Latin Grammys 2018

Nina Simone: Why the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Is Also a Hip-Hop Legend (Critic's Take)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Nina Simone photographed in 1968.

Frenetic in nature and aggressive when necessary, Nina Simone’s everlasting discography depicts raw emotion, personifying the duality of struggle and triumph. As Simone’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame approaches on April 14, her music still finds itself deeply ingrained within today’s zeitgeist.

Simone’s discography distinctly warped time, extending its relevance into the framework of popular music six decades from the beginning of her dynamic career, including a seamless embedding within today’s most popular genre: rap music.

As the booming voice of hip-hop culture, rap music derived from a manipulation of disco and soul hits. This execution led to outright sampling, using adaptations of previously released music as a sonic foundation for stories to live fluidly. Bringing the sound to life, MCs speak their reality, narrating real-life dire straits for all to digest. Storytelling from such angles mirrors Simone’s identity as a classically trained pianist who harshly vocalized her story, creating the perfect catalog for sampling.

Many genius-level Simone samples have provided this generation with classic tracks, most recently including “The Story of O.J.," the Grammy-nominated highlight off JAY-Z’s 4:44, a culture-shifting, late-career masterwork.

The juxtaposition between JAY-Z’s message of black empowerment and O. J. Simpson’s rebuttal of his heritage was emboldened by the use of Simone's original “Four Women." The song was penned by Simone in 1966 about the characteristics of four women, the first yielding an aesthetic akin to her own: black skin, long arms and wooly hair.

Such imagery is omnipresent in Miss Simone’s penmanship, creating a rich narration of the Black plight, a perspective that 4:44 continued. As JAY-Z's storytelling progresses, her inspiration remains woven into the album as track four, “Caught Their Eyes,” utilized the heavy conviction from the similarly vivid imagery to Simone's 1978 single “Baltimore,” a Randy Newman cover: “Hooker on the corner, waiting for a train. Drunk lying on the sidewalk, sleeping in the rain.”

Those lyrics served as background vocals as JAY paints a picture of despair and uncontrolled vulnerability -- another key element to both Simone and JAY-Z’s respective discographies, creating a unique historical through line for Shawn Carter’s most emotionally-draining work to date.

To understand Simone’s status as a hip-hop legend, one must understand her path to Hall of Fame accreditation.

Born in rural North Carolina, Nina Simone, born Eunice Waymon, began playing the piano at the tender age of four. Quickly honing her talents, local instructors amidst the segregated South took her on, with Waymon's goal to one day be performing at Carnegie Hall. The young musician trained through Johann Bach’s compositions, eventually making her way to New York City, with the famed Curtis Institute in her sights, a tough path to charter within her world’s omnipresent prejudice. A turbulent journey entirely informed by her African diaspora followed her, a facet of her life that eventually led to her denial into Curtis.

As her dream was crushed, famed Curtis professor Vladimir Sokoloff personally provided lessons at a cost. To fund the education, she played music, and actually began to sing publicly for the first time at an Atlantic City restaurant, meeting and marrying white beatnik Don Ross in the process. Love was rapidly lost as Ross became an overbearing manager-husband hellbent on controlling Simone. As strife and segregation progressed, aligned with her transformation from Eunice to Nina, the artist met face-to-face with domestic abuse and rampant exploitation that suppressed her freedom.

Such an experience is still commonplace in society, as tumultuous lives formulate raw storytelling, leading to a spot within an industry that exploits and twists the concept of reality -- an all-too-common story in rap music. We often find rappers trending on Twitter, only to click the hashtags for a sad story. Family drama, money issues and a laundry list of embarrassments follow upon the capitalization of such talent.

One can look to Lil Wayne’s current battles with Cash Money and Birdman for measure. Once the home that morphed Wayne into a generational talent, the rapper's old label now holds the burden of strangling the artist in him, via countless album delays and negligent revenue splits. But through the pain, Wayne shines through when called upon. Most recently, his feature verse on Tyler, the Creator’s “Droppin’ Seeds” shows Wayne’s continued lyrical prowess, one built upon his penmanship, exhibiting an audacious sense of confidence, and his mercurial flows.

