Whatever you think of Kanye West’s music or ludicrous persona the man is a genius at using samples. At at time when copyright law sometimes suffocates the use of sampling in hip-hop, West continues to go there even though he’s been sued a number of times. One imagines he has enough money to risk it.
If you look back at West’s six albums you’ll see how important this technique is to his product. By manipulating tempo, chopping and stretching, samples are putty in his hands. Boldness is key here. You’ve got to be confident in your skills to work Bette Midler or Aphex Twin into a track.
The West method mostly involves speed alteration. The backbone of one of West’s most famous tracks ‘Through The Wire’ is Chaka Khan’s 1984 track ‘Through The Fire’ tuned up. Elton’s John’s ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ fires up ‘Good Morning’ from 2007’s ‘Graduation’. He applied the same technique with Steely Dan’s ‘Kid Charlemagne’. Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’, slowed down for ‘Touch The Sky’, is dealt a deft hand.
Props to West for his varied crate-digging. You’ll find Prince, Otis Redding, Daft Punk and Ray Charles (famously in ‘Stronger’ and ‘Gold Digger’) dotted through the albums, but you’ll also find lesser-known acts such as The Alan Parsons Project, Great Expectations, Mandrill, Chairmen Of the Board, Super Cat, Hank Crawford and Laura Nyro. One of the joys of hip-hop records is the trove of other music you can discover. West’s output is fertile ground for geeking out. As well as using classic soul samples – Donal Leace’s ‘Today Won’t Come Again’ on ‘Hey Mama’ is a particulary good one – he’ll delve into German avant-garde (Can) and English New Wave (Tears For Fears). His taste is faultless.
Overall, West’s magic lies in his sampling power in my opinion. Often his songs would be weak without them. The juice of ‘All Falls Down’, for example, is Lauryn Hill’s ‘Mystery Of Iniquity’ from her MTV Unplugged 2.0 sessions, though the final version uses vocalist Syleena Johnson instead of Hill. Allegedly, Hill was charging $150,000 to licence the sample. ‘Yeezus’ is no different. West uses Nina Simone’s version of Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ with respect, chopping it into percussive spurts but preserving the mournful darkness of the main refrain. It’s exquisite. It’s not the only one, here are 5 genius samples from West’s new album.
An aside: there’s a continuing debate over whether the sample on ‘Black Skinhead’ is Gary Glitter or Marilyn Manson. Personally I think it’s the former, which is questionable. Hear for yourself:
You can listen to all of them below: