Sampling in Hip Hop/Rap Need Not Be Politically Correct
|By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)|
First, it was “Blood on the Leaves.” Outrage from all over for how Kanye West appropriated Nina Simone’s heart wrenching rendition of “Strange Fruit,” a 1939 song about lynching (a song some today curiously describe as being sacred). Then, it was “Bound 2.” More group-think outrage about a decadent song and video which features a topless — and unapologetically erotic — Kim Kardashian, the mother of Kanye West’s daughter and his soon to be wife…
Typically, I avoid publishing commentary on matters like these, opting, at most, to share my brief thoughts among close friends and colleagues. That was my reaction when “Blood on the Leaves” was blasted by a broad swath of different people, all seemingly jockeying to prove just how distasteful “Blood on the Leaves” was. But wait: Hip hop/rap need not be politically correct to be dope. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself…
And more recently, that was my initial reaction to the “Bound 2” fall out, which was dismissed as old hat, in poor taste, and un-genius like, as well as parodied by James Franco and Seth Rogin. But what’s all the fuss about? A well-known, modern pop culture figure making pop art? Got it…
Now, before I continue, please let me preface the following by simply stating that I’m acutely aware of the history of lynching in the United States, as I am of the history of black American music and 20th century popular American music for that matter. I’m also adept at speaking about Colonial America, American slavery, and the Ante-bellum and Reconstruction Periods. That said, I’m also very aware of a number of different twentieth-century American popular music and cultural developments, in particular, the art of sampling in the hip hop/rap music tradition. And that is what I’d like to speak to.
The art of sampling in the hip hop/rap music tradition can be celebrated for a number of different reasons by music makers, fans, and scholars alike. But particularly for those who make sample-based beats or those in tune to hip hop’s power to convert anything to its own sensibility, the art of sampling is deeply celebrated for its power to reconceptualize, recontextualize, and repurpose sound recordings in ways that express the hip hop attitude, style, and feel. But that aside — if it can really be put to the side — for the moment, I get it: Some (maybe many) might disagree with Kanye West’s politics or, specifically in this case, his crass flexibility with one of the most profound black American songs of the 20th century. I get that. But whether you’re politically correct (allegedly), indifferent, or not too informed about the lynching and slave histories of the United States isn’t the point here.
Kanye West is pop artist. And by “pop” I mean popular, in the sense of what that word meant almost a half-century ago, not an underhanded way of saying lack of creativity or vision or worse still, today’s mainstream. Yes, Kanye West is a pop artist — one who’s pedigree is rooted deeply in the sampling tradition of hip hop/rap music. Does all of this buy him a pass? No. Does all of this excuse his appropriation of Nina Simone’s wonderful rendition of the beautifully dark and dreary “Strange Fruit?” No. But who said West needs a pass? And who says that he has to excuse himself from making use of his musical training, production skill set, or pop cultural influences and ideas? Moreover, who says he has to excuse himself or apologize for combining his training, skill set(s), and creativity in ways that he chooses, ways that he deems useful for exercising his imagination, emotions, or even observations — no matter how absurd — of culture and society?
Is Kanye West’s sampling of Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” vulgar? Perhaps. But then again, so is a lot of the sampling that makes up the hip hop/rap canon. Is West’s sampling of Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” outrageous? Again, perhaps to some. But pop stars — especially those who are creatively capable and riding the high of decadent self-awareness, superficialness, and reality-t.v. like absurdity — are outrageous by the nature of the fame construct that they’ve created and are typically compelled to fuel. But, unlike many a pop star who’ve been lead by a thousand of wizards behind the curtain, this guy, Kanye West, knows his shit! Call him an asshole, say he’s arrogant, say he’s always looking for attention, tell him he’s a fake genius. He’s no doubt heard it all before. Still, the man is an artist. Or if you like, he’s an artiste. Again, that doesn’t give him a pass. But that also doesn’t mean he has to be bound by convention, especially when the art of sampling, by its nature, has the power to transform and reconceptualize convention. So, however you fancy him, Kanye West is a student of music history and music production (and, like it or not, pop culture). Which means, when it comes to the art of sampling, he’s schooled in the “cut”, the “rupture”, the “break”, the “sound-stab” and, of course, the (sped-up) “vocal sample”.
So is West’s use of Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” shallow? Listen, if you’re critiquing “Blood on the Leaves” based on political science, or on the (misguided) notion that “Strange Fruit” is sacred, then maybe it is to you. Even as great and meaningful as it is, “Strange Fruit,” like any sound recording, is, in the end, source material to the sample-based musician. And one of the greatest traits that a sample-based musician or a rapper can have is objectivity. While I do not know if the idea for the song came before the beat was assembled or if the track was made prior to the beat, what is clear is that a piece of Simone’s vocals on “Strange Fruit” was flipped, sonically and conceptually, and transformed into something new. If you have a hard time with a talented, self-aware, outspoken, and vane music artist converting a line from one of Nina Simone’s better known recordings into a backdrop for rhyme-rants about 21st century bitch problems or the gaps of socio-economic status, cool. Maybe one of those cable talk shows can use your (useless) outrage. But don’t bother trying to describe “Blood on the Leaves” as a bad musical move, especially when you may not quite get the art of sampling.
Side note: I think Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is one of the most important Black American songs ever recorded. And often, when pinned down for my single favorite song, any genre, I offer “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Yet, if Kanye West, or DJ Premier, or any other sample-based musician flips it well, more power to them. Because, you see, in hip hop/rap, whether we like the political correctness of a sample flip or not, if it sounds dope, it’s dope!