Sampling. To those in the know, it’s an art form to be appreciated; to others, it’s akin to plagiarism and shouldn’t be encouraged. Unfortunately for people in the latter camp, sampling has actually been a part of popular music since the 1970s (when hip-hop DJs began manipulating vinyl) and will no doubt continue to be so across the coming decades.
As you’d expect, the hip-hop and R&B genres rely most heavily on samples. But their creative use can be found across the genres, from dance music to pop to indie rock. Often, these samples are taken from old soul recordings, and the musical elements of these songs – including drum breaks, funky basslines and vocal hooks – can form the basis for urban, dance and pop tracks. However, on this wide-ranging list you’ll also find samples of Bollywood vocals, punk guitar, 1930s jazz trumpet and even a Western soundtrack – all used to create floor-filling pop tunes…
A Tribe Called Quest – Can You Kick It? 
Sample: Lou Reed – Walk On The Wild Side 
Whether you’re into hip-hop or not, you’ll know this genre standard from East Coast pioneers A Tribe Called Quest. All about positivity and odd humour, the group established itself as one of the most creative of the decade, distancing itself from the gangster rap of the time. The famous bassline from Lou Reed’s 1972 hit ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ formed the basis for ATCQ’s best-known song, over which they layered conversational raps and laid-back beats for a hazy jazz-influenced production. Fun fact: the upright bass on Reed’s original was played by Herbie Flowers, who was allegedly paid a £17 flat fee (approx. £150 in 2017) for his contribution.
The Fugees – Killing Me Softly 
Sample: A Tribe Called Quest – Bonita Applebum 
Not only were A Tribe Called Quest prolific samplers, but their music was sampled too! When the Fugees decided to cover ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’ – Roberta Flack’s 1973 US chart-topper – they gave the pop ballad a funky hip-hop make-over using the drum beat and sitar hook from ATCQ’s ‘Bonita Applebum’. However – just to confuse things – the original sitar hook had actually been sampled from the track ‘Memory Band’ by psychedelic soul group Rotary Connection. This unlikely combination of a Roberta Flack ballad and a sitar sample from an obscure 1967 album resulted in a global chart-topper that went platinum and brought Lauryn Hill’s incredible voice to a worldwide audience.
The Verve – Bittersweet Symphony 
Sample: Andrew Oldham Orchestra – The Last Time 
What happens when a composer records an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ 1965 debut single and three decades later an indie band from Wigan samples it to create one of the 1990s’ most iconic songs? A lot of legal bother. The result really was bittersweet for The Verve: the track was brilliant, perhaps the defining song of the decade, but when Allen Klein (whose company owned the Rolling Stone’s early catalogue) saw the track doing well he demanded that writer Richard Ashcroft sell the rights or lose the sample. After handing over his composer credit, Ashcroft remarked: “This is the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years.” Technically, it was their biggest UK hit since ‘Brown Sugar’.
White Town – Your Woman 
Sample: Lew Stone – My Woman 
Lew Stone – a British composer from the Big Band era in the early 19th century – provides us with the oldest sample on this list by a country mile. The opening phrase (played on muted trumpet) of his song ‘My Woman’, was cleverly reworked by one-man band White Town on 1997’s unstoppable track ‘Your Woman’, which told the story of unrequited love from both the male and female points of view. Showing that with sampling, anything goes, the song took the top spot in the UK charts… but it was White Town’s only hit.
Fatboy Slim – Right Here, Right Now 
Sample: James Gang – Ashes, The Rain and I 
Fatboy Slim used a slew of unusual samples to create some of the most memorable songs of the 1990s. One of his best, however, was ‘Right Here, Right Now’, a blistering big beat track that made use of a string melody taken from an obscure 1970 album by James Gang, an experimental band featuring a young Joe Walsh of Eagles fame. The sample proved to be a smart move on Fatboy Slim’s part; ‘Right Here, Right Now’ reached number two in the UK chart and continued the producer’s impressive string of hits.
