Each week in Sample Wars, we’ll pit two songs which sample the same source material head-to-head against each other, to determine which one rocked the sample better.
This week’s Sample Wars pits two generations of NYC-bred rappers against each other: Jay-Z and Azealia Banks. Jay’s “Lucifer,” produced by Kanye West, heavily samples Max Romeo’s roots reggae classic “I Chase the Devil,” and Azealia’s “Out of Space” is essentially an edit of the 1992 Prodigy hit of the same name, which also lifts from the Max Romeo record.
“I Chase the Devil,” Max Romeo and The Upsetters, 1976 (samples appear at :00 and :34): “Chase the Devil” finds Max Romeo backed by one of the tightest bands in reggae, and with the genre’s greatest producer behind the boards. After a few years in which he practically trademarked super-lewd lyrics– one of his best-loved songs is called “Pussy Watchman” –Romeo followed Lee “Scratch” Perry’s lead into the light, recording War In a Babylon with Perry’s house band the Upsetters, an album of sociopolitical and religious music of which “Chase the Devil” is a huge highlight.
“Lucifer,” Jay-Z, produced by Kanye West, 2003 (sample appears at :00): On “Lucifer,” Jay rides a straightforward Kanye beat that lifts the opening line to “I Chase the Devil,” slyly memorializing a fallen friend while couching threats to his opponents in religious imagery. Kanye slightly pitches up Max Romeo’s vocals, giving the otherwise chilled-out vocals a manic quality that befits the violence in Jay’s lyrics.
“Out of Space,” Azealia Banks, 2012 (sample appears at :56)“Out of Space,” The Prodigy, 1992 (sample appears at :41): This one’s a bit more complicated. In 1992, big-beat figureheads released their fifth single, “Out of Space,” which heavily incorporates the refrain from “I Chase the Devil,” augmenting it with, yes, big synth lines and breakbeats. Then, last year, Azealia Banks used “Out of Space” as the opener of her dance-rap mixtape opus Fantasea, augmenting the two decade-old track with her signature double-time rapping, and impressively, keeping it from sounding the least bit dated.
The Verdict: Though “Out of Space” makes a perfect opener for one of last year’s best rap releases, “Lucifer” is a late-career masterstroke from one of the genre’s greatest voices. Somehow, Jay manages to land on a bit of Catholic imagery nearly every time the “Lucifer” sample hits, creating a tension between religion and street life that recalls nothing more than the early works of Martin Scorsese.