Through the Wire
Influences on Kanye West
Influenced by Kanye WestKanye West's signature sound is a kind of multilayered sonic collage, assembled from scraps of diverse musical elements: reinterpretations of vintage soul records; recycled and original drumbeats; all forms of live instrumentation, from crunching electric guitars to classical string arrangements; vocals ranging from laid-back raps to robotic Auto-Tuned crooning to guest appearances from the Harlem Boys Choir.
Kanye West music is, in short, made up of a little bit of everything.
Thus it's no surprise at all that West's musical influences have been wide-ranging.
The first and probably most important influence on what became Kanye West's trademark sound was probably his parents' record collection. The rapper has a musicologist's appreciation for classic R&B and soul records, and a finely tuned ear for picking out just the right snippets from them for use in creating fresh new songs. West also gives the impression that he envisions his musical peers to be not only his peers in modern hip-hop, but also the legendary acts of the past. The bar against which he measures himself is set by Prince and Stevie Wonder, as much as by 50 Cent or Timbaland.
Of course, Kanye West is not the first hip-hop artist to engage in extensive adaptive reuse of old records. Sampling and remixing old beats goes all the way back to the origins of hip-hop; the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," the first song that really brought hip-hop to a mainstream American audience back in 1979, borrowed its instrumentation almost entirely from the disco band Chic's hit "Good Times." And sampling has remained central to the rap genre ever since.
Not all sampling is the same, though, and Kanye West's sound was influenced, especially, by a few artists that were popular when he was a teenager. Kanye's productions—warm, soulful, a bit nostalgic, often irresistibly catchy—strongly echo the work of mid-1990s hip-hop legends like A Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, and the Fugees. (West has named Tribe as his favorite rap group ever, and Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde as his all-time favorite rap album.) Just as influential were the beats laid down for the Wu-Tang Clan by producer RZA. RZA's sound also incorporated ample sampling from classic records, but typically deconstructed those snippets much more comprehensively than did, say, the Fugees, re-working them into sparse, grimy, and cinematic new arrangements. As West has, in recent years, added more and more theatrical elements to his songs—especially orchestral string arrangements—his sound has shown more and more of a Wu-Tang influence.
Kanye West's musical inspirations also come from far beyond the realm of hip-hop, or even hip-hop's ancestry in R&B and soul music. When asked to name what artists are getting major rotation on his own stereo, West is more likely to name an indie rocker than another rapper. He loves Radiohead and has called that band's mastermind, Thom Yorke, one of the greatest geniuses in music. He's a huge fan of the Killers and Portishead and Modest Mouse, and has even expressed admiration for the decidedly un-hip-hop crooner John Mayer.
Kanye's eclectic taste in music has made more and more of an impact on his own productions. In 2007, he brought in Coldplay frontman Chris Martin to sing the chorus on his song "Homecoming"; the same year, he transformed a song by French techno outfit Daft Punk into his hit single "Stronger," the biggest rap song of the year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, West likes to describe himself as a rock star, not a rap star.
If Kanye West drew from a wide variety of musical influences in crafting his signature sound, his own influence on other artists—especially within hip-hop—has been just as profound. For the past several years, it has been simply impossible to listen to "urban-format" radio without soon hearing either an actual Kanye production or another producer's imitation of the Kanye West sound.
Are you a fan of Jay-Z? Or Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Beyoncé, Common, Lupe Fiasco, John Legend, Nas, Scarface, T.I., Lil Wayne, The Game, Cam'Ron, Ludacris, Twista, Janet Jackson, or Alicia Keys? If so, then you're probably also a fan of Kanye West, because Kanye produced many of those artists' biggest hits of this decade. Kanye West's fingerprints can be found all over contemporary hip-hop.