Socialist Worker

A history of hip hop—and a look back at Kanye West

This new BBC4 documentary by producer Questlove looks at six seminal tracks. The first is a reminder of some of Kanye West’s best work, writes Sarah Bates

Issue No. 2739

This new BBC4 documentary by producer Questlove looks at six seminal tracks. The first is a reminder of some of Kanye West’s best work, writes Sarah Bates

This new BBC4 documentary by producer Questlove looks at six seminal tracks. The first is a reminder of some of Kanye West’s best work, writes Sarah Bates (Pic: BBC)


“Jesus Walks was Kanye at his most sincere, at his most spiritual, at his most pure. He successfully infused hip hop with religion while staying true to himself. We only know it could be done because Kanye did it first.”

That’s how producer Questlove sums up the appeal of one of Kanye West’s most famous and enduring songs.

This new documentary series covers six hip hop songs in depth, and links each to the wider social, musical and political context at the time.

The first covers West, featuring some of the producers, managers and collaborators who know him best.

Songs by Queen Latifah, Run DMC, Kendrick Lamar, Outcast and Marley Marl and MC Shan all feature in later episodes.

It’s a reminder of how different the West of the 1990s was.

Talking head after talking head explains how he was a breath of fresh air into the “glamorous” hip hop scene dominated by a more “club” sound.

But here was West, someone wanting to draw on influences of gospel and a lifetime growing up in the church.

Jesus Walks, the single that truly exploded West into the mainstream in 2004, is a cinematic masterpiece taking on his relationship with god.

Kid Cudi, Chance the Rapper, and Childish Gambino all represent the next generation of musicians who grew up listening to early West.

Unfortunately West is now famous for his personal crises as well as his music.

But his celebrity divorce and disastrous run for president aside, it’s great to be reminded of West’s early musical output.

At the end of it, you’ll probably just want to listen to College Dropout and enjoy it for all the reasons this excellent new documentary makes clear.

Hip Hop: Songs That Shook America, starts Friday 29 January on BBC Four

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