KANYE WEST feat. JOHN LEGEND / “Home”
I met this girl when I was three years old And what I loved most was she had so much soul —Kanye West, from “Home”In the past, we’ve given Kanye West a good bit of grief. (And by ‘we,’ I guess I mean me. Kalamu seems to be more of a fan than I am.) But I have to give credit where credit is due. One thing I definitely dig about Kanye is his appreciation for what he calls ‘soul beats’ – samples that incorporate the more melodic elements (usually including vocals) of soul records along with the drum patterns. The other thing that differentiates an actual soul beat from a regular beat that just happens to include a soul sample is that the melodic loop of a soul beat will repeat through most or all of the track. In other words, there are lots of rap records where you’ll hear a vocal or melodic lift on the chorus, as part of the hook. But soul beats—particularly the way Kanye does them—incorporate the melodic sample as part of the verses as well. Some of these records end up sounding like the rapper is battling the soul sample for control of the track. It’s as if you went to an old folks’ party and some young cats grabbed a mic and started rapping right then and there without waiting for the drum break. I’m not saying Kanye invented that style of sampling. It’s actually been around for a long time. Without trying to be definitive about it, the earliest progenitor of soul beats that I can think of was the RZA of Wu-Tang Clan fame. He didn’t always use vocal hooks on the verses, but he did usually use samples where the soul factor was very high, where you wouldn’t have a doubt that you were listening to an old soul record. That soulfulness tended to permeate Wu-Tang’s music, giving their records a musty, dark vibe as well as a more substantive tone than the music of their contemporaries. To me, some of their best records—like “Can It All Be So Simple” from the album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Jive, 1993)—sounded like classics from the first time I heard them. Many years have passed and today, the only Wu-Tang MC who can still be counted on to consistently deliver interesting and relevant music is the inimitable ‘Pretty’ Tony Starks AKA Iron Man AKA Ghostface Killah. On “Big Girl” from Fishscale (Def Jam, 2006), Ghost takes the soul beats style about as far as it can possibly go. Instead of sampling and looping a soul record, Ghost raps right through one, literally. As Mr. Starks rips through an expletive-laced warning/homage to girls who like cocaine a little too much, the Stylistics’ “You’re A Big Girl Now” plays, not in the background, but right there in the foreground and at full volume. Favorite moment: the dueling voice-overs. On the break, one of the Stylistics goes into his ‘love rap,’ saying, “Baby, I love you / Yes, I do / And you know in all my life, you’re my dream come true.” And meanwhile, there’s Ghost, lecturing a couple of coked-out girls he’s just met at the bar: “Y’all gotta get off that nose candy to make it in life and all that shit / That’s why I’m here / I’m like a father figure and all that shit.” Words to live by, right? And it’s not even like they put The Stylistics on the left channel and Ghost on the right. No, instead, they’re both in stereo and both at full blast. Then there’s something like UGK’s “International Players Anthem” from UGK: Underground Kingz (Jive - 2007), which features the two UGK MCs and both members of Outkast flowing over the entire chorus of an old soul record. You’d think hearing the same chorus through an entire record would get old, but it actually works. And the way they hold back the slamming drum track until Dre (who’s on first) finishes his entire verse is brilliant. It has the effect of making the whole verse sound like an intro. It also sets up a strong contrast between Dre’s 31st-century out-there-a-minute flow and Pimp C’s locked-in-the-pocket Old School style. One other thing to note about this record. It begins with just the melodic sample, but while 3000 raps, you can hear the beat he’s rapping to even though it’s not actually there. Then at the end, the reverse happens. When Big Boi kicks off his verse, they drop the sample out but keep the beat. If you’re like me, the sample loop will keep playing in your head even though you’re not actually hearing it. Before I get to the Kanye record, I want to mention something called ‘talk over.’ Back in the early and mid Seventies, before hip-hop started sounding like what we’d recognize today as ‘rap music,’ Jamaican DJs (who are actually like our MCs) were ‘talking over’ dub plates of popular Jamaican records. At reggae blues dances, the selector (who is the equivalent of the hip-hop DJ) would spin a dub and DJs would take turns chanting over the wax. Eventually, talk over spread to recording studios and a new style was born. It’s no coincidence that most of hip-hop’s pioneers were either from the Caribbean or had Caribbean ancestry. The Jamaican ethic of using records to make records traveled with the pioneers as their families emigrated from their respective home islands to New York City. Today, when I hear soul beats, I think of much older records like “Flat Foot Hustling,” available on Ultimate Collection (Hip-O Records - 2003) which features a Jamaican DJ named Dillinger talking over a reggae classic by Dennis Brown. Whether you love him, hate him or you’re ambivalent, you have to admit that Kanye West has a great ear. