Written by Sam Keeling
Song sampling is at the heart of hip hop. In the early days of the genre, when it was still largely live music that hadn’t yet found recording success, DJs would scour funk, R&B and soul records for interesting instrumental breaks in the music. Once they found a catchy one, they would stretch it out and create their own rhythm from it. The best grooves got the most enthusiastic response from the audience.
A lot has changed since then. Hip hop went from an obscure, local music form in America to the country’s most popular and influential modern music genre. Although hip hop is continuously evolving, the use of samples remains prevalent.
Some critique the use of samples, saying it demonstrates a lack of creativity from artists; I think those people are lacking perspective. Hip hop artists don’t copy the music of past artists; instead, they reinterpret the older song, infusing it with their own perspective, experiences and memories to create a new landscape in which the older song can continue to thrive.
Here are five examples of songs that effectively use samples to redefine the meanings of previously recorded songs.
Coolio, “Gangsta’s Paradise” (1995)
Samples: Stevie Wonder, “Pastime Paradise” (1976)
Stevie Wonder’s magnum opus is “Songs in the Key of Life,” a 1976 double album that explores everything from love to fatherhood, religion and, in the case of songs like “Pastime Paradise,” racial justice. Over hauntingly beautiful strings, Wonder highlights the mindset of the white people that longed for days of segregation: “They’ve been wasting most of their time / Glorifying days long gone behind.”
In 1995, Compton-born rapper Coolio replaced Wonder’s string section with icy synth, and interpolated Wonder’s chorus in the now-famous “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Considered one of the greatest hip hop songs of all time, “Gangsta’s Paradise” strips the overall optimism from Wonder’s song by pointing out that the days of racial injustice are far from pastime. As he laments, “I can’t live a normal life, I was raised by the streets,” Coolio lets us know that racism still exists in different but equally sinister ways.
Fugees, “Ready or Not” (1996)
Samples: The Delfonics, “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love)” (1969); Enya, “Boadicea” (1987)
Ms. Lauryn Hill is a hip hop legend known for her expansive knowledge of soul music. For this standout track on the classic Fugees album “The Score,” Hill turns a Delfonics soul standard on its head. Even though the original lyrics were an odd declaration of searching for love, Fugees took them as a warning that they were about to take over the hip hop business.
To add to the atmosphere, the group took a chilling melody from Irish singer Enya’s “Boadicea” and lowered the pitch, so it sounds like alarm ringing out through the speaker. Just like that, a love song and Irish instrumental morphed to help create one of the greatest announcements of dominance in the history of hip hop.
Kanye West, “Through the Wire” (2003)
Samples: Chaka Khan, “Through the Fire” (1984)
It’s hard to believe that there was a time when Kanye West was not a world-famous rapper. In fact, he didn’t begin his career as a performer: instead, he rose to prominence as a beat-maker for big name artists like Jay-Z.
In 2002, after a bad motorcycle accident shattered his jaw, West had his mouth wired shut. His doctors warned him to refrain from rapping, but West, who played by his own rules even before superstardom, recorded and released his first single: “Through the Wire.”
The song includes one of the most daring samples ever: Chaka Khan’s super-slow, super-80’s ballad “Through the Fire.” Kanye sped up the sample, put it over a driving beat and distorted the vocals so that it sounded like Chaka was singing “through the wire.” It was a bold move that paid off: his 2004 debut album “The College Dropout,” which included this single, won several Grammys and propelled him to the top of the game. It was, as he put it, “history in the making, man.”
Drake, “Take Care” (2011)
Samples: Jamie xx, “I’ll Take Care of U” (2011), Gil Scott-Heron, “I’ll Take Care of You” (2010)
This is a strange story of three disparate artists contributing to history in their own ways. It all started with Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 song “I’ll Take Care of You.” Scott-Heron, who rose to prominence in the 70s, was a spoken-word poet and singer-songwriter whose unique delivery is credited as one of the inspirations for hip hop. However, his 2010 album “I’m New Here” was a softer, bluesy recording that reflected his old age.
Fast forward one year: Jamie Smith is the beatmaker and producer for the excellent indie-pop group the xx. He begins to record his own solo electronic music under the name Jamie xx. His first project? “We’re New Here,” which remixes every song from Scott-Heron’s “I’m New Here.” Although the original artist died that same year, Jamie xx infused his sound with a youthful, electronic energy. The standout of the album was “I’ll Take Care of U,” which sped up the original version of the song, added a thumping bassline and included a guitar line that rose and receded like a tidal wave.
Canadian rapper Drake then heard that beat from “I’ll Take Care of U.” Apparently liking what he heard, he took that exact beat and employed Rihanna to replace Scott-Heron as the singer of the hook. The result? “Take Care,” the crossover smash that launched Drake to the top of the hip hop game, where he remains to this day. Just like that, a new champion of hip hop was ushered in with the help of a progenitor of the genre and an obscure electronic artist.
Kendrick Lamar, “i” (2014)
Samples: The Isley Brothers, “That Lady, Pts. 1 & 2” (1973)
“That Lady, Pts. 1 & 2” is one of the songs that defines funk: the dynamic bassline, wailing guitar, and howling vocals are simultaneously melodic and chaotic. This is the kind of music that Kendrick Lamar grew up listening to in his home, and he constantly cites funk artists like Parliament-Funkadelic and James Brown as the artists he listens to when finding his next sound.
It’s only fitting, then, that Kendrick would lift that bass and guitar from the Isley Brothers for his 2014 single “i.” The chorus is simple —“I love myself”— but carries deep meaning behind it. It’s about expressing love for all the black Americans growing up in the inner city, for whom the outside world doesn’t seem to care about. Sampling “That Lady” is a symbol of black pride, and the single cover — which shows rival gang colors forming hearts beside each other — advocates for unity and support in a time of terrible gang violence as well as racial tensions.