How Kanye West Helped "Chipmunk Soul" Define An Era Of Hip-Hop

"Chipmunk Soul" ushered in a new era of hip-hop, with albums such as "The College Dropout" using the sound to focus on emotional vulnerability.

BYCaleb Hardy
Kanye West Celebrates His New CD At Virgin Megastore

The greatest Hip-Hop artists could always associate themselves with a signature sound. Tupac Shakur defined West Coast rap, layering his vocals amidst alpha West Coast beats. The Notorious B.I.G did the same on the East Coast, acting as a rallying cry for New York's rap scene. For artists like Kanye West, that defining sound would be discovered in a different lane. Spearheading the Roc-A-Fella era of the late '90s to early '00s, The Blueprint's influence lay in Chipmunk Soul's innovation.

It's 2002, and Hip-Hop is being overrun by oversized pants and lavish jewelry. Rappers were filming music videos in crowded streets, seeking to mirror the chaotic life of their upbringing. Beats were heavy and menacing at their core, spearheaded by mainstream artists such as Tupac or DMX. In the underground, artists sought to counteract these menacing ominous soundscapes with a world that delivered simplicity and happiness. Consequently, this new sound would present itself as Chipmunk Soul. The production technique sampled Soul and R&B songs from the '70s to the '80s, speeding up the pitch of samples to create a squeaky effect.

"Chipmunk Soul" Encouraged Vulnerability In Hip-Hop

The largely accredited pioneer of the sound is de facto leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA. RZA wasn't the one to drive the sound to the top of hip-hop. However, he inspired the likes of Kanye West to experiment with the sound. RZA has acted as a hip-hop trailblazer throughout his career. With Wu-Tang's Enter The Wu-Tang, the Staten Island group delivered a sound that curated a unique world between Soul and Kung Fu films. The group's fascination with martial arts, Eastern philosophy, and urban street life proved that a less traditional subject matter could still appeal to hip-hop fans. The point is that Chipmunk Soul's trend-setting era had its roots in more experimental records coming out of the early '90s.

The Chipmunk Soul era of sound was derived from an innate desire to curate an aesthetic that better blended with the vulnerable sides of hip-hop. West wasn't interested in rapping about his deep bank account or a desire to physically intimidate the people around him. Enamored with the worlds of anime and Haruki Murakami as a child, he searched for a sound that better complimented his personality's light and dark sides. The College Dropout takes the listener into the darkest corners of his mind. By closing track "Last Call," he's rapping about "the night I almost killed myself in Lexus." By implementing Chipmunk Soul, he could better reflect these emotions with the sonic direction of the record.

The College Dropout Is The Subgenre's Biggest Album

Like any new artistic trend, the Chipmunk Soul style was met with initial hesitations from the music industry. In 2002 West walked into Roc-A-Fella Records with a CD containing "All Falls Down." Without hesitation, he began blasting the song throughout the office. While the track would achieve immediate critical acclaim, Ye was met with sullen stares from everyone at the Roc-A-Fella label office. However, The College Dropout quelled any doubters of the movement, debuting at No. 2 on the US Billboard 200. The sound had been relevant for a few years before The College Dropout. Producers West and Just Blaze were in the basement with Jay-Z, curating the sound with various classic hip-hop albums.

Roc-A-Fella lived large in the early 2000s under the soundscapes of West and Blaze. The record label had dramatically gone from a small operation to arguably the biggest thing in rap, catapulted by The Blueprint and Purple Haze. The office that had scoffed at The College Dropout was all of a sudden head over heels for Ye, who'd contributed to the curation of the most popular subgenre of hip-hop along with Just Blaze. Many hip-hop heads had gone from icy hardcore raps to the sun-induced feel of Chipmunk Soul. By 2004, blasting Jay-Z's "Song Cry" on a warm summer day had become the norm.

Chipmunk Soul Revived '70s & '80s Music

Chipmunk Soul did more than solely usher in a new era of sound in hip-hop. In addition, it delivered a newfound appreciation for the Soul and R&B of old. Hip-hop heads were hearing sampled loops of Aretha Franklin while driving home from school with their friends. Kids were returning to the music their parents likely listened to. It's permanently impacted the genre, popularizing Soul sampling into the mainstream. Producers such as Swizz Beatz, Kanye West, and The Alchemist continue to contribute to chipmunk soul's legacy to this day. The unique production technique represents one of the defining moments of hip-hop's history.

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