This piece is an adaptation of my Quora answer to the question, “Can Kanye play instruments?“
An accomplished sampler or Fruity Loops beatmaker is just as much of an instrumentalist, and thus a musician, as someone who plays for the Metropolitan Opera
When I received this question on Quora, I viewed it as a branch from two more essential questions: “What is a musical instrument?” and “What is a musician?”
At its simplest, music is intentionally arranged sound in time. Oxford Dictionary’s definition is an expanded version of that sentiment. A musical instrument, then, is any tool purposely used to make sounds arranged in time. A musician is someone that plays and/or arranges sounds in time.
What part of these essential definitions suggests a digital audio workstation (DAW), synthesizer, sampler keyboard, or autotune aren’t musical instruments. What part of these essential definitions suggests an artist has to play a conventional instrument, know theory, or read music in order to be considered a musician?
No part at all.
With a lack of classical training and a massively influential discography, Kanye West is a great case study to support the idea of a nontraditional instrumentalist and musician. Despite boastful self-proclamations that he’s the greatest artist ever, Kanye West is quite humble and perceptive about what his actual strengths and weaknesses are.
In a 2013 interview with Zane Lowe during his Yeezus promotional run, Ye addressed the common criticism that he isn’t a “real” designer in response to his forays into fashion. Lowe does a great job allowing West’s frenetic train-of-thought to unfold naturally, as well as guiding it in a way that makes his often misunderstood talking points translate more clearly to listeners.
The following quote from that interview captures Ye’s self-view as a creative unbelievably well:
“I’ve got a million people telling me why I can’t do it, that I’m not a real designer. I’m not a real rapper either! I’m not a real musician either! I don’t know how to play the piano. I’m an artist, I went to art college.”
Kanye West cannot read music or deftly play a traditional instrument in one of the six major categories: bowed string, woodwind, percussion, brass, keyboard, and guitar. However, an item becomes musical only through purpose. It is this artistic purpose, the intent to express, that makes a MIDI keyboard running through Logic Pro X as much of an instrument as a grand piano. That is why hip-hop producers are “real” musicians.
Kanye West can play the hell out of an MPC.
Kanye West can play the hell out of a sampler keyboard.
Kanye West has arranged some of the most daring and realized compositions in musical history.
While Kanye’s experience with DAWs isn’t as extensive as his knowledge of an ASR-10, for instance, he does use Pro Tools to record and touch up his production.
He’s not the most technically gifted singer or rapper, and I really don’t know the depth of his music theory knowledge. But his ability to get the most out of tools at his disposal, fueled by his brave and colorful artistic perspective, is what makes him a multi-instrumentalist.
He can’t walk around a live studio and play everything in sight like Prince was able to do, but he can hear a voice he likes and turn it into sonic gold (e.g. any time he features Kid Cudi). He can make old-school machines seem like Pandora’s box the way he decides to manipulate samples and program drum patterns. He can arrange based on feelings and has the bravery and patience to fully manifest his biggest ideas, even if it takes thousands of hours to complete one song.
The ability to play traditional musical instruments should be lauded. It is a beautiful, intimate, and human thing to make strings, keys, or your breath communicate something musical. But an accomplished sampler or Fruity Loops beatmaker is just as much of an instrumentalist, and thus a musician, as someone who plays for the Metropolitan Opera.
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