By Gil Kaufman
From the child’s choir singing Queen’s “We Are the Champions” under the posse track “Champions” from the 2002 Paid in Full soundtrack, to his infamous musical retelling of his life-changing car accident, “Through the Wire,” which prominently reworked Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire,” Kanye West has long looked to his heroes for musical inspiration.
“Otis,” the new track from his long-awaited collabo album with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne, is no exception, making prominent use of the legendary soul icon Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” as the main musical driver in the tune.
And while producers like the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA have tried over the years to ease up on their use of sampling and others have attempted to chop their bites up so small and warped as to make them unrecognizable, West has just as often taken the opposite path, pushing the sample way upfront and letting it breathe as much as his own verses.
His 2004 debut, The College Dropout was lousy with samples of classic R&B, much of it sped up in the chipmunk style ‘Ye helped popularize, including the Aretha Franklin “Spirit in the Dark” bite in “School Spirit” and Marvin Gaye’s haunting “Distant Lover” on “Spaceship.”
By the time he got to 2005’s Late Registration, West was being even more overt, slipping in Etta James’ poignant vocals on “My Funny Valentine” in the calypso-tinged “Addiction” and the classic soul instrumental “It’s Your Thing” by Cold Grits as the bed for “Crack Music.” And who could forget his homage to the Shirley Bassey James Bond tune “Diamonds are Forever” in “Diamonds From Sierra Leone?”
The most memorable sample of all from that album was the tribute to Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” on “Gold Digger.” Others are lesser known, but no less a testament to West’s encyclopedic knowledge and love of soul music, such as his lift of some of the late rap godfather Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is” on “My Way Home.”
The Throne bonus track “The Joy,” produced by legend Pete Rock, gives a feature credit to the late R&B giant Curtis Mayfield, an inspiration Yeezy’s gone to before, employing some barely recognizable bits of the 1970 tune “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” on his bombastic 2004 hit “Jesus Walks.”
And West hasn’t always gone back to the classics, either, grabbing some of Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity” for part of the hook to “All Falls Down” from The College Dropout and going techno with Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” for “Stronger.”
He also indulged his rock jones on much of 2007’s Graduation, where he sampled tunes from such guitar greats as Mountain and rock/pop acts Steely Dan (“Champion”) and Laura Nyro.
The rush didn’t slow down on last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, either, from the clever reimagination of 1960s rock band The Turtles’ “You Showed Me” on “Gorgeous,” to a similarly offbeat take on King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” in “Power.”