Warhol, Lichtenstein, Picasso, and Wu-Tang Clan

by Ricardo Gutierrez

I've had a few discussions with engineers (usually older engineers who didn't grow up with Hip-Hop) who don't consider Hip-Hop an art. I've been told, in so many words, that they felt like Hip-Hop music is theft of other music and unoriginal. It's hard to speak in general terms like that, obviously. Do I think some of it's songs are unoriginal? Sure, maybe even a lot of them are unoriginal. But I think there are enough examples of creative sampling to make the blanket statement idiotic.

I owe the majority of my music knowledge to Hip-Hop. It is precisely because of Hip-Hop that I understand the depth of James Brown's influence. It's because of it that I know that Bob James and Galt McDermot (yes, the guy who did the Hair soundtrack) are two of the funkiest white men on the planet. The list really can go on for a very long time, so I'll stop there.

I mean that literally. I would not know some of this music existed without Hip-Hop. Or, at least, I wouldn't have been led down this path without it. I get excited when I hear the original sample to something and I seek it out. Some of the originals still get played long after I've stopped listening the the sampled version. Not bad for an artist who may have been doomed to obscurity. This weeks passing of Melvin Bliss brings him to mind as an example.

You guys have talked about Pete Rock & CL's "They Reminisce Over You" a lot. The first time I heard Tom Scott's "Today" I got chills. Hell, I still get chills when the loop comes in. And I wouldn't have known who they hell Tom Scott was if it weren't for Pete Rock. 

Peep Scott's "Today" below. At around the :55 mark you start hearing the basis of "T.R.O.Y.". 1:39 is true goose-bumps time for me though. Extra special bonus, the start of the track is host to a Black Sheep sample from "Similak Child". (Black Sheep actually sampled Jefferson Airplane's version of "Today".)


I don't see Hip-Hop's sample based music any differently than I see Warhol soup cans or Roy Lichtenstein's comic book-based pop art. And those dudes' work hangs in museums. I am not saying it's the same thing, but the comparisons can be made. 

I am completely sympathetic to the original artist getting credit and money for their work and it's use. Let's be real, it's important for me as an engineer that artists get paid for what they do and keep wanting to make music so they can pay people like me to bring their vision to life. That said, a sample can be employed masterfully. 

Sampling, at it's best, can create a whole new space for the original song to exist in. Sort of like this Picasso work which borrows heavily, but reinterprets, "Las Meninas" by Velazquez. I was no Art History major, so please be gentle with me. My point is just that Picasso took something that is obviously someone else's work, but he completely made it his own.

Here's an example in Hip-Hop of exactly what I'm talking about. I'm sure this is old news to a lot of you, but allow me to prove my point. Some of y'all may have grown up with Underdog, the cartoon. It's just slightly before my time, but I have some memories of it in syndication.


Fun song.


Now here is Wu's "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nothing to Fuck With" using that very Underdog loop. But not just looping it. They took the loop and beat the hell out of it, dragged it through the streets of Staten Island to get it grimy and threw it off the Verrazano. Don't worry, the loop survived. But what came crawling back to the 36th Chamber wasn't the same loop. It was angry and haunting. It had a wild look in it's eye and it walked with a bop. 


Presented by

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.

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In