March 29, 2004
Chuck D vs. Kanye, Satchmo vs. Dizzy
MTV says Chuck D took a few jabs at Kanye West recently, wondering why "somebody gets top-notch producer credits for speeding up old records" and assessing Kanye's mic skills thusly: "I think his lyrics are decent but 85 [percent] of cats rhymin' have the same voice with little difference in cadence. That's like the NBA having 200 six-foot point guards."
Whatevs and probably many others have taken delight in these remarks, and that's understandable.. Kanye's album has gotten so much hype his own mother must be sick of it, and his ego could certainly stand to get taken down a few notches. Plus, that whole sped-up vocal sample thing is due to jump the shark any day now (and I'd guess Kanye is well aware of that).
But for me, the first thing Chuck's comments brought to mind was Louis Armstrong's almost identical rant about the younger generation of be-bop pioneers like Bird and Dizzy. Louis wondered why they were getting so much acclaim for just taking a few of his old riffs, as he saw it, and throwing them together to make a bunch of "slop" with "no melody."
Obviously, although Armstrong's influence is all over Be-Bop, there was also much more to it than what Louis was letting himself hear. Likewise, there's more to Kanye's body of work than just "speeding up old records," even if you ignore his tracks like Dead Prez "(Bigger Than) Hip-Hop" that don't fit the stereotype at all.
Chuck of all people should know better than to make such snap judgements, since so many Public Enemy tracks could be just as easily dismissed as straight James Brown loops. Heck, they even had the nerve to loop the same JB record twice for two different singles, "Rebel Without a Pause" and "Night of the Living Baseheads," and then use it again on the same album, looped backwards for "Terminator X to the Edge of Panic." How is that any different from what Kanye's doing, except that Chuck's crew didn't even bother to speed anything up?
Does this mean those PE records were not creative, that they didn't bring anything new to the table? Of course not.. that (at least in part) is the genius of those Bomb Squad tracks, that they took these bits of sound without altering them very much at all, but by isolating them in a different context made you hear them in a totally different way, and created a sound that hit our ears as nothing less than revolutionary.
I'd never claim that Kanye's work is on that level, but what he does is not so different, taking these old soul samples and making them sound fresh in a new context. Doing this effectively is much harder than Chuck makes it sound, and the way Kanye makes it seem so easy is a testament to his skill on the boards.
Is this just a pattern we can never break, each generation turning a deaf ear to the next one's artistry, dismissing it offhand like a bunch of crotchety old Abe Simpsons? Dizzy Gillespie looked at Armstrong's attitude like this:
Entrenched artists, or the entrenched society, always attack anything that's new coming in, in religion, in social upheavals, in any field. It has something to do with living and dying and the fear among the old of being replaced by the new. Louis Armstrong never played our music, but that shouldn’t have kept him from feeling or understanding it. Pops thought that it was his duty to attack! The leader always attacks first: so as the leader of the old school, Pops felt that it was his duty to attack us. At least he could gain some publicity, even if he were overwhelmed musically.
I doubt that Chuck feels "overwhelmed musically" by Kanye, but I do wonder if it's just inevitable for each generation to get caught up in this cycle..
P.S. - needless to say, I'm not equating Kanye with Bird and Dizzy, or Chuck with Louis Armstrong for that matter
P.P.S. - All of this is assuming Chuck was not misquoted, always a very real possibility. MTV credits it to a post on his website, but I didn't see it around anywhere.
P.P.S. - latchkeykid showed me where Chuck's original quote was, at publicenemy.com, a brief passage in a long post where he seems to be thinking out loud on whatever comes to mind. Since then he put up an equally lengthy (but worth reading) response to MTV's coverage of the quote, here.
Chuck now says he considers Kanye a "superb lyricist," and says "the knock wasnt exactly on Kanye outside of the fact of the perceived slap at education."
Well I'm glad you cleared that up, Chuck, and I agree with most of what you're saying here. But you didn't say any of that in your original quote, so you can't be mad at MTV for quoting what you actually said instead of reading your mind. Your charge that "I bring up a point of critical analysis, and they cant even cover that sht right." is unfair, cuz you can't accuse someone of taking your words out of context if you never provided any context for them in the first place.
Why am I pretending to talk directly to Chuck? I need to get away from the computer for a while.