In a 2013 article in The Atlantic, historic producer Pete Rock aired out his grievances, in classic old guy fashion, about the death of sampling in Hip-Hop as he said, “Subtract sampling and you get ignorance…Cats are not open to learning about what was before them.” Now, I’m not here to say that the legendary beat-maker was wrong, mostly because I don’t know what he may have been listening to around this time. I’m just here to say that his frustrations might be misguided. Modern Hip-Hop production is rife with samples from bygone eras that one could only find by mining the most arcane of vinyl crates. Producers and rappers are perfectly adept at reaching into the past, grabbing a sample, and turning it into something new.
I’m writing this article because of a love of sampling. I think it is the most interesting and captivating part of production. The beauty of sampling is that there’s no set way for it to be successful. One can sample from any era. That moment where you’re listening to a new track that utilizes an old sample from your childhood triggers such an intense nostalgic reaction that is impossible to let go. A similar phenomenon occurs when a more recent track gets sampled and turned into something uniquely special, granting the listener with a brand new perspective that’s equally as pleasing.
Now, it is important to understand what a great sampling job is. First, both the sample song and the new song must be good. That’s the key to all of this. If an artist samples a beautiful classic track (the 1976 song “Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale), and takes a gigantic crap on it (which is what Yung Gravy did with “Gravy Train”), then the artist did a poor job with the sample. The converse of this rarely happens, where a rapper/producer combo pick a garbage track to sample, so I’m not as concerned about that. And that’s pretty much it. So, with the rules of engagement laid out, here is a small, but definitive list of great samples in order to prove to Pete Rock that sampling is not a lost art.
Westside Gunn’s “It’s Possible” using Piero Piccioni’s “It’s Possible”
If there is one thing that Westside Gunn is particularly skilled at, it is beat selection. The Griselda frontman made one of the best decisions of his career when electing the beat for “It’s Possible,” off of his 2019 album Hitler Wears Hermes 7. Produced by the Philadelphia-based Sadhugold, a common collaborator with the likes of Gunn, Mach-Hommy, and The God Fahim, the track pulls from the catalog of a legendary foreign composer with an aptitude for haunting productions.
Sadhugold elected to sample “It’s Possible” from the movie Il Dio Sotto La Pelle, a 1974 Italian documentary with a soundtrack completely composed by Piero Piccioni. The track includes the voice of Catherine Howe, an English singer-songwriter who is famous for having the honor of being called “one of the great unrecognised voices” in the history of music by Record Collector in 2007. Piccioni and Howe combine to create a haunting combination of foreboding piano and organ play and dream-like vocals. The song creeps along slowly with purpose, as sweeping overtures are filled with Howe’s voice.
Sadhugold takes the haunting composition and retains the crux of the production for his beat. Instead of mangling the original song, the Philly producer elected to turn the track into a loop, choosing to repeat Howe’s singing of the words “it’s possible” at the 4:21 mark. The sample remains largely untouched, but it fits perfectly with the mood and tone of the featuring rappers Jay Worthy and Boldy James. What the listener is left with is a dark earworm on which the three rappers dive into their lives’ previous realities. The beauty of Howe’s original vocals coincides perfectly with the gritty, serious nature of Worthy, James, and Gunn’s bars. It’s a great example of not trying to do too much, and letting a good sample do the work it intended to do years before.
Baby Keem’s “STATS” using Cortex’s “Chanson d’un jour d’hiver”
Sometimes a great sample is about little moments, not so much about taking an entire track and reworking it into something new. This exact philosophy was utilized on the opening track of Las Vegas-born rapper and producer Baby Keem’s mixtape DIE FOR MY BITCH. Keem, along with fellow producers Keanu Beats (who produced Migos’ “What the Price”) and Kal Banx (who has production credits with Dreamville and SiR) decided to take a brief moment from the past and utilize it briefly to kick his second mixtape into high gear.
The production team hopped across the Atlantic Ocean to continental Europe and sampled Cortex, a legendary French jazz funk group from the 1970s. Cortex has their influences all over the genre of Hip-Hop, as they are credited with over 122 samples on the site WhoSampled. The band’s catalog is a goldmine of mythical proportions for modern producers, which leaves their fingerprints on a number of legendary beats. This particular track that Keem samples, “Chanson d’un jour d’hiver,” is a five-minute opus that rises and falls constantly. The track feels like a fever dream, equipped with a constant piano controlling the composition’s pace throughout and high-pitched vocals that float over the slower parts of the song.
“STATS” utilizes a specific part of 1975 track, one that shifts the pace of the song immediately. At the 2:06 mark, “Chanson d’un jour d’hiver” experiences a brief piano breakdown that ends at 2:20, backed by a rousing drum beat that completely changes the tone of the track. Keem uses this breakdown in the very same way, as the first of his song is rather bare-bones production wise, lacking a signature sound. Then, at the 1:02 mark, he infuses the very same piano breakdown Cortex created, and immediately raps with more vigor, adds more bass, and increases the speed of the song. It’s an exciting kickstart, akin to a pitstop in the middle of a NASCAR race. The sample is brief, but makes a world of difference as it affects the strength of the track.
