The first time I ever heard a sample in a hip-hop song was in Jay-Z and Ye’s anthem, “N—– in Paris.” Just as the song reaches its peak, a clip from Will Ferrell’s satirical “Blades of Glory” (2007) interjects with the now-classic line, “It’s provocative … it gets the people going!” Somehow, the pause makes the subsequent acceleration even more addictive; my ears would never be the same.
Sampling allows a DJ to draw from existing cultural symbolism and sound to connect the work’s subject matter to past art. This skill has significantly evolved since hip-hop’s genesis. But in a very fundamental sense, sampling is perhaps the most connected artistic template to the unique nature of the genre. I’ve come to understand that hip-hop is, at its core, a canon that consistently compounds on itself.
When one deposits a check into their checking account, the bank pays them interest and is able to loan out the deposited money in return. The compilation of all hip-hop music, and now, indeed all cultural media, has become a bank of references and moments. Aspiring artists can add as they please to the total balance, subsequently pulling from decades of culture in order to produce a new array of artistic value.
In the mid-’90s, sampling grew beyond solely musical references. RZA, the production mastermind behind the legendary Wu-Tang Clan was the first to sample audio from a film, and he remains one of the greatest ever to do so. Wu-Tang was obsessed with samurai films and likely connected with the motif of a fighter rising to seemingly unattainable levels of respect As illustrated in “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” the series chronicling the Clan’s rise to rap stardom, the artists came from humble backgrounds, only ascending to cultural heights with their writing and charisma. RZA largely viewed his turntable and microphone as his samurai sword, to be wielded with excellence. Since they were most viscerally affected by an untraditional medium, making music with samples from other music didn’t make sense. Rather, RZA and the Clan transferred the samurai narrative to the hip-hop medium. The result impacted three generations.
RZA pulled moments from films, connecting his sampler to a TV playing a VHS samurai flick like “Master of the Flying Guillotine” (1976) and “Executioners from Shaolin” (1977). The nine vocalists would then layer their characters into the existing story, filling in the space between the margins. Yes, the inspiration for the work had already existed, but the group would add so much of their own flair and creativity to the track that the final product was indistinguishable from the original. Other producers have replicated the Wu-Tang Clan’s brilliance with other stories, translating previous material to the hip-hop format as one might draw an altered sketch of an existing painting. The process was not new, but its creativity was undeniable.
A decade later, underground legend MF DOOM would release “MM…FOOD,” a concept album in which each song was named after choice eats from the famously hungry rapper. Brilliantly, DOOM tied each named food into his other-worldly stories. However, DOOM’s creativity is most blatantly displayed in his narration for the power-craving protagonist, the character version of DOOM, based on Marvel’s original villain, Dr. Doom. Similar to RZA’s production hijinks, DOOM would take clips from Marvel shows, rapping the internal dialogue of a super-villain hellbent on taking over the world. RZA and DOOM pioneered the art of sampling, but many other producers have experimented by sampling from alternative forms of media. One such producer is DJ Maley Mal, a Philadelphia DJ who produced Chief Kamachi and Juju Mob’s “Black Candles” (2005). Maley touched on not only the evolution of sampling in hip-hop during our discussion, but also, how the genre has changed since his days of production.
When I asked Maley about his early production influences early in his career, RZA was the first that came to mind. On “Black Candles,” much of the content reflects a questioning of religious zealotry. The album begins with booming percussion and constantly flickering bits of television audio. As passionate clips of religious fanatics peddle the promise of “one dollar for salvation,” the channels flip endlessly, failing to find a home until a definitive message rings through: “You don’t make up for your sins in a church / You do it in the streets / You do it at home / The rest is bulls–t and you know it.” With no original audio, Maley has keyed in a listener to what the rest of the album has in store: rebellion, exploration of self and skepticism.
However, Maley also spoke about the cornucopia of influence that artists were able to draw from by inserting existing samples into the album’s play. Maley said that they made original skits to compliment the movie clips already present “and tried to tell a story with it.”
“There’s also skits that were made that didn’t make the album,” Maley said. “The guys were in the studio reenacting church and pretending to be preachers. All of that was very influenced by Wu-Tang.”
Later, we discussed the significance of sampling as a tool for creating context, using Kendrick Lamar’s “FEAR.” (2017) and Ye’s “Blood on the Leaves” (2013) as examples. In the former, a three-part autobiographical montage through Lamar’s childhood and adolescence, Lamar samples “Poverty’s Paradise” (1995). This sample reflects the song’s topics of growing up in a lower-income family and the struggles related to such a childhood. Another example, “Blood on the Leaves,” samples Nina Simone’s performance of Billie Holiday’s groundbreaking “Strange Fruit,” a poignant commentary on lynching and racism during the Jim Crow era. Ye uses the sample in a very different manner than Lamar, likening his own mental and professional anguish to a form of slavery, arguably flippantly. Maley attributed a recent reemergence of sampling to a widespread nostalgia, citing several recent hits as products of past ones.
“If you’re making records today, you can simply be like, ‘what was a hit in 1995?’ Ok, here’s the same hit again,” Maley said.
His argument boils down to avoiding reinventing the wheel. If Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” went four times platinum in 1983, one could understand how Ye could sample his way to another platinum hit on “Good Life” in 2007.
Maley recounted meeting Ye pre-fame in New York, celebrating him as the first artist he had heard make hip-hop music with the charm of rap and the production complexity of other forms of music. While DJs like RZA, DJ Premier and Eric B are renowned for their creation of the four bar loop, a specific style in which one sample is looped consistently into three verses and two hooks, Ye pushed back. Rather than follow the established template, he formulated drastic transitions into his music. Still sampling, he created a breadth of freeform musical output that was yet unheard of in the hip-hop space.
I would be remiss in not mentioning that Maley and I are both Jewish, and that we both found Ye’s recent anti-semitic associations disturbing. With our current reservations stated, I still believe the conversation about Ye’s work is too relevant to sampling history to leave out.
When Maley mentioned Ye’s tendency for heterogeneous production, a Rocky Road ice cream where the marshmallows, caramel and peanut butter are drums, synths and strings, the song “Gone” immediately came to mind. The closer on his 2005 album “Late Registration,” “Gone” is just about as complex and clever as hip-hop production gets. The song begins with verses from an unassuming Ye, followed by two pleasant features from Cam’ron and Consequence, although the latter ends with a twist. The beat follows a mostly common hip-hop progression up to this point, with the possible exception of a booming violin section that shows its face as a pair of piano notes step to the rhythm of a bass drum.
When Consequence begins rapping, he rattles off a litany of lines ending with “gone,” leading into a story of adolescent misstepping. In the case of the verse’s protagonist, the blunder results in the realization that he’s “gone to a cell for some petty crimes” and “gone to the well one too many times, ’cause I’m gone.” Here, an ominous symphonic shift kicks in through a slick key change. The strings that once pulled the protagonist through his day now seem to be the string dangling a sword over his head. The ultimate example of Maley’s vision of complexity in production, Ye reveals that the major key of his first verse was all but a facade; the two featured artists are just another instance of “aspiring MCs” dragging on his coattails as he examines artistic brilliance. However, in the end, with one final stroke of the piano veneer, “Mr. West is gone.”
Despite vast influences of producers like Ye, Maley opened my ears to the recent regression of production, with stars like Metro Boomin’ and Pierre Bourne going back to the tried and true formula of catchy 4-bar repetition. This prevalence may signal that duplication is intrinsic to hip-hop, a staple or tradition. Sampling is an artform, reflecting the artistic theory that all artists have influences.
As the poet T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
Ben Brodsky (he/him) (25B) is from Scottsdale, Arizona. He has explored hip-hop history since 2019, first on his blog SHEESH hip hop, and now with “Hip Hop Heroes,” a series of essays on narrative in hip-hop. When not writing about Jay-Z, you can find him writing “Brodsky in Between,” an Opinion column on political nuance, graphic designing and playing basketball.