“Bad artists copy; great artists steal” – Pablo Picasso
Kanye West is many things; Rapper, clothes designer, self-proclaimed genius, future president, God etc. But perhaps his greatest work has come in his role as a producer, where he gained fame for his distinctive style of taking small sections of old soul songs by artists including Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding, speeding them up and looping them to create a beat to rap over. This style of “stealing” classic artwork and reworking them into new expressions has been done by artists for centuries.
A perfect example of Kanye’s sampling genius appears in his song Famous, from The Life of Pablo. In this song, he employees Rhianna to sing the hook originally from Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” and loops sections of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”. Combining these two hits with a now infamous line regarding Taylor Swift has seen Famous played over 160 million times on Spotify alone, more than “Do What You Gotta Do” and “Bam Bam” have combined, despite both tracks experiencing significant surges in the number of listens after the song was released.Even the music video for the song was a reinterpretation of a painting titled “Sleep”. Upon seeing Kanye’s remodelling the original artist, Vincent Desiderio, said his painting “had been sampled, or “spliced,” into a new format and taken to a brilliant and daring extreme!”
Vincent Desiderio's "Sleep"
Kanye West's "Famous"
The list of artists that have benefited from being featured on a Kanye song is extensive. From renowned stars such as Michael Jackson (P.Y.T. is sampled in Good Life), to film scores (the Imperial March from Star Wars provides the baseline for Hell of a Life), diversity of artists is impressive. But sampling doesn’t always work out well. Hungary’s most successful rock group Omega tried to sue Kanye for his use of their song Gyöngyhajú Lány at the end of New Slaves.
Similar controversy can be seen in many different artistic fields. High street fashion retailer Zara is regularly accused of stealing designs from other brands or independent creators. Samsung currently owe Apple almost $120 million for various infringements on patents Apple owns, including swipe to unlock and autocorrect. It appears there is a fine line between artistic theft and illegal copying, and that line is incredibly subjective.
Funnily enough, the quote that started this article has been adapted and reworded so many times it’s hard to know who said it first. The time line of the quotes has been traced, and offers up what essentially becomes a game of Chinese whispers spanning across centuries. The earliest quotation comes in 1892, where W. H. Davenport Adams says “that great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil”. Since reworking’s of the general sentiment have been attributed to T. S. Elliot, Igor Stravinsky, Steve Jobs and Pablo Picasso. With that level of endorsement, its pretty clear how to advance in this world; Be a classy thief.