Sampling is the foundation of hip-hop. The ability to take an instrumental or vocal component from a past song that inspires you and inject it into your musical narrative (and, consequently, place yourself in the greater musical narrative, as Mark Ronson explains in his must-watch TED talk) is a unique art form.
I’ve always been attracted to a powerful sample, but I’d never reflected much on the reason. In many ways, I think the goal of the sampler is similar to the goal of the journalist. A journalist is a creative, but not in the sense that he’s creating something “new.” It’s my job to make connections between music and the world around us and then shed light on them as best I can.
An effective sample is one that causes you to dive into a previously unexplored area of music, exposing you to the foundations of contemporary sounds. With that being said, let’s look at the prime examples of this creative endeavor that graced our ears in 2016.
9. Song: “Golddust” by Danny Brown (prod: Paul White)
Sample: “Atrocity Exhibition” by Joy Division
It’s only fitting that the captain of the Bruiser Brigade would rap over a sample by post-punk icons Joy Division.
Danny Brown is no stranger to detailing his bouts with mental illness and drug abuse and this track adds to his story. It’s eerie that he chose to divulge this information over a sample from “Atrocity Exhibition.”
This song, in addition to being one of the inspirations for his most recent album title, was released just two months after the lead singer of Joy Division, Ian Curtis, committed suicide at 23. Knowing this makes Curtis’ vocal sample, “step inside,” more ominous.
Brown is aware of this context and wants us to be as well so that we take the end of his second verse seriously: “So take a step inside / a mind so horrific. / Take a look inside, / scare you for life, / this is the way. / N*gga step inside.”
8. Song: “SDP Interlude” by Travis Scott (prod: Ricci Riera)
Sample: “You and I” by Washed Out
I’d be willing to bet that Travis Scott would describe himself as a wavy dude. And I would tend to agree, especially on songs like SDP Interlude.
When “Birds in the Trap” was released, I honestly skipped this song for about the first month. I was motivated by a friend to revisit it and, once I found out it samples a Washed Out track, I was hooked.
Ricci Riera takes Caroline Polacheck’s repetition of “personified” in the original and pitches it to his heart’s content, adding sparse drums to put us in the middle of a hazy swell.
This is one for the a.m. hours following a night of partying. But please, play responsibly.
7. “Money & Bitches” by Joey Purp (prod: Knox Fortune & Ducko Mcfli)
Sample: “Good Old Music” by Funkadelic
Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!” is the latest iteration from a hip-hop artist (although that title is a questionable one for Gambino) to reignite our collective love of funk. But we shouldn’t overlook the constant stream of funk samples given to us by producers with one foot in the past.
The drum pattern that opens “Good Old Music” is co-opted by Knox and Ducko and they use it to introduce Joey Purp’s best song from his “iiiDrops” mixtape, which released last May.
It’s also interspersed throughout the track to provide breaks for Joey’s seemingly endless bars. While the content of the song describes racial and socioeconomic inequality, this funk sample leaves room for a hopeful outlook.
6. “Freedom Interlude” by Noname (prod: Phoelix & Saba)
Sample: Nina Simone in “Nina: A Historical Perspective”
Perhaps it’s more than cosmic coincidence that Noname’s moniker can be derived from the letters in Nina Simone’s name.
Thirteen years after the passing of the High Priestess of Soul, the issue of freedom is still an issue for many people.
As you listen to Ms. Simone try to articulate the essence of freedom in a sound bite taken from “Nina: A Historical Perspective,” the documentary by Peter Rodis, you recognize the elusiveness of the concept. Watching the documentary gives you an even deeper sense of this.
You watch Simone viscerally struggle to put the deepest longing of her soul into words. I found myself smiling as I saw her putting her intuitions into a logically coherent form.
She settles on the phrase “no fear” as the most accurate description of freedom. This is a goal she shares with Noname. Noname and Nina Simone are all of us, and we can take comfort in the fact that our search for freedom is universal.
5. “Nasty’s World” by A$AP Mob (prod: A$AP Yams)
Sample: “West Savannah” by Outkast
“As above, so below.”
Besides being a silly horror film from a few years ago, this phrase means that the patterns of your subjective life are a reflection of greater universal tendencies.
Part of the reason sampling is so effective on the listener’s ears is because he or she recognizes the familiar pattern in the music. This is a macro-level description of sampling.
Zooming into the micro, we find the late A$AP Yams taking elements of Outkast’s “West Savannah” and modifying their significance on “Nasty’s World” from A$AP Mob’s recent “Cozy Tapes, Vol. 1: Friends.”
