Top Ten Classical-Music Samples in Hip-Hop
orking at a classical-music magazine and occasionally writing about the Game and Young Jeezy for webzines like this one, I have plenty of occasion to feel like a total weirdo. Mutual incomprehension, at best, characterizes these two musical genres’ views of one another, with almost no exception. I’ve met some vaguely hip classical people—which can generally be taken to mean “loves Radiohead and Bjork”—who will go so far as to cautiously express approval of hip-hop’s “verbal tradition,” but I’ve yet to find anyone else who has made room in their lives for both Cam’ron and Carmen. Similarly, the fellow hipster-scum with whom I discuss hip-hop, when faced with classical music, will nervously deadpan about how uncultured they are, or expound jokily on Beethoven’s “fat beats.”
So I’m constantly on the lookout for points of intersection. And an interesting, possibly even dirty, little secret about hip-hop is how often its producers turn to classical music when they’re trying to make whatever joker they’re producing sound, at least momentarily, like a god. From solemn East Coast legends like Nas to party MCs like Ludacris (before his disastrous Grammy makeover), plenty of rappers have skimmed grandeur off of classical music; what follows are just a few examples of this odd meeting point between two disparate art forms.
Nas – I Can
This number swipes the “doodle-doodle-doo” from Beethoven’s Für Elise, which is familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a piano lesson. It’s one of the most instantly recognizable scraps of melody in the world, and here Salaam Remi hooks it up to boom-bap drums. Meanwhile, Nas gives one of the least insufferable basketball-coach-style believe-and-achieve sermons ever, perhaps because it’s aimed at children without an ounce of condescension (well, except maybe for that “You can host a TV like Oprah Winfrey!” line). “You don’t wanna be my age and can’t read and write / Begging different women for a place to sleep at night,” he advises sagely, as children’s voices “aaahh” in the background.
Young Buck – Say It to My Face
Mozart’s “Requiem” is one of the most monolithically terrifying pieces in the Western classical literature, a feverish and at times oddly ecstatic death mass. There’s a reason that Milos Forman turned the piece on blast in Amadeus when Mozart’s father returns reincarnate: the minor-key progressions of the “Kyrie” section still send shivers down spines. Young Buck is a forgettable MC; he has his gravelly voice, his maniacal conviction, and not much else. But over the ghostly “Introitus” from the Requiem, his thuggish threats suddenly sound like intimations from the Angel of Death.
The Diplomats – Santana’s Town
If you’ve ever seen an action movie trailer, you’ve heard Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” It is the most oft-abused piece of classical music ever written. Here it undergoes the gravest of all possible indignities, as the gang of Harlem bards known as the Diplomats wipe their muddy shoes all over it. Half the fun of this song is imagining a tweedy Western Music professor frozen in horror, listening to Gertrude Stein-esque poetry like “I’ve got a ho selection / A whole collection / A whole selection / Of my ho collection” recited over a poorly sped-up orchestral loop of “Burana.” Orff survived centuries of critical disdain and Nazi associations (echoed knowingly here by Juelz Santana with the trenchant line “Kamikaze, Nazi Nazi, cop me, papi?”), but this might have been the one to put him definitively down for the count.
Nas – Hate Me Now
The Diplomats, at heart a bunch of twelve-year-olds, gleefully vandalize Orff’s “Burana.” Nas, on the other hand, is handed a “Carmina Burana” sample and ends up shooting a video in which he is crucified as a Black Jesus, while Puffy yells a lot into a bullhorn. To each his own. At the height of his pop stardom, Nas pumps the tune full of panicky swagger and paranoid delusion as Orff’s choirs boom portentously in the background. Redefines “awesomely overblown.”
Cam’ron – Get ‘Em Girls
Once the insane dictator of the Diplomats, Cam’ron takes the same “Burana” sample and sees an opportunity to rhyme “holey holey” with “holy moly.” (And “roly poly.”) Backed by the mortar-round thump of the drums and that tribal chant, already-ridiculous lyrics like “Wanna hit it from the back, she agreed that I’m loony / But proceeded to moon me” hit delirious new heights of absurdity.
Ludacris – Coming 2 America
The leadoff track from Ludacris’s massive 2001 commercial breakthrough Word of Mouf (“Roll Out,” “Move Bitch,” “Welcome to Atlanta”), “Coming 2 America” nicks from both Mozart’s “Requiem” and the stately last movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”). In such unfamiliar sonic surroundings, Luda doesn’t take the opportunity to stretch much—he offers the same genially corny jokes and dated pop culture references he would over a standard Southern bounce track. Ever the minstrel, he plays the Connecticut-Yankee-in-King-Arthur’s-Court angle, spoiling the dignified surroundings with exclamations like “Uh-oh Spaghetti-Ohs!”
Kelis – Like You
OK, not strictly hip-hop, but still perhaps the best, cleverest classical-music sample ever done, so it must be included. The song, from the otherwise-uneven Kelis Was Here, suspends the most famous section of Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria from his opera “The Magic Flute,” a trilling vocal run that hits a stratospheric high F, and loops it endlessly, bringing visions to anyone who’s heard the role sung live visions of a red-faced soprano about to pass out onstage. Bonus points for Kelis’s line “You can fluff my feathers:” a nod to the opera’s two bird characters, Papageno and Papagena, or simply an acknowledgement of the songbird quality of the loop?
Three 6 Mafia – Dangerous Posse
Absolutely, positively the last time “Carmina Burana” will show up on the list, I promise. Hey, gangsta rap thrives on excess, and there’s just no more bombastic piece of music ever written, especially when you pile eight or nine snarling rappers on top of it.
Coolio – C U When U Get There
We all remember this one—when I hear it, all I can picture is a darkened gymnasium full of preteens clasping sweaty hands around each others’ waists and swaying stiffly. On the track, Coolio acts the part of the concerned mentor, sighing about crack dealers and urban violence and coming off like 2Pac’s older, less-cool step-brother. The sample is Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” written in 1680 for the sole purpose of being vaguely overheard by the Viennese royal court as they wined and dined. Now, it is the most frequently compiled piece of music in Western history. Never underestimate a descending D-Major scale.
The Streets – Same Old Thing
Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, samples a disorienting moment in Bartok’s 1943 masterpiece Concerto for Orchestra. The strings, hovering on a minor chord, slip unsteadily down a half step; it sounds as if the whole orchestra is melting. Then the track shifts into a sharp, stabbing figure in the cellos, looping it and cutting off the first nanosecond of the phrase so it always feels half a beat late. Over this lurching, unsteady track, Skinner raps in slippery, loosely rhyming cadences about peeling the labels off beers in clubs and lazing about the apartment stoned. Bartok, a melancholic man, might have sympathized with a sentiment like, “Seems like the only difference between mid-week shit and weekend is how loud I speak, and whether or not I try to pull a girlfriend.”