Stuck in my head #3: “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” by Jay-Z

by Matt Meade


It wasn’t too long ago that I had the song “Tomorrow,” from the movie-musical Annie stuck in my head.

Well, as would be expected, I now have “Hard Knock Life,” stuck in my head.

Not this one:

The other one.  The one where the piano keys in the verse repeat, but aren’t repetitive.  The one where the words of the chorus are melo-dramatic but translate as dramatic.  The one with the bass line taken out, but yet, is still given permission to bump.  You see, the above song will forever be associated, at least by my generation, with Jay-Z, the rap mogul who has trumped the success of Annie many times over with a Daddy Warbucks-sized empire of his own and who, in 1998 released “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” which sampled the main hook from the film’s hit song.

So what better time, on the eve of what looks to be a disaster of a remake coming out in December, to revisit the game-changing single?

The original “Hard Knock Life,” (from the 1982 film), is catchy, iconic, and also devastatingly sad.  It’s about children suffering malnourishment (“Empty Bellies / ‘Stead a full”), enduring physical abuse (“Instead of treated / We get tricked/ Instead of kisses / We get kicked”), and coping with economic impoverishment so profound that not only do they not receive Christmas gifts, but are somehow unaware that the concept even exists (“Santa Claus we never see /Santa Claus? What’s that? Who’s he?”). In retrospect it doesn’t seem like too big a stretch for Jay-Z to identify with this lifestyle; by his own admission he was living the impoverished life of a statistic. It makes sense that a kid living in the Marcy Projects, which is basically synonymous with economic depression, would see the parallels between his own life and the life of a child living through the actual Great Depression.  At the time, however, those kinds of connections were not being made on such a scale.  Suburban Caucasians were still getting a contact high from Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (1992) and scrambling to try to find out who Roberta Flack was and who was trying to kill her so softly, that those Japanese rappers the Fujis had to sing about it.

Though the use of the sample from a musical traditionally marketed to white people was unheard of at the time, Jay-Z used it anyway because fuck you, that’s why.

What most people don’t remember about the song is that when Jay-Z originally used the sample it was such a hard left turn that hip-hop heads started losing their frigging minds.  There is a little more than a faint whiff of the controversy remaining on Allmusic’s description of the song:

Jay-Z had established himself as a savvy, street-smart rapper on those two records, but with “Hard Knock Life” he decides to shoot for crossover territory, for better and for worse. At his best, he shows no fear — witness how the title track shamelessly works a Broadway showstopper from Annie into a raging ghetto cry, yet keeps it smooth enough for radio.

But Steve ‘Flash’ Juon was not quite so diplomatic and he expressed his feelings of anger and betrayal regarding Jay-Z’s transition from “Who You Wit” and “The City is Mine,” to a song sharing writing credits with the guy who wrote Bye Bye BirdieHe had these harsh words to say of Life and Times Vol. 2 back in 1997:

And honestly, in all honesty, there is nothing nice I can say about this album. So from one of Jay-Z’s FORMERLY biggest fans, here’s a tip: quit buttfucking Annie up the ass and come up with some real music.


And Juon wasn’t the only one.  There were stand up comedians, writers, and other rappers who expressed similar opinions.  Though the song was not without its detractors, Jay-Z continued to feature the song, not only making it the lead single, but also closing every show of his tour with it, pushing the song to the point of making it boring.  By April of 1999 one writer described Hard Knock fatigue: “the encore elicited a low-key response from the crowd, which was probably plenty sick of its Annie sample after months of hearing little else on the radio.”

Of course, this fatigue just proves that the ubiquity worked.  So commercially and critically successful was the song, in fact, that it sparked an annoying four-year-period when you couldn’t turn on a hip-hop or pop station without hearing some hack try to squeeze an unexpected sample into an aggressive and growling hip hop song.

Jay-Z’s brave attempt paved the way for 2Pac’s posthumous “Changes” to be a massive success later that same year, sampling 80s rocker Todd Rundgren (I know it was Bruce Hornsby, but does it really matter?) who was so Caucasian and cheesy he may as well have been writing musicals.

