapper Desiigner to fame, ushering in a new era of mumble rap. As for the song’s infamous verse, Chance the Rapper — who is
credited as a co-writer, but did not pen the most explicit lines — had this to say: “‘Ye is a comedian in a lot of ways. He writes stuff that is painfully funny and painfully true. And that’s why you respect comedy and that’s why you respect his work.”

– Matthew Martino