Hip hop can be a cutthroat game. If you fail to push new boundaries or to keep up with the most modern of technology, topics, and beats, then you’re a dinosaur lost in the annals of history. Perhaps more so than any other genre, hip hop evolves at lightning speed and has little time for nostalgia. Constant forward motion is what keeps the genre at the forefront of popular music, but even the most respected of elder statesmen within the history of rap can be subjected to dismissals and disses from younger, hungrier emerging artists.
Kanye West, however, was never afraid to pay homage to the greats. Helping to pioneer the ‘chipmunk soul’ style of sampling, Kanye got his hands on some of the greatest artists of all time and exposed them to a new generation: Ray Charles on ‘Gold Digger’, Aretha Franklin on ‘School Spirit’, Curtis Mayfield on ‘Touch the Sky’, and Otis Redding on ‘Otis’. When it comes to his elders in the hip hop world, Kanye is similarly effusive.
Take, for instance, the essay he wrote in 2005 for Dr Dre’s placement on the Rolling Stone list of ‘100 Greatest Artists of All Time’. Dre ranked 54th on the original list (56th in the 2011 update), and Kanye was tapped to write about not only how he was influenced by Dre, but how the wider world of hip hop was changed by his work.
If there was any doubt about Kanye’s sincerity, he puts those notions to bed with the very first line: “Do hip-hop producers hold Dr. Dre in high esteem? It’s like asking a Christian if he believes Christ died for his sins.” From there, Kanye extolls Dre’s roles in N.W.A., then the California G-funk scene, then hip hop as a broader phenomenon.
The essay is a fascinating window into perhaps Kanye’s biggest talent, one that’s been overshadowed by his status as a controversial global superstar: record production. Kanye’s original methods to get his foot in the door of the industry was as a producer, not a rapper, and to see him deconstruct Dre’s work like Tupac’s ‘California Love’ and Dre’s own ‘Xxplosive’ that inspired West’ “entire sound”.
“If you listen to the track, it’s got a soul beat, but it’s done with those heavy Dre drums,” West writes. “Listen to ‘This Can’t Be Life’, a track I did for Jay-Z’s Dynasty album, and then listen to ‘Xxplosive.’ It’s a direct bite.”
West concludes his essay with a religious reference that feels very Kanye-esque: “He’s the definition of a true talent: Dre feels like God placed him here to make music, and no matter what forces are aligned against him, he always ends up on the mountaintop.” For all the “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye” self-aggrandizing that made Kanye so infamous, it only takes one look at his praise for Dre that reveals a more humble side to West.