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From Coldplay to Coldcut: When Musicians Sample Politicians

By Dorian Lynskey, The Guardian

Coldplay’s new album features a snatch of Barack Obama singing Amazing Grace during his eulogy for the Rev Clementa C Pinckney, murdered in Charleston in June. Obama, a Coldplay fan, endorsed the sample, but most politicians never get asked if their voices can be borrowed. Here are 10 songs which took liberties with the dulcet tones of politicians and activists.

Billy Paul – Let ’Em In (1976)

Thirteen years before Spike Lee concluded Do the Right Thing with competing quotations from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Philadelphia soul man Billy Paul used speeches by both slain civil rights leaders to bracket his politicized cover version of Wings’ Let ’Em In. Malcolm X talks of revolution and being “took” by treacherous Democrats while King debuts his I Have a Dream speech in Detroit, inviting the 1976 listener to reflect on what had happened to the civil rights movement since those speeches were delivered.

Was (Not Was) – Tell Me That I’m Dreaming (1981)

Ronald Reagan had only been in the White House for a few months when he unwittingly appeared on this surreal art-disco protest song via excerpts from his first State of the Union address. His phrase “out of control” (he was referring to the national debt) was looped into a thrilling, menacing dancefloor command subsequently sampled by Jazzy Jeff and EPMD.

Steinski and the Mass Media – The Motorcade Sped On (1986)

Steve Stein, a pioneer of sample collages, chopped up JFK’s most famous speeches with news coverage of Kennedy’s assassination from Dallas radio stations and CBS’s Walter Cronkite to create both an unnerving audio biography and a commentary on the media. Asked what he wanted to achieve, Steinski said: “Shock, I hope. That’s what I was aiming for.” Also, you can dance to it.

Dub Syndicate - No Alternative (But to Fight) (1987)

The metallicized voice on this militant dub track belonged to British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, but her speech was actually quoting her Labour rival Neil Kinnock’s advice to union leader Arthur Scargill during the long and bitter miners’ strike: “There is no alternative but to fight. All other roads are shut off.” The result was cognitive dissonance. Leftwing listeners endorsed the message while recoiling from the voice.

Public Enemy – Bring the Noise (1987)

Sampled oratory was fundamental to Public Enemy’s modus operandi, creating a cross-generational dialogue between the group and various black leaders. Bring the Noise’s opening declaration – “Too black, too strong” – was taken from Malcolm X’s Message to the Grassroots speech, in which he attacked white leaders for diluting the 1963 march on Washington: “It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak. If you pour too much cream in, you won’t even know you ever had coffee.” Reduced to four words, it becomes a proud Black Power mantra.

Primal Scream – Come Together (Andrew Weatherall remix) (1990)

Jesse Jackson’s MCing at the 1972 Watts Summer Festival (aka Wattstax) is still the perfect collision of music and oratory, and it has been sampled countless times. Remixer Andrew Weatherall replaced Primal Scream’s original vocals with Jackson’s introductory speech, repurposing his message of hope and unity for the new dawn of rave culture: “This is a beautiful day, this is a new day.”

Paris – The Days of Old (1992)

Radical Bay Area rapper Paris used George HW Bush’s 1989 launch of the National Drug Control Strategy, a new front in the war on drugs, to point out how little effect tough, jingoistic rhetoric had on the gang-related crime ravaging the black community. Lest Paris’s opinion of the president be unclear, the same album, Sleeping With the Enemy, featured a track called Bush Killa.

Coldcut and the Guilty Party – Re:volution (2001)

For the 2001 UK general election, sampling veterans Coldcut sliced and diced speeches from several politicians in the style of Steinski and satirical cut-up duo Cassetteboy, turning them into dancefloor MCs. Home secretary Jack Straw repeats “acid test”, former prime minister John Major declares “they’re wicked” and former Conservative minister Kenneth Clarke, echoing Reagan in Tell Me That I’m Dreaming, says “out of control”.

Killer Mike – Reagan (2012)

Run the Jewels MC Killer Mike was attacking a corrosive mentality rather than just one president – the prison industry, racist policing, war in the Middle East and gangsta rap amorality are all covered – but Reagan makes a cameo via two speeches about the Iran-Contra scandal. The samples contrast his firm denial in November 1986 with his humiliating apology four months later, exposing the dishonesty behind his folksy charm. “I threw a BBQ when Reagan died,” Mike said.

Muse – [JFK] (2015)

In the context of Muse’s Drones album, Kennedy sounds like he’s addressing Infowars fans with talk of “a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means”. That extract has long been popular with online conspiracy theorists who claim he was referring to the New World Order and the Illuminati. In fact, Kennedy was talking about Soviet Communism in April 1961, one week after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Whether or not Muse knew that context when they used the sample, they clearly wanted the listeners to assume a more sinister meaning. Crafty work.

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