When the news first surfaced that Kanye had mashed together “Strange Fruit,” an iconic song about the lynching of black men in the American South, and C-Murder’s 1998 “Down for My Niggas,” it was the absurdity of the juxtaposition that seemed most noteworthy. One of No Limit’s most unapologetically low-art singles brushing up against one of the most powerfully political songs in history was, in the moment, a one-dimensional punchline in the vein of a Girl Talk mash-up. How irreverent!
But there is definitely more to this. “Blood On The Leaves” is an especially in-your-face track. The song begins with plaintive piano and a sample of Nina Simone’s cover of “Strange Fruit.” The original is not a song that goes down easily—it’s a stark, harrowing indictment of America’s terrorism of its black citizens. There’s a chutzpah to even touching a song of such weighty significance, especially when attaching it to a narrative that seems autobiographical.
It’s not unprecedented for him—he’s previously sampled such celebrated, revered tracks as Curtis Mayfield’s optimistic Civil Rights anthem “Move On Up,” just to have Lupe Fiasco rap about Lupin over it. And he swiped Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” in a way that mostly proclaimed, "I have enough money to sample this song." But even those songs, as much extra-textual significance as they had, were nothing as confrontational as this depiction of the violence at the heart of American racism.
Then "Blood On the Leaves" suddenly punches in with horns that seem directly derived from KLC’s beat for C-Murder, and is soon followed by Kanye chanting that song’s hook. C-Murder’s song is about loyalty to your crew—a common idea in rap. (Think of Lil Reese’s “Us” hook from last year, or Drake’s “No New Friends” derivation of it this year.) But on “Down 4 My...” it’s explicitly racial. It deals in exclusion and in identity.
A few years after it had been released, it was still being used at my college by the black student organization at parties. Where the white-dominated fraternities would play “Pour Some Sugar On Me” for a moment of communal unity, the black men’s organization played C-Murder. It was the time when, as a white person, you stepped to the side. This song was about an experience that was hyperspecific, and that immediately put two groups of people on either side of experiencing it.
Interestingly—and I’m not sure if this is intentional, or a Freudian slip—Kanye actually misquotes the hook: “Fuck them other niggas cuz I’m down with my niggas,” is what Kanye says. In the original version, C-Murder says he’s down for them. —David Drake