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Kanye West Cleared a Steely Dan Sample by Writing a Personal Letter to the Band

Sean Gardner / Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images
Sean Gardner / Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images

Steely Dan leaders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen earned a reputation as two of rock’s most tuneful misanthropists, and hip-hop superstar Kanye West has never seemed to run short on ego. Any meeting between the two sides would seem to be loaded with potential for nastiness, but when West needed to clear a sample of the Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne,” he actually reached out with an honest — and successful — emotional appeal.

The Steely/West summit took place during the recording of West’s 2010 Graduation LP, which used a piece of the classic Steely Dan track for the song “Champion.” As Fagen later told Complex, upon first hearing it, they decided not to grant West permission to use the sample.

“Walter and I listened to it,” said Fagen. “And although we’d love some of the income, neither of us particularly liked what he had done with it.”

Undaunted, West reached out with a handwritten letter explaining what “Champion” meant to him personally — specifically, that it helped tell the story of his complicated relationship with his father. “I wrote a letter to Donald Fagen and explained to him the importance of this song to me, and of expressing these feelings to my father,” he told Spin. “I think it’s what made the difference in getting the sample cleared.”

It did make the difference in the end, although Fagen — ever brutally honest in his assessment of his own and others’ work — admitted that while he and Becker may have been moved by West’s appeal, the ins and outs of his creative process still escaped them.

“He said, ‘I love your stuff, and I really want to use it because it’s a very personal thing for me.’ My mind doesn’t work like that — I would never use someone else’s stuff if I was writing something personal, but I guess that’s how he was thinking about it,” shrugged Fagen. “It was such a good letter that we said, ‘All right, go ahead,’ and we made a deal with him.”

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