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From Kanye West to Jay-Z: The best Curtis Mayfield samples in hip hop

@josephtaysom

Without sampling, so many of our favourite hip-hop songs wouldn’t exist, and Curtis Mayfield has been a vital component in so many. Here, we look at five of the best, including the late singer.

The invention of sampling is nothing entirely new, and in fact, it was created by English engineer Harry Chamberlin who developed the first sampler back in the 1940s. As each decade passes, sampling has only become more important, and hip-hop especially has benefited from the tool.

Chamberlain discovered that within a keyboard, he could trigger a series of tape decks with the capacity to hold eight seconds of recorded sound, sowing the seed for the future of music.

Further development came in 1969 when English engineer Peter Zinovieff masterminded the first digital sampler, the EMS Musys, and, nowadays, anybody can sample with the technology at hand.

Since then, it’s impossible to imagine music without sampling, and thanks to it, Mayfield’s voice has continued to be a gift to audiences long after his passing.

The best Curtis Mayfield samples in hip hop

Kanye West ft. Lupe Fiasco – ‘Touch The Sky’

In 2005, Kanye West was the hottest artist on the planet. Not only was he taking hip-hop into new territory with his mercurial approach, but he also made most of his own beats and knew exactly how to maximise the potential of a sample like on ‘Touch The Sky’.

The track, which appeared on Late Registration, included a sample of Mayfield’s 1971 single ‘Move On Up’, and Ye worked his magic to bring it into the 21st Century. It was his collaborator Just Blaze who thought about bringing a healthy portion of Mayfield into the track, and immediately, West was convinced. From that moment, ‘Touch The Sky’ clicked into place, and it was soon completed.

Kendrick Lamar – ‘King Kunta’

Kendrick Lamar loves nothing more than sampling Curtis Mayfield. He used the Mayfield-produced ‘Don’t Change Your Love’ by the Five Stair Steps on ‘m.A.A.D City’, and he also sampled the 1974 track ‘Kung Fu’ which Lamar used in both ‘The Heart (Part 4)’, and ‘King Kunta’.

‘King Kunta’ was the stand-out single from his era-defining album, To Pimp A Butterfly, and felt like a throwback to the golden age of the West Coast scene from the 1990s.

Speaking to NME in 2015, Lamar discussed writing the song and said: “I grew up watching this series called Roots, my family put me on it, and one of the characters was called Kunta Kinte. It’s basically me remembering that, having my own journey in the music business, just putting out words, and this character, they actually chopped his foot off.”

Jay-Z – ‘American Gangster’

Jay-Z’s 2007 album, American Gangster, marked a return to form for the legendary rapper and the titular bonus track particularly still holds up, which samples’ Short Eyes’ by Curtis Mayfield.

Interestingly, it was also Just Blaze who produced the song, just like Kanye West’s ‘Touch The Sky’. In an interview with Red Bull, the producer talked about how Mayfield’s estate are a dream to work alongside compared to most, which explains why he keeps going back. He explained: “For the most part dealing with Curtom and Curtis Mayfield’s catalogue, in all the experiences I’ve had it’s never been a problem.”

Chance The Rapper – ‘Pusha Man’

Chance The Rapper is another artist who has sampled Mayfield on more than one occasion, but his wily use of ‘Pusherman’ on his aptly titled ‘Pusha Man’ is nothing short of incredible. It featured on the Chicago native’s breakout 2013 mixtape, Acid Rap, and helped propel him into the position of rap’s next superstar.

In 2018, Chance talked about the impact of Mayfield on his life and told the Chicago Tribune: “I look up to Mavis Staples and Common, and especially Curtis Mayfield in terms of my life, in the way he talked about revolution. It’s part of my family — my own great-grandmother marched with King. As a family we felt like we were supposed to be part of the community. My dad made me read about Jesus as a kid. The way I was raised and the way I understand the world, you have an impact being alive and being around people, and an obligation to make it as beneficial as possible to everyone around you.”

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – ‘The Dunk’

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib are a lethal combination. Together, they’ve made two albums, including the 2014 collaboration, Piñata, which features a stunning Curtis Mayfield sample which the genius producer sprinkled into the bonus track, ‘The Dunk’.

‘The Dunk’ is somewhat of a hidden gem in Gibbs’ repertoire, and it needs to be heard within the context of being an interlude on Piñata. The sample brings big band energy from Mayfield’s group, and Madlib adds a twist to it, proving why he’s the best producer in the hip-hop game.