The Art of the Collage

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about not being able to hate Jay-Z and Beyonce. I stand by that. But in the gym yesterday that played "Forever Young" along with the video. I think that song is really bad, to the point of signifying much of the criticism of sampling. 

The whole point of hip-hop is to take pieces of sound—sometimes music and sometimes not—and make them into something new. Before the sampling laws changed this meant pulling from a dizzying array of sources to make something like this epic orchestra of noise. Check out the extensive sampling list to get an idea of how much is going into the piece. 

But I think the sampling list underplays the most significant addition—Chuck D's voice. Great MCing can transform an ordinary loop into something more. In the clip below, what you hear is the great Biggie Smalls using his voice the way a drummer would perform a solo. The result is something new—and this is brought home when Total starts singing and you realize you'd rather just listen to James Brown.

Hip-Hop production tries to reinvent, and MCing attempts to actually interpret a song through verbal and musical expression. Jay-Z, in the past, has been a master of that sort of reinvention. Whatever you think of the two versions, Jay's "Hard Knock Life" is a very different than Annie's. And yet it's a riff of it—both thematically and musically.

I spent most of yesterday going through some of his old music and the samples. It really brings a new level of appreciation. It really is amazing listening to a song like "Dead Presidents" and seeing how it was pulled from this Lonnie Liston piece, and then given a narrative. Kenyatta asked me if hearing the samples and then thinking on "Forever Young"—which just feels lackluster, nothing new added—depressed me. Not really. Listening to what Jay is capable of, and what he's done in the past is actually deeply inspiring.

Back to Ray Bradbury again, it's the conglomerate heap of trash—but burned at a high flame. It's why I have nothing but disdain for snobs who create no art, asserting what "isn't art,", for fools who make a living wallowing in their ignorance.

May this army of powdered noses forever get the bozack. Hip-hop is the most important art form in my life, because it is the art of democracy. Hip-hop does not care if it's Led Zeppelin or Lena Horne. It will find the humanity in any sound imaginable, pull it out, and reveal the boom-bap in us all. It is the musical expression of our commonality, of our blood.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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