Similarly, Simone reflects on life through her immersive penmanship and classical piano skills to produce music with distinct precision, a new style to a rhythmic world in which soundscapes developed from feeling rather than instrumental logic.

The ebb and flow of rap also provides nuanced perspectives, from conscious to trap, all speaking to reality. Sampling, when done right, provides clarity to the message, laying depth through ideas lyrics can’t provide.

You’ve heard Nina’s striking voice in so many variations; embedded within many contemporary hits in such unique executions, listeners are bound to catch at least one Simone sample from a typical streaming playlist. From high-pitched cuts to chopped and screwed interpolations, Simone’s impact on hip-hop is varied and incalculable, finding countless ways to live through unique styles of rap.

Listen to “New Day” from the Throne (Kanye and Jay-Z)’s historic collaborative album, Watch the Throne, and hear a clear message, about a new day in which the superstar duo's kids live better lives than they did -- a life in which fame is eluded for a safe childhood immersed in love.

“See, I just want him to have an easy life

Not like Yeezy life, just want him to be someone people like

Don’t want him to be hated all the time, judged

Don’t be like your daddy that would never budge”

Simone’s 1965-released single “Feeling Good” served as the sample to said track, speaking to the dream of contentment. The message rings true as the song vibrates into a deeper space, cultivating a new point of view for the listener.

Now think about 50 Cent using “Feeling Good” for “Bad News” back in 2002 -- taking the sample to a very different but equally effective space of bravado, an anchor to support G-Unit’s menacing bars. The sample adds context to the track, allowing 50 to leverage its sentiments to mirror his own, making it easier to see from Curtis’ side.

The notion of a new dawn and a new day is one that we all seek when it seems control has been lost. Some artists have taken the song’s meaning for joy and a bright future while others have tapped into the sorrow in Simone’s recording, borrowing the legendary song to fit a wide spectrum of narratives. The song has also been sampled or covered by a slew of international stars, including Muse, Michael Buble, Traffic, Avicii, Sheryl Crow, George Michael and especially Lauryn Hill, as they all express different perspectives through Nina’s recording.

Having recorded her own version for Nina Revisited: A Tribute to Nina Simone, Hill, a longtime recluse, sang “Feeling Good” with Nina’s spirit deeply ingrained into her artistic being. Like Simone, Hill also carried a burden through her generational talent. Inundated with the pressures of the industry, the former Fugees rapper exiled herself to find peace after debut solo LP The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill became an immediate hip hop classic upon its release in 1998. In the decades since, she’s made only sparse public appearances and a few tours, which have cemented her public image as a disjointed shell of a former superstar.

As empathy and further understanding of her plight comes into play, Hill, like Simone, has become a myth-like figure to hip hop culture, inspiring a plethora of current culture-movers, including SZA, Beyonce, Adele and John Legend. (The latter even began his iconic career playing the piano on the background of Hill’s song “Everything is Everything”.)

In a political climate as cloudy as we are currently in, Simone’s music reigns as hyper-relevant to the times. While our world can seem like its losing balance, in essence, music only telecasts reality in a bearable manner, sparking a connection we all seek. For that connection, Nina Simone set a table for the future, bearing her gift to unintentionally give MCs a model to emulate.

A beautiful legacy that took years of pain and triumph, Simone’s legendary catalog set a path beyond soul, beyond classical, beyond jazz, all the way into hip-hop. Such quality music becomes timeless, allowing generations to interact with her work without even necessarily realizing the input she has on our favorite MCs’ projects.

As the High Priestess of Soul makes her way into the latest Rock & Roll Hall of Fame class, let us acknowledge her impact on rap music. Through her fearless spirit, we are empowered to cry, feel good and be vulnerable, all within a discography we still rely upon. Celebrate her presence, not only as the Black girl from North Carolina that made it out of the segregated South, but as a Black classical musician who provided the emotional -- and in many ways, sonic -- blueprint for rap music as we currently know it.