The Story Behind The Sample: Kanye West uses the mercurial Steely Dan
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The Story Behind The Sample: Kanye West uses the mercurial Steely Dan

Sampling is an age-old practice in hip hop. In fact, some of the most popular songs in the genre contain other songs within their composition. Kanye West is undeniably considered the master of sampling, drawing many of his samples from 1970s and ’80s soul. On the other hand, Timbaland is also known for sampling but leans towards old Arabic music. Regardless of the type of music producers sample, it has always been an integral part of hip hop production.

However, sampling in its early days, especially within hip hop, meant young African-Americans sampling classic artists. Whether that be James Brown or Nina Simone, it usually stayed within the realms of blues, funk and soul. But as hip hop progressed and experimentation came into play, producers began widening their search for samples. They abandoned the unwritten rule that they could only sample music from their own demographic.

It began with electro-hip hop producers sampling European EDM, and from there, the search only widened. As highlighted, Kanye West (now known as Ye) is usually considered the best sampler of all time. That’s not to say that producers such as J Dilla and Dr Dre weren’t good, but Ye always manages to flip the most obscure samples, the ones that people would never think could become hip hop, and that’s exactly what he did on his 2007 track ‘Champion’.

‘Champion’ is a fusion song and, like much of Ye’s music, does not present itself as one genre but instead as a cleverly composed myriad of genres that somehow manage to gel themselves together, forming a new yet recognizable sound. The sample used by the Chicagoan rapper in this track informs the song name as the sample contains the word “Champion” in its lyrics.

For this track, Kanye chose to sample the 1976 song ‘Kid Charlemagne’ by Steely Dan. Founded in 1971, Steely Dan was an American rock band formed in New York by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. The two met while studying at Bard College in upstate New York and, together, sought to form a band. Not managing to find potential band members in the quaint towns and cities of upstate New York, the two moved to LA, where they began recruiting.

Here they found musicians such as Danny Dias, Jim Hodder and Royce Jones, to name a few, who were primed and ready to record. In 1972 the band released their first album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, which established the band and their sound, which was a fusion of rock, jazz and blues. Steely Dan became an instant success with the album’s singles ‘Do It Again’ and ‘Reelin’ In The Years’, reaching number six and number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, respectively.

From here, the band aimed to record another hit album. However, their second album, Countdown to Ecstasy, released in 1973, did not do as well as their debut. Although it did not do as well, the band were not discouraged and continued to make music. However, between 1973 and 1976, a schism began to show within the outfit. Becker and Fagen disliked constant touring and loved the creative process of making music, whereas the other members preferred touring and live performances.

In 1974 the band had a heavy lineup change, with different members finding new bands, all going in their own direction. Becker, Fangen and Dias (the only remaining members) recruited a large number of new players, including renowned guitarist Larry Carlton. In 1975 the new outfit began recording, and in 1976, they released a new project, Royal Scam.

Recording the album at ABC Recording Studios in Los Angeles, as a result of Larry Carlton, Royal Scam is the band’s most guitar-oriented album. The album features a classic song ‘Haitian Divorce’ which made it into the top 20 of the UK Singles Chart. However, it was the first track on the album, ‘Kid Charlemagne’, that was picked out by Kanye for ‘Champion’.

Produced by Gary Katz and Larry Carlton, the lyrics are rumoured to be about the endeavours of the LSD chemist (creator) Owsley Stanley. At the song’s 34-second mark, there is a line where Fagen sings, “Did you realise that you were a champion in their eyes?” and this section is used by Kanye West for ‘Champion’. Below you can listen to the original and then listen to West’s version.