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Music

Steely Dan's surreal dealings with Kanye West

The musical world is full of weird and wonderful convergences. In fact, you could go as far as saying that these meetings are actually one of the fundamental driving forces behind the music industry as a whole. Whether that be band members meeting each other and then going on to form a legendary group, artists meeting iconic managers or journalists and then securing success, or even different creatives coming together to collaborate – music is a complex web comprised of many of these sorts of meetings.

However, these concurrences also come under a different guise. In the modern era, convergence does not have to be in person; it can also come in the format of a sample. These days, with music taking on a more electrified, internet-driven form, sampling is the best way of utilising your musical hero or friend’s talents without being in the same room, let alone the same country.

The list of brilliant samples is endless. The Beastie Boys were kings of it, M.I.A. sampled The Clash’s iconic ‘Straight To Hell‘ and Kanye West has also had his fair share of success, with his 2005 classic ‘Touch The Sky’ famously using a sample from Curtis Mayfield’s anthem ‘Move On Up’.  

In 2007, West would again sample another track; just this time, though, he veered further off the beaten track than he had ever done before. The artist in question was anti-hippie heroes Steely Dan, and the song utilised was their jazz/funk masterpiece ‘Kid Charlemagne’. West used the sample in his song ‘Champion’ from the 2007 album Graduation.

Given their somewhat misanthropic worldview, it comes as no surprise that Steely Dan masterminds Walter Becker and Donald Fagen turned Kanye West’s request down, as they weren’t fans of his songs. 

In 2021, Fagen told Complex: “Kanye actually sent us a sample of his tunes, and frankly, Walter and I listened to it, and although we’d love some of the income, neither of us particularly liked what he had done with it. We said no, at first, and then he wrote us a handwritten letter that was kind of touching, about how the song was about his father, and he said, ‘I love your stuff, and I really want to use it because it’s a very personal thing for me.'”

Typically contrary, Fagen said: “My mind doesn’t work like that—I would never use someone else’s stuff if I was writing something personal, but I guess that’s how he was thinking about it. It was such a good letter that we said, ‘All right, go ahead’, and we made a deal with him.”

It’s bizarre to think of Kayne West sending Steely Dan a handwritten letter begging to use one of their more obscure singles. This shows a much more candid version of West than the larger than life, slightly manic popstar behind Donda that he is today.

In another interview with Becker and Fagen, the latter opined, “Maybe it was a prank.” To which Becker replied: “It could have been. I think somebody took over the Kanye West personality paradigm and has been operating it randomly.”

Listen to ‘Champion’ below.