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is a gospel classic Broadway show tune, one I’m most familiar with from hearing Aretha’s fantastic version from her Aretha Gospel LP. Patti Labelle, from back when she was still with the Labelles Blue Belles, also has a good version and I’ve heard and liked that one too. But I have to say, it never occurred to me that anything in the Labelles’ Blue Belles’ version could have served as a hook for a rap record. Enter Mr. West. For the as-yet-unreleased “Home,” Kanye took the briefest of sample loops from one of Patti’s powerful held notes and used that to build an entire song-length track. Conceptually, the song is old hat: rappers have been rapping about “girls” who actually turn out to be music or cities or weed or what have you for many years. What elevates “Home” is how well done the lyrics are. A lot of these types of records only work the first time. Once you know the personification trick is coming, it comes off as just cute instead of good. But Kanye’s lines about ‘Wendy’ (as in the ‘Windy’ City) ring true even after you know he’s rapping about Chicago and not an actual girl. Plus, as he mentioned himself, the track just has so much soul. —Mtume ya Salaam Saddle Up! Sherlock Holmes is riding again. One never knows until one does the research or some-other-wise gets hipped to what’s really happening. In fact, that is the role of the critic: to let us know what it is we got once we get hold of something. Context and content, a good critic can set both off for us. And once we been hipped than we can see for ourselves. Like after reading this breakdown, I immediately realized that this little remix track from the When We Were Kings Muhammad Ali documentary fit right into the soul-remix concept. It’s sort of like a mash-up except it’s not two known pieces put together. Instead it’s one known piece used to set off a new piece. This remix/remaking thing is getting interesting, and more interesting by the minute. I ran across the track on Souled on (Music, Art, Politics, and Life), a website I frequent. I quote Scholar’s right on write up:
"Rumble In The Jungle (Arythematic 411 Remix)" -- The Fugees/A Tribe Called Quest/Busta Rhymes/John Forte. The original version of this track was released on the soundtrack to the film When We Were Kings, a documentary about the famous "Rumble In The Jungle" heavyweight championship between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman in 1974. The song was also released as a maxi-single in 1996, and as a 12" that included a radio edit and some snippets from the film. Personally, I was checkin' for a remix, but no such luck until I scored this one by a basement DJ a few years ago. Why bother, you ask? I always thought the lyrics were kinda dope, and you have to appreciate this line-up--especially since most of the players have since gone missing or insane. The original beat was a bit of a turn-off for me, but hell...it was doomed from the start with the lacing of that shitty ABBA sample. Sorry dancing queens, but "Name Of The Game" sucks. Arythematic's take on the track is still not sonic perfection, but like it or not, you gotta admit that his choice of sample is most agreeable in comparison. —ScholarOh, one other thing, Sherlock, you made a wrong turn back there when you described “Never Walk Alone” as a “gospel classic.” That mistake probably happened because you were so impressed with the Aretha Franklin. Long story short, it is a 1945 Broadway tune written by Rogers and Hammerstein for their musical Carousel and was a hit for a number of artists over the years. Indeed, it was so popular in the fifties and the sixties that it frequently showed up as “the” high school class song. I know the song from my man Roy Hamilton, a fifties R&B and pop singer who had a #1 R&B with it in 1954. Roy’s version has a square arrangement but what a voice. My man is a beautiful vocalist with superb control. Check him out. And I agree about that Kanye track. Looks like my man is going to go the distance as both a producer and a rapper. For a minute I thought his ego was going to derail him but he has managed to stay on track, to continue turning out the work. His work ethic is most impressive, especially when you consider how much he does as a producer for other artists. More on Kanye next month when the new one drops. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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