Daft Punk – One More Time 
Sample: Eddie Johns – More Spell On You 
Taking two horn notes from Eddie Johns’ 1979 track and looping them, French dance duo Daft Punk were able to create one of dance music’s most iconic tracks, ‘One More Time’ – voted the greatest dance song of all time by Mixmag readers. Slower than the usual club track, its appeal lay in the duo’s use of heavily auto-tuned vocals and solid house beats, with the Eddie Johns sample providing the track’s earworm hook. Using sounds from the past to create the music of the future is what sampling is all about – and as the new millennium got underway, Daft Punk really did sound like the future!
Beyoncé – Crazy in Love ft. JAY Z 
Sample: The Chi-Lites – Are You My Woman (Tell Me So) 
Widely regarded as the best pop song of the noughties, ‘Crazy In Love’ was a number one hit both sides of the Atlantic and scooped up two Grammy awards. While Beyoncé’s powerhouse vocals and Jay Z’s unstoppable rap (allegedly laid down in the space of just 10 minutes) didn’t do the track any harm, it was the funky beats and hard-hitting horns sampled from the 1970 hit ‘Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)’ that gave the song its backbone. Still filling dance-floors 15 years on, its staying power is evident.
Gnarls Barkley – Crazy 
Sample: Gian Piero Reverberi & Gianfranco Reverberi – Last Man Standing 
This list is dominated by samples of forgotten pop and soul songs, but one of the more unlikely candidates for an effective sample is the Spaghetti Western soundtrack! Believe it or not, it was the Italian Reverberi brothers’ soundtrack for 1968’s Django, Prepare a Coffin that became the basis for Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 smash hit ‘Crazy’. Taking the original score’s chord structure, plucked guitars and haunting background singing, the eccentric duo added tight beats and soulful vocals to create a modern classic that topped the UK charts for 9 weeks.
Kanye West – Good Life 
Sample: Michael Jackson – P.Y.T. 
Before Kanye compared himself (controversially) to Jesus and started releasing the more experimental albums of recent years, his radio-friendly Graduation album changed the course of music history by ushering in a less-gangster more-conscious style of hip-hop. Giving him a helping hand were samples from a raft of pop artists, including Daft Punk, Steely Dan and Michael Jackson. To create the chorus hook for one of his biggest singles, ‘Good Life’, Kanye cleverly sampled the high-pitched computerised backing vocal from the Thriller album’s sixth single ‘PYT’.
M.I.A. – Paper Planes 
Sample: The Clash – Straight to Hell 
Tamil rapper and producer MIA hadn’t yet found mainstream success in the mid-noughties, despite her music receiving positive critical reviews. All that changed when she released ‘Paper Planes’. The song just crept into the UK top 20, but the controversy surrounding its use of ‘gun’ sounds and the discussion over genocide in Sri Lanka gave MIA – and the song – extensive press coverage. Needless to say, the track’s use of worldbeat and hip-hop elements fused with a sampled guitar hook from a song by punk rockers The Clash resulted in one of modern pop music’s true classics.
Naughty Boy ft. Sam Smith – La La La 
Sample: Earth Moments – Voice of India 
A stroke of genius from British producer Naughty Boy, who used a well-spotted vocal hook from a sample pack called Voice of India to form the basis for this chart-topping track featuring Sam Smith. The song’s minimal garage beats provide the ideal canvas for Smith’s silky but soulful voice, but it’s the chorus hook – a spliced and looped Hindi-Bollywood sample – that will worm its way inside your head and not crawl out for days. The Voice of India vocals bundle is still available for Ableton, just in case you want to add a different flavour to your next set…
DJ Khaled ft. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller – Wild Thoughts 
Sample: Santana ft. The Product G&B – Maria Maria 
One of the biggest songs of 2017, ‘Wild Thoughts’ peaked at number one and spent 23 weeks on the UK chart, as well as giving Rihanna her 60th US Billboard appearance – an achievement shared by just three other females: Aretha Franklin, Taylor Swift & Nicki Minaj. No doubt key to the track’s success were its late-night Latin party vibes, helped along by mid-tempo percussion, Rihanna’s steamy vocal performance and, most notably, a liberal sample of a fiery Carlos Santana guitar groove. Speaking of the sample, the legendary guitarist reportedly said: “I am honoured that DJ Khaled, Rihanna & Bryson felt the intense intentionality of 'Maria Maria' and have shared this summer vibe with the world.”
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 87, Pages 32-36.