Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Puff Daddy -- "Can't Nobody Hold Us Down" (1997)

And when you need a hit, who you gonna get?
Bet against us?  Not a good bet
We make hits that'll rearrange your whole set
And I got a Benz that I ain't even drove yet

This song's rhythm track samples Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's early rap hit, "The Message."  (That track was the subject of a first-semester "Hip Hop 101" lecture, as you more attentive students will no doubt recall.)  And it includes a couple of lines ("Don't push us 'cause we're close to the edge/We're trying not to lose our heads") that were taken almost word-for-word from "The Message" ("Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge/I'm trying not to lose my head").

"Can't Nobody Hold Me Down" also borrows from a pop song that has about as much hip-hop DNA as "Mary Had a Little Lamb" -- Matthew Wilder's 1983 pop hit, "Break My Stride."

The chorus of the Wilder song (which you'll first hear at 0:36 of this video) features these lyrics:

Ain't nothin' gonna break my stride
Nobody's gonna slow me down
I got to keep on moving

The Puff Daddy song features these lyrics and a very similar musical backing at 2:03 and 3:15:

Can't nobody take my pride
Can't nobody hold me down
I got to keep on moving

Many believe that Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs goes a little overboard when it comes to his use of samples.  Of course, sampling is generally accepted in the world of rap music.  

Some critics look askance at this practice.  For example, writer Erik Campbell has observed (with snarky disapproval) that "in the hip-hop world, plagiarism is referred to as sampling, and is somehow confused with creativity."  

On the other hand, Campbell admits that it is virtually impossible for a modern author to be truly original.  "As a writer of poetry and the occasional essay," he admits, "I am constantly trying to come up with, if not an original idea, then at least an original rendering of one."  But that's difficult to do because the literary journals and magazines that publish poetry and essays are read by only a few people, and the universe of readers of those publications largely overlaps with the universe of their authors.  "Thus, not only are we readers and writers oftentimes taking out one another’s laundry," Campbell concludes, "but also . . . wearing one another’s pants."  (Click here to read Campbell's article.)

If you find the image of Sean Combs, Grandmaster Flash, and Matthew Wilder sharing the same pair of pants too disturbing, perhaps you'll like this quote from Friedrich Nietzsche better: "Many a man fails as an original thinker simply because his memory is too good."  

It would appear that Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs has a very, very good memory for music.  Is it fair to criticize the man for that?

Sean Combs with his oldest son, Justin
Perhaps not.  But it seems quite fair to me to criticize him for giving a $360,000 Maybach (complete with chauffeur) to his eldest son on the occasion of his 16th birthday.  (For those of you aren't familiar with the Maybach, it is a luxury car manufactured by Mercedes-Benz -- sort of the German equivalent of a Rolls-Royce or Bentley.)  

I also have some doubts about the wisdom of naming one's twin daughters D'Lila Star Combs and Jessie James Combs -- but maybe that was the mother's idea.

Back to our featured song and the lyrics quoted above.

If you needed a hit in 1997, it was a very bad idea to bet against Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs and his Bad Boy Records label.

"Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," the first single from Combs' debut album, No Way Out, spent six weeks at #1 on the Billboard "Hot 100."  That album -- which reached #1 the week it was released, and eventually sold over seven million copies -- included four other hit singles and won the Grammy for best rap album.

The most successful of those singles was "I'll Be Missing You," which paid tribute to the Notorious B.I.G., Combs' close friend and Bad Boy recording artist, who had been shot to death earlier tha year.  "I'll Be Missing You" was the first rap song to debut at #1 on the Billboard "Hot 100," and it stayed in the top spot for eleven straight weeks.

Two Notorious B.I.G. singles were also #1 hits in 1997, as was Biggie's posthumously-released Life After Death double album, a Bad Boys Records release whose executive producer was Combs.

No Way Out was Puff Daddy's most successful album, although it is a far too commercial product to please rap purists -- or literary critics who don't like rappers with very good memories.

Here's the "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down" video:

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

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