(The “official” version through 2Pac’s Vevo channel on youtube is edited of language they find offensive, so obviously I consider this fan made video closer to the canonical version than the Vevo version.  And, obviously, fuck you Vevo.)

With the embargo on “white people’s music” lifted, Royce Da 5’9” went ahead and released a record prominently featuring a sample of Barbara Streisand, Mase used the theme song from Welcome Back Kotter, and the trend reached its nadir with Ja Rule sampling Toto in a bizarre hall of mirrors of appropriation where an African-American artist sampled the work of white artists performing what they perceived to be “African percussion.”

If you look all the way back, you can see Cain jacking Abel’s swag.

Even Hov himself would try to recapture the magic by sampling Oliver for 2000’s “Anything,” though he would fail as miserably as the rest.  None of these songs, save for 2Pac’s “Changes” have made even close to the same impact that “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” did.  It turns out the reason this song sold so many copies and is still on countless Best Of lists is because Jay-Z actually loved the source material.

In 2010 he told NPR’s Terry Gross the heartbreakingly endearing story about acquiring the rights to the music on an episode of Fresh Air (which is a fascinating, bizarre, hilarious, and revelatory interview.  The part about Annie starts just before the 20:00 minute mark and during the interview he may hint at the notion that became the 2014 remake. “Someone just reached out like the other day and said that [Charles Strouse] wants to, uh,  speak with me so I’m gonna reach out to him…” he said cryptically.)

The interview reveals that Jay-Z, illegal gun-possessing, 99 Problems-having Jay-Z, at one time in his life watched Annie on television and identified with maybe the most unhip, 10-year-old white girl, ever.  It reveals that admitted former womanizer and crack dealer Iceberg Slim was able to see himself in Annie and to identify with her struggle.  It means that future rapper, entertainer, and businessman J-Hov once sat on his mother’s couch and rooted for Annie to find her parents, escape the orphanage, and find the love for which she so desperately longed.  I think Annie and her impossibly bad situation juxtaposed with the opulence that is just out of reach says something about America, something 10-year-old Jay-Z understood.

Up until 1998, the only approved samples to be used in a hip-hop song included James Brown, The Isley brothers, and obscure R&B artists who used open drums in their intros and breakdowns.  This was a pre-Kanye West world where the entire history of pop music wasn’t yet made available to be utilized for the rap artist’s expression, where if you heard King Crimson you were on the classic rock station and if you heard “Tom’s Diner,” you were in some hippie-chick’s bedroom trying to get laid.

Wale, speaking to Emmanuel C.M. for XXL magazine described it this way:

I just think it was a different time… That would be considered a backpack record right now. Process that. Like, that would be considered an outright backpack record. No street niggas would rap on that right now. Not one. That was his most selling album ’cause of that song! ’Cause niggas wasn’t buying singles, like a lot of mothafuckas was like, “I wanna hear the Annie song.” And the album—that album was dark. Money, cash, hoes and all that.

But even proto backpackers like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest were sampling The Ohio Players and Grover Washington.  No one, not even So-called backpackers were involved in anything like “Hard Knock Life.”  Using the sample was a sea change moment in the history of pop music.

One thing that may have been missed by all those people who were mad at Jay-Z was the showy sort of “look what I just did,” element to the song.  He knew he was doing something new and taboo.  Something that would be criticized.  There was a sense of hipster irony there, way before kids in Williamsburg were wearing fannypacks.  It’s almost as if Jay-Z was saying, “Wouldn’t it be the funniest thing ever if I sampled Scarface and a Broadway musical on the same record?”  (I sort of can’t even get into “It’s Alright” which samples Kraftwork and The Talking Heads, but you should certainly check out how ahead of its time that 17 year old song is.)

But the other thing that may have been missed when the song was making millions of dollars for all involved, and sowing the seeds for SONY pictures to make a movie out if it almost two decades later, is how inclusive and magnanimous Jay-Z was being to look at Aileen Quinn and be able to say, “that’s me.”  And not only did he identify with her, he took a risk and he told us all about it.  He knew he would take criticism but he had a story to tell and he told it.  In a culture where everything is disposable, where it’s easy to mock and dismiss things that are new and different, and everyone is afraid to connect with one another, those kind of moments of empathy and connections are ones we don’t soon forget.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s