The Origins of Hip-Hop Sampling
Hip-Hop emerged in the House Parties of South Bronx, New York in the 1970s. DJs in the area began to focus on playing the percussive breakdowns of popular songs almost exclusively, eventually finding a way to extend the length of these sections by having multiple copies of the same record on two turntables.
The 70s were a difficult time for New Yorkers, especially the poor, less-educated minorities of the Bronx and areas similar to it. The city suffered a combination of industrial decline and economic stagnation which created a hurdle that many of the working class minorities simply could not overcome. The nationwide recession of the early 70s crippled the industrial sector and the city ended up losing over 500,000 manufacturing jobs, the very same jobs many of these immigrants relied upon to support themselves and their families. Many ended up claiming welfare as there was no other source of income for them and over one million households would become dependent on this by 1975. Hip-Hop culture provided the youth a way to escape their reality and a way to express themselves, as well as an avenue to settle disputes without resorting to violence.
Hip-Hop as a culture was created and developed by immigrants. Evidence of this is clearly shown through the elements that make Hip Hop what it is. DJs played breaks from music they knew their audience would recognise and enjoy, mostly the old soul and funk records they grew up listening to, giving them a moment of respite from their current lives and allowing them to relive old memories. For a moment, they are reminded of a simpler, better time where the excitement and hope of the quintessential ‘American Dream’ can be felt again.
Emceeing or rapping is heavily influenced by the toasting that was done by the Deejays of the Caribbean, which in turn finds its origins in the griots of calypso music who found inspiration from the traditional griots of West Africa. Hip-Hop’s wide range of influences allowed it to be novel, while also simultaneously feeling familiar to listeners and it is this blend of cultures that brought about its rise in popularity. Hip-Hop culture and appropriation are so tightly bound that they are near synonymous. In short, Hip-Hop doesn’t merely use sampling as a creative device, at its core, it is sampling.
Hip-Hop songs could each be seen as their own unique puzzles, being pieced together from different influences and styles which combine to create a product greater than the sum of its parts. In the words of Hank Shocklee, “…we were taking a horn hit here, a guitar riff there, we might take a little speech, a kicking snare from somewhere else. It was all bits and pieces.”
In 1979, The Sugarhill Gang released the first ever Hip-Hop record, “Rappers Delight”, appropriating the bassline and a few other rhythmic elements from Chic’s chart-topping single, “Good Times“. The song introduced American audiences to Hip-Hop music and through its use of this sample, it managed to appeal to both the more affluent, predominantly white disco crowd as well as the Hip-Hop fans of the working class. It was an instant hit. The song’s popularity soon went worldwide and Hip-Hop consequently became a global phenomenon.
The choice of sample played very crucial role in why the song became so popular. “Good Times” was released earlier in the same year as “Rappers Delight” and was a very popular song both on radio and in various clubbing scenes around the world. As a result, as soon as the song was played, listeners were taken back to the reaction they had to “Good Times”. This, in combination to the novelty of hearing an MC rapping on the track breathed new life into the song and allowed for its popularity to grow exponentially.
“We thought sampling was just another way of arranging sounds. Just like a musician would take the sounds off of an instrument and arrange them their own particular way. So we thought we was quite crafty with it.” – Chuck D
The early 90s saw the emergence of producers from outside of New York, developing a fresh perspective on the genre. Sample use became more nuanced, replacing interpolation with direct sampling from original recordings. Due to advancements in technology, drum machines ad samplers became cheaper, more versatile and much more accessible than ever before. This not only lowered the barrier of entry for prospective producers, but also gave them more freedom to be creative and develop new sounds. These devices could sample directly from vinyl records, which is what many young producers of the time opted to do.
This new wave of producers, which included such names as J Dilla, Madlib, RZA and DJ Premier brought a new style of production dubbed Boom Bap, focusing much more on the use of direct sampling as well as placing more emphasis on hard hitting drums and more instances of programmed percussion as opposed to live drummers (though Dilla occasionally hired drummers like Karriem Riggins or played drum parts himself to get more humanised drum samples).
Vinyl collecting, or “Crate Digging” as it came to be known was soon as much a part of Hip-Hop culture as breaking and graffiti, even more so as these aspects were starting to wane in popularity. These digging sessions became less of a shopping trip and more of a networking event of sorts where producers could see what their peers were listening to, discuss what the best new break to sample was or simply bounce ideas off each other. These digging meet-ups birthed friendships and collaborations that have lasted to this day. Digging soon became much less about the destination, i.e. finding the right loop or drum sound, and much more about the journey of searching through records old and new, discussing whether or not to make a purchase and trading whatever you already had with fellow producers for new samples.