Yams (R.I.P.) the distant horn sounds from “West Savannah” (listen close, you’ll hear them) and amplified them in his reworking, making them a prominent element of “Nasty’s World.” Tune in and let the A$AP Mob pay homage to their New York roots.
4. “Solid Wall of Sound” by A Tribe Called Quest (prod: A Tribe Called Quest)
Sample: “Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John
By far the most recognizable sample on this list, “Solid Wall of Sound” brings together hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest and the undeniably badass Elton John.
The sample opens the track by defining the music we are about to hear – “electric” – and personifies it in the form of a “solid wall,” which reflects this song’s ability to stop you in your tracks.
“Bennie and the Jets” is a part of the collective musical consciousness of the average listener, which makes the effectiveness of this song more powerful. It’s guaranteed to stay in your head for at least a few hours. Plus, Sir Elton even co-signed the use of his classic song by contributing some original vocals at the end of the track.
If you can find something that’s more badass than Elton John talking about “his goons checking their guns at the door,” I’ll stop writing.
3. “Nas Album Done” by DJ Khaled featuring Nas (prod: DJ Khaled, Cool & Dre & 808-Rey)
Sample: “Fu-Gee-La” by The Fugees
I’ll be the first to admit, DJ Khaled frequently annoys me. I appreciate his positive outlook and motivational impulses, but oftentimes they never drift out of the realm of cliché.
But sometimes artists drop that one song that makes you forget your reasons for disliking them and cements their place in your personal Hall of Fame. Apparently, all it takes is a dope Fugees’ sample for me.
The sample of Lauryn Hill singing “ooo-la-la-la” is so catchy that you almost forget to stop and listen to the truth that Nas spits on this track. If you were worried about getting on your co-worker’s nerves singing “Solid Wall of Sound,” then don’t play “Nas Album Done” before the next shift.
2. “Close to You” by Frank Ocean (prod: Buddy Ross, Francis Starlight & Vegyn)
Sample: “Talkbox Medley” by Stevie Wonder
I hate it when this happens. “Close to You” is my favorite song from Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” (well, top three – are you really asking me to pick a favorite from “Blonde”?), but it clocks in at under a minute and a half. My iPhone just defaults to repeat now because I’ll sit down for half an hour and listen to this song.
Setting aside the lyrical content, which you could write an entire article about, this song is a sample-lover’s dream. We can argue about whether or not it’s a sample or a cover, but there’s no denying that this song has been around a while and has been revisioned by many an artist, including Frank Ocean.
This is a prime example of the effect that sampling can have on future generations, which is why I place it at number two. Hearing this track caused me to listen to Stevie Wonder, Burt Bacharach, Lauryn Hill, The Carpenters, and Isaac Hayes. Frank has cemented his place in the musical narrative and “Close to You” is a beautiful reminder of that.
1. “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” by Kanye West (prod: Kanye West, Rick Rubin & Metro Boomin)
Sample: “Father Stretch My Hands” by T.L. Barrett
This sample is taken from Pastor T.L. Barrett’s gospel song of the same name. The original song laments the condition of the world and claims that divine intervention is the only means for liberation.
Although West chooses to find liberation by other means in his reinterpretation, the production echoes the original emotion of the song. Your ears are filled with a beautiful organ that joins the sample at the beginning of the track, and this maintains the religious themes present in the original.
This is no ordinary church hymn though. Metro Boomin quickly reminds us that we are worshipping in the trap house once his now-iconic production tag drops and he brings in the fast-paced hi-hats and his signature 808 sounds.
It’s important for the sounds accompanying a sample to breathe new life into that song’s history, and Kanye executes this perfectly. While Barrett’s original features a choir and a somber organ conducive to reflection, the retelling of this gospel classic includes buzz synths and upbeat keys that create a perfect fit for this sample.
It should go without saying that Kanye is one of the best samplers alive. I hope he gets better soon so that we can be blessed with even more divine sampling.
The Best Samples of 2016
2016 was a good year for new music, but as you can see, there were many opportunities for sampling old compositions to make some of 2016’s most memorable hip-hop songs.
The prominence of sampling in hip hop and R&B ensures that timeless acts of musical genius will live on in our collective musical consciousness for years to come. Let’s all take the time to explore the roots of our favorite tracks from 2016 and the, hopefully, brilliant upcoming examples of sampling in 2017.
Knowing samples doesn’t just make you more interesting at cocktail parties, it broadens your musical peripheral and yields seemingly endless possibilities for music discovery. All we have to do is take the time and listen.