The Art of the Sample

By Paddy O’Mahoney    Illustration by Noel Feeney

 We pay homage to the craftsmen propping up the backbone of hip hop.


Any hip hop fan worth their salt has a top 5 ready to go at all times. That is, a constantly tinkered with, passionately argued about personal list of the five best MCs that ever did it. It’s a staple. One man’s André is another’s Nasir. The ultimate posse cut runs a close second. But for some reason, asking people about their top 5 producers doesn’t elicit the same fervour.

Beats are all important in hip hop, but it doesn’t inspire the same partisan passion. Maybe it stems from MCs oozing confidence, while producers are behind the scenes. Digging in dusty record shops, flicking through sleeves with calloused fingers, hunched over and tapping away at an MPC caught in a bottomless search for that perfect sample.

Digging in dusty record shops, flicking through sleeves with calloused fingers, hunched over and tapping away at an MPC – caught in a bottomless search for that perfect sample.

Sampling is the backbone of hip hop. Sure, there are producers who don’t, or rarely, sample. Mannie Fresh and Count Bass D are two fine proponents of instrumentation, and most trap production is void of significant sampling, but these are exceptions to the rule.

Without the advent of the digital sampler, there likely is no hip hop. In the 80s, samplers like the Akai s900 became more affordable and hip hop sampling spread like wildfire. The can of worms was wide open and parents’ record collections were on high alert.

True appreciation of sampling often doesn’t happen when listening to a hip hop track, but like a flash out of nowhere, in injury time on the b side of a jazz record you’ve never heard before. One bar. The basis of the track you’ve been fiending over for years. Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours” is a case in point. Three minutes into Mccoy Tyner’s 1975 rendition of John Coltrane’s “Impressions”, you hear it. A single bar of upright bass that was plucked, looped and moulded to form the basis of one of hip hop’s all time classics.

There have been reams of words written about record store digging, but that’s just half the battle. Once you’ve dug, you need to listen. That may seem obvious, and it is, but if a producer doesn’t listen to every nook and cranny of every album they buy, that potential sample fades into the ether. Sampling requires creativity, but diligence is half the battle.

There is a line of thinking that sampling is somehow a lesser art form, or the even more egregious accusation that it’s theft, unworthy of praise. That idea, not only diminishes the skill and creativity behind hallowed artists like Pete Rock and Madlib, but asks broader questions about art full stop. My knowledge of Picasso lands somewhere between rudimentary and nil, but his quote “bad artists copy, good artists steal” seems a good fit.

Art is collage. Every artist’s style is inspired by what has come before. And while an MPC snatches and grabs more literally than a mind, the reinterpretation is the same.

Art is collage. Every artist’s style is inspired by what has come before. And while an MPC snatches and grabs more literally than a mind, the reinterpretation is the same. Mark Twain said that “all ideas are second hand”, and music is no exception. Take James Brown for example, his records have been sampled by more hip hop producers than any other, but his musical genius wasn’t born in a vacuum or reared in a test tube.

Brown’s inimitable brand of soul clearly shared DNA with gospel and blues; two genres which drew deeply from African folk music that came before it. Producers aren’t just taking from their predecessors, they are respectfully and dutifully transforming their work into something truly original. Redefining their work for a new generation of youngins.

9th Wonder, the superlative producer behind Little Brother, has such a considered and cerebral approach to sampling, that he lectured on “Soul Sampling” at Duke University. According to the North Carolina native, the class ultimately studied soul music that emerged during civil rights movements in the 60s, 70s and 80s. More than just music, social identity is tied up in sampling.

There is something beautiful and natural about a younger generation paying respect to their elders and channeling their musical expression to create their own work. The journalist Jeet Heer said that’s “how art history and literary history gets made, by living artists connecting with the past”.

That connection underpins the beauty of hip hop sampling. It breaks through the false walls known as genres and connects the dots of a wider music history. The study of history is important because it informs people about why our world looks the way it does and who affected change.

Hip hop producers are historians, PHD withstanding, their record stores are the equivalent of an academic’s library, and their motivation is ultimately the same. Build a boundless knowledge of what’s come before and leave your own interpretation of the canon.

Their pupils are often unwitting. When I was a teenager, Common’s Like Water For Chocolate was in heavy rotation, but little did I know, when I was listening to the track “The Light”, J Dilla was introducing me to Bobby Caldwell on the sly. I didn’t even know it was a sample, and in truth, probably wouldn’t have thrown on one his records if I had, but it planted the seed, and when I heard Caldwell’s “Open Your Eyes” many years later, everything lined up.

Sampling, as a technique, is available to many, but like any art form, there are those who transcend the craft. There’s a video doing the rounds of Q Tip messing around in the studio. Kanye West and Rhymefest are on hand, agog at something special unfolding in front of their eyes.

