A good sample can keep a head bobbing through the chorus, while a great sample can transcend its former self, rebranding for a new generation.
During the early dawn of YouTube, before Jake Paul documented his childish antics, before Rebecca Black idolized Friday, and even before a double rainbow appeared like a miracle from the heavens over Yosemite Park, some blessed soul uploaded an informative video titled “ the world’s most sampled 6-second drum loop.” Since it’s arrival on the Tube, the video’s racked up over six million views and, for hip-hop heads and other music aficionados, it’s essential viewing. The eighteen-minute lesson narrated by the monotoned Nate Harrison maps out a captivating tale about how a sample from the 1964 song “Amen, Brother,” by The Winstons, signified itself not only as a musical phenomenon but a cultural one as well, finding itself sampled in both classic and modern hip-hop songs by artists such as N.W.A., Salt-N-Pepa, Lupe Fiasco, The Game, and Tyler, the Creator. It’s also made a name for itself outside of the hip-hop circle appearing in songs by Led Zeppelin, Nine Inch Nails, and the legendary David Bowie. As of 2016, the six second drum sample appeared in over 2,200 different songs and advertisements, easily crowning it the most sampled song in the history of music.
A good sample can keep a head bobbing through the chorus, while a great sample can transcend its former self, rebranding for a new generation. Wikipedia defines sampling as “the act of taking a portion, usually only lasting a few seconds, from one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a sound recording in a different song or piece.” It works as a Frankenstein-esque way of creating music; dissecting older pieces of music while reconstructing it as an entirely different beast or, in this case, an entirely different song, and it’s played a pivotal role in hip-hop and rap’s development since the genre’s conception. But sampling is risky business and, if done poorly, results in steep financial problems. Complications arise when artists forget, whether intentionally or not, about clearing a sample with the original recording artist which, usually, results in a lawsuit.
We once lived in a society where sampling existed as an ungoverned art form. Music acted more like a communal utopia, free from copyrights or restrictions. Once the artists gave their music to the public, it belonged to the public. The landmark 1991 lawsuit titled Grand Upright Music, Ltd. V. Warner Bros. Records Inc., however, changed everything. The halcyon days of free-for-all sampling came to a sudden halt. Obey or prepare yourself for a hefty payout, the courts insisted. As it was written, so it shall be done. From Ghostface Killah and RZA’s unlawful “Iron Man Theme,” to Mac Miller facing a ten-million-dollar lawsuit for an unlicensed Finesse sample on “Kool Aid and Frozen Pizza,” off his K.I.D.S. mixtape, numerous artists forked over serious cash after finding themselves on the wrong end of copyright litigations.
A 2008 Spin Magazine article listed the average price rates for a sample at $10,000, making it quite an expensive undertaking. High costs crippled the art form which forced producers into foraging new ways for creating that highly sought-after fire single. Enter 808’s, drum beats, and auto-tune. Beat-makers such as Timbaland and the Neptunes started crafting sample-free, and economic friendly, arrangements thus thrusting a stake straight into sampling’s expensive, but glorious heart. Although a handful of this year’s biggest hits were built around a strong sample (the flutes from Tommy Butler’s “Prison Song,” on “Mask Off,” Jennifer Lopez’s recycled “If You Had My Love,” chorus on Drake’s “Teenage Fever,”) there’s no arguing against the fact that the golden age of sampling has ended.
In remembrance, we listed below the fifteen greatest samples, not named “Amen, Brother,” in the history of hip-hop and rap. Debate in the comments with your favorites.