the line between homage and theft: what does kanye owe the underground?

July 11, 2013

This isn’t a critical review of Yeezus. Everyone else has already written one, and once its place in music history is a bit more settled, thousands more probably will. I don’t really feel the need to pile on, when all I really have to say about its artistic merits are as I told a friend last week, “it’s pretty good, but it’s not Saul Williams’ best.” This is about something bigger than Yeezus. And though Kanye may think it impossible, it’s about something bigger than Kanye West even.

By: Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor

One of the things drummed repeatedly into your brain when you study theatre is that “art does not exist in a vacuum.” Theatre is a great art form because at its best, it is a collaboration between every single discipline from puppetry to poetry to painting. (at its worst it’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.) And the history of art is the history of people from different backgrounds coming together and exchanging ideas and influences. The birth of great movements comes from the moment when an artist or community of artists introduces a new element to their community.

Post-hardcore came from bands like Fugazi trying to integrate elements of hip hop and dub with punk rock. Hip Hop was born when DJ Kool Herc applied Jamaican sound system techniques to spinning disco and funk and it merged with the jazz poetry scene. Jazz came from artists steeped in the blues being drafted into US military brass bands. Blues came from West African slaves in the American South merging their folk music traditions with Northern European folk music. And so on. And so on. (Those are obviously massively massively simplified origin stories that gloss over the diversity of influences and cultural context of major founding artists from those genres, but more or less those are the pieces…)

So where does that leave Yeezus? On Kanye’s latest record, he borrows liberally from underground artists and Afropunk favorites like Saul Williams, CX KiDTRONiK, and Death Grips. But also from 90s industrial mainstays like Marilyn Manson, Atari Teenage Riot, and Nine Inch Nails. (Fuck 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon, let’s play 6 degrees of CX…) And is there that much difference between Kanye chanting “I am a god” and Marilyn declaring himself the Anti-Christ Superstar or Trent Reznor screaming “God is dead and no-one cares” over those same hyper distorted drums? Honestly? No. But though the quantity of material Kanye borrows from Trent Reznor if measured in notes and ideas is the same as what he takes from MC Ride, what he owes them is different.

Like Kanye West, Trent Reznor is one of the most successful musicians on the planet, and if we’re measuring success by album sales, in human history. Both began their careers as genius producers and studio rats with a bold outsider vision that captured the mainstream’s attention. They were both the underdogs once. Fighting desperately for the attention they deserve. Now they’re both kings. Name checking Nine Inch Nails would be a nice gesture, and might help two disparate communities see that they have more in common than they think, but it wont make or break Trent Reznor’s career. (He has How To Destroy Angels for that.)

But MC Ride? A single name check from Kanye could earn Death Grips a million well-deserved fans. As abrasive and defiant as they are, it’s unlikely they’ll ever be mainstream stars. But a blessing from Yeezus allmighty could solidify for them a long and sustainable career. Saul Williams could become the household name he should be, transcending his status as cult-icon to those “in the know” but largely ignored by the mainstream. And CX KiDTRONiK could finally afford to devote all his free time to his true passion: photoshopping pictures of ass crack.

In the three weeks since it’s been released, Yeezus has sold some 400,000 copies. By the end of the year, it will most likely have gone platinum. It’s possible that over its lifetime it will go platinum many times. By contrast, in the 5 years since its release, Saul Williams’ masterful The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! has sold around 200,000 copies. His self-titled record has sold only 30,000 in 9 years. Now obviously those are numbers that bands struggling to sell even the 200 self-pressed copies of their debut EP would kill for. But when the reigning King of Pop (I don’t think Kanye’s wrong to compare himself to MJ) makes millions off your lifetime of work by just straight up copying what you’ve been doing all along, is that fair?

And yes, I know the music business isn’t fair. As the line from The Princess Bride goes “Life is pain, Your Highness. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.” Or maybe more appropriately to the segue I’m about to make—Bowie’s line from Labyrinth after the thousandth time Jennifer Connelly complains that “it’s not fair:” “You say that so often, I wonder what your basis for comparison is?”

But there is some basis for comparison; the Goblin King himself, David Bowie. Like Kanye, Bowie is an iconoclastic obsessive perfectionist known for his canny ability to pull new ideas from the underground and make them mainstream. Though he hasn’t always been perfect (Bowie superfan though I may be, I’m not blind to some of his heinous missteps over the years), Bowie has always been open about and in dialogue with the artists that have inspired his many phases.

When Bowie discovered Iggy Pop, he didn’t just fall in love with Iggy’s sound and persona, he fell in love with Iggy. Bowie used his access and personal wealth to produce Iggy Pop’s music and promote his art relentlessly. And that moment of creative co-option has proven to be one of the most important moments in musical history. We wouldn’t have huge chunks of glam, punk, and queer culture had David Bowie not decided he didn’t want to be Bob Dylan anymore, he’d rather be Iggy Pop. Kanye, meanwhile? In that recent New York Times interview, he’d have you believe that the entire art form of music didn’t exist until he came around, to say nothing of Saul Williams or CX KiDTRONiK.

The comparison isn’t perfect. Kanye isn’t sleeping with Saul Williams. To the best of my knowledge, they’re not even acquaintances. But the point remains: borrowing is fair in art. Borrowing is totally fair. But the difference between homage and theft is whether or not your cite your sources. Homage is about love for your influence. And you show your love by paying them back somehow. Kanye doesn’t have to produce and hype a new record from Saul, but the bare minimum he could do is thank him publicly. If you’re in the position Kanye is in, and could help out an artist you’re stealing from, you owe it to the underground. And Kanye should know better. He was once the underdog fighting for exposure. He’s now the toppest of the top dogs, as far as pop music is concerned, at least. He is in a privileged position to help the artists that inspired his new musical direction, and by not even acknowledging their influence on Yeezus, it’s a slap in the face to the underground.

Yeezus might be a landmark album. This might be the moment that industrial driven deconstructive political underground hip hop breaks through to the mainstream. Yeezus could be the Ziggy Stardust to NiggyTardust‘s The Stooges. (That was a confusing sentence, but it’ll help you on the SATs someday.) Kanye West is currently standing on the shoulders of the hundreds of underground artists from the Beatnigs in the 80’s up through CX KiDTRONiK’s Krak Attack 2 last month who have explored the territory between Ministry and Public Enemy. He would not be where he is without them, and at the very least he owes them the honesty and respect of publicly acknowledging his influences. And he owes his fans the experience of having their horizons broadened to include the underground artists who paved the way for Yeezus to be a commercial success. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and by pretending it does, Kanye West does both the underground and the mainstream a disservice.