The Tribe Called Quest stalwart is sitting at a desk with a turntable in front of him. Bobby Rush’s “Chicken Head” is on the record player and Tip is nonchalantly sampling it live by just lifting the needle up and down off the record. He makes it look like child’s play, but don’t be mistaken, this is a mind boggling display by the pride of Linden Boulevard. This is a man positively at one with vinyl and his craft. There’s no date on the video, but the ability on display was garnered through a lifetime of making beats. Records are his bread and butter.

While the pursuit for the perfect vocal snippet or bass line leads producer down ceaseless wormholes, hip hop samples don’t have to be obscure. That’s where the vision part comes into play.

Every producer has a different style and what marks Tip out as special is his uncanny knack for pulling samples from a vast array of different sources and layering them without as much as a seam. Tribe Called Quest’s “Lyrics To Go” most notably samples Minnie Ripperton, but a Clyde Mcphatter record provides the drums, a James Brown record provides a riff, and Run DMC and Biz Markie records lend the track some vocals. This, like countless hip hop records is an unwitting team effort, with Q Tip pulling the strings.

While the pursuit for the perfect vocal snippet or bass line leads producer down ceaseless wormholes, hip hop samples don’t have to be obscure. That’s where the vision part comes into play. It doesn’t matter if the record your sampling is in the top 40, it’s all in how you flip it.

Nas’ “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” is exhibit a. “Human Nature” by Michael Jackson is one of the biggest tracks on a behemoth of a record, but Large Professor flipped MJ with such ingenuity and guile, he made one of the greatest hip hop tracks of all time. Everybody had the record sitting right there on the shelf, but only one man thought it could be done like that.

While on the topic of Nas, it would be remiss not mention “Nas Is Like” without a doubt one of his seminal tracks. DJ Premier was clearing out some records he thought were dead weight and picked up a 10” from a Lutheran Church called “What Child Is This” by John V. Rydgren & Bob R . Before he binned it, the Texas native gave it a quick listen, and the harps and violins of “Nas Is Like” were lifted in short order. Look up the track, it’s on YouTube. It seems obviously beautiful but it takes a special ear to pick that out. Some have it, some don’t, but only a special few can match the musical gifts of the inimitable Gang Starr beatsmith.

An article about sampling without mentioning J Dilla is basically null and void. And choosing one beat above the rest is an exercise in futility, but his work behind the boards on Tribe Called Quest’s “Get A Hold” shows an artist at the height of his powers. Jay Dee chopped Cyrkle’s “The Visit” and rearranged the vocals in a way that signalled a new direction for Tribe, and cemented the reputation of the emerging Detroit producer.

DJ House Shoes, Dilla’s friend and defacto Jay Dee historian, said he saw him make the beat for “Get A Hold” in an astonishing 12 minutes. A masterpiece dispatched in short order. There have been countless words written, waxing lyrical about Dilla’s gifts, but his MPC’s current resting place in the Smithsonian Museum says all that needs to be said.

There are a handful of records that can rightly claim to be a building block of hip hop, and Bob James’ “Nautilus” is arguably more load bearing than any. Sure, records like James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” and “Impeach the President” by the Honey Drippers has it licked in sheer numbers, but “Nautilus” punches way above its weight in the quality department: Slick Rick, “Children’s Story”; Eric B & Rakim, “Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em”; Ghostface Killah, “Daytona 500”; Main Source, “Live At The BBQ”; “Jeru The Damaja, My Mind Spray”. That’s just scratching the surface, but I digress.

The so called ‘father of smooth jazz’ might be an unlikely hip hop deity, but the brooding, swirling sounds of “Nautilus” is rightly spoken about in hushed tones. Remarkably, James claims that the track was almost completely ignored, and described as “filler” by the man himself. It’s an amazing tune its own right, but it took the ingenuity and creativity of hip hop producers to give it the shine it deserved.

While James was on the keys and Gary King provided the bass (both profoundly sample worthy contributions), Idris Muhammad was the man behind the kit. The recently deceased drummer’s talents will live long in the memory for jazz fans, but his drum lines on “Nautilus” made an indelible contribution to hip hop’s legacy. 

Producers aren’t just taking from their predecessors, they are respectfully and dutifully transforming their work into something truly original. Redefining their work for a new generation.

The website Whosampled.com divides opinion. For some die-hard diggers, their fun has been spoiled by an exhaustive technology that not only tells you what records have been sampled, but exactly where in the track it occurs. The magical moment of unearthing a sample is somehow soiled by the fact that any Joe Soap can look it up in the time it takes them to utter the words “back in my day”. For some it’s all about the chase, but for many it’s just about adding another record to your mental rolodex. The idea that hip hop producers pass down knowledge is undoubtedly enriched by the internet. They’re handing down a tome, and now we’ve got the keys to the whole library. That said, artistry is required to make a convincing argument.

 

css.php