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ACMI Re/commends: Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America

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Using your mind’s ear, circle up a Venn diagram of Kanye West and Jesus Christ. Within the overlap of the two, above a rising gospel choir and occasional bleeps from the Yeezus album, you’ll hear the distant, militant boom of ‘Jesus Walks’. Kanye’s bombshell from 2004 is the first subject of Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America – a six-part AMC documentary series produced in part by legendary Roots crew Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought” Trotter.

Each episode brings a single song into frame, creating time and space for artist and fan to consider the conditions that inspired it, the tracks’ composition and indent on the cultural landscape. In our frenzied days of swipe and skip, it’s novel to sit with one song for a whole 45 minutes – almost like hearing it for the first time again.

The format also opens a window to the artist, their career arc and personality. So much has been said by and about Kanye that it’s refreshing to shift attention back to his earlier years. A strong-minded and meteoric rise from making beats with friends in Chicago, to signing with the Roc.

A standout of this episode is digging into the song’s key sample, ‘Walk with Me’, a moving acapella released in 1997 by Harlem’s ARC Choir (Addicts Rehabilitation Center Gospel Choir). The recording was discovered by Chicago MC Rhymefest in a time of his own personal crisis. Feeling such salvation by the music on the cassette, he gifted it to Kanye with the promise they would reinvent it together. Kanye delivered. The world got ‘Jesus Walks’. And from their appearance in the show, one can hope the ARC Choir got paid in full.

By Rob Cordiner, staff writer


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