CDs and MP3 files soon came along and on paper, they were technically better than vinyl in every way. They were smaller, lighter and cheaper, had much less distortion and could be more easily handled and transported. But perhaps this is exactly what made them so unpopular with producers of this time. The digital files were almost too perfect and ended up lacking the character and charm producers were looking for, CD samples are generally perceived as being cold and robotic while vinyl is organic and warm.
Hip-Hop is a genre that thrives on adversity and it is this resilience that breeds creativity. Vinyl sampling allowed producers to retain some of the affective qualities of listening to a vinyl record, triggered through the cracks and pops of the vinyl recording providing a perceived warmth to the track. In an age where vinyl sales were dwindling and fewer people felt the need to invest in a medium seen as archaic, these samples provided nostalgia to old fans, who were reminded of the practice of playing records, which by this time had evolved from a long winded and slightly cumbersome process to a therapeutic, almost ritual-like experience.
Today, many producers are actually sampling blank records for the cracking and popping exclusively and may even add effects such as high pass filtering and bitcrushing in a pursuit of that 90s charm, a sound as intangible as it is distinct, turning what was once perceived as an unavoidable downside of finding cheap sampling material to a conscious aesthetic decision, creating the sub-genre of lofi Hip-Hop. If there’s no crackle in your beat, you’re not making Boom Bap.
Producers of this time would employ a technique later referred to as “chopping”. This involved taking sections of a sample and allocating them to separate midi notes, allowing the song to be played like an instrument. Producers could then rearrange the order of notes and lyrics, retaining the affective qualities of the original sample while recontextualising the tone of the original recording. J Dilla, Madlib and DJ Premier often use vocal shots to communicate with the audience without the need to record their own vocals for the track, though Premier and Madlib used this as part of their signature sound and style while Dilla used it on occasion as a way to make a song sound more charming and endearing than its subject matter would allow it to be.
A good example of this would be Slum Village’s “I Don’t Know” produced by Dilla, which used cuts from a number of James Brown song introductions, namely those from “Make It Funky”, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, “My Thang” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine”. These vocal cuts act as adlibs, reinforcing or completing the lyrics being rapped in the song. Without the use of sampling, it is highly unlikely that this group could get the real Brown to perform these adlibs for them taking away what I feel was the central concept of the piece. Without Brown’s vocals, it simply would not be the same song.
Premier uses this technique much more fervently than Dilla, and in a way that seems much more conversational than artistic. He accomplishes this feat through using samples from a plethora of sources, taking short cuts of each sample, combining them and scratching them in to construct new phrases. A contemporary example of this would be in the song “U Looz” from he and Royce da 5’9”’s collaborative project PRhyme. As the song nears its conclusion, Premier attempts to rap like his partner and is almost immediately teased for his efforts. After a short conversation, Royce urges him to “speak with [his] hands”. Premier then begins to mix in different vocal shots to the beat, essentially becoming a pseudo-rapper of sorts, using the records instead of his own voice to execute his verse.
By the end of the decade, a similar style of sampling was adopted and developed by Rapper and Producer MF DOOM, though instead of using other musical samples as a way of vocal communication, he chose to stick to using these samples as melodic instruments and opted to sample clips of television programming to communicate to listeners instead. This trend is most notable on his critically acclaimed collaboration with West Coast Producer Madlib, Madvillainy and one of his more popular solo efforts, MM..Food. DOOM uses as wide a range of television references as Premier does vocal samples.
When listening to an MF DOOM album, the combination of the laid-back production, the lax, off kilter cadence of his delivery and the wide range of cinematic samples creates a sonic landscape that allows the listener to feel as though they are hanging out at home, browsing through the channels on TV, looking for something to watch with their friends. This is a sensation that at first may seem purely circumstantial, but it is one that I believe is very intentional on DOOM’s part. These samples are cut, rearranged and combined to act as a narrator for the albums’ run-through, creating a more coherent listening experience. MF DOOM’s albums are more than just collections of songs, they are sonic feature films.
In recent times, sampling saw a dip in popularity but is now returning in all forms of the genre. From Drake’s “Hotline Bling” to Playboi Carti’s “R.I.P.” we see both clearly apparent and highly subtle sample use and with an artist like Kanye West at the bleeding edge of Hip-Hop in terms of innovation and experimentation still making heavy use of sampling in his production style, it seems that the trends links to the culture are as strong as, if not stronger than ever.