BENNY THE BUTCHER “Crowns for Kings” using Al Green’s “Look What You Done for Me”
Similar to his fellow Griselda member Westside Gunn, Benny the Butcher is well-versed in beat selection. It might be a chicken and egg scenario, but Benny always sounds solid over every beat, rarely appearing out of place or lost over a wide range of production. On “Crowns for Kings,” a standout track from his 2019 mixtape The Plugs I Met that features the prolific Black Thought, he selected a soulful production that draws from a legendary source.
The track, produced by DJ Shay, samples Al Green’s “Look What You Done for Me” off of his 1972 album I’m Still in Love With You. The track is quintessential Al Green: it’s rife with soul and a familiarity that is unshakable. The song is brief, and features a soft piano powered by a strong horn ensemble. The combination meshes flawlessly with Green’s singing, as his wailing vocals create a call and response with the production. The most alluring effect of the track is that it always sounds as if its being played off of a record player, retaining a slight atmospheric crackle.
DJ Shay captures this effect, bottles it, and utilizes it in “Crowns for Kings.” He specifically focuses in on the section of “Look What You Done for Me” that begins at the 1:32 mark and ends at 1:41, which features light crooning from the background singers and some strings production. DJ Shay takes the section, slows it down, lowers the pitch of the background singers, and it sets it on a loop for the beat. The sample is succinct and precise, and is once again the perfect foil for Benny’s drug dealing raps and Black Thought’s chronicling of his early life. The two deliver perfect performances to go along with the perfect sampling, for which everyone involved deserves their crowns.
Metro Boomin’s “10 Freaky Girls” using Kashif’s “Are You the Woman”
Some producers stay away from sampling. They prefer to craft their own beats in whatever manner they please, creating brand new beats with no reference point. Metro Boomin, who has already amassed one of the most impressive production catalogues in Rap history, is not one of those people. He’s famously known for being one to dig through record crates for inspiration for his beats, and on his 2018 album NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES, he framed the 21 Savage-led “10 Freaky Girls” with a flawless sample.
The Atlanta native called upon Kashif’s 1984 release “Are You the Woman,” which features the transcendent vocal talents of Whitney Houston. The song is a groovy ballad that hinges on the power of Kashif and Houston’s duet. The production is powered by a sublime keyboard beat and bassline that moves the rhythm along with ease. The battle between the bass and the higher octave keyboard for supremacy over the production makes for a delightful track that bounces smoothly for five minutes.
Instead of taking the sample and using it for the entirety of the track, Metro Boomin elected to bookend his track with Kashif’s song. “10 Freaky Girls” begins with familiar keyboard rhythm of “Are You the Woman,” which then opens the door for Houston’s crooning to kick the song off. Boomin then switches the beat as 21 hops on, and the track turns into an eerie ride powered by distinct hi-hats and 808s. It becomes one of my favorite tracks as 21 floats with no interruption over the simple yet entertaining beat. Instead of allowing the track to fade out, Boomin re-inserts the sample at the 2:55 mark, where it acts as an elite closer. Over it, 21 reminisces about a man he robbed once to the perfect background music. It’s a minimalist sample job executed perfectly, showing how one can do more with less.
Anderson .Paak’s “Without You” using Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Molasses”
As mentioned before, an artist does not necessarily have to reach deep into the past in order to find a great sample. Many of the modern iterations of musical genres hold amazing tracks that are more than adequate for sampling usage. Heralded Hip-Hop producer 9th Wonder recognizes this, and on “Without You,” a track from Anderson .Paak’s 2016 album Malibu, he reached into the recesses of psychedelic/funk soul to sample an alternative masterpiece.
9th Wonder sampled the song “Molasses,” released in 2015 by the Melbourne-based band Hiatus Kaiyote, who had already gained notoriety from a collaboration with the legendary Q-Tip. The track is fun-ass ride, drawing upon a number of conflicting sounds to somehow create a cohesive funk track. The quartet powers the track with solid bassline that coexists with a prominent percussive sound. The lead singer Nai Palm (born Naomi Saalfield) delivers an amazing vocal performance as she nestles cozily into the experimental production around her.
“Without You” takes all of the good parts of “Molasses,” adds the charisma and skill of Anderson .Paak, and brings on the lyrical mastery of Rapsody to create an astounding track. The production is simply the rhythm of “Molasses,” with Nai Palm’s first very first vocals that start at the 0:12 mark looped together, topped off with heavier drums. The finished product is a bouncy track that allows Paak to rap and sing with the full range of his personality. After he and Rapsody deliver to the fullest of their abilities, Nai Palm’s intro from the sample track closes the song with an appropriate level of soul and melancholia for the theme